How does marriage counselling help couples heal after an affair?
Marriage counselling, also referred to as relationship counselling or couples therapy, is a form of therapy that aims to help couples understand and resolve problems or areas of conflict in their relationships. For a couple to recover from the infidelity and broken trust, it takes commitment, determination and a willingness to be vulnerable. With these ingredients, couples or marriage counselling can certainly help repair a relationship following an affair.
Infidelity, or being unfaithful in a marriage or committed relationship, can range from sexual infidelity, through different forms of physical contact with another person, to cyber affairs and emotional infidelity. The research suggests that in Australia, the most prevalent type of infidelity is an emotional affair. A person engaged in an emotional affair is getting their deep emotional needs met by someone outside of their relationship. In an emotional affair, one might have frequent contact with another person outside of the relationship, start to keep secrets from their partner, find themselves wanting to share any new or exciting personal news with this person first, spend a lot of time fantasising about them, feel deeply understood and accepted by them (while not feeling this way with their partner), discuss very intimate topics and develop a closeness and connection that does not exist within their marriage or relationship. It is reported that men are more sensitive to sexual affairs, while women feel more hurt when their partner has been emotionally unfaithful.
Whatever the nature of the affair, when a person discovers that their partner has been unfaithful, it can set off intense feelings of panic, betrayal, abandonment, anger, and a painful sense of loss. To put this in perspective, consider that research indicates an extra-marital affair is rated as the 5th highest stressful life event, just after a jail sentence and death of a family member. Naturally it can take a long time to process what has happened and establish trust again. When these painful emotions are activated, seeking help through relationship or marriage counselling is essential to getting back on track. Both partners need to want to rebuild and be willing to embark on this tough journey together.
Through counselling, an affair may be reframed and understood as a symptom of underlying problems in the relationship. So a couples therapist will explore the particular function of the affair; for some people it is a form of communication to their partner when other means of communicating have broken down. For others, it is a way for them to get their sexual needs met when sexual intimacy and desire has died of from their marriage. Or sometimes it is a way for people to have their emotional needs met when they feel devalued, ignored by or emotionally cut-off from their partner.
The process of working through these issues usually follows certain steps. The first step is about acknowledgement and forgiveness; the person who has had the affair needs to recognise and take ownership of the hurt and damage they have caused, and without their partner’s forgiveness, reconnection is not possible. The next step is to openly communicate and process how and why the affair occurred. Mourning the affair is also an important step, which involves working through the grief associated with the loss of trust and the loss of the old relationship. Once this has been achieved, couples can start to rebuild trust and identify how to deal with triggers of the affair that come up in everyday life. They may also start to rebuild sexual and emotional intimacy. The final stage of the process is about reconnecting and accepting; leaving behind the old relationship and cultivating a new partnership with a hopeful and positive imagined future.
Keep in mind that the most common response to traumatic events is post-traumatic growth. So with the right support, couples can learn to trust each other again and also achieve growth in their relationship. Mindwell Psychology, our Geelong based clinic, can offer support to couples experiencing this difficult situation. Make an Appointment today.