Three patterns of Recovery from Infidelity

excerpted from Esther PEREL: “After the Storm”, in Psychotherapy Networker (U.S.), Sept-Oct. 2010

Helping couples using Couple Therapy to recover from the immediate crisis that occurs when infidelity is discovered, is essential – but what happens to them after they leave therapy?

All marriages are alike to the degree that confronting an affair forces the couple to reevaluate their relationship, but dissimilar in how the couple lives with the legacy of that affair. I already knew the marriages I was tracing in my follow-up interviews had survived; now I wanted to assess the quality of that survival.

Specificities notwithstanding, I identified three basic patterns in the way couples reorganize 
themselves after an infidelity

  • 1. They never really get past the affair.
  • 2. They pull themselves up by the bootstraps and let it go.
  • 3. They leave it far behind.

Pattern 1:
In some marriages, the affair isn’t a transitional crisis, but a black hole trapping both parties in an endless round of bitterness, revenge, and self-pity. These couples endlessly gnaw at the same bone, circle and recircle the same grievances, reiterate the same mutual recriminations, and blame each other for their agony. Why they stay in the marriage is often as puzzling as why they can’t get beyond their mutual antagonism.

Pattern 2:
A second pattern is found in couples who remain together because they honor values of lifelong commitment and continuity, family loyalty, and stability. They want to stay connected to their community of mutual friends and associates or have a strong religious affiliation. These couples can move past the infidelity, but they don’t necessarily transcend it. Their marriages revert to a more or less peaceful version of the way things were before the crisis, without undergoing any significant change in their relationship.

Pattern 3:
For some couples, however, the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change. This outcome illustrates that therapy has the potential to help couples reinvent their marriage by mining the resilience and resourcefulness each partner brings to the table.

Solo sessions in parallel to the couple sessions

I see each partner separately as well as doing sessions with both together; all information from the individual sessions is kept confidential. The purpose of solo meetings is to provide a private space in which each partner can resolve his or her individual predicament.

In sessions with the “betrayer”, we explore the riches of the love affair, what they found in their relationship with the « other, » and what they can take from it into their primary relationship. We draft the new amendments for their life, in the singular and plural. We weigh the pain of ending the affair—that fact that « it’s the right thing to do, but it hurts »—and I always ask how they imagine themselves 10 years down the road.

In sessions with the betrayed partner, we examine the ebbs and flows of trust, the sense of impermanence that snuck into the relationship, and their wish to return to familiarity. Therapy offers couples a place to evaluate the fundamentals of their lives. We also address the hurt that persists even though the couple remains together.

Couple sessions: style of the 3 patterns

Couples of Pattern 3, who can very successfully recover from an infidelity, often display a significant shift in language: From « you » and « me » to « our, » from « when you did this to me » to « this was an event in our life. » They talk about « When we had our crisis, » recounting a shared experience. Now they’re joint scriptwriters, sharing credit for the grand production of their life together.

Couples who think in absolutes , often the case in Pattern 1, are less able to integrate the infidelity into the new substance of their marriage and likelier to get stuck in the past. For them, the affair is entirely bad and destructive, a transgression against commitment and morality. Complete remorse, followed by dramatic confession, unqualified promises of « never again, » unconditional forgiveness, and categorical absolution are the only acceptable outcomes.

But things are more fluid for those (Pattern 2 or Pattern 3) who see an affair as an event that, no matter how painful, may contain the seeds of something positive. Such couples understand that forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once, and they feel okay with partial forgiveness. To be sure, after betrayal, trust isn’t likely to be total. When declarations like « How can I ever trust you again? » are made by such couples, I often interject, « Well, it depends. Trust for what? »

Why infidelity?

People stray for many reasons—tainted love, revenge, unfulfilled longings, and plain old lust. At times, an affair is a quest for intensity, a rebellion against the confines of matrimony. An illicit liaison can be catastrophic, but it can also be liberating, a source of strength, a healing. And frequently it’s all these things at once. Some affairs are acts of resistance; others happen when we offer no resistance at all. Straying can sound an alarm for the marriage, signaling an urgent need to pay attention to what ails it. Or it can be the death knell that follows a relationship’s last gasping breath.