Can couples heal from infidelity? The good news is that they can and do. However, it takes work and recommitment. I recently attended a new clinical training offered by Drs. John and Julie Gottman and the Gottman Institute on “Treating Affairs and Trauma in Couples,” and I thought that I would share some of the basic learnings. The pathway for healing from infidelity using Gottman Method Couples Therapy could be described as the three A’s: Atonement, Attunement, and Attachment.
The first phase, Atonement, is not about forgiveness: rather, it is about the Betrayer partner (BP) acknowledging that they have hurt and betrayed their partner and being willing to listen to their partner’s hurt and answer their questions about the affair. It is about accountability and transparency. In this phase, the therapist works to keep the process constructive. It is important to realize that, as a result of the betrayal, the Hurt partner (HP) may have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), such as: intrusive thoughts, intense emotional and/or physiological distress in reaction to trauma triggers, hyper-vigilance, and negative changes in mood, thoughts, and behavior. Therefore, it is critical that the therapist keep the process constructive in order to avoid worsening the Hurt partner’s PTSD (e.g., by suggesting that the Hurt partner not ask questions about types of sex during the affair which could trigger traumatizing images in the mind of the HP). However, in contrast with other therapies, the Gottman therapist does not down-regulate or minimize emotions during this phase. Rather, they may need to differentiate negative emotions from criticism and contempt, and help the Hurt partner to express negative emotions without them.
In this phase, the couples does not talk about why the affair occurred. Marital dissatisfaction or loneliness and isolation prior to the affair are not discussed at this point. It is premature, and to do so at this point might lead to exonerating the Betraying Partner and to blaming the Hurt partner for the affair. Regardless of the marital circumstances, the Betrayer partner made a choice to violate trust and commitment and to have an affair and must take responsibility for for his or her actions.
At the same time, it is critical that the therapist be non-judgmental and ensure that both the Hurt partner and the Betrayer partner are given therapeutic support and empathy. It is a delicate dance that the therapist treating affairs in couples must negotiate.
This phase may be quite prolonged and may involve the Hurt partner asking many questions about the affair (with the exclusion of questions regarding details about the types of sex during the affair, for reasons already mentioned). The Betrayer partner must be willing to answer the Hurt partner’s questions and to be more accountable and transparent in the present. Healing requires the Betrayer partner to hear the Hurt partner’s pain and understand what they are going through. Atonement is more than saying “I’m sorry”: it a long, slow process of showing remorse and willingness to make amends. It is only through that long, slow process that any healing can occur. Atonement can be a painful process, “but the couple can emerge with new understanding, acceptance, budding forgiveness, and hope” (Gottman & Gottman, 2016).
The second phase, Attunement, is about learning how to “tune in” to your partner’s bids for connection, their needs, and their feelings. In this phase, couples learn how to process their past failed bids for connection and regrettable incidents so they can understand how communication went wrong. The primary exercise used for this is called The Aftermath of a Regrettable Incident or Fight. This exercise can be used to review both affair-oriented and non-affair oriented events. However, it is not used to deal with the affair as a whole, but with very specific incidents within the affair. Indirectly, at this phase, the couple may begin to figure out why the affair occurred, but we do not work on this directly.
Couples that have affairs tend to engage in conflict avoidance. To reverse this tendency, the therapist teaches the couple new conflict management skills. The therapist uses a number of exercises to reverse conflict avoidance; to help the couple address what they feel and need from one another regarding their issue, and to listen and validate those feelings and needs; and to help couples deepen their conversation, deal with gridlocked problems, and arrive at a compromise. The therapist may also need to help the couple coping with diffuse physiological arousal, or flooding, and taking a break to self-soothe.
The therapist treating affairs in couples also helps the partners to become better listeners and to create and ritualize everyday emotional connection. The therapist introduces the couple to tools that teach them to become better listeners, to express their needs, and to create a calm ritual of emotional connection. The therapist also works with the couple on expressing fondness and admiration for each other and appreciation and gratitude for each other’s contributions to the relationship. In addition, the couple learns how to have a daily ritual of a supportive stress-reducing conversation for stress that originates outside the marriage. Finally, the therapist suggests that the couple have a weekly State of the Union Meeting in which they talk about their feelings and needs in a calm way so that they create emotional connection without conflict.
The third phase, Attachment, is about establishing Trust, Commitment, and Loyalty. Trust is based on transparency, truth, constructive conflict, processing past emotional injuries, and attunement, which we started to create in Phases 1 and 2. In Phase 3, we continue this work and build toward re-commitment and loyalty through working on cherishing. Couples also talk purposefully about what values give their lives meaning, what dreams they have for their future individually and together, and their goals for fulfilling those dreams. The therapist also helps the couple to rekindle their passion and their sex life. This phase “deepens intimate trust, investment in the relationship, and commitment by applying the skills of intimate conversation and self-disclosure to the topic of physical intimacy” (Gottman & Gottman, 2016). Work is done to renew and/or strengthen the sexual relationship, thereby fostering closer connection in the relationship and helping to ensure lasting commitment.
Finally, in the Attachment phase, the therapist helps the couple to understand that subsequent betrayal and untrustworthy behavior will have severe costs or negative consequences in the relationship. This is not punishment, which can imply revenge, but rather a reasonable response to the anguish that betrayal creates. This high cost stands as an incentive to finalize the healing from the betrayal and to change the patterns that led to it in the first place. The therapist helps the couple to specifically define what the consequences of further betrayal will be, and to both agree to them.
Once the Attachment phase is complete, the therapy can begin to move towards termination. During the termination phase, the therapist helps the couple to prepare for possible relapses (i.e., future regrettable incidents or failed bids) and what to do if and when they occur.
The marriage that results from this process will probably not be the same as the marriage before the affair. Yes, couples can recover from affairs, but the marriage that results is most often a new marriage. While the scar of the betrayal may never completely disappear, there is an opportunity for renewed hope, trust, commitment, and intimacy.
Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (2016) Treating Affairs and Trauma: A Gottman Approach for Therapists on the Treatment of Affairs and Posttraumatic Stress. Seattle, The Gottman Institute.
© 2023 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities