Treating Affairs in Couples with Gottman Method Couples Therapy

by Allen Shive, a Doxa counselor

Can couples heal their marriages after an affair? The answer is that they can and many times do. However, it takes work and recommitment. I recently attended a clinical training offered by the Gottman Institute called “Working with Infidelity in Couples Therapy,” and it offers hope and practical steps for couples who want to rebuild their marriage after infidelity. The framework for this rebuilding is known as the as the three A’s: Atonement, Attunement, and Attachment. 

The first phase, Atonement, may sound a little one sided and harsh, but it is a necessary first step if the marriage has a chance to heal. It does not focus on forgiveness. Instead, it is about the willingness of the partner who had an affair (PA) to acknowledge that their actions have betrayed and hurt their spouse. This phase is about transparency and accountability. The PA must be being willing to listen to the hurt their partner is feeling and answer their questions about the affair. Often the Hurt partner (HP) may have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including intrusive thoughts, hyper-vigilance, and negative thoughts, moods, and behaviors. This makes it important for a therapist to keep the process constructive to minimize the chance of worsening the HPs PTSD. This may include the therapist suggesting that the HP not ask detailed questions about the type of sex that occurred in the affair. Gottman does not recommend minimizing emotions but instead helping the HP see the difference between valid negative emotions and contempt for the PA. The therapist will then guide the HP to express these negative emotions without contempt.

Dissatisfactions in the marriage prior to the affair are not discussed at this point. This could take the focus off the PA who made a choice to betray their partner and lead to blaming the HP for the affair. At the same time it is vital that the therapist give both partners equal empathy and support in a non-judgmental manner. 

The Atonement phase can take a long time and should not be rushed. The HP may want to ask questions about the PAs affair on multiple different occasions. Often it takes time for the HP to fully realize what they do and do not want to know about the affair. It is important for the PA to answer the questions they are asked and do their best to hear how their actions hurt their partner. The more transparent the PA is, the more the HP has a chance to begin to heal from the betrayal. The HP must know that the PA is really trying to understand the pain they are going through. This stage is not about a quick “I’m sorry” and “Let’s just move on” from the PA. The HP needs time, consistency, and remorse from the PA. This stage can be painful but is totally necessary as part of a couple building a foundation for healing in their marriage. Like many things in life and marriage, it is difficult if not impossible to take the second step before completing the first one.

My next segment will discuss Gottman’s second phase, Attunement, where a couple learns to “tune in” to their partner’s wants, needs, and feelings. This phase helps a couple understand where they became disconnected and teaches them how to connect in a meaningful way that can lead to greater marital satisfaction.

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Allen Shive

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