The first question that comes up after a trust violation in marriage is: Do both partners need to come to therapy or just the person who violated the trust? Dr. Wall clears the air on this issue and describes the therapeutic process around trust issues.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to trust him again.

A wife after discovering her husband’s affair


This is a huge issue. While trust can be around any misrepresentation of the truth (lying about money, time, drinking, etc.), the most painful is around sexuality and improper boundary violations (too emotionally close) with the opposite sex (or to the same sex for those with same-sex proclivities). Pornography and an affair with a flesh and blood real person are the two most common trust issues I see in my therapy office, although in resent years I’ve seen a rise in the number of emotional affairs, that were strictly via email and chat rooms, where they never physically met. I’m getting more and more of these where the indiscretion occurred via MySpace and facebook encounters. I’m sure Twitter will be next.

If pornography is an issue, it is husband that is most of the time the one doing it. On internet chat rooms and facebook, it’s mostly wives. With flesh and blood affairs, it’s about even, though I seem to have more clients where the husband had the affair. I suppose women are more likely to bring their husbands to therapy than the other way around? The statistics that suggest that men have more affairs than women, I think, are a little entertaining: Who are the men having affairs with? Duh? How can we have statistics on affairs anyway? The whole nature of affairs is lying, so will people really tell you the truth in a survey?

For simplification, let’s say the person, who had the affair is A, and the person, who found out about the affair, is B, and the person, that A had an affair with, is C. In therapy I prefer to meet with both A and B together. The exceptions are:

– If A thinks that what A is doing is fine (I might be wrong for others to have an affair, but it feels so right for me.)

-A feels A is in love with C and can’t or won’t let go

-A is in the middle of A’s affair and B is not aware

-If the affair is ongoing, and A refuses to stop the affair

We can’t do marital therapy in the above scenarios. We can meet as a couple to discuss keeping the peace during this difficult time, but we’re not doing marital therapy, until the affair is 100% over (No contact, no emails, cell phone calls or texts. Nothing.). I liken marital therapy, when an affair is ongoing, to throwing a towel to someone who is drowning. Let’s get out of the water first.

If the affair is over, I prefer to work with the couple together to rebuild trust, because trust is a two-way street. When B discovers that A was having an affair, or was involved online, or whatever, that behavior devastates B. It will be virtually impossible for B to trust A without some guidance along the way even if A’s affair is 100% over. The hurt is too devastating, and the territory too painful, for them to even begin to know the way out of the wilderness. Often B get madder than a pistol, which is understandable, but we have to be careful here, because two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s understandable that B can’t sleep, that B is furious, that B thinks A must understand the seriousness of A’s offence, but if B takes revenge on A (cutting A off emotionally, kicking A out of the house, breaking up with A, making threats to break up with A, interrogating A, going through A’s cell phone and PDA and internet histories, etc., to spy on A, yelling at A, refusing to be sexual with A, fighting with A…) well then we have another issue.

I tell couples that if one of them violates trust with an indiscretion, which is a lack of self-control, and the other demonstrates a lack of self-control by having angry outbursts, then we have two people out of control. One of them is chopping down the relationship tree with an ax on one side and the other is chopping down the tree from the other side. They both need self-control.

I also tell them that the key principle in my therapy is taken from a verse in the Bible:

Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for.

Proverbs 16:6

(for a previous blog on this topic click here). Atoned means: Forgiven, let go, or covered. How that principle plays out in my therapy office is this: If we can stop hurting each other now, we can heal from the hurt of the past. One of the major reasons couples can’t heal from trust issues is that the current affair has caused a new hurt now. Fighting about the new affair leads to anger telling them to drudge up old hurts from the past. Reminding each other of previous hurts indicates to each other, that there is no forgiveness and that past hurts haven’t gone away. So old issues create a fresh wound, because, they just fought about it AGAIN today! When they fight about the past, the past becomes a new hurt in the present, over and over. This pattern can repeat again and again, and, eventually, if it goes on unchecked, the couple will wear each other out.

The affair is often treated the same way. Without marital therapy on this issue to clean out the wound and let it heal, couples are easily tempted to use the affair as a club for years in the future, whenever they fight about something ELSE. The affair never goes away, even though the affair has literally been over for years. This is NO WAY to live. This pattern has to be broken if the couple is to survive. Without some guidance to harness forgiveness and a generous spirit, many of these people divorce.

There are 3 issues we have to deal with in therapy when there has been a trust violation: helping A have appropriate boundaries, helping B heal, and helping the couple reinvent their relationship. In detail:

1) What led to A violating trust in the first place, how A can stop doing it, and not do it again and take care of A, so A will have healthier ways of coping with A’s problems. If B is ever going to trust A, B will need to be in therapy with A as we work together on these issues.

2) How is B going to heal from this violation? How can B understand this problem and make sense of it? How can A and B both be part of the healing process? How do they make peace with it, instead of nurturing resentments and anger? Both A and B need to be in therapy to deal with these issues.

3) How can the couple reconnect and heal and turn this negative into a learning experience, that brings the couple closer together, so that they can face the future together with confidence? Both A and B need to be in therapy to deal with these issues.

Unfortunately, sometimes the B insists A go to therapy alone. B may be tempted to think:

You were the one who had the affair orr messed around with porn, right? Why would I need to go to therapy? I didn’t do it.

But if B does not come along to therapy, B will have a very difficult time letting go, forgiving, trusting, healing and moving on. B needs to be part of the healing process, to hear and participate in the discussions. If I help A to learn to never do the behavior again and A becomes completely trustable, and B is NOT in therapy, B will NOT know A’s progress, and B will continue acting as if A did NOT change.

One of B’s biggest challenges is fearing the worse. If A lied about this and this and this, how does B know A is not still lying? B does not know and acts accordingly (emotional cut-off, angry outbursts, threats to leave, spying, and interrogating), creating new hurt and the hurt between the couple continues. So even though A has stopped the untrusting behavior, the couple could still self-destruct or if they stay together, miss out on a whole lot of blessing, because old wounds are not allowed to heal.

Did you follow all of that? Let me say it another way: B needs to hear what A did and felt and thought and what A is doing to take care of A, so that B can learn to trust A again and the couple can heal.

There is another reason B needs to be in therapy: A needs to hear of how A’s behavior has caused agony in B’s life. This will give A compassion for B’s sorrow and pain, which will help A fight future temptation. You can’t have an affair if you are thinking of how the affair will hurt your spouse. If you were thinking about that, you wouldn’t do it. An A will have an affair because A is thinking of A, not B! Affairs are very selfish. You can’t have one unless you are only thinking of yourself. This is why it is untrue when A says A loved C and that C loved A. It may have felt like love, but it was not love. An obsession maybe. A deluded feeling maybe, but NOT love. Love is sacrificial. Love does NOT seek it’s own. Love does NOT rejoice in wrong. A and C are NOT madly in love. They are MAD, but not “in love.”

So when A hears in therapy that what A did causes B such agony, it gives A reasons to never go back to the affair. This dialog helps A fight present and future temptation.

In a nutshell: Both A and B need marital therapy after an affair to put their relationship on a healing path. A needs to put the affair behind A and learn to cope with A’s problems in more healthy ways and to learn to keep appropriate boundaries with all of the potential C’s out there. B needs to learn to heal and deal with the anger and hurt and to trust A again. Both A and B need to learn to reconnect as a couple. This isn’t going to happen over night. It’ll take some work. But it is worth it in the long run. Often couples will tell me on their last session after we’ve worked through these difficult issues:

We wouldn’t wish an affair on anybody, but we ended up with a great marriage out of the deal and for that we are grateful.

Out of something bad, came something good.


Dr. Bing Wall is a marriage therapist with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.

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