This is a question I sometimes get asked when a spouse initially reaches out to me inquiring about marriage counseling. Unfortunately, there is not a simple yes or no answer I can give. Nothing about fixing a marriage after an affair can be generalized. Have some marriages succeeded? Yes. But the answer completely depends on each couple’s unique situation. I do know that it is certainly not possible to fix it if you don’t go to counseling.
Marriage counseling when there’s been infidelity is a complex process. There are many factors that need to be considered in order to see if the relationship can be repaired. The biggest obstacle to doing effective marriage counseling after infidelity is dealing with the anger from the partner who’s been betrayed. I have worked with many couples where the aggrieved spouse is able to process the anger and the marriage counseling can continue.
This gives the couple the opportunity for a new, better marriage to be created. I explain this change to my couples using the forest fire analogy. There are times when nature is overgrown, run down, just too much of everything. When a forest fire occurs, everything burns, providing the opportunity for re-growth. Things comes back stronger and more solid than before. That’s what we want to happen with the marriage after an affair. It takes a lot of work and effort from both parties, but we are able to identify the issues that were being ignored, address them and create a new dynamic. I have seen many situations in my work over the years where the affair was the wake up call the couple needed to fix things that they were unhappy with in the marriage. People often want to think that the problems in the relationship began with the affair. I work with my clients to help them understand that infidelity is a symptom of a marriage that’s been in distress. Usually for a long time. Couples commonly describe this unhappiness as a lack of connection in the relationship, a feeling of growing apart or a sense of loneliness. This unfulfillment creates a space in the marriage for a 3rd party relationship to develop.
As I said earlier, the level of anger and ability to deal with it is a big predictor of marriage counseling success. There have been situations in my work with couples that we need to pause on the marriage counseling so I can work individually with the aggrieved spouse because there is too much anger getting in the way of the couple’s counseling. While I work with the spouse individually, I am able to evaluate if the anger can be dealt with so it doesn’t prevent a roadblock to the marriage counseling. How able they are to move through the anger depends on each individual. There have been circumstances where, after working with the betrayed spouse, I determine that they are not going to be able to let it go. If the spouse has too much hurt and anger and you continue with marriage counseling, it gets in the way of the other work that needs to be done to fix the marriage. What tends to happen is every conversation ends up coming back to the affair, the hurt spouse cannot see past themselves as the victim and the couple can’t move forward to address the issues going on before the affair.
Other factors that play into the success of marriage counseling after infidelity include how long has the affair been going on?” Was it a one-time discretion or has it been many years? Have there been multiple 3rd parties or just one?
The primary objective of counseling with couples where there’s been infidelity is for both parties to get to a point where they are able to look at the issues in the marriage that led to the affair. If this can be achieved, it is possible through marriage counseling to develop new communication patterns, rebuild trust and become emotionally connected again to their partner.