After the discovery of betrayal, trained therapeutic support can help you and your partner address what has happened and determine what is needed going forward. If you are dealing with sexual addiction, individual therapy rather than couples’ therapy is often recommended. This is because intense work and focus are needed to break through the cheater’s denial, to intervene on self-manipulation and gaslighting, to establish sobriety, to do relapse prevention planning, to prepare and give full therapeutic disclosure, and to begin to explore and heal the underlying wounds and issues that drive the addictive behavior.
As the betrayed partner, you also need individual focus in the beginning. At the very least, you need help managing your trauma symptoms, learning to identify gaslighting and betrayal blindness, managing crisis issues that have resulted from your partner’s acting out (financial, health, or family issues), establishing bottom lines and boundaries, and learning how to use your voice effectively and operate from a place of empowerment rather than powerlessness.
As you can see, there is lots of work to be done by both the cheater and the betrayed partner at the beginning of the healing process. And all of this needs to happen before the two of you can start to heal the emotional wounds created by your partner’s betrayal. That is why, early on, the emphasis is often on individual therapy rather than couples’ therapy.
That said, you are still a couple. Even if you are on the fence about whether you want to stay in the relationship long-term, you are with your cheating partner at the moment and you are trying to manage a relationship fraught with pain and turmoil as a result of your partner’s betrayal and lies. So you need support as a couple as well as individual support. Often, however, this piece is missing from the beginning stages of treatment, and, as a couple, you can be left without guidance.
Below, I’ve outlined five key tasks that your coupleship needs support around during the initial months of treatment. In my previous post, I talked about different ways to schedule this type of support. In this post, I’m focused on what you want to accomplish.
Task #1: Obtain Concrete Treatment Recommendations and Steps
When you first enter therapy, the first step in treatment is assessment. During this phase, the therapist uses different instruments and tools and talks with you extensively to determine what issues are present and need to be addressed. For those entering therapy after discovery of betrayal, part of the assessment should always include an evaluation to rule in or rule out sexual compulsivity because treatment for sexual addiction/compulsivity and treatment for an affair or non-compulsive sexual behavior follow very different trajectories. Determining which issue is present determines how treatment progresses.
Once the assessment is completed, a treatment plan and recommendations are presented to the client. At this point, having a couples’ session is important. This session should focus on sharing the treatment recommendations for both partners. If your significant other is dealing with sexual addiction, treatment recommendations may include things like individual therapy, 12-step meetings, group therapy, residential treatment, and an intensive outpatient program. If your significant other is not dealing with sexually compulsive behaviors, treatment recommendations are likely to include a combination of individual therapy to work on honesty and to explore what has been driving the cheating, and couples’ therapy to work on repair of the relationship (provided that is a goal of both individuals).
Regardless of what the recommendations are, this couples’ appointment allows you, as the betrayed partner, to hear an unfiltered version of your partner’s treatment recommendations. This eliminates the potential for gaslighting and also gives you an opportunity to ask questions so you understand what is required for healing. Recovery, especially early recovery, is demanding of time, energy, and money. Having a clear road map provided by your partner’s therapist can help you understand what is needed to undertake treatment and heal.
Task #2: Learn About the Cheating Partner’s Sobriety Definition and Provide Feedback
Whether your partner is dealing with sexual addiction or cheating without a compulsive component, defining sexual sobriety (the sexual boundaries in your relationship) is one of the first tasks of treatment. This work is done in individual therapy, and there are different methods and approaches. Once your partner has a clear definition of these sexual boundaries, it is time to have a couples’ appointment so these boundaries can be shared with you.
Because these boundaries form the sexual agreements within your relationship, they are something that both you and your partner need to agree on. So the purpose of this session is for your partner to share his/her sobriety definition with you and to ask you if the sobriety definition meets your needs for safety within the relationship. You can ask questions about anything you don’t understand and give feedback about anything that feels uncomfortable to you. The therapist(s) are there to help the two of you come to a place where sexual boundaries are clear and you are both comfortable with them.
One note on this appointment. If you have not yet had disclosure, your partner is going to want to present the sexual boundaries in a way is not triggering and does not get specific about behaviors. For example, a sexual boundary may be “no sexual contact with anyone outside of my marriage” rather than “no sex with sex workers.” Both of these provide a clear boundary, but the first one does so without getting into the specifics of the acting out behaviors.
Task #3: Share Your Bottom Lines and Boundaries With Your Cheating Partner
One of the first tasks you will do as a betrayed partner in therapy is to determine what your bottom lines are within your relationship. Bottom lines are exactly what they sound like. They are clear lines that cannot be crossed by your cheating partner if the relationship is to continue. These are behaviors you find intolerable. If a bottom line is violated, you will not be able (or want) to maintain your relational connection to your partner. Bottom lines are deal-breakers. They are the bright lines around behaviors that, if continued, will push the relationship beyond its breaking point. Boundaries are the actions you will take to protect yourself and keep yourself safe if bottom lines are crossed. You will work with your individual therapist to determine what your bottom lines and boundaries are.
Once you have a clear list of your bottom lines and boundaries, these will need to be shared with your partner. Your partner needs to know what these are. Sharing your bottom lines and boundaries is best done with therapeutic support so you and your partner can process any reactions and come to a place where both of you are clear about your bottom lines and boundaries.
Task #4: Agree to a Timeline for Disclosure and Communication Boundaries Until Then
One of the major tasks of early treatment is completing a full therapeutic disclosure. Disclosure is a facilitated, carefully prepared and supported process where the cheating partner gives the betrayed partner a complete and honest accounting of the cheating and lying that occurred. Preparing for disclosure takes time, as the cheating partner often has a significant amount of denial that needs to be intervened upon and cleared up before he/she can become fully honest about what has occurred. One thing that helps betrayed partners weather waiting for disclosure is being clear about the timeline for getting it done and knowing the cheating partner is willing and working on it.
The focus of this session is to discuss the timeline for completing disclosure and to establish a realistic and appropriate timeframe. Most cheating partners will need to work on preparing disclosure for 6 to 12 weeks (and sometimes longer) depending on the severity of the distorted thinking that blocks full honesty. Your partner’s therapist can provide an assessment of how long the preparation will take and help the two of you to agree on a timeframe.
At this appointment it is also helpful to agree on boundaries around trying to obtain more information before formal disclosure. This period of waiting can be difficult for betrayed partners who desperately want and need to know the full scope and depth of the betrayal. However, continuing to try to get information out of the cheating partner prior to therapeutic disclosure results in dripped out information accompanied by more lies. I call this “death by papercut” because that’s what it feels like for the betrayed partner.
As the betrayed partner, you need to remember that one of the biggest things your cheating partner is working on when prepping for disclosure is the willingness and the ability to become fully honest and transparent. If you keep pushing for information from your partner while your partner in still breaking through denial, you will inevitably experience more lying and gaslighting, which creates more trauma for you and damages your relationship further.
Thus, it is vital that you agree to boundaries around your own behavior while waiting for full disclosure, if only to protect your heart from further deceit and pain. So part of this session may include a commitment from you to not ask about the acting out, and to stop Sherlocking and trying to find more information. Instead, you will focus in your individual therapy on processing your emotions around what you already know. Processing what you already know is one of the best ways to prepare yourself for hearing new information. As you process what you know, it helps you develop strength, clarity, and resilience that will help you go through the disclosure process without incurring more trauma.
Task #5: Resolve Other Issues to Help You Stabilize as a Couple
As you continue through early treatment, there are other issues that may come up that you need support around as a couple. Below is a short list of some of the issues that often require a couples’ session of some sort to resolve and move forward around.
- Abstinence Contract – Some individuals dealing with sexual addiction are asked to go through a 90-day abstinence period where they are not sexual in any way, including with you. This of course involves you. Having a couples’ session to agree together to undertake this period of abstinence is vital. The last thing you need as a betrayed partner is your spouse coming home and announcing to you that they are doing 90 days of abstinence as part of their treatment. You need to be consulted and brought on board so this feels like a joint decision rather than a unilateral decision.
- Therapeutic Separation – Some couples need to separate for a period of time to work on the relationship without triggering one another into cycles of reactivity. This can be an in-house or out-of-house separation. Either way, if the goal is to separate to work on the relationship, it is vital that you have an agreement about what this separation will look like and how long it will last (or how long you will wait before revisiting the agreement). Most therapists have documents and tools to help you establish and conduct therapeutic separation. Working this out together as a couple with therapeutic support is necessary and important.
- Communication Boundaries – The weeks and months after discovery of sexual betrayal are fraught with conflict for most couples. The relationship is on the line, the pain is overwhelming for the betrayed partner, and both individuals are often operating out of their fear brains due to constant activation of the threat response systems. This is a recipe for high conflict with low ability to resolve issues. For a period of time, it is necessary to put boundaries in place about what, when, and how you will talk to each other about the betrayal. Working together as a couple with your therapist to agree to these boundaries is essential, as both of you need to be invested in stopping the cycle of distress.
- Manage Crisis Issues – Many couples are faced with significant crises as the fallout of betrayal surfaces. Crisis issues can range from health issues related an STI, to a financial crisis resulting from job loss or resources spent on acting out, to a family crisis resulting from a child being exposed to or discovering the acting out, to a legal crisis resulting from illegal behaviors, to a crisis resulting from discovering your partner has fathered or is pregnant with an affair partner’s child. Couples need support managing these crisis issues and determining the way forward.
- Handling Relapses or Slips – If the cheating partner has a relapse or slip in sobriety, the couple needs support determining how to handle what has happened, what adjustments to boundaries are needed, what changes in the level of support for the cheating partner are required, and, if bottom lines have been crossed, what next steps will be taken. Relapses and slips affect both individuals and the relationship, so they need to be addressed not only in individual therapy but in some sort of couples’ appointment.
My hope is that this blog post empowers you to advocate for what you need as a couple as you proceed through the initial phases of treatment. If you have felt siloed into individual therapy without guidance for your relationship, you can do something to change that. My hope is that after reading this post you have a better sense of what you need, not just individually but as a couple, and that you now know how to ask for those needs to be met.
About the Author:
Michelle D. Mays, LPC, CSAT-S is the Founder of PartnerHope.com and the Center for Relational Recovery, an outpatient treatment center located in Northern Virginia. She has helped hundreds of betrayed partners and sexually addicted clients transform their lives and relationships. Michelle is the author of The Aftermath of Betrayal and When It All Breaks Bad and leads the field in identifying and crafting effective treatment strategies for betrayed partners.
Braving Hope is a ground-breaking coaching intensive for betrayed partners around the world. Working with Michelle will help you to move out of the devastation of betrayal, relieve your trauma symptoms and reclaim your life.