If you or your spouse has been exposed as using the Ashley Madison site to seek an affair, stop and take a deep breath! (Apparently thousands of people have already flocked to lawyers to pull the trigger on impulsively decided divorces). Driven by the hurt and humiliation of public exposure and profound betrayal, as a discovering spouse you are understandably experiencing the first waves of trauma that this news usually brings. Vengeance and assuaging the broken trust through divorce may seem like the only solution to you at this point.
As the unfaithful spouse you are probably traumatized in different ways: what may have seemed like a discreet, compartmentalized adventure without victims now feels real in its damaging consequences. You are now either bathed in shame and fear, or furious that you can no longer “have your cake and eat it too.” However justified you may feel for your infidelity you know that your world is about to become unravelled. You are about to take the hit for everything wrong with the marriage, and cannot imagine ever being forgiven. If you stay married you imagine a lifetime in the “doghouse.” Whichever end you’re on, the impulse on both sides is often to give up and get a divorce, convinced that healing and reconciliation would be impossible.
As a couples therapist who, for many years has worked with thousands of couples reeling from infidelity, I have a few strong pieces of advice:
- Slow down!
- Take some deep breaths!
- Don’t make any rash decisions now!
- Don’t impulsively file for divorce!
Here are some things you may NOT be aware of:
- Many marriages can not only be saved, but strengthened after the trauma of infidelity. It requires a lot of determination, hard work, vision, and a good couples therapist the spouses both trust.
- Many couples who impulsively divorce deeply regret that decision later on.
- Children are often the biggest victims, especially in a contentious divorce.
- If you don’t know what direction to take regarding your damaged marriage there is an alternative to couples therapy called Discernment Counseling. This is a brief treatment designed for couples where one spouse is leaning toward a divorce and the other wants to stay married. It is not geared toward tools and skills for repair, but instead focuses on helping partners make a decision about a direction for the marriage. Only trained Discernment Counselors can provide this service.
- There are terrific books and support groups for couples wrestling with infidelity.
- If you do decide to get a divorce you can have a healing, constructive process through Collaborative Law. Divorce doesn’t have to be an impoverishing dog fight.
- There may be hope. There is help.
Anyone in the greater Boston area wanting more information, feel free to contact me at The Couples Center PLLC, in Portsmouth, NH: 603-431-7131.
I’ve been doing Discernment Counseling for several months at this point. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s a form of treatment specially designed for “mixed agenda” couples, where one person wants to continue the relationship and has hope for improving it, and the other person feels done and is “leaning out,” but hasn’t yet pulled the plug. It’s a one to five session form of treatment geared to help the couple move toward one of three choices: stay in the status quo, or break up, or do the work of reconciliation. It’s a decisional therapy, not regular couples therapy which presumes mutual energy and commitment toward improving the relationship. It is designed to help “couples on the brink” avoid the time, expense and frustration of half-hearted couples therapy). I can tell you right now that it works! I don’t yet have any hard statistics, but in my experience so far I’ve found that this way of working really resonates for couples in this dilemma for the following reasons, among many:
- Both partners tend to feel understood and honored, as nobody is being “sold” the continuation of the relationship. Instead, the three paths are intricately explored, with each partner exploring their own part in the negative history, as well as in possibilities for change of any kind.
- The “leaning out” partner doesn’t feel pursued or pressured to stay in the relationship by the therapist (who often in regular couples therapy would mirror the pursuit of the “leaning in” partner by encouraging strategies for improving things). Instead, they are given space to explore any ambivalence they may have about moving on, as well as space to look at their own contributions to the situation.
- The “leaning in” partner is helped to look at how to bring their best self to the work, and not humiliate themself in the process, as well as exploring their understanding and willingness to address their partner’s concerns.
- Clients report really appreciating the format, where we begin the session by meeting all together, then each is seen individually while the other leaves the room, ending with us all reconvening so partners can share their thoughts and feelings about what they have each gained or taken from their individual sessions. I get regular feedback about how each person feels safer having their own time with me to look at the issues, and what they want to convey to their partner about what they’ve learned.
- I observe a tremendous lessening of defensiveness and commotion without both partners in the room at all times, given free reign to talk at each other. There is very strict protocol for each segment of the sessions. This is not a free-for-all, duplicating the toxic dance the couple has already been doing. It’s a carefully guided exploration.
- So far, this form of treatment has moved most seemingly intractable couples toward a more solid, trusted decision about their future relationship.
I am in the process of pursuing advanced training in this work, so I can envision ironing out some of the kinks which come up, like the time management piece – (there’s lots to cover in a particular sequence each session, something a bit foreign to my more organic way of working). There are also unique dilemmas presented by each couple which require attention and sensitivity. We’re nowhere near perfect, but Discernment Counseling is experienced as a whole different thing by couples on the brink of a split.
For any “mixed agenda” couple interested in getting out of a stalemate around the direction of your relationship, feel free to contact me in my Portsmouth office to further discuss the possibility of doing Discernment Counseling with me. I have some openings at this point, but expect that as we move into the Fall my availability will be much more limited, as it usually is when Summer ends.