Betrayal is terrible to experience, and working through an affair is tough. It takes tremendous energy and vulnerability on both sides. It is important to note that the betrayed partner can often suffer from a PTSD reaction following an affair's discovery.
PTSD Symptoms from an Affair
According to Drs. John and Julie Gottman, if the below symptoms persist, then the chances are that the betrayed partner is experiencing PTSD.
Recurrent recollections and intrusive visualizations: "Deja vu" events, days, locations, etc., tend to trigger flashbacks of affair specifics. For example, recurring dates of when the hurt partner had found out about the affair trigger memories and related emotions that can induce flooding (stress) and panic attacks.
Oscillating moods, confusion, irritability, and outbursts: Struggling between feelings of betrayal and acceptance with periods of emotional numbing followed by explosions.
Intense emotions of anger, hurt, shame, grief, and frustration: There are ambivalent fears of anger, guilt, self-doubts, etc., that can overwhelm the hurt partner. Empathetic listening goes a long way in healing.
Hyper-vigilance and startling: Becoming startled and vigilant about mundane things like message notifications, phone rings, delays in replies, etc., and may seem to make impossible demands. Compassion and assurance will help.
Avoidance, detachment, and seclusion: The overwhelming feelings appear challenging, and isolation may seem the only option. The betraying partner often misunderstands it as distancing and tends to stay away. It may enhance the feelings of rejection in the betrayed partner when emotional support is needed.
Loss of focus and interest: The depression symptoms of demotivation, loss of interest, lack of energy, irregular sleep, no appetite, low feelings, etc., can persist.
Hopelessness about the future: As the world, they know, collapses, there may be hopelessness and helplessness about the relationship.
Although not all partners hurt by an affair will develop PTSD reactions, many will experience grief and depression. Partners who have been betrayed may become obsessed with the affair's details, feel powerless with their emotions, and need therapeutic assistance at such times. It is important to note that these reactions are normal responses and can benefit from couple therapy.
Affair Treatment Framework
Drs. John and Julie Gottman have developed the affair treatment framework with three defined stages: Atonement, Attunement, and Attachment. This unbiased and compassionate approach to affair recovery supports both partners as they aim to repair and rebuild the collapsed relationship.
Stage 1: Atonement
The goals of this stage of therapy are openness and transparency, expressing emotions, listening to emotions, and the betrayer partner expressing remorse. It begins with a commitment that the betraying partner has cut off all contact with the affair partner.
Next, the betrayed partner takes the opportunity to ask whatever questions on their mind that are answerable. The questions must stop at the bedroom door to prevent increasing trauma. This is also a time when they can express their feelings without attacking their partner.
The Atonement stage includes a verbal apology, conversation, and action plan for the behaviour change. This conversation paves a path forward with openness and honesty from which to build trust.
There is no specific time frame for completing this process, which is unique to each couple. As much as possible, it is recommended that the couple refrains from having this conversation at home. They are encouraged to make notes or journal to organize their thoughts and questions in preparation for the session.
Stage 2: Attunement
In the Attunement stage, the couple addresses whether and how they can "be there" for each other. They begin to rebuild trust, piece by piece, and the betraying partner is encouraged to maintain a steady stream of honest disclosure. They must also avoid backsliding into secrecy or contact with the affair partner. No matter their progress, earnest apologies and repair attempts still need reinforcement.
In this stage, therapy focuses on challenging areas within the relationship to gain new skills and confidence in managing conflict effectively. While deficiencies in the pre-affair relationship are essential to address at this stage of therapy, they do not vindicate cheating nor justify blaming the betrayed partner.
It's often helpful for couples to think about the post-affair time as a new marriage—a second marriage or an improved marriage with the same person. It's important to get attuned to each other's needs and create a better relationship than the old one. Attunement builds intimacy and will ultimately boost trust in the relationship.
Stage 3: Attachment
The Attachment stage is the phase of recovery that is the true stage of reconciliation. It is the confidence of both living out "you are my person, and I am 100% committed".
During this stage, the couple begins to explore and experience more sexual and physical connections. However, the couple has not completed the work. It's vital to continue to provide each other with reassurance in commitment and engagement with doing the work. Both partners must affirm each other along the way so that efforts are noticed and appreciated. Relationship recovery is hard work for both people.
The grief of the affair will still come in waves in the Attachment stage. Events might trigger either partner, which can bring emotions back to that raw and real place from when the affair was first uncovered. A healthy relationship requires constant communication and honesty. Do your best to be sensitive to each other's triggers and turn towards your partner so that they feel safe and supported. Over time and with the success of the Attachment stage, triggers will become less and less activating.
Affair Recovery Therapy
Trust takes time to build, and recovering from an affair is complex. It almost always requires an experienced therapist that can help guide the conversations and create a safe environment to facilitate healing. Relationship recovery is possible!
Paula Gurnett has specialized training and extensive experience supporting couples through this affair recovery. Please see the Couple's Intensive Therapy page for the options that will provide the best possible therapeutic outcomes as you navigate this difficult time.
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