Helping Couples Survive Infidelity

Helping Couples Survive Infidelity

 Introduction to Infidelity Recovery Therapy

“Couple therapy is hard.”  – Leone

The 7-Step Infidelity Recovery Method is a treatment approach designed to help couples process and integrate the experience of trauma and loss, address the issues that led to the unfaithful behavior, and gradually reestablish the marital relationship. This page highlights some of the research behind the 7 Step Infidelity Recovery Method.

   WIFE – “I feel like a tornado just blew through, leveled my home and destroyed everything. I think I’m going crazy – one minute I hate his guts and never want to see him again  – and the next I want to hold onto him for dear life.”  

HUSBAND“I know it’s worse for her, but I feel like I’m going crazy too. I hate myself for having done this, for hurting her, for being an idiot.  I don’t want to make excuses, but there were reasons and no one cares about my side of the story – not her, not our friends, not even my own family.   I’m just a big jerk to everyone now and probably always will be.” 

This vignette illustrates the massive emotional and relational trauma infidelity can leave in its wake, at least for most couples in our culture.  Its traumatic impact is felt especially by the betrayed partner, but also by the partner who was unfaithful, who is usually also suffering in different ways.    Metaphors such as tsunamis or explosions are often invoked by one or both to describe their experience, and symptoms consistent with post-traumatic reactions are common.  These include feeling shocked, devastated, and disoriented; experiencing obsessive or intrusive thoughts; and having trouble eating, sleeping or concentrating, among others.

Working with couples in the aftermath of a discovery of infidelity can be a daunting task.  Both partners are typically in crisis, affectively flooded and in a lot of pain, with intense or urgent yet very different needs from the therapist.

Often one or both are not sure whether their relationship is even worth trying to salvage.

These difficulties are greatly exacerbated when one or both partners have:

  1. significant personality type issues
  2. when the unfaithful partner is still deeply involved in the extramarital relationship

Despite its many challenges, however, this work can also be enormously rewarding.  Helping people weather the storm, heal from pain and rebuild their connection after a terrible rupture can be a powerful experience for all involved.   And, although sadder, helping couples make a thoughtful, considered decision not to rebuild can be important and meaningful as well.

The 7-Step Infidelity Recovery Method is a clear framework for understanding infidelity, and help “hold” the therapist as she/he seeks to hold the couple through this painful time.

Infidelity:  Causes, Meaning and Impact

Like snowflakes – and people – no two affairs are just alike. 

Affairs differ  – including their impact on the partner who had the affair, on the partner who didn’t, and on the relationship between them.  Affairs can be sexual but not emotional, emotional but not sexual, or both emotional and sexual.  They can be motivated by a wish for sex, love, closeness, nurturance, or emotional intimacy;  by the thrill of the chase, the thrill of being chased, or the thrill of living dangerously.  They can involve anything from anonymous physical pleasure to the glorious “high” of infatuation or romantic love:  the intoxicating experience of adoring and being adored, of oneness or merger, of feeling deeply understood and known without words.

Affairs can be an expression of anger or a need for revenge, and/or an effort to enact and perhaps attempt to heal something important and unresolved from the unfaithful partner’s past (or even the hurt partner’s past).  They can reflect an effort to call attention to important relationship dysfunction or longstanding unmet needs, and in some cases can result in a happier, healthier long term relational fit for the unfaithful partner than the marriage was.

From a self psychological/intersubjective perspective, affairs can thus have both forward edge (growth-seeking) and trailing edge (repetitive) components (Tolpin, 2002) – or a both a selfobject and repetitive dimension (Stolorow, Brandshaft & Atwood 1987) –  both of which need to be understood and responded to in the treatment.

Regarding the selfobject dimension, affairs can be powerful sources of the selfobject experiences that lead to a sense of vitality and cohesion .  That is, affairs can be motivated by needs for understanding, affirmation, and validation, especially to shore up shaky self-esteem; by the need for someone to admire, look up to and rely on for guidance, soothing and help processing affect;  and/or by the need for the experience of a sense of belonging and connection with someone who seems profoundly similar to us.  All of these can be provided – or seem to be provided – by an extramarital affair in ways that, for various reasons, the committed marital relationship does not.

In terms of the repetitive dimension, affairs emerge from the complex intersubjective fields of the marital dyad and the extramarital dyad, including the particular organizing principles and relational history of each member.   Organizing principles (Stolorow, Brandshaft & Atwood, 1987) about the self, others and relationships (such as beliefs about one’s own attractiveness, expectations of relationships, and beliefs about whether and how relationships can change) all influence affairs.

It is not uncommon to find a history of affairs or other broken promises or betrayals in one or more of the three parties, with the current affair an unconscious effort to rework a previous painful experience.

One man noted repeatedly,

“I swore I would never do what my father did to my mother, but here I am.  And somehow now I don’t hate him as much.”

The meaning and impact of infidelity depends in large part on each partner’s particular needs for and expectations of fidelity in the relationship  –  needs and expectations which are themselves influenced by each person’s relationship history as well as by cultural expectations or norms.  For example, people who have been especially reliant upon their partner (or an idealized image of that person) for functions such as self-regulation, enhancement of self-esteem, or healing of previous relationship traumas – and those for whom fidelity is a crucial component of those functions  – will naturally experience the infidelity as especially difficult or traumatic, maybe irreparable.  In other words, those for whom infidelity shatters what Stolorow has termed an “absolutism of everyday life” (Stolorow, 1999) will be especially traumatized.  Those for whom monogamy is less important or who come from cultures in which affairs are more common may experience an affair as less traumatic or upsetting (Scheinkman, 2005)..

The treatment must explore and examine particular meanings of fidelity and infidelity for each person in order to fully understand and make sense of the affair and its impact.  For example, the most painful aspects of infidelity for the betrayed partner may not be the extra-marital sexual contact itself (although that is usually very significant) or the breaking of a vow of sexual fidelity.  Rather, for many, the greater betrayal is having been lied to, especially if the unfaithful partner looked the other right in the eye while lying – thereby tainting the powerful and intimate experience of mutual gaze.

For others, it may be not having been thought of or taken care of by the person long relied-upon as a source of nurturance or protection, or of having not been “number one” in the partner’s life.  “I can’t stand being the consolation prize,” one man said repeatedly, unable to rid himself of the fear that his wife may only have recommitted to him because the man she’d had an affair with was unavailable.  Or the greatest pain may stem from the loss of the idealization (Kohut, 1984) of the partner, when the unfaithful behavior destroys important long-held assumptions or idealized images of that person, as in the case example to be detailed below.

Finally, affairs differ in the extent to which they result primarily from the unfaithful partner’s individual issues or dynamics, which might have emerged in any marital relationship, and the extent to which they are related to something about this particular marital dyad.  (Opportunity or other situational factors are also sometimes relevant, but infrequently.)

I often tell the partner who had the affair, “We need to understand how much the affair stemmed from something missing in your marriage – and how much it was something missing inside of you.” In my experience, the vast majority of affairs involve some combination of both, and therefore are best treated in a combination of individual and couple modalities.

KEY 1 – Learn how to communicate

The essential goal of couple therapy involves the ability to identify and express one’s own feelings and needs, understand and respond to the other’s needs in an attuned manner, and repair inevitable empathic ruptures when they occur.

These abilities are influenced by:

  • self-esteem,
  • ability to experience and regulate affect,
  • ability to reflect on one’s own experience and the imagined experience of their spouse
  • emotional convictions about the self, others and relationships (Stolorow, Brandshaft & Atwood, 1987;  Orange, 1995), and their implicit or procedural relational patterns.
  • narcissistic vulnerability

Treatment Approach:  Repairing the Rupture

the primary focus of the empathic dialogue is on processing the experience of trauma, grief and loss; understanding and addressing the factors that led to the infidelity; and reestablishing (or establishing for the first time) a sense of trust and safety.  In self psychological terms, this process can be thought of as the ultimate rupture and repair sequence.

The first step of the treatment process often involves addressing the intense affective flooding and trauma symptoms noted above, especially if the revelation of the infidelity is very recent.  In addition to listening closely and responding empathically to each partner’s experience, the therapist may also need to take a more directive role to help contain and calm intense affect.

Framing the situation to the couple as the traumatic loss of a needed and relied-upon attachment bond, and intense emotions or disrupted functioning as expectable post-traumatic symptoms can help the partners make sense of otherwise overwhelming or alarming reactions.  Finally, the therapist can explain how the healing process might work should the couple decide to attempt it.  When people feel hopeless and can’t imagine how repair could ever happen, it can be reassuring to know the therapist has a rough road map of the journey.  All of these can have a selfobject dimension.

Self psychology’s emphasis on the repair process between therapist and patient is relevant to the analogous process between partners, despite the obvious differences.  Therapists seeking to repair an empathic rupture in the treatment relationship endeavor to listen carefully to the patient’s experience as nondefensively as possible, focusing first on understanding the patient’s experience (Kohut, 1971;  Wolf, 1984),in detail before explaining or interpreting or sharing their own experience.  Once people feel deeply understood, they often become more open to looking at the factors that led to the rupture – usually first in terms of the other person’s contribution, and later, their own.

Similarly, many hurt partners reeling from a discovery of infidelity need a long period of focus on their experience of devastation, betrayal, outrage, and so forth, before they can tolerate much focus on the unfaithful partner’s experience or on the factors that led to the unfaithful behavior.  The couple therapist can help the hurt partner identify and express strong feelings without attacking or shaming the unfaithful partner (admittedly not easy, but not impossible), while helping the unfaithful partner listen, empathically grasp the hurt partner’s experience, and respond with understanding, sorrow, deep remorse (if present) and words of comfort.  The hurt partner often needs the partner who had the affair to experience as much pain as the hurt partner has, in order to feel fully understood and less alone.  The therapist can point this out and frame the wish as natural and understandable, while also empathizing with the unfaithful partner’s experience and making it clear that attacking or shaming the unfaithful partner will not help the process of reconnecting or of discovering whether the relationship can be what they each need.

If the partner who had the affair cannot provide helpful responses to the hurt partner, at least initially, the therapist can do so herself.  She can also legitimize the hurt partner’s  need for such responses from the unfaithful partner, help both partners understand why the unfaithful partner is having trouble providing them, and gradually help both partners become more able to provide such responses for each other.

Over time, once both partners are ready and interested, the therapist can help them begin to explore and understand the usually multiple interacting individual and relational factors that led to the affair.  This means helping them construct a theory of their relationship (Wile, 1993) and of the affair, or identifying the issues, themes or difficulties each partner came into the relationship with and the many ways they have influenced  each other over their years together.  It also includes clarifying what hurts most about the affair, what it means to each and what exactly has been lost, and eventually understanding what the current loss or betrayal reactivates from the past for one or both.

Finally, the healing process involves identifying what each partner now needs from the other in order to feel safe, close and connected again, and gradually helping them respond to each other’s needs to the extent possible.  For example, the hurt partner may need repeated apologies, courting or/and various kinds of evidence that the affair is not continuing or that unfaithfulness will not recur.  He or she may need to feel confident that the unfaithful partner really understands the depth of the pain and damage caused by the affair and is not just saying the words. The partner who was unfaithful typically also needs to feel (at least eventually) deeply understood and viewed with some compassion, rather than primarily shamed by the hurt partner.  That partner often needs reassurance that he or she is seen – or at least, eventually will be seen – in an integrated manner, as more than just someone who was unfaithful but rather as someone with both strengths and weaknesses who continues to have legitimate emotional needs despite what he or she has done.

This part of the treatment sometimes involves helping partners negotiate agreements that accommodate both partners’ conflicting needs – such as a hurt partner’s need to discuss the affair constantly, and the other’s legitimate need for a break from the topic at times.  These kinds of negotiations (e.g., Can the hurt partner check the other’s cell phone or email records?  How often?  Can the unfaithful partner have any contact with the person with whom he or she had the affair?) can be framed as an opportunity for the couple to learn to dialogue and negotiate with each other effectively.

Difficulty doing so often points to chronic marital difficulties that predated and possibly contributed to the affair happening to begin with.  In such cases, the treatment must eventually identify and address those underlying issues, just as it would have if the infidelity had not occurred.

One last point – with all couples it is important to monitor both partners vigilantly for signs of narcissistic injury.  However, this is especially important in the aftermath of infidelity because the partners have already experienced so much injury, shame or betrayal at the hands of a trusted other and are thus especially vulnerable.

Complications to the Healing Process

            Before concluding, I would like to note that in my experience, there are two major factors that can complicate the healing process described above.  One is when one or both partners are trauma survivors or have significant characterological issues, and the other is when partners come for treatment even though one partner is in love with a third person or even is still involved with that person. Each could be the focus of another entire paper, but because they are such common difficulties I will touch on them briefly here.

            Characterological issues in one or both partners: 

The repair process just outlined is considerably more complex when one or both partners have significant self-deficits, including deficits in their capacities to:  regulate self-esteem;  experience, integrate and regulate affect;  and self-reflect and imagine the experience of the other.   Although their deficits were not as severe as those of some couples, Jack and Barb had deficits in many of these areas, which is part of the reason their treatment took three years.  For partners with even more severe deficits, infidelity is only one of their many problems and generally must be dealt with as part of an ongoing process of helping each develop greater self-esteem, increased affect tolerance and self-soothing skills, a greater awareness of their own and others’ experience, and new implicit relational patterns, including an improved ability to dialogue effectively with each other.  As in the case of Jack and Barb, for such couples the couple therapy is much more likely to be successful if both partners are (at least eventually) in excellent individual therapies concurrent with the couples work – ideally with frequent collaboration between the therapists.

            When one partner is in love with someone else: 

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to an effective repair process is when an unfaithful partner is still in love with, deeply attached to or even still involved with the person with whom they had the affair.   In my experience, the prognosis for the original marital relationship is far worse in these cases, but in rare cases over time the “spell” of the attachment to the extramarital partner eventually fades and the original couple succeeds in rebuilding their connection.  Often this occurs when the person the unfaithful partner had the affair with is not available, so the unfaithful partner wants to fall out of love with that person.

In this situation, in addition to all of the components discussed above, the repair process also involves helping the unfaithful partner grieve the loss of the extramarital relationship and become available to love again.  This obviously takes time and is generally better addressed primarily in individual therapy;  however, in many cases the hurt spouse is able to tolerate some (carefully worded) discussion of the unfaithful partner’s experience of loss.

In most cases, however (at least in my experience), once one partner has fallen in love with someone else, even if the marriage would very likely have been repairable otherwise, the original couple is not successful at saving their marriage.  I see this as due to the “split transference” phenomenon described by Graller and others (Graller, 1981), in which the unfaithful partner experiences the nonmarital relationship very positively, primarily or exclusively through the lens of the selfobject dimension of experience, while the spouse is experienced more negatively, through the lens of the conflictual repetitive dimension of experience.   In this situation, the original relationship can never compete with the affair relationship:  the marriage will always lose.  But, as I tell couples, this is like comparing apples and oranges.  The more important questions concern the long term relational fit and the capacity of partners to meet each other’s needs over the long run – questions that cannot be fully explored or answered during the “high” of new love or when one partner is not fully available or present.  Although some couple therapists understandably refuse to treat couples unless all extramarital relationships have been ended first, I find that it can be helpful to highlight these issues and at least help the partners understand how the repair process might work if the partner having the affair chose to end it and reinvest in the marital relationship.  The couple therapist can help the partners at least understand the issues, so they can make more informed decisions.



  •  Understanding unfaithful behavior as (in many cases) an effort to access desperately needed self object responses or communicate something important can help the therapist maintain an empathic connection with both partners.
  • Framing intense emotions and disrupted functioning as expectable reactions to the traumatic loss of a needed and relied-upon selfobject relationship can help make couples sense of their experience.
  • viewing the healing process as the “ultimate” rupture and repair sequence, the therapist can help partners process the experience of trauma, grief and loss; understand and address the factors that led to the infidelity and the specific meanings it has for them; and determine whether their relationship can become a reliable source of selfobject responsiveness for both partners.




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