Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Betrayal Survival Guide: How to Find a Good Couples Therapist

Those of you who are regular readers know that I'm a big fan of therapy. No matter who posts what, I generally suggest that individual therapy or marital therapy can go a long way toward helping you heal. 
We're messy people. All of us, not just those of us dealing with infidelity. We're the product of our parents, our culture, our personality, our education, our friends. And inevitably there are some experiences in there that mess with us, whether a bit or a whole lot. Which means that there isn't a soul among us who can't benefit from the occasional tune-up – the chance to examine the thoughts and values we hold and determine how they're contributing to our mental health and our actions. However – and this is a big however – therapy is only as good as the person offering it. A bad therapist – and I've heard some stories of really bad therapists – can do some serious emotional (and sometimes physical) damage. One BWC member suffered a spinal stroke, rendering her paralyzed from the waist down. She and her husband sought therapy to help their marriage survive the incredible changes required of each...and the husband ran off with the therapist. I know, right? And we thought we had it bad.
I often get asked how to know if a therapist is good. Well, in the case above, it's pretty obvious. Another BWC member posted on this site that her therapist had suggested the OW join the therapy to clear the air. This, in case it needs stating, is nuts. 
A good therapist is one who helps each partner in the marriage become better able to hear and respond to the other. My husband and I knew just how good our own therapist was when we realized that he felt completely heard and respected by her...and I felt the same. She had created an environment where there was no good guy or bad guy. Just two people who wanted the same thing but hadn't a clue how to achieve it. Her role was to help us. 
Don't be afraid to walk away from a therapist who's making you uncomfortable. Sometimes it's just too soon. But ask yourself if the discomfort comes from feeling re-victimized or if the therapist is urging us to examine things we'd prefer to leave unexamined. In other words, is the discomfort shouting at us to back away (unsafe) or whispering to us to move closer (scary). I hear from a lot of betrayed wives whose husbands "refuse" therapy, insisting that they can solve their own problems. That's a red flag for me. If one of the partners feels the need to get marital counselling, I'm a firm believer that the other owes them to at least try it. Those who "refuse" therapy, in my experience, are the ones who need it most. They've spent a lifetime avoiding a deeper look at their own pain. 
But I'm no expert. So I took your questions to Valerie, who is. She's an individual and couples therapist who often helps those coping with infidelity. Her advice is straightforward and full of wisdom and compassion. 
Elle: Women often write to me noting that a therapist has insisted they take "responsibility" for the state of the marriage, which feels to them as if they're being blamed for their spouse's affair. What do you think about that?
Valerie: The therapists in question have abandoned a neutral-compassionate stance in favor of a moral perspective.  This is in fact "victim blaming".  In an age of Dr. Phil and the reign of social conservatism, people believe they need to find a therapist who will tell them they did wrong or defend them if they have been wronged. The therapist as judge and jury. That isn't good therapy. 
Elle: What about a betrayed wife's need to see their spouse accept responsibility for the pain they've caused by having an affair?
Valerie: The therapist's role is not to force accountability on either part. Accountability will evolve naturally in the course of therapy that is encouraging of empathy and compassion on both parts. For example, the betrayed partner cannot and will not move past hurt unless he or she feels that her partner demonstrates real empathy for the harm done. Similarly, the affair partner will not come out of the shadows and into the light (so to speak) unless he or she feels their partner can grasp what lies beyond the betrayal. We are not talking causality here – that is the proverbial chicken and egg question – but rather a relational dance that a good therapist will be attuned to and work with.
Elle: Should all couples dealing with infidelity seek therapy?
Valerie: Some couples will not be helped by therapy. It is a gruelling process, and each party must be prepared to go in with a view to self-reflection. If the hurt is still very raw, or too much damage has been done, the participation will only be about deflecting, blaming, punishing, hiding etc. A good therapist will tell a couple they aren't ready and that individual work around stabilizing and returning to self should be undertaken first. A good therapist will always help the couple set limits around damaging behaviours before proceeding, a process which involves both parties agreeing to work toward change.
Elle: So what should people coping with the aftermath of infidelity be looking for?
Valerie: Basically, what I am saying is: find a therapist who is relationally oriented with an understanding of family systems theory. (Virginia Satir is a good example of a therapist who worked beautifully from that perspective.) The therapist should show compassion and understanding for both partners right from the initial session. If an affair partner is saying "I feel judged by my therapist" what they are saying, I think, is "I have not been heard in my hurt." The therapist must help the affair partner to witness the hurt unequivocally and support the betrayed partner in letting the betrayer close enough to touch the hurt with his or her empathy.  Not an easy task.  If the therapist is preaching or wagging a finger in either direction, I would say run away!


  1. Reading this article has made me question my original decision to not seek couples counseling. I am skeptical because of extensive counseling during my 1st marriage that I felt led to divorce. I felt the counselor led us down that path thru his suggestions and overall approach, and in taking us both aside individually suggesting it. I realize this is a different ballgame but I am hesitant. So far, my husband is being open to talking about his cheating by way of happy ending massages, use of escorts off backpages for erotic massage, and now recently discovering extensive use of porn. We seem to be communicating and he is helping me understand why. He claims he thought I was not interested anymore in sex so sought it elsewhere. That was not the case, but what he chose to believe. We in essence broke down our communication. We are now both reading books and talking. I think a support group would be helpful to him for the porn addiction and I saw one thru a local church. I hate to lead him into it as I feel he should find this on his own. I don't want to lead his recovery. Perhaps IC for him?? I have had years of marriage counseling from before and IC after 1st marriage ended and kind of feel like I know the ropes so to speak.
    Just wondering tho after reading this if I am being naïve (again!).

    1. J,
      I don't think there's necessarily a tried-and-true path. If you're both reading and talking and willing to examine what happened that led to the choice he made, then I'm not sure a marriage counsellor is what you need right now. And that's the key. It's always an option. I think IC would be advisable for him, given his consistent deception. And while you don't want to manage his recovery, there's certainly nothing wrong with including some form of support group as part of what you need to see in order to trust that he's doing everything he can to ensure accountability on his part.


  2. " In an age of Dr. Phil and the reign of social conservatism, people believe they need to find a therapist who will tell them they did wrong or defend them if they have been wronged. The therapist as judge and jury. That isn't good therapy. "

    I agree that people try to find someone to tell them they were right and the other was wrong...I don't agree that that's solely the purvue of "social conservatism" - her political bias is showing. I didn't think your political persuasion had anything to do with your risk of being cheated on.

    1. Anon, you don't seem to understand the nuance of what Elle is saying.

      Social conservatism is not a political point of view (FYI- political conservatism is Conservatism with a capital "C"), it is social/cultural one (lower case "c"). There is also nothing in Elle's article or on the site that says that your political persuasion has anything to do with your risk of being cheated on.
      However, it is absolutely true that one's cultural/moral value system does determine how you see and deal with infidelity.
      I agree that cultural conservative American values do seem to inform the way that our culture views infidelity (moralistically, right-wrong). This is very different from some other cultures where the way they view cheating and what they do about it is different--not that they do it better elsewhere, its just unlike the way we see it here. The point is that seeing infidelity as a black and white issue means that there is only one answer. Most of us here don't believe that.


  3. We finally broke down and scheduled our first appt. with marriage counselor who specializes in SA. This weekend was horrible for us with more trickle truth and learning about my WH's use of prostitutes in hotels while traveling. He recently took a trip by himself to LV where he picked someone up in a bar & back to room. I spent the weekend in shock, numb, then followed by rage and the most incredible pain.
    He said I now know everything and I do believe him because he actually confessed this latest info on his own during an intimate conversation. The previous info I had stumbled on or dug up.
    We realized after this that we need professional help as his web of lies & deceit has grown and I feel tangled in it. This 3 month period has been total hell and I just don't know where it will ever bottom out. But I know you all know what I'm talking about.

    1. J,
      Yes, I think I know better than most how terrifying that web of lies is. And while I think it's great that you've sought couples counselling, your husband really needs his own recovery too, ideally through a counsellor who deals with SA or a 12-step group. He needs someone to whom to be accountable, where he can speak freely about temptation and learn from others how to manage triggers. This is an arena you simply shouldn't be. You shouldn't manage his recovery nor should you be subject to some of the info that he needs to share.
      I do hope your therapist is good; however, because SA (even among so-called experts) is often misunderstood, I hope you'll ensure that your feelings are also being validated and heard.
      Keep us posted.




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