There is a question that comes up often from betrayed spouses after discovering an affair and that is, “Should I go to therapy with my partner if he (she) hasn’t ended his (her) affair yet?”
In our opinion, the short answer is no.
There are many different aspects of what makes for good therapy and two of those aspects are commitment and focus. So if you have a situation where the affair has not ended, it’s questionable as to the level of commitment and focus of both parties, especially the unfaithful partner.
There are a myriad of questions and issues that come to mind in this scenario:
How in the world can the unfaithful be committed to fixing their marriage if he/she is still involved in an affair? Is the unfaithful partner using therapy to compare the betrayed partner with the affair partner?
Certainly, wondering what’s really going on in the unfaithful partner’s mind when he or she has not yet made the decision to end the affair raises considerable problems in therapy if it were to continue that way.
If the affair has not ended there can be a power imbalance in therapy. What we mean by that is if the cheater has not ended the affair, he or she believes that they are desired by both their spouse and the affair partner (whether true or not) and this creates a power imbalance in terms of the way that person will conduct himself or herself in therapy. An imbalance in the distribution of power can create disrespect and passive-aggressive behavior.
The betrayed spouse and the unfaithful spouse may have different goals which are not compatible with one another. If the affair has not ended, the unfaithful partner may agree to therapy solely to show the betrayed partner “Hey, I tried. It’s not working, and we have to end the relationship.” So in their mind…at least they tried, when in effect, are they really trying if they haven’t ended the affair?
Meanwhile, the betrayed has completely different goals for therapy. Therapy may provide a safe setting where he/she can air their grievances and express how they’ve been hurt by the affair. They can explore what went wrong in the relationship and what emotional and psychological dynamics were at play that led to the affair. And ultimately, their goal may be to save the marriage or at least determine if it can be saved.
The therapy may provide a smokescreen of sorts for the unfaithful partner. In other words, it can be a deceptive tactic on the part of the unfaithful to make the betrayed partner think that the affair is over and he/she now wants to work on the relationship.
So these are just a few reasons why we say proceeding with couple therapy in most cases is probably not a good thing if the affair has not ended. If it has not ended, what is the couple working towards?
Seek Individual Therapy Instead
A better avenue might be to instead look towards individual therapy. The betrayed should consider individual therapy at the very least to help them get a handle on the painful emotions and feelings and to come up with a plan for personal healing.
For the unfaithful spouse, individual therapy can help them get to a point where he or she has worked through all the issues and is able to make a very definite decision that “Yes. I want to end the affair and work on this relationship” or “I want to continue the affair.” In this case the couple should really start to consider the possibility of ending the relationship.
Once the decision is made about what to do with the affair – end it or continue it – things become a lot clearer. So if the decision is to end it, then of course they can proceed to couples counseling to deal with all the aspects required for recovery, healing and rebuilding of the marital relationship.
If the decision is not to end the affair, then the individual therapy should probably continue so as to help the betrayed partner (it’s doubtful the cheater would want to continue individual therapy at that point) to address their own personal issues and work towards their own recovery and healing.
Although there is value in the cheater attending more therapy as well, they’re very often in the fog and of the mind that they believe the reason for their affair is best explained in terms of what the betrayed partner didn’t do to meet their needs instead of looking at themselves and asking “What’s wrong with me? Why did I have an affair?”
At this point, looking at themselves and understanding themselves, and understanding their behavior and the choices they make absolutely would be fantastic, but not necessarily likely to happen.
If you can think of any additional reasons why therapy is not a good idea while the affair continues – or, if you feel therapy is indeed a good idea even if the affair is still going on – please share your thoughts in the comment section below. Please also feel free to share any relevant personal experiences. Thanks!