There is far more that should be said about counseling after an affair than can be said in an article like this. In this article, we will examine four common pitfalls that frequently interfere with the effectiveness of Christian counseling and pastoral care.
Understanding these pitfalls should provide two advantages to our care. First, it will help us recognize and respond more wisely to the junctures where these pitfalls emerge. Second, it will help us speak to key fears the couple – especially the betrayed spouse – may have about Christian counseling or pastoral care.
Enrichment vs. Restoration Counsel
We need to be able to differentiate at least three types of marital counseling.
- Marital Preparation – this is counsel for engaged couples to learn what marriage is like and how to navigate common challenges they are likely to face.
- Marital Enrichment – this is counsel for a couple whose marriage is functioning relatively well but can be refined. This counsel focuses on making a good marriage better. Think of this like getting an oil change, tune up, or brake replacement for your vehicle.
- Marital Restoration – this is counsel for a couple whose marriage is broken and needs fundamental changes. This counsel recognizes the level of dysfunction that exists in the marriage and prioritizes its care in light of this recognition. Think of this like getting a new transmission.
When adultery is impacting a marriage, this requires marriage restoration-level counsel. Too often, Christian friends, pastors, or counselors offer enrichment level advice. Regular date nights, learning what is most meaningful to each other, resolving conflict constructively, and comparable goals are enrichment level counsel. Are these things good? Sure. But this kind of counsel is like the mechanic who says, “If you had gotten regular oil changes, you wouldn’t need this new transmission.” Even if it is accurate, getting regular oil changes now doesn’t repair the blown transmission.
Sometimes the unfaithful spouse will make a litany of promises about engaging in enrichment-level marriage activities as the “answer” to their sin. This is an attempt – whether intentionally manipulative or not – to address a restoration grade problem with an enrichment grade solution. It is not adequate to address what is broken in the marriage after adultery.
Often, because Christians are fond of marriage enrichment events, we can be prone to offer this level of advice. It is what we know. We’ve heard it be supported by the Bible. We hosted a speaker who said these things at our church. It seems helpful and, “It can’t hurt, right?” For enrichment level problems, it [whatever the enrichment-level advice may be] is probably helpful for many healthy marriages. But for marriage restoration level problems, it is like trying to resolve a flooded basement with a roll of high absorbency paper towels.When adultery is impacting a marriage, this requires marriage restoration-level counsel. Too often, Christian friends, pastors, or counselors offer enrichment level advice. Click To Tweet
To avoid this pitfall, clarifying the difference between enrichment and restoration focused counsel should be made early in the counseling relationship. The goal is to get to the point where marital enrichment advice is situationally appropriate again. In the same way that after surgery, the goal is to be able to go the gym again. But there is a time period when you don’t carry anything heavier than a gallon of milk. To get to where you want to be, you must honor the phase of recovery you are in.
“We Don’t Know What We Know.”
I don’t like making always and never statements. But I have never been involved in a situation where the initial disclosure or discovery of an affair revealed all the relevant or necessary information. Inevitably, the question will be asked, “Have you told me everything?” and the answer will be, “Yes.” But this is rarely, if ever, true.
For the first few sessions, I am prone to say, “I know this is annoying, but I will say it many times: at this juncture, we have to assume we don’t know what we know. We have to assume more, and different information will come to light.” Building counseling progress on incomplete information is like building a house on a cracked foundation. You can get started, but the work will be wasted.
For this reason, the early sessions of counseling after the discovery of adultery are focused on triage and gathering information. There is plenty of triage work to do: discerning what to say to the children or close friends, identifying key support and accountability people, thinking through imminent schedule changes, and beginning the process of information gathering and verification.
In the G4 False Love and True Betrayal studies, this phase culminates in the “full disclosure” exercise at the end of Step 2. Until new information is not coming in and existing information has remained consistent, then the initial counsel is usually focused on stabilization and crisis management.
After something like the full disclosure exercise has been done, then a statement like this is helpful,
“We are about to enter a new phase of counseling. One where we shift our focus from stabilization to making progress towards possible marital restoration. [To the unfaithful spouse] Is there any information you are withholding? You would know if there was. If new information comes out after this point, it would be another major breach of trust. [To the betrayed spouse] Are there any factual questions that still linger? Now would be the time to muster the courage to ask them.”
In this same vein, it is important to differentiate information that came to light via discovery versus disclosure. Information is only disclosed if it is voluntarily confided prior to it being found out. Information that comes to be known through another means is discovered. Often, several meetings into counseling the unfaithful spouse will begin to speak of “discovered” information as if it were “disclosed.” This is an appeal to a false basis for trust. In caring for a couple after adultery, keeping up with what information comes to light via discovery versus disclosure is an important part of helping to ensure the integrity of the restoration process.
Often the unfaithful spouse will come across as relatively cold towards or unphased by their sin, even if they are distraught about how they have hurt their spouse. When this occurs, it is a combination of bewildering and infuriating to their spouse. One dynamic that accounts for this is the difference in tenure of awareness about the affair by the two spouses.
One way to describe this is that each spouse began a version of the grief response at different times: the unfaithful spouse when the affair began and the betrayed spouse when the affair was discovered. Another way to say this is that the affair is “old news” to the unfaithful spouse and “new news” to the betrayed spouse. To illustrate the journey of the unfaithful spouse with the affair, let’s walk through the grief process from their perspective:
- Denial – Not wanting to acknowledge that the inappropriate relationship is becoming an emotional affair. “We’re not doing anything wrong. We’re just friends. I would never let it become anything more.”
- Anger – A sense of self-condemnation each time they realize things have taken another step in the direction of “too far.” “I can’t believe we [line crossed]. I’m such an idiot.”
- Bargaining – Trying to convince themselves that they won’t do “that” again or won’t let the relationship cross another line in the progression of infidelity. “Can’t undue what’s been done. Just have to make sure I don’t make things worse.”
- Depression – The sense of guilt and that life is irrevocably changing. The rising despair feeds the sense that there is “nothing left to lose” by continuing the affair. “I feel so bad every time I come home to my spouse and kids. It feels like I’m an actor in a play I don’t want to be in.”
- Acceptance – The longer they get away with adultery, the more they think “this might actually work.” It is during this phase that the unfaithful spouse gets sloppy in their cover up and suspicion begins to arise in the faithful spouse. This is the phase when the faithful spouse begins their grief journey.
Now, the journey of the faithful spouse. For the purposes of this article, first two phases of the grief journey are most important, because they capture the dynamic we are trying to illustrate.
- Denial – Initially, the faithful spouse wants to give the benefit of the doubt; believing their partner is “just stressed” or they’ve hit a normal marital rut. They think the right thing to do is “believe the best.”
- Anger – Eventually, the truth becomes evident and is met with righteous anger. The “heat” of the faithful spouse’s anger phase parallels with the “coolness” of the unfaithful spouse’s acceptance phase.
- Bargaining – This is all the futile plans that run through the mind of the betrayed spouse as they try to figure out a way to make things “better” again.
- Depression – The sense that things are irrevocably broken. There is no way to make the sad things untrue. The reality of the affair will be a permanent part of their life story.
- Acceptance – This is the stage where the faithful spouse quits fighting against the past and begins to pursue whatever version of the future that is chosen.
This dynamic merely recognizes that this couple has been living in two different stories for quite some time. This is what lies do. The disruption of lies far exceeds the introduction of false facts. Now that both spouses are sharing the same information, they are beginning the process of joining each other in the same story again. But the unfaithful spouse has been living in this now-shared story for much longer. Hence, it is often less emotionally disruptive for them and they come across as cold or indifferent towards what they have done.
This dynamic also accounts for why the triage and information gathering phase of counseling is necessary after adultery. This early part of counseling serves as an acclimation period for both spouses to enter the same story, with the same information again. This acclimation period is beneficial for both spouses.
For the unfaithful spouse, it provides:
- An opportunity to see that the affair was a fantasy. It never had to bear the weight of real life.
- An opportunity to be fully known, so “if he/she knew” doesn’t fuel a sense of futility toward wholesome choices.
- An opportunity to repent and begin to experience real change.
For the betrayed spouse, it provides:
- An affirmation “I’m not crazy. Something really was going on.”
- The information necessary to decide about the future of the marriage. That is an open-ended choice for the betrayed spouse. The cooperation and honesty of the unfaithful spouse during this time is usually the best predictor of what the future of the marriage would be like.
- The benefit we will discuss in pitfall four…
The final pitfall has to do with the question, “What good comes from talking about the history of the affair?” Often the unfaithful spouse will construe their resistance to talking about the affair as if that is a virtuous form of care, “It will only hurt my spouse to know what happened. I don’t see any good coming from it.” This maneuver portrays the betrayed spouse’s questions and inquiries of the counselor as unreasonable and cruel.
I have found the following metaphor to be one of the most impactful for couples who engage the restoration process.
“Imagine each of our lives is like a book. Each day as we live, we record the events of that on the pages of our memory. Then, when one spouse has a secret affair and it comes to light, we realize chapters of our book have been ripped out and replaced with pages we don’t know. How scary and disorienting is it when we don’t know our own story? The longer the affair, the more chapters that have been ripped out and replaced. We review our past, not like a movie we’ve seen a dozen times, but like a suspense movie we’re watching for the first time.”
Even when the unfaithful spouse is resistant to meaningfully engage counseling, saying something like, “I’m just here so we disrupt the children’s lives as little as possible,” this metaphor is helpful for trying to garner engagement that is beneficial for the betrayed spouse. Even if the unfaithful spouse abandons the marriage, it is hard to argue that the decent thing to do is allow the faithful spouse to know their own story; not leave them in suspense about what was really going on for a significant part of their life story.
More often, however, this metaphor reframes the full disclosure exercise. Seen in this light, the full disclosure exercise is not punitive towards the unfaithful spouse, it is nurturing towards the betrayed spouse. During this discussion, the question often emerges, “How much detail is beneficial?” This is natural, as most of us think about the act of sex as the key part of an affair. But, with reflection, you realize the lying, cover up, and false living are the most important parts. This article provides guidance on the question details.
Is there more that could and should be covered to provide a comprehensive approach to counseling adultery? Absolutely. Our goal was merely to identify four common pitfalls and help you avoid them as you come alongside a couple in crisis. If you wanted to grow further in this area, I would recommend the False Love and True Betrayal studies, as well as the book Unfaithful by Gary and Mona Shriver.
This article was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar “Counseling a Couple After an Affair” The webinar will be Thursday April 15th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.
These are great events for:
- Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
- Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
- Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
- Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
- Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times