Relationship Institute Australasia

Counselling and
Professional Training

25 February 2017

Categories: For therapists, Gottman Marital Therapy


Tom and Evette presented for therapy 8 weeks after Tom had discovered that Evette had been involved with another man from her workplace.  At the time of their presentation Evette has refused to discuss the affair with Tom, simply saying that “It’s over, stop going on about it.”  Tom is understandably angry and hostile towards Evette.  He is frustrated that Evette will not discuss the affair saying frequently, “I have a right to know!”  Tom has hundreds of questions that he wants answers to while Evette is “scared” to talk about it because she is sure talking about it will make things worse.

As most couples begin to address the consequences of an affair their relationship does not feel safe and trust is completely destroyed.  It is therefore critical that therapists working with these clients create a safe, trusting environment for them firstly in the therapy room and eventually in their own homes.

Almost no-one feels safe in a negative and hostile environment, therefore any therapeutic space must be established quickly and effectively as a safe haven during this incredibly tumultuous time in their lives.

This requires the therapist to limit the amount and types of negativity that are expressed during the session.  The hurting partner must be able to express their hurt and pain without launching personal attacks on their offending partner.  This is often easier said than done.  The introduction of the Gottman concept of the Four Horsemen will assist with establishing boundaries for how hurt feelings and attendant distress can be communicated.

Both partners must feel that it is safe to disclose their thoughts and feelings and to expect these will be heard and respected without being attacked or belittled.  Additionally, both partners need to know that the therapist will keep them in “safe” territory and will not push or encourage them to disclose things or do things that they are not ready for.  Often couples will go where the therapist takes them, and they need to know that the therapist will not take them into territory that is too dangerous or volatile when they are not yet able to negotiate that potentially treacherous terrain.

Promoting Confidence in the Therapist’s Expertise

Couples struggling with the aftermath of infidelity need to feel confident in the therapist’s expertise specific to treating such relationship trauma as an affair.  They also need a way of understanding what is happening to them.  For may, absolutely nothing makes sense any more.  Beliefs about themselves, each other and their relationship have been shaken.  They are likely to be consumed by emotional turmoil and desperate for a vision of how to move forward.  Like Tom and Evette they may also be separated by a wall of silence and despair of ever becoming close again.

Following an affair, couples must make many decisions about how to get through the day, how to interact with the children, who to tell in their family and friendship circles, where to get support, how to find some respite.  They may be unable to deal with any of these issues without help.

Couples gain confidence in their therapist, and frequently experience profound relief, when the therapist provides a normative context for their individual and relationship experiences.  Hearing a coherent description of common responses to affairs for both injured and participating partners allows them to make better sense of their own and each other’s current behaviours.  They need to know they are in the hands of someone who has seen couples in this situation before and knows how to structure and guide them through a therapeutic process.

The normative context the therapist provides needs to be integrated with acknowledgement of what is unique about this couple, their individual and relationship histories, their strengths and challenges that contribute to their current struggles. Weaving this knowledge into a coherent model of recovery for couples generally and for this couple specifically will promote confidence in the therapist’s expertise.  It also begins the process of socializing the couple to the process of therapy.  It establishes expectations for moving forward.

Offering a Strategy for Recovery

In addition to providing a normative context for what the couple is currently experiencing, the therapist also needs to provide a broader, overall treatment plan.  This provides the couple with a sense of predictability, in the midst of their current unpredictable circumstances, and provides hope that there is a way forward to a positive future together.  Therefore, it is important to provide the couple with a clear overall strategy for working together to recover from this affair.

The model of recovery identified by John and Julie Gottman includes the 3 stages of Atonement, Attunement and Attachment.  The therapist needs to describe these three stages of how this model applies to the couple’s own situation so they know the therapist understands how to help them specifically.

Recovery from an affair can be a long drawn out process, Gottman’s research suggests that the success of affair recovery is directly related to the way couples process the emotional impact of the affair and the way they create their “new” relationship once they have traversed the gauntlet of atonement.  With the help of a skilled and well-trained couples therapist the possibility of creating a new and more connected and satisfying relationship after an affair is greatly enhanced.

You can find out more about how to assist couples after an affair you can read more here.

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