If your marriage has experienced infidelity, be intentional about finding an affair recovery specialist.
by Tim Tedder, LMHC, NCC
Imagine a man with high blood pressure being hit by a truck while crossing a street. He smashes to the pavement, broken and bloodied, and a nearby doctor rushes to his aid. The doctor quickly assesses the situation and then exclaims, “Man, you’re in poor health. You need to eat better and work out more!”
Ridiculous? Sure. But I’m surprised at how many times a couple in crisis will come to me and tell me essentially the same story about their previous counseling experience. Even though they had just experienced the trauma of an affair, the counselor spent one or two sessions asking questions about their condition and then began to focus on issues like communication and conflict resolution. In fact, some counselors went so far as to tell the couple that it would not be beneficial for them to focus on the affair.
And so the couple tried to do what they were told.
They struggled to practice the fundamentals of a healthy relationship while their marriage continued to bleed out. When I hear stories like these, I am infuriated because I know someone failed to give the help they needed. Focusing on relationship basics is certainly an important part of the counseling process, but only after a couple is stable enough to do so.
Why do some counselors deal so poorly with affair issues? I assume that most of them just are not knowledgeable enough or comfortable enough with such messy situations. They turn so quickly to the basic skills because they feel more confident in these areas. But their effectiveness is usually no better than a doctor who prescribes blood pressure medicine to an accident victim without treating his wounds.
Here’s what one client had to say about her initial counseling experience:
“The first counselor I went to really confused me. She wanted us to process the whole affair in one or two sessions. Then she seemed to place all the responsibility on me. She said I needed to forgive him right away in order for our marriage to heal. It felt like I was being asked to ignore all the pain and confusion I was feeling.”
If your marriage needs a tune-up, then most counselors are going to be able to help you find your way to a more satisfying relationship. But if it has experienced a trauma, be more intentional about finding a therapist who has expertise in the area of affair recovery. Make sure the wounds have been treated before you return to the “diet and exercise” of your relationship.
Comments from Other Authors
In her book, Not “Just Friends”, Shirley Glass lists the following guidelines for assessing whether or not you have the right therapist for your situation. Is your counselor…
- Lacking in direction? Are things improving, or do you feel hopelessly stuck? If stuck, are you gaining insight into the reasons? Does your counselor sit back and listen, or does she/he provide structure and direction?
- Judgmental? Does your counselor let personal values dictate their counsel? Is your counselor either adamantly against divorce under any circumstances or strongly opposed to remaining with an “adulterous” partner?
- Minimizing? Does your counselor dismiss the pain of the distress partner, insisting that he/she move on? Are emotional problems viewed as overreactions?
- Unwilling to focus on the affair? Is your counselor uncomfortable with the betrayed partner asking questions about the affair? Are they willing to walk with you through the processing of information, or do they want to move on to “working on the marriage” instead of focusing on the affair?
- Blaming? Does your counselor focus on either partner as being the cause of the affair, blaming them for what happened? Does she/he attack rather than encourage insight by exploring the reasons for the affair?
- Impatient? It takes many months to rebuild a relationship after an affair. Your counselor should not be encouraging you to quit the process early on just because you don’t feel in love, or aren’t happy, or your needs aren’t being met, or because you’re only doing it for the sake of the children. These are all common feelings, but a good counselor knows that their permanence cannot be determined until enough work is done over time.
Finding an Affair Recovery Specialist: Questions to Ask
If you need help with affair recovery, here are some important questions to ask a potential counselor:
- How long have you been counseling?
- Faith-based or faith-independent counseling? If either of these is important to you, ask the counselor if he/she brings any particular faith-based perspective into their counseling.
- What are your areas of focus? Ask this before you tell them what you need. That way, you’ll get a more realistic perspective of their expertise.
- Do you do counseling for affair recovery? If so, can you give me an idea of your approach to helping clients work through affair recovery? Pay attention here. If a counselor spends 1 or 2 sessions on the affair and then wants to move on to “regular” marriage or individual counseling, you likely will be frustrated with them.
Please share your experiences with finding an affair recovery specialist. Did counseling eventually help you and your spouse properly address the affair issues? Why or why not?
Tim Tedder, LMHC, NCC
Tim is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Nationally Certified Counselor with a passion for helping couples in crisis.