Dealing with the discovery or disclosure of an affair is one of the most difficult issues a couple can face. Partners struggle with feelings of anger, betrayal, hurt, confusion, and guilt. Nothing seems certain anymore. It feels as if the past has to be rewritten and the future seems is up in the air. Daily activities and routines may become difficult to manage. Partners are not sure how to interact with one another. Feelings are running so high that it can be difficult to communicate effectively, to make decisions, or to concentrate on work or other responsibilities. Basic self-care routines such as eating well, sleeping, and exercise are often disrupted, making coping with the emotional and practical aftermath of an affair even more difficult.
Psychologists Douglas Snyder, Donald Baucom, and Kristina Coop Gordon have spent many years studying couples and trauma in order to develop effective ways to help people deal with the devastation of an affair. Their works shows that, in order to get past an affair effectively, people need help with three important tasks: restoring a sense of equilibrium after the discovery of an affair; developing an understanding of how and why the affair occurred; and making decisions about how to move on and what may need to be changed in order to move forward with a greater sense of emotional security.
Therapy first focuses on helping you cope and restore a sense of equilibrium. The discovery of an affair is like a trauma. It leads to emotional turmoil—hurt, betrayal, anger, sadness, disbelief, insecurity—and a sense that your world has been turned upside down. Many couples struggle with how to carry on with their daily lives during this time. They also have problems figuring out how to deal with talking about the affair: How much information is enough? How much is too much? What kinds of conversations and information are helpful? What kinds of conversations lead to further damage? The first stage of therapy helps you:
- Restore a sense of equilibrium
- Develop strategies for coping with your feelings
- Develop strategies for getting on with your daily life
- Develop ground rules for talking about the affair
- Develop ground rules for dealing with the outside party and others
- Make good decisions about whether to disclose the affair to others
- Take care of yourself emotionally and physically
Next, therapy focuses on helping you develop a clear understanding of why the affair occurred so that you can begin to restore as sense of security and make well-informed decisions about what to do next. After the discovery of an affair, many partners are plagued by the questions such as, “How could this happen to us?” or “How could s/he have done this?” The second stage of therapy helps you answer these questions in a systematic, thorough, and balanced way so that you can make well-informed decisions about how to move on, how to strengthen your relationship, and how to reduce the risk of infidelity in the future. Developing this kind of understanding of the affair is an important step toward restoring a sense of emotional security and laying the groundwork for rebuilding trust and intimacy if you choose to stay together.
Finally, therapy focuses on helping you make and implement decisions about how to move on. By this stage of therapy, you have re-established a sense of equilibrium and you have developed an understanding of what happened and why. You are now in a good position to make decisions about how to move on. At this stage, therapy can help you address issues such as how to get past hurt and anger, whether to move on together or separately, how to strengthen your relationship or yourself, and how to minimize risk of infidelity in the future.
Affairs come in many varieties—physical, emotional, long term, brief, in person, long distance, and on-line. Discovering any kind of affair is difficult and disorienting. Therapy can help you recover from an affair whether the infidelity has just been revealed or have been struggling to deal with the impact of an affair for a long time. Therapy helps couples and individuals move on by (a) helping to restore equilibrium through the use of coping strategies and ground rules for dealing with feelings, conversations, and decisions; (b) helping to answer important questions about the affair (e.g., “Why did it happen?”); and (c) helping to make considered, well-informed decisions about how to move on, heal, and restore a sense of emotional security.