Discomfort drifted in slowly for Melanie. She first noticed John’s secrecy with his emails and text messages. Then came the late nights at work or the gym. She sensed emotional distance, less eye contact, less touching, and a dramatic drop in sex. She wondered if all this was due to fatigue—two kids, two jobs, no time. Until she got the call.Finding out that a lover/spouse has been cheating can rock your whole foundation in life. You can experience symptoms similar to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)—what combat vets and trauma victims experience. You can have depression, anxiety, panic, insomnia, change in appetite, numbness, and obsessions (regarding the affair, the lover, the “details”). These symptoms can be triggered acutely by people, places, and things: seeing the affairee/lover, reading illicit emails and texts, driving by the rendezvous places. When you are triggered by these things, you may feel like you are going crazy.
Couple’s therapy can be a way to make sense out of the affair and to decide what you are going to do about it. There are several possible outcomes to affairs: 1. You may decide to divorce, 2. You may decide to stay together but never get over it (bitterness), 3. You may decide to stay together, block it, and move on with daily routine activities (numbness), 4. Or you may decide to stay together and “evolve.” The last option, if staying together, is the healthiest. In therapy you can analyze the relationship and the causes of the affair, resolve issues that triggered it, rework interactive maladaptive patterns, increase communications skills, and recharge intimacy.
Your therapist can assess if some individual therapy is needed before couple’s therapy begins. This can be helpful in cases of domestic violence, due to safety issues, and situations involving substance abuse and mental disorders, etc. Referrals to psychiatrists can be made for medication assessments if needed. If a couple decides to separate or divorce, family therapy can be provided to focus on the children’s needs.
Couple’s therapy can help stabilize the PTSD symptoms of the partner victimized by the affair. And therapy can discourage obsessive-compulsive behaviors that are non-productive and emotionally overwhelming, for example, continuing to play “detective” even after there has been a disclosure of infidelity. Some victims become consumed with tracking emails, texts, phone bills, cell tower locations, etc.
Couple’s therapy can help the philanderer analyze the reasons for the infidelity: 1. A history of sexual addiction, 2. Issues/symptoms related to low self esteem, mood disorders, a dysfunctional childhood etc., 3. Emotional and/or sexual issues in the marriage that created the environment for the affair to develop. It is important to define what caused the affair, so the issues can be tackled, worked through, and resolved.
If there is a sexual addiction, a referral to a specialist (e.g. Dr.Anne Aja at Rock Landing Psychological) would be appropriate. If there are individual issues for the philanderer, these can be explored individually “and” with the partner in couple’s therapy, allowing the partner to increase insight into the philanderer’s issues.
If there are deficits in the current relationship that enabled the affair to happen, these deficits can be addressed. Couples can identify ways to increase emotional and sexual closeness, how to schedule date nights, have to make space for eros and recharge sexuality, and how to be attentive to each other’s needs. Now that marriages can last fifty years or more with increased longevity, sexual creativity needs to trump repetition and boredom. Couple’s therapy can also explore interactive patterns and projections from past adult and childhood relationships. Couples can project parents and previous partners onto their mates. Therapy can train a couple in communications, anger management, conflict resolution, and problem solving skills. The therapist becomes a “ref” in the room who can interrupt angry, escalating arguments and refocus the couple on underlying issues. The therapist can “coach” some new skills and “tweak” them as the couple practices in therapy.
Nine months after Melanie discovered John’s affair they have made some changes. They are going on dates weekly away from the kids. They are using “time outs” if arguments become heated. Both begin sentences with “I” statements followed by feelings vs. “You” blaming sentences. They make sure they paraphrase each other’s perspectives, even if they don’t agree. Each day they build in loving, reinforcing behaviors, cuddle time, and discussions about what they both want in the bedroom. They schedule sex to build up anticipation and text each other like lovers. They are dialoging about time management, sharing household tasks, parenting strategies, and ways to create boundaries with in-laws and work stress. They are continuing to work through their repetitive pattern of John’s silence and withdrawal and Melanie’s escalation and pursuit which causes more silence and withdrawal from John and likewise more escalation and pursuit from Melanie. They continue to untangle projections from childhood and baggage from past relationships. They “evolve.”
Kay Allen LPC