Not all negative events are experienced as traumatic; instead, the literature suggests that people are most likely to become emotionally traumatized when an event violates basic assumptions about how the world and people operate (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; McCann, Sakheim, & Abrahamson, 1988). The cognitive disequilibrium resulting from an interpersonal trauma, such as an affair, can be better understood when placed in this light. Several marital assumptions are typically violated by an affair, such as assumptions that partners can be trusted and that the relationship is emotionally safe. When these assumptions are violated, individuals lose predictability for the future and are likely to experience a loss of control, which can then lead to feelings of anxiety and depression (see, e.g., Seligman, 1975). As long as individuals do not have a clear sense of why the trauma occurred, their assumptions remain violated and they cannot trust their partners not to hurt them again. The recovery process is further complicated by the fact that the partners who had the affair often are dealing with their own feelings of guilt, shame, anger, or depression and, thus, are often ill-equipped to respond effectively to the injured individual’s strong expressions of emotions and attempts to understand why the affair occurred.
Many of the behaviors observed in injured partners following the discovery of an affair can be viewed as resulting from disruption of their basic beliefs and their strong needs to reconstruct a shattered world view and protect themselves from further harm. If working through the aftermath of an affair is conceptualized as a response to interpersonal trauma, then the recovery and forgiveness process can be understood as parallel to the stages involved in the traumatic response. Therefore, we propose that the three major stages of this treatment are: (a) an impact stage, involving absorbing and experiencing the impact of the interpersonal trauma; (b) a search for meaning for the trauma, along with an awareness of the implications for this new understanding; and (c) moving forward with one’s life within the context of a new set of relationship beliefs.
In the impact stage, people are attempting to comprehend what has transpired. If a partner engages in an extramarital affair, it likely triggers the disruption of a number of standards and assumptions; if one’s spouse behaves in a way that disrupts these beliefs, then the injured partner can no longer predict what will happen. Well-established daily patterns of behavior likely are questioned, and the injured partner often is motivated to make some sense of why the affair has occurred. This cognitive processing usually is impeded by an overwhelming array of emotions such as fear, hurt, anger, numbness, or disbelief. As a result, the interactions between the partners are often chaotic, intensely negative, and likely to lead to frustration and anger rather than a sense of resolution. Both partners may find themselves acting in ways that are erratic or unlike their usual selves. The injured person often retreats or establishes barriers to protect him- or herself, such as sleeping in a different room, no longer sharing events of the day, and having little physical contact. This withdrawal also can serve the purpose of punishing the participating partner. In addition, the injured person may perceive that the balance of power in the relationship has shifted; the offending partner may now appear to have more power, particularly in his or her ability to hurt the injured partner. In an attempt to right this imbalance, injured partners may lash out in destructive ways or demand that their partners perform extraordinary tasks in order to compensate for what occurred. The therapeutic goals in this stage are to contain the damage from such fluctuating emotions and to help the couple begin to process the impact of the affair. The therapist also orients couples to treatment and to the conceptualization of the affair as a traumatic event.
The second stage of this recovery process involves seeking more in-depth explanations for why the traumatic events have occurred. Typically it is useful for couples to consider a number of factors and how they contributed to the context in which the trauma occurred. Many of these factors are proximal; that is, they are circumstances present at the time of, or immediately prior to, the trauma. These include how each member of the couple was functioning individually, the status of the couple’s relationship, and outside stressors. For example, after exploration, a couple might realize that the wife had an extramarital affair at a time when she experienced significant distress at work, felt emotionally disengaged within her marriage, and felt that her husband dealt with their increased distance by focusing his energies on his own work. This understanding is not intended to blame the husband or justify the wife’s decision to have an affair. What is important is for the wife in this instance to take responsibility for her decision to have an affair as well as for both partners to understand the salient factors at the time she made that decision. Couples often benefit from an increased understanding of how both partners have learned to respond to stressors in particular ways over time. This means that an understanding of distal factors, such as early developmental influences, often is important. In the course of a couple’s attempts to work through the forgiveness process on their own, they may vary widely in their ability to understand these developmental issues. That is why dealing with significant relationship traumas often benefits from professional assistance; this developmental understanding can be a critical ingredient in the partners’ ability to reconstruct their views of themselves and their relationships, and hopefully to develop empathy for one another.
Once the partners develop a shared view of why the affair occurred, it gives both members of the couple the ability to try to prevent it from happening again (either while maintaining the relationship or by ending it). It may also give them the sense of safety needed to “move on.” From a cognitive perspective, developing more accurate and comprehensive attributions for the traumatic event can contribute to the development of new expectancies or predictions for the future; without understanding why an event occurred, it is difficult to predict whether it will recur in the future.
The couple eventually must move beyond the affair and stop allowing it to control their lives. Most of the time, the search for understanding in Stage 2 leads the couple to re-evaluate their relationship based on their new understanding about each other and to examine what changes need to be made in their relationship. At times, this re-evaluation may mean altering their relationship in significant ways. In more disruptive instances, the couple must make a decision regarding whether they wish to continue with their relationship. During Stage 3, the couple benefits from a more direct discussion of forgiveness; this is not attempted in earlier stages because of the degree of hurt and anger experienced by the couple. From a psychological perspective, there is nothing in the forgiveness process that requires reconciliation. Nor does forgiveness require that anger disappear completely.
In fact, it is expected that the emotions and thoughts associated with the event will reoccur, similar to PTSD flashbacks; however, these thoughts and feelings are no longer as severe or as disruptive as they once were. In order to move forward, the injured partner needs to achieve three goals by the end of this third stage: (a) to develop a realistic and balanced view of the relationship, (b) to experience a release from being controlled by negative affect toward the offending partner, and (c) to relinquish voluntarily his or her right to punish the participating partner.
After the couple has re-evaluated their relationship and discussed forgiveness, the treatment turns to either helping the couple terminate their relationship in a constructive manner or helping them make the changes necessary to stay together.
- Coop Gordon, Kristina, Donald Baucom, and Douglas Snyder; Treating Couples Recovering From Infidelity: An Integrative Approach; Journal of Clinical Psychology; 2005; Vol. 61(11),
Reflection Exercise Explanation
Goal of this Home Study Course is to create a learning experience that enhances
your clinical skills. We encourage you to discuss the Personal Reflection
Journaling Activities, found at the end of each Section, with your colleagues.
Thus, you are provided with an opportunity for a Group Discussion experience.
Case Study examples might include: family background, socio-economic status, education,
occupation, social/emotional issues, legal/financial issues, death/dying/health,
home management, parenting, etc. as you deem appropriate. A Case Study is to be
approximately 225 words in length. However, since the content of these Personal
Reflection Journaling Exercises is intended for your future reference, they
may contain confidential information and are to be applied as a work in
progress. You will not
be required to provide us with these Journaling Activities.
Reflection Exercise #1
The preceding section contained information
about an integrative approach to treating clients recovering from infidelity. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
Online Continuing Education QUESTION
What are the three major stages of the integrative approach to treating couples recovering from infidelity? Record the letter of the correct answer