Affair Counseling

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.



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Attitudes on infidelity

It seems that our attitudes toward premarital sex and extramarital sex have an inverse relationship. The more we tolerate sexual activity before marriage, and people “getting it out of their system,” perhaps the less tolerant we become once one makes a commitment to be monogamous. In other words we feel entitled to sexual freedom before marriage because one day it must end.

The percentage of Americans who say adultery is “morally acceptable” has consistently remained below 10 percent. Yet when the French were asked about it in a 2009 poll, 46% said it was morally acceptable. In spite of this difference in attitude, studies have suggested that the actual rate of infidelity in the U.S. is very similar to that in France. So the level of acceptance of adultery is different, but the percentage of those who do have adultery is the same.

If you want to read more look at John Sides’ blog: “Americans Have Become More Opposed to Adultery. Why?

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Three Outcomes after Infidelity

In my experience there are three basic patterns in the way couples reorganize themselves after an infidelity– 1. they never really get past the affair, 2. they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and let it go, or 3. they leave it far behind.

In some marriages, the affair isn’t a transitional crisis, but a black hole trapping both parties in an endless round of bitterness, revenge, and self-pity. These couples endlessly gnaw at the same bone, circle and recircle the same grievances, reiterate the same mutual recriminations, and blame each other for their agony. Why they stay in the marriage is often as puzzling as why they can’t get beyond their mutual antagonism.

A second pattern is found in couples who remain together because they honor values of lifelong commitment and continuity, family loyalty, and stability. They want to stay connected to their community of mutual friends and associates or have a strong religious affiliation. These couples can move past the infidelity, but they don’t necessarily transcend it. Their marriages revert to a more or less peaceful version of the way things were before the crisis, without undergoing any significant change in their relationship.

For some couples, however, the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change. This outcome illustrates that therapy has the potential to help couples reinvent their marriage by mining the resilience and resourcefulness each partner brings to the table.


Originally published on, October 19, 2012

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A weekly sex prescription?

Stories about sex and couples in relationship always capture my attention and this is a good one. One caveat is that there is no ‘normal’ in terms of how much sex a couple ‘should’ be having… however, since sex is the one thing that distinguishes a roommate from a relationship it does need to be happening in some fashion at some frequency.

Couples often feel pressure to have sex as a box to check towards a happy relationship – pressure because it is difficult to fit in to two peoples’ busy lives even without the distraction of children in the home. A research study in Canada studying 2400 people in two different cohorts concluded that once a week is a reasonable goal to set to promote closeness. That’s not to say that if sex happens more than that it is weird – it’s just that any more than once a week does not measurable increase relationship satisfaction. Or in other words, it’s enough bang for the relationship satisfaction buck.

The point is made that a relationship between satisfaction and weekly sex does not mean it is causal – happy couples may just want to have sex more often. Sex is difficult to discuss even in our most intimate relationships. Sharing an article like this can start a conversation and better communication on an important topic so read it for a more in depth discussion!

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More about Boundaries 

All couples deal with boundaries: what is ok and what is not, what is individual, what is ours, and what is public. A relationship consists of roles and rules that we begin to enact at first meeting, so a couple is actually a complicated social system. What are we free to do alone and what do we share? Do we go to bed at the same time? Will we go to my family every Thanksgiving? Do we combine our finances? Whose name is on the deed? There are obvious boundary markers like wedding vows and implicit boundaries which are personal values. Tammy Nelson’s book The New Monogamy explains this very well.

Sometimes these boundary arrangements are talked about directly but usually couples use trial and error to work them out. we work out these arrangements head on, but more often we go by trial and error. Often we see how much we can get away with before activating the other.. “I thought that having lunch with ex-girlfriends was out?” “I thought we’d travel together.” Why don’t you want to stay over at my place?”

A look, a comment, a hurt silence are what we have to interpret. We figure out how often to see each other, how often to talk, and how much sharing is expected. We cull through our respective friendships and decide how important they’re allowed to be now that we have each other. We sort out ex-lovers—do we know about them, talk about them, stay friends with them on Facebook? Whether explicitly or subtly, we outline the boundaries of separateness and togetherness.

In today’s world the concept of commitment is more open to interpretation. So it’s important to have important conversations early in the relationship to confirm and agree where the lines are. These are typically uncomfortable especially because they usually occur when there has been a boundary transgression. So initiating a conversation ahead of time is the better way to go.

Relationship boundaries will come up through the life of the relationship and preferences change depending on life stage and age. It’s good to be flexible and expect that this is a work in progress – an ongoing discussion!



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Divorce from a child’s perspective

This is so poignant. A child asking her parents to be friends. She talks about wanting everyone to be steady, low, where her heart is. Such wisdom.

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Take personal responsibility for your relationship

Falling in love is a bit like losing yourself to somebody else. There is chemistry behind falling in love and it is shown that dopamine has a powerful impact on our brain and makes us feel like we are high on drugs.

Symbiosis is defined as “being dependent on one another”. In the initial infatuation stage of love partners feel naturally symbiotic and reassured that they think alike, feel alike and don’t need words to understand each other. Finally you’ve found that soulmate! As time goes on, this glory of being so alike gets trampled by real life experiences to that contrary which breeds colossal disappointment.

Knowledge of all of his negatives and the ways he doesn’t give you what you need and assumed you would get are interpreted as ‘not being in love anymore. The expectation that you can get all you need from your partner naturally doesn’t acknowledge that we are ultimately responsible for asking for what we want and need. Perhaps you’ve taken on an identity that you thought was the only way be in the relationship. Parts of yourself were suppressed and maybe true values got lost. “I’m more than you think I am!”

This is the key downfall of a symbiotic relationships. If you and your partner are no longer in ‘lockstep’ with each other then we think that something is fundamentally wrong. It is much more difficult to assert your needs and easier to turn away in disappointment. How do you ‘stand up for yourself’ in the relationship in the areas where you may have differences. It demands grown up skills in honest assertive communication (both listening and talking) and a lot of courage.

Make the implicit explicit and stop mind reading your partner. When you try to fill in the blanks about what your partner is thinking, you risk projecting thoughts and feelings that aren’t in any way coming from your partner. Making assumptions and drawing conclusions provides a false sense of control. Be assertive and ask what your partner is thinking before jumping to conclusions.

Talk like a grown-up. Intense negative emotions often result in impulsive and poorly thought out reactions. That child within us gets activated and much damage can come from words. If you need to clarify or communicate important thoughts, be sure to consider all aspects of reality, without blowing things out of proportion.

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What happens after being ‘in love’.

People usually nod their heads when considering the notion that the first and ‘in love’ stage of a relationship transitions to something else. Terry Real has said that this first stage is Love without Knowledge. Yikes ! How do you survive the Love With Knowledge stage to arrive at Knowledge AND Love?

This is not to minimize the first essential stage of In Love. Seasoned long term couples will say that the first years of romantic, passionate, intense fusing together is what helped them stay together through difficult times. Not everyone has that stage in their relationship and thus not much depth to tap into when challenges come. This process is  beautifully described by a character in Louis de Bernières’s novel “Corelli’s Mandolin”:

“”Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it. We had roots that grew toward each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.””

Now that is a beautiful picture.

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When baby makes 3

A new baby often results in a sexual dry spell for the parents that extends beyond the months it takes to recover from birth – in some cases, it can go years. But do children extinguish the flame of desire, or is it the adults who fail to keep the spark alive?

Here are five ideas to make space for yourself and your partnership, after the birth of your first child:

1.) Enlist your support group – friends/neighbors/peers

If you don’t live near your relatives (or your relatives aren’t able or willing to help with childcare), you need to create a family of choice. These are neighbors/friends/peers who can watch your children, and you reciprocate for them and their children, too. Avoid the callous atomization that American society puts parents in, and make this new experience as collective as possible. Having a family of choice to rely on will free you of feeling like the entire burden of responsibility for your little smurfs rests only with you. A larger support system also helps young parents have alone time.

2.) Stay out late.
Plan one curfew-free night every 6-8 weeks. Get a sitter or put the child to sleep at a friend or family member’s home (someone who won’t care how late you pick up your child). Go out all night and don’t worry about when you have to be back home. This gives you excitement for your outing and a glimmer of your past life. Just because your children have structured bedtime, doesn’t mean you have to live like that as well. Every once in awhile, go out and allow yourself to experience open-endedness that reconnects you to the sense of possibility and freedom.

3.) Make nice meals easier.

You don’t have to sacrifice those elaborate meals of pre child life. Shift cooking meals from a chore to a quick and lively part of your evening. Eat at home and eat together, but cook simply and as quickly as possible without being unhealthy.

  • Plan a prep day early in the week to prepare ingredients with your child. Rather than choosing between playing with your child or cooking, you can involve the children in the prep process. Give them safe little jobs like putting ingredients in bowls, tear lettuce for salads, etc.
  • If you use a nanny/babysitter, have that person shop for your groceries and prep them ahead of your arrival home for dinner. Make sure that the babysitter is there to help you — not only to play with your child.

4.) Prioritize alone time.

Make sure that each person in the couple has time to him/herself and commits to preserving some form of personal intimacy. Alone time is critical for an individual to feel complete.

5.) Break your routine and plan couple time, together.

The important word here is plan. Structure breeds freedom. Especially after the birth of your first child. This concept is often hard to grasp, since it’s the opposite of what you probably used to think. Make sure that the couple has time for itself, without the baby. Break the schedule that parenting has forced you into by planning together.

  • Schedule together time, in advance. Build anticipation and mystery around the activity itself. Anticipation is important, as it connects us to our imagination (the antidote to responsibility).
  • When you finally get out on that rare date night, do not spend the time talking about the children.
  • Do something new and different. Skip the typical movie night, and instead, plan an experience that’s new. Novelty breeds testosterone.

Plan together. For many couples, it helps if one person is responsible for the adult end of the planning (date night activities, researching vacations, booking reservations, etc.), while the other focuses on the kid’s end (reserving babysitters, packing overnight bags for the grandparent’s house, etc.). Systemic distribution; one partner holds vigil for the family, the other focuses on the couple. Remember how much you need each other, and practice being grateful for your complementarity. Be watchful not to blame your partner for not focusing on the the same important priorities as you.

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Using the CNI (Core Negative Image)

How to Break through your CNI

We talked about an intimacy exercise where each partner writes down the core negative image of the other. Then he/she writes down what their core negative image is of themselves. Compare the two and share in session.

  1. When your partner shares his CNI of you, listen with a healthy protective boundary. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing! Just take it in calmly. How is it similar/different to your self CNI assessment?
  2. There will be kernels of truth in what is shared. See those truths as behaviors only and resolve to change those behaviors.
  3. Reaffirm your self-esteem- not in a way that rebuffs taking in the truths. Reach inside and care for that soul within that is good and innocent.
  4. Notice when you complain – and resolve to change the way you communicate outwardly from complaint to request.
  5. Begin to listen with an open mind by putting yourself aside. Also put ‘objective reality’ aside as there is no such thing. Be curious about your partner’s experience. Is there any part of what they perceive that you can see as valid? All this with your protective boundary intact.
  6. Empower your functional adult. Feel the calmness in your body as you put aside reactivity.

Terry Real talks about these“Five Winning Strategies” in communication.

  1. go after what you want.
  2. speak to make things better
  3. listen to understand
  4. respond with generosity
  5. cherish what you have

And most of all, remember love. Just a slight and vague reminder that you do love this person can help reduce reactivity and soften the communication.

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