Why I Get Excited When an Affair Brings a Couple to Therapy

Man holds red broken paper heart in his handsI recently attended a presentation on infidelity. At one point, I turned to a colleague and whispered, “When a couple calls me and reports an affair, I get excited about working with them.” My colleague looked at me wide-eyed and said, “All the time?

My colleague knows the devastation affairs can have on relationships, as do I, but from this brief exchange I could see that we had different views on the matter.

My clinical experience over the past 11 years has taught me this: when a partner has an affair, it is a radical move. As a result, the partners wake up. If apathy and boredom were symptoms of the primary relationship, well, the affair was the antidote.

So when I say “excited,” I do not mean happy. I am eager to work with them. Like theirs, my energy becomes mobilized.

When couples commit to the work of affair recovery, they can become closer and more connected than they have ever been.

Let me give you an example. I’m currently working with a couple I’ll call “Karen” and “Curtis,” married seven years. Curtis cheated on Karen twice with a woman he met at a bar about eight months ago. Karen found the text exchanges shortly after the last encounter. Karen was angry, shocked, devastated, and confused. A few weeks after the discovery, they called me for an appointment.

Over the past seven months, we’ve met weekly to process the affair, their marriage, and their future potential together. Some sessions have felt downright heartrending—for both of them. As I bore witness, my own heart was not spared pain.

We stayed in that dark place for a while because we needed to sit in the muck. Karen and Curtis had to face their problems together. After processing the initial trauma of the affair, they were able to make room for the problems that led them there, including their long-term disconnection and lack of sex for six years.

One day, I said, “Let’s talk about the benefits of this affair.” With the same wide-eyed look my colleague gave me, they stared at me, silent. “Seriously,” I said, “tell me what you think the benefits might be.”

After a few minutes, they began:

  1. “We’ve definitely increased our communication with each other.”
  2. “We’ve reevaluated our roles in the marriage.”
  3. “We have increased self-awareness.”
  4. “I’m attending to my medical issues and sharing that with Curtis.”
  5. “We feel more supported by each other.”
  6. “We show each other caring behaviors much more than before.”
  7. “We talk about sex more.”
  8. “We have more compassion for each other.”

This couple came into my office six months ago distraught, feeling guilty, and pain-stricken, yet they rattled off eight beautiful and distinct ways they have improved their marriage.

The affair did not improve their marriage. The affair shook up their marriage. It demanded their attention. It forced them to face an ugly truth: they were roommates with wedding bands on.

The affair did not improve their marriage. The affair shook up their marriage. It demanded their attention. It forced them to face an ugly truth: they were roommates with wedding bands on.

As a therapist who works extensively with couples, I hold great hope for the ones who call me with the discovery or disclosure of an affair. Others might assume a dead relationship with nowhere else to go.

I, too, assume a dead relationship. For Karen and Curtis, their previous marriage is over. Our work now involves creating a new, improved, more meaningful marriage.

Perhaps the distinctive quality between a therapist who dreads “the affair” problem and one who becomes “excited” by the disclosure comes down to perspective. We might work from the same toolbox, but the qualifying difference between repair and ruin might be the therapist’s belief in the work and in his or her hope for the couple.

To me, renewal is very possible. So, the answer is yes; I get excited every single time.

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  • Austin

    Austin

    August 18th, 2015 at 8:08 AM

    The affair is almost like a cry for help in my point of view; and when the partners are still together, calling you and looking for a way to repair this relationship then I would actually think that this is a pretty good sign that they want to work on this together and that they want to try to make this work

  • Carolynn Aristone (AUTHOR)

    Carolynn Aristone (AUTHOR)

    August 18th, 2015 at 12:09 PM

    Yes, the affair is a crisis created by one or more partners. When couples call, they are most often in such a devastated state that they can’t even see beyond the affair. They can not begin to imagine going on. They are not necessarily calling with a sense of hope for repair – instead, they feel so lost, they simply want someone to support them as they navigate living from one day to the next. In those situation, I hold the hope for them.

  • emilie

    emilie

    August 18th, 2015 at 1:13 PM

    Well it certainly has a lot of conversation potential, that much I can give you!

  • Alice

    Alice

    August 18th, 2015 at 3:17 PM

    I hope that I never have to encounter this myself, but I do see that there are many opportunities for learning form a mistake like this and reaching an even higher level of contentment and happiness within your marriage when one partner or another has an affair and you are forced to deal with the fallout. It might not be pretty but there are many things that you can learn that could very much benefit the entire relationship and yourselves as individuals.

  • Wishful thinking

    Wishful thinking

    August 18th, 2015 at 5:26 PM

    What do you do when there isn’t a “wake up call” and after 15 years of a sexless marriage, nothing changes? I’ve been paying attention to my health and rediscovering myself and I am no longer able to just deal with a complete lack of intimacy and no interest in solving the issues. I go to counseling and have worked hard to be happy again…but I don’t know where to go from here. The other half will not participate in couples counseling. Lonely and desperate sum it up.

  • Crystal

    Crystal

    August 19th, 2015 at 1:06 PM

    I am sure that you view your job as a way to continually learn, and in these cases it could be learning from one couple so that you be better equipped to help thee next one that seeks out your help.

  • terrence

    terrence

    August 20th, 2015 at 7:38 AM

    if i were a counselor I would just be pleased that someone would come to me for help

  • lindsey

    lindsey

    August 21st, 2015 at 10:21 AM

    This was definitely true for my marriage. My husband and I sought couples counseling after I discovered that he had been intimate with another man. Even going into the first session, my greatest concern was not the act of infidelity itself but that it signified how disconnected we had become for him to have not felt comfortable and secure enough to share the inner crisis with me. We went to weekly sessions for about three months. The topic of conversation was rarely the infidelity… it was always about rebuilding our connection. We haven’t been to a session in over six months and our marriage has never been stronger. We needed that space to rebuild; but the bulk of the work has been done on our own and in our daily pursuit of being more than husband and wife. We are friends and partners and lovers and so much more to one another since all of this happened. The pain and the crisis were worth it and I wouldn’t change it.

  • Judy

    Judy

    August 21st, 2015 at 6:28 PM

    Yes, affairs are often the wake up call needed in a sleepy relationship when the “unthinkable” has happened. I am glad when couples make the first call to get some help, but it is even more exciting to see their courage and strength as they work through the pain and confusion of an affair.

  • Carolynn Aristone

    Carolynn Aristone

    August 23rd, 2015 at 5:04 PM

    Unfortunately, not all partners “wake up” – whether there is an overt “action” like an affair or not. Partners and couples often find me because a part of their relationship has died or has lost it’s energy. But restoration requires the commitment of both partners doing the work. If only one partner “shows up” to the relationship, hope is slim.

  • Cara

    Cara

    August 25th, 2015 at 11:36 AM

    The sad thing is that it will sometimes take an affair or something tragic to happen in the marriage to cause couples to actually begin talking to each other again.

  • traeson

    traeson

    August 26th, 2015 at 10:57 AM

    I just found out that my girlfriend has been cheating on me for a while now.

    She says that it was meaningless sex, but that kind of makes me feel like that is all our own relationship is about too.

    I think that I am ready to move on and break it off but she says that she wants to stay and try to work it out.

    For me it already feels like it’s over because there is just no trust left for me toward her anymore.

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