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!