When a betrayal has been discovered in their relationship, couples come to therapy feeling lost, disoriented, confused, and angry. They may even wonder if there is hope. Infidelity strips away happiness and threatens emotional security. It can come in a variety of ways, including contempt, neglect, indifference, violence, lying, and affairs. Information is discovered that forces the deceived partner to reevaluate history. Partners are left asking: Who am I? Who were we? Who are we?
Couples can come through painful infidelity, but only if the perpetrator shows regret, if there is transparency, and if both partners want to get back into the relationship. Under these conditions, a skilled PACT therapist can set up an architecture to work through betrayals.
The first phase is to address the fact that the victim has experienced a trauma that can never be undone, and that it has to run its course.
The perpetrator at this point has no power to negotiate. Although this is a temporary role, the perpetrator must simply sit there and take the rage and inquiry of the deceived. The perpetrator has to deal with feelings of shame, guilt, and regret and has to express a commitment and desire to want to get back into the relationship.
PACT therapists understand that no one would blame either partner for wanting to get out. At the same time, the therapist is there to offer support if both partners want to stay. Often, the perpetrator turns out to be both the cause and the cure. There is no sweeter repair than one genuinely originated by the most important person in your life.
The next phase is aimed at resolution, and must come in the form of real-time, stable, consistent support for the deceived. Transparency is paramount, and couples soon realize this is what their relationship needed from the beginning. The deceiver has no right to hide anything or withhold information.
The final phase is for the deceived to let the perpetrator out of the doghouse, honoring the new and improved version of their relationship.
Joe and Susan, a couple married for 6 years, both 38-years-old, with a 5-year-old son, came to couple therapy a year after a set of sexual encounters was discovered. Joe, a financial executive, had worked overtime for the past few years because he was eager to create financial security for the next few generations of his family, after himself being raised in poverty. Susan, a stay-at-home mom, had been disgruntled with Joe’s fatigue and over-focus on work. Feeling neglected, she became involved with a man she’d met online. Joe came home one day to surprise his wife with flowers and lunch and caught the two of them in the act, on his desk, in his home office.
After that, Joe was unable to focus at work. His sleep was disturbed, and he cycled between numbness and rage. Claiming it was her only affair, Susan was immediately remorseful. But she felt lost about to how to “build a bridge back” to her husband. Neither wanted to end their relationship. They tried unsuccessfully to piece themselves back together over the course of a year, but Joe was disturbed by the images that replayed in his mind, and he didn’t fully believe Susan. She tried to be forthcoming with information, but that often resulted in finger pointing and defensiveness when she found herself on the receiving end of Joe’s anger and interrogations.
My first task when I saw Joe and Susan was to address the fact that a trauma had occurred that had to run its course. This healing process was interrupted for Joe by Susan’s inability to tolerate her own shame and her anger at being neglected. She needed support bearing her (hopefully temporary) role of having zero bargaining power and enduring Joe’s rage and inquiry.
The next task was aimed at resolution. This had to come in the form of Susan giving support to Joe. She had to accept that she had no right to hide anything because any holding back would be re-traumatizing for Joe.
Finally, Joe had to let Susan out of the doghouse, honor the renewed version of their relationship, and let genuine repair take hold. He had to allow her a turn at being angry, and set more time aside for simply being together with his wife and son. Both needed to explore how they were culpable. They had to deepen their understanding of one another and learn how to care for the person they chose to marry. It was time for genuine repair take hold. They were even able to reveal shared intimate fantasies to one another, which led them to Joe’s home office for a late-night rendezvous (after a ceremonial burning of the desk).
Through their couple therapy, Joe realized the impact of his neglect on his family and how his over-focus on earning money had hurt everyone. Susan was able to claim her passive-aggressive acting out, and came to deeply understand the intention behind Joe’s need to work. She became the protector of that part of him, and made it easier for them to spend time together.
On the other side of working through betrayal with a PACT therapist, a relationship will not look like it did before. Couples can come up with inspiring, creative workarounds that ultimately strengthen their relationship. Having seen many couples come through difficult times, I have great trust in people’s ability to create amazing solutions that align their hearts, minds, and intentions toward secure functioning.