Getting over an affair or betrayal
12 April 2021
One of the most common reasons couples seek therapy is in the aftermath of an affair or betrayal.
Frequently, the deceived partner is left with some very raw feelings - anger, grief, confusion, even despair. The partner who has strayed will also have some uncomfortable feelings, particularly guilt.
When I say ‘affair’ I’m including both betrayals that involve sex and also so-called emotional affairs where one partner has sought emotional intimacy with another person.
A betrayal could also involve the partner paying for sex or engaging in inappropriate online sexual activity.
Creating a space
The initial part of the couple therapy in these cases is often simply creating a space where the couple can talk about their feelings. Usually, in the early stages, the deceived partner will need space to express his or her feelings of betrayal.
This can be hard for the other partner, especially if the deceived partner wants to know all the details about a sexual affair. In some cases the partner who has had the affair may not remember all the information the deceived partner is asking for.
Having a couple therapist there to act as facilitator can help both partners feel more comfortable in talking about very difficult things. Each partner can hopefully learn that the therapy space enables them to speak without fear of being verbally attacked, belittled or emotionally overwhelmed, as they might when they try to talk about the issue at home.
When some of the raw feelings of anger or despair have been expressed and given a place in the therapy, it can be helpful to look at what may have been going on in the relationship that contributed to the affair or betrayal.
This is not to say that the deceived partner was somehow ‘to blame’ for the betrayal, but rather that often there are underlying issues within the relationship that may have created a context in which an affair or betrayal happened.
It is when the couple therapy is able to explore these deeper issues that a new understanding can emerge of the affair. These deeper issues could include childhood experiences of both partners, which have been expressed at an unconscious level within the relationship.
Of course, there is no guarantee that couple therapy will mean the couple stay together. In some cases the wounding caused by the betrayal is so severe that the deceived partner chooses to leave.
In many cases, however, the space that therapy provides can enable a couple to work through the feelings and find some meaning in what they have experienced. They may still feel bruised or vulnerable, but if some understanding can be developed about the causes of the affair then it can actually lead to increased intimacy in the longer term.