Note: This was originally published at PESI-UK. You can read the original blog here.
What are the tasks for couple therapy in the wake of infidelity? How can we help clients to recover from betrayal trauma and move forward together? And what do ‘new monogamy contracts’ have to do with it? Ahead of PESI UK’s Women’s Trauma Summit this week, leading sex therapist and author Tammy Nelson outlines the crisis, integration, and vision stages of this work in the light of a cultural shift from morality to transparency.
Couples who have worked through infidelity and tried to recover can have a difficult time moving forward. They can get stuck in the betrayal trauma of an affair. Betrayal trauma is when feelings and the story of the wound leave ongoing symptoms of trauma in one or both partners. These symptoms can include intrusive thoughts, bad dreams, somatic rigidity, pleasure denial, rejection of intimacy, guardedness, isolation for protection, and other fight, flight, freeze, and fawn or faint behaviors.
The unique dynamics of a post-infidelity relationship may show symptoms that persist unless and until the couple can work through the three stages of recovery – the crisis, the integration, and the vision stages. Until then, the trauma tends to keep the relationship stuck in its betrayal narrative, leaving the couple bound in their struggle to find trust and to move on to a better future.
In the crisis phase or the acute phase, the discovery or disclosure of an affair means that sudden or acute emotions can flair up and activate feelings that may persist into extended or enduring emotions, or can give us information about past traumas and partner selection. We can focus in this phase on settling each partner’s nervous system and taking a systemic approach to assessment and evaluating risk to the family and to the couple.
The integration phase of treatment is the deepest phase of therapy, where the narrative of infidelity is explored and understood. With each new insight, there can be a shift and new wiring happens as the story shifts from what happened to why it happened. The goal is not forgiveness here, but rather empathy.