Couples Therapy for Moving Past Affairs

Esther Perel on Redefining Marriage After an Affair

Esther Perel

For several years, I've been contacting couples I've treated to find out more about the long-term impact of the infidelity that brought them to therapy. With those couples who've remained together in the intervening years, I offered a free, follow-up interview to discuss how they regard the infidelity retrospectively, and how they integrated the experience into the ongoing narrative of their relationship.

Specificities notwithstanding, I identified three basic patterns in the way couples reorganize themselves after an infidelity---they never really get past the affair, they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and let it go, or they leave it far behind.

In some marriages, the affair isn't a transitional crisis, but a black hole trapping both parties in an endless round of bitterness, revenge, and self-pity. These couples endlessly gnaw at the same bone, circle and recircle the same grievances, reiterate the same mutual recriminations, and blame each other for their agony. Why they stay in the marriage is often as puzzling as why they can't get beyond their mutual antagonism.

A second pattern is found in couples who remain together because they honor values of lifelong commitment and continuity, family loyalty, and stability. They want to stay connected to their community of mutual friends and associates or have a strong religious affiliation. These couples can move past the infidelity, but they don't necessarily transcend it. Their marriages revert to a more or less peaceful version of the way things were before the crisis, without undergoing any significant change in their relationship.

For some couples, however, the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change. This outcome illustrates that therapy has the potential to help couples reinvent their marriage by mining the resilience and resourcefulness each partner brings to the table.

Stuck in the Past

"Every time I can't get Marc on the phone, I'm reminded of how he wouldn't answer when he was with the other women," says Debbie, still bitter three years after she discovered his affair---the latest in a string of extramarital dalliances.

Since the transgression, Debbie has assumed a sense of moral superiority, believing that Marc has never fully owned up to the wrongness of his behavior. In her eyes, forgiving him wouldn't repair the marriage, but would instead effectually give him a clean slate, allowing him to feel that he no longer has any reason to feel guilty. Her refusal to "let bygones be bygones," as she sarcastically put it, was evident when they talked about sex. "I want to make love," Debbie said, "but it would be as if I'm telling him everything is OK now."

There's no way that he can be reassuring about his renewed commitment to her, Marc says, when she only responds to him with biting sarcasm and condescension. Often, he adds, she ruins what might be perfect moments between them---their daughter's piano recital or a dinner with friends. "There are no perfect moments," she sneers. With a tired voice, he tells her, "I'm here and I'm ready to rebuild." She replies, "I haven't made up my mind."

It's likely that the pair would have had the same miserable interactions had there been no infidelity. Couples like these live in a permanent state of contraction, sharing a cell in marital prison. To the betrayed spouse, the betrayer becomes the sum total of the transgressions, with few redeeming qualities. To the betrayer, the betrayed spouse becomes the sum total of a vengeful fury. I'm reminded of this phrase: "Resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die."

I believe that genuine trust rests on our ability to tolerate what we don't know about the other, and as long as we're driven to uncover every detail, we can't trust. In these couples, past experiences of abandonment and rejection loom large and keep trust from being reestablished. Reclaiming a sense of reality after the revelation of the affair is essential for the betrayed spouse, but some remain tethered to their investigative quest—rifling through credit card statements and cell phone bills, repeatedly pressing the browser's "back" button, listening in on phone calls.

In an effort to allay their anxieties, these spouses establish a regime of control in which intimacy is confused with surveillance. I help them move their stance from detective to researcher or explorer. Rather than scavenge for the sordid details, it would be more enlightening to ask questions that probe the meaning of the affair, like: How did your lover illuminate other parts of you? Did you think of me when this was going on? Were you afraid to lose me, our family, the kids?

Reinventing the Self

Couples who can successfully recover from an infidelity often display a significant shift in language: From "you" and "me" to "our," from "when you did this to me" to "this was an event in our life." They talk about "When we had our crisis," recounting a shared experience. Now they're joint scriptwriters, sharing credit for the grand production of their life together.

Above all, what sets apart couples who use therapy to turn an infidelity into a transformative experience is that they come to recognize that it doesn't provide clear-cut answers, but a nonjudgmental forum in which to discuss their ideas of betrayal, both sexual and emotional. They discover that such discussions can became the basis for their new relationship.

They find out that infidelity doesn't necessarily point to flaws in the relationship. Such partners see the affair as less a statement about the marriage than a statement about themselves. When we seek the gaze of another, it isn't always our partner we're turning away from, but the person we ourselves have become.

This blog is excerpted from “After the Storm". Read the full article here. >>

Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Couples

Tags: affairs | betrayal | Esther Perel | family | infidelity | intimacy | kids | psychotherapy | rejection | resilience | sex | therapy | affair

Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
*