When a couple comes in for help after discovering an affair I try to be reassuring and calmly lay out the structure of what needs to happen to ‘get over’ this crisis.
Couples need a path to visualize the end to this tumultuous period. I suggest they not make a decision to leave or stay; urge them not to decide, they are not in a position to make a decision, separate the affair from the divorce.
Task one is Reassurance. And it comes in the form of a promise: that you it won’t be like this forever. I don’t know where you will end up but what you will do in counseling is to hopefully give meaning to whatever happened. What you are going through is normal; it is in the nature of the beast. This is what people go through – read After the Affair by Janis Spring for more examples. Don David Lusterman recommends normalizing the flux of contradictory feelings. For example there may be a sexual hunger that is suddenly unleashed. Most clients are very uncomfortable talking about it. One partner is triggered by panic of loss and they’re talking more about their needs, unmet longings, than they have in years, and that is normal.
Then there are all those questions. The first question to be answered is “Should all questions be asked? Answered?.” I know you want to know this/this/this, take a moment and know there is a difference between wanting to know and knowing. People will ask questions and not be prepared to live with what they are going to be told. Esther Perel has said “They need someone to say to them, “I can see that you would want to know that; can you imagine yourself living the consequences of knowing? This is can give some space to consider and protect/care for themselves – containing their injured soul.
I do not rush in to ally with the person who is hurt. We don’t want to rush the process with empty answers about why a person did what they did. I acknowledge that there are two people here for whom the predictable future has been disrupted. They are in this together. Neither of them knows where this is going to go. Each one is anxious and restructuring the relationship. Each is anxious about being alone, anxious about the return of the old conflicts, anxious not only about how to get through this but whether they can do it together.