How can couples counselling help your relationship survive an affair?August 22, 2022
The couples who approach me for help when an affair has occurred tend to be the ones who have children together. I think this is because the decision to terminate a relationship when there are children involved is just not that simple. The reality is it is not easy to break up a family. Most people tell me they don’t want to see their kids only half the time because of “something that my partner did, not me”. Most people don’t want to lose half their finances either. Or their life together. Or their extended family. Or even each other.
Regardless of how hard it is to break up, there is just no getting around the fact that it’s devastating to know your partner has been having an affair. Infidelity usually leaves the injured partner with feelings of deep, sickening pain, and also questions about whether they want to stay in the relationship. Sometimes having the affair out in the open prompts the cheater to realise they want to stay with their partner (and in fact, some cheaters even choose to reveal their infidelity hoping it will demonstrate their remorse and/or commitment to their partner).
There’s a lot at stake when an affair happens, and the question that most couples have for me is “Can we get through this?”.
The answer is yes – but only if you are up for the work.
I can tell you from working with couples for over 25 years that the earlier you seek help the better the outcomes. Nothing is sadder than meeting a couple who have buried the trauma of an affair because they are too busy (or have been in denial) and the resentments have caught up with them and solidified. It can be too late to save the relationship at this point.
What happens in couples counselling when an affair has occurred?
When I first meet a couple where an affair has recently been discovered, the couple are in crisis. It’s awful, painful stuff for them both. They are confused, ashamed, angry, hurt, distressed and scared. Let’s face it, when you see a Couples Therapist for help after an affair it’s not going to be pleasant.
The first few sessions in couples counselling is about attending to the immediate crisis and helping the couple to survive the first few days and weeks. This is what I tend to cover:
- I first need to ascertain whether the couple would like to work on staying together or whether they would like to separate. It is common for the injured person to not know what they want to do or continually change their mind based on a range of emotions that occur through minutes, hours, and days. This is normal. If a couple is not sure about staying together, I like to establish a mini contract for the length of sessions and then reassess. This means the couple don’t feel “locked into working on the relationship”. At this time, I ask the couple to take separation off the table so that they can dig into the work and give the relationship a chance.
- Because the discovery of an affair is a traumatic event, the injured partner typically needs space. When there are children to consider the right decisions need to be made in order to create this space for the injured person with minimal impact on children. I help the couple make immediate decisions about living and sleeping arrangements for all people affected.
- Decisions also need to be made about who to tell, or more importantly, who not to tell about the affair. If the couple intend to stay together and work on their relationship it is important that careful consideration is taken before disclosing an affair to a person outside of the relationship. A Couples Counsellor will help each partner identify and connect with a support person – in a way that can minimise damage later.
- Because of the traumatic nature of an affair, either or both parties may find themselves with depression and anxiety. A Couples Therapist will assess for signs of this i.e. sleeping problems, flashbacks, triggers, substance abuse and so on, and make any necessary referrals for individual treatment.
- In Couples Counselling, I help the couple to set ground rules regarding the person who the partner had the affair with. This is important as it is common for affairs to occur in a workplace or with someone connected to the family, and decisions need to be made about future contact or even leaving a job, etc..
- I also discuss ground rules regarding access to phones, computers and so on. There may be other ground rules to set based on contact between the couple (if they decide they need space from each other), contact with children, contact with extended family and so on.
- Often the injured partner will have a lot of questions to ask about the affair. My job as a Couples Therapist is to ensure that the injured partner is not further traumatised with any information or content they are told. I therefore carefully moderate conversations, questions and help the injured person process information.
- It is often forgotten that the partner who had the affair may also be reeling from the discovery. There can be shame, guilt, regret about what they did and confusion as to why they did it. It is important that the person feels like they can talk in a safe space and that the Couples Therapist maintains a neutral non-judgemental stance. Many people terminate couples counselling because they feel judged and/or ganged up on. This is not okay and does not help the couple or their children.
Once a Couples Counsellor has attended to the practical aspects of helping a couple in the immediate aftermath of an affair, we start to look at the therapeutic aspects of work with the couple.
In this stage of work, I typically focus on these aspects of the relationship:
- Why the affair occurred. Unless there is a pathological problem, affairs are typically a symptom of other underlying issues between the couple which have not be addressed, acknowledged or discussed. A Couples Counsellor will help the couple work out why the affair happened and what changes need to be made to ensure the couple enjoy a healthy relationship in the future.
- A good Therapist will teach the couple to communicate thoughts and feelings in a safe productive way. I find that most couples I see where an affair has occurred have not developed good communication skills. Poor communication skills lead to a disconnect in most relationships and sometimes people step outside of the relationship to get their connection needs met elsewhere.
- Does each person in the relationship understand where unhelpful communication and behaviours have come from? It’s helpful to understand this, and it can motivate each person to make the necessary changes to improve their relationship.
- A couple’s counsellor will identify behaviours that need to change for each person in the relationship and actively work on those behaviour changes with the couple.
- Trust can be re-built, though it can understandably take a long time to re-build once an affair has occurred. Helping a couple build trust again is a necessary part of therapy, and it can be complex. It’s not uncommon to have setbacks at this stage of the treatment.
- Couples are supported to work through milestones and triggers through their therapy process. I work to give each person strategies for situations which may be difficult or anxiety-provoking.
Which couples end up surviving and even thriving after affair?
The couples who are willing to put the hard work in.
They’re the ones who attend sessions even if they are exhausted by the process. The ones where both partners take responsibility for certain behaviours and demonstrate active behavioural changes. The ones where the couple work together to build an entirely different type of relationship. I have worked with many couples who have done just that.
What type of Couples Counsellor do we need?
A Couples Counsellor who has experience and expertise in working with affairs. And importantly a Couples Counsellor who can provide a safe, firm reassuring space where each person feels heard and understood. If you don’t feel safe, find someone else to work with.