Treating Marital Infidelity With Intensive Trauma-Focused Therapy

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February 28, 2017 at 4:15 PM

It’s tough to repair a marriage following infidelity, even if both parties really want to. I’ve seen it over and over, variations on a theme:

  • Frankie cheats, and then says Sorry, and means it. But doesn’t address the root causes of the cheating, so Sorry doesn’t do much good. Johnnie wants to trust again, but knows better.
  • Or Frankie not only says Sorry but also goes to therapy and insists that progress is being made so that cheating will not be such a pressing temptation in the future. Johnnie wants to trust again, and appreciates the effort, but doesn’t actually see any progress.
  • Or Frankie even gets the therapy done, changes for the better, and is no longer the kind of person likely to cheat. And Johnnie sees this, wants to trust again, but just can’t.

Even with a expert professional guidance, many couples find it impossible to surmount one or more of these impasses. Here’s where intensive (individual) trauma-focused therapy can be helpful.

Trauma-focused therapy has an excellent chance of clearing up the emotional wounds, negative beliefs, and bad habits that lead to relationship problems. But even the most efficient of the research-supported trauma healing methods – namely EMDR and PC – can take more time than a stressed marriage can afford. Intensive trauma-focused therapy can get the job done in a matter of days, enabling couples to overcome the above-listed obstacles and have the best chance of repairing their relationship.

Frankie and Johnnie were working with a couples therapist subsequent to Johnnie’s discovery that Frankie had secretly pursued a romantic relationship outside of the marriage. Although Frankie had immediately ended the outside relationship and apologized profusely, Johnnie stated that there was no basis for trusting Frankie anymore. “If it [the infidelity] could happen once, it could happen again.”

The couples therapist agreed, and encouraged Frankie to work with an individual therapist to address the history of childhood experiences that predisposed Frankie to the behaviors that led to cheating. Frankie did this, but therapy takes time and results are uncertain. Meanwhile, Johnnie kept saying, “I don’t know what I’m waiting for, or how long I’m supposed to wait.” It became clear that Johnnie was not willing to hold out for the many months (or longer) that Frankie’s treatment was expected to take, just on the chance that things might be different after that. So the couples therapist recommended a course of intensive trauma-focused therapy for Frankie.

Frankie completed four and a half days of intensive therapy, and was able to demonstrate meaningful changes in the marriage relationship. The couple made great progress over the next month or so, and it looked like they might make it. But now Johnnie was saying, “I know Frankie has changed, and I feel like we really are better now. But sorry – I just can’t get over it.” Frankie was also getting discouraged: “I’ve done everything I can. I just don’t know what else to do. And I don’t blame Johnnie for still feeling hurt, but how long is this gonna go on for? Do we ever get past this?”

Then Johnnie decided to try intensive trauma-focused therapy as well. Even though the presenting issue was being unable to get over having been cheated on, prior wounds can make it more difficult to recover from the identified event. Therefore earlier trauma and loss memories were treated as well, and treatment took five days. After this treatment, Frankie and Johnnie were able to re-engage and build a better relationship than they ever had before.

Intensive trauma-focused therapy does not solve every post-infidelity marriage problem. It does, however, enable couples to overcome some of the primary obstacles to relationship repair. Then they at least have a chance of working out the details.



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Posted by Myrna Solganick on
What about the reasons that allowed the individual to step out?
Posted by Ricky Greenwald on
Good point. The stepping out may have in part been a response to problems within the relationship. Those problems may also be related to unresolved trauma & loss, which trauma-focused therapy can help with. Even so, the couple will still have to work on improving their relationship patterns, whether they try this on their own or with professional guidance. This post focused on certain aspects of the problem, recognizing that there's often more that needs addressing.
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