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#AskGottman: Affairs Answers

Don Cole, D.MIN. and Carrie Cole, M.ED.

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As always, remember that these answers are intended to be psycho-educational. If you would like to speak with a professional trained in the Gottman Method, we encourage you consult the Gottman Referral Network.

I love this quote: “Confronting infidelity is really coping with betrayal. It’s all about holding the other person accountable for that betrayal and honoring yourself in the process.” How do I do this?

Of all the difficult situations people face in relationships, betrayal may be the worst. The person we count on the most is the one who has hurt us. The feelings of sadness, anger, shock, and helplessness grip our hearts to the point of paralysis. People that have been betrayed often feel inadequate and wonder why their partner chose someone else over them. To confront infidelity and cope with betrayal, you need to honor yourself by communicating your feelings and ensuring that those feelings are heard and validated. You need to believe that your partner is truly remorseful for the betrayal. You also need to honor yourself and hold your partner accountable by communicating what you need for repair.

It’s difficult to communicate your feelings after a betrayal. Even after time has passed, talking about the incident can trigger old pain. At the same time, you may feel internal pressure to process and get things off your chest. If you hold these feelings in too long, they could come out in unexpected and volatile ways, or they could stay locked in and lead to depression. You need to be heard. You honor yourself when you share your pain, your sadness, your fears, and even your anger. With that said, sharing your feelings is not the same thing as attacking your partner. Avoid blaming “you” statements and focus on what’s going on inside of you. Dr. Gottman suggests that couples complain without blame (“I feel…”) and state a positive need (“I need…).

In order to truly recover after a betrayal, you must be able to hear, accept, and believe that your partner truly regrets the infidelity. Hopefully, your partner will be patient with the fact that you might need to hear that regret expressed many times in many different ways. Often a person who has had an affair seeks to rush ahead to talk about the deficits that were present in the relationship before the affair occurred. This can cause a lot of problems, especially at first, because the betrayed partner might very well feel that the betrayer is seeking to justify his or her actions or even to defensively blame the betrayed partner.

You need to communicate what you need to repair the relationship. That can be hard because sometimes you don’t even know what you need. For most couples in this situation, transparency is a must. That means that your partner needs to be an open book about where they are, who they are with, when to expect their return, and immediate communication if there is a change in plans, or if they have had any encounter with the affair partner. It goes without saying that the affair must end and that all communication with the affair partner ceases.

The biggest issue in establishing a transparent relationship is hearing the full story of the affair.  While it is best to avoid questions regarding specific sexual behaviors, all other questions must be answered openly and honestly. The betrayer who tries to “soften the blow” by hiding details of the affair runs the risk of creating a second betrayal when their partner discovers those details that had previously been omitted. If you need to have access to your partner’s email accounts and text messages, it is okay to ask for that. You might want to write out a list of what your needs are. It is okay to have needs and to ask your partner to honor them.

What is emotional infidelity?

Emotional infidelity takes many different forms. A lot of people argue about what constitutes an emotional affair. In the Gottman Method, we believe it starts when a person gets too close to someone other than his or her relationship partner. Often these relationships begin innocently enough, but they grow into something very dangerous. The signs of emotional infidelity are: confiding in; flirting; keeping the relationship secret from the partner; and sharing details about their personal life, especially negative details about the partner and the relationship. People who get involved in emotional affairs find themselves making negative comparisons between their partner and the “friend.” They see their “friend” as being funnier, more interesting, more attractive, easier to talk to, more interested in them, and more understanding.

Social media can play a big role in the cascade toward emotional infidelity, especially in today’s day and age. Reconnecting with old high school and college friends or sweethearts can begin with a desire to “catch up.”  Unfortunately, all too often it moves way beyond that.  It can escalate very quickly.

Emotional affairs almost always involve secret-keeping. When people try to hide the extent and the content of their conversations, they are on a slippery slope toward an emotional affair. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “How would I feel if I heard my partner having this kind of conversation with someone else?” If that would hurt, then a boundary is being crossed.

Almost all betrayals begin with emotional infidelity. Even if the betrayal never moves beyond the emotional betrayal to a physical relationship, the offense can be just as devastating and recovery can be just as difficult.

My husband used to be a porn addict. He kept an online dating profile, commented on photos of other women, posted for sex, and responded to a woman to meet. While he never actually slept with anyone, I still feel cheated on – betrayed at least. I have read many articles on forgiveness and recovery, but I still don’t know how. He has an extensive history of cheating on past partners. How do I recover from this? Are we doomed? I feel my inability to fully trust him is a big part of our relationship.

It makes sense that you would feel betrayed and anxious about your future.  You are right, trust is a big part of every relationship and there are serious roadblocks to trust in this situation. In addition to dealing with the betrayals that have already happened, you must consider the possibility that your partner still suffers from a sexual addiction that must be successfully treated if the relationship is ever going to feel safe. A thorough evaluation by a counselor or therapist is a good first step. You are going to need a lot of support, both individually and as a couple.

The need for total transparency is a given here. There can be no secrets.  Social media accounts and other media—email accounts and cell phones— must be an open book. You are living in a very stressful situation and it would be helpful for you to learn effective stress management techniques like deep breathing, relaxation exercises, and perhaps some form of meditation.

It might be helpful to have a “State of the Union” meeting each week. Set aside an hour to talk about how things are going. What is the state of your union? This would be a good time to share what has been helpful toward rebuilding trust, and what you still need from your partner that you may not be getting. It is important to state what you do need rather than what you don’t need. Avoid attacking and blaming your partner.

Finally, give yourself a break about forgiving your partner. In a situation like this, forgiveness is connected to feelings of safety and understanding. How can you forgive what you don’t understand? Your understanding comes from his awareness of self. You cannot feel safe until you are convinced that his behavior has ended.

As a counselor, what’s the first step in helping couples rebuild and nurture trust once they’ve agreed to work past an affair?

As Dr. Gottman explains in “The Science of Trust” and “What Makes Love Last?“, the “Gottman Trust Revival Method” after an affair has 3 phases: atone, attune, and attach. This system for healing is founded in his lab results and clinical experience, which confirm the effectiveness of the model.

As a counselor, the first step is to help couples have an atonement conversation about the affair. The betrayed partner may have a lot of questions that need to be answered. They need the whole, sordid story. The counselor’s job is to facilitate that conversation and provide safety for both partners. In effect, the therapist bridges the gap between the partners by articulating with great precision what the hurt partner is feeling and ensuring that the other fully understands.

The betrayer’s task is to be open and honest, and answer the betrayed partner’s questions in a truthful, forthright manner. It is very important the details of the affair not be glossed over or minimized, otherwise, this fragile relationship will suffer another blow when more details surface at a later date. The betrayer also has the obligation to express remorse and take responsibility for what happened. Any attempts to blame the affair on the “problems in the relationship” will be heard as making excuses for their behavior, or even worse, heard as blaming their partner. That will certainly sabotage the conversation.

The betrayed partner is asked to pose whatever questions might be on their mind. The therapist might need to guide them away from asking detailed questions about sex because those answers might increase their trauma. The betrayed partner will likely want to know why it happened. The “Why?” question is an important one, but is really a Phase 2 question. The Phase 1 questions are more about getting the details of the story, such as when, where, how. The therapist should be aware that the betrayed partner is struggling with PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and triggers. It is important that the betrayed partner be able to share their feelings, but to do so without attacking their partner. Most people will find that a very difficult task, so the therapist needs to be quick to intervene if the conversation becomes critical or contemptuous. In some cases, several sessions are required to get through this atoning conversation and it’s recommended that the couple refrain from having this conversation at home.

My wife had an affair. She tells me that she is no longer lying, and that at some point I have to trust her again. I find it hard to do this because she lied for over a year, and continued for some months after the discovery of the affair. How can I learn to trust her again? 

This is an example of the dangers inherent in trying to cover up or minimize a betrayal. When someone lies repeatedly to their partner, he or she does damage way beyond the betrayal itself. It’s really another, separate betrayal.

Trust takes time to rebuild. There is no specific time frame for completing the process. It is important that you communicate exactly what you need from your partner in order to trust her again. This might mean a bit of trial and error. Put some focus on rebuilding the positive experiences in your relationship by developing ritual of connection activities. Take an evening walk together, sit down to dinner together, check in with each other at the end of the day to talk about stressing or interesting things that happened to each of you. Focus on tuning in daily and turning towards each other during the small, everyday moments.

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Don and Carrie are Master Certified Gottman Therapists, Consultants, Trainers, and Workshop Leaders. They are the co-founders of The Center for Relationship Wellness, a private practice for therapy, consultation, and training in the Houston, Texas area.

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