John and Shannon brought their tattered marriage to therapy, to see if they could salvage it from an affair. Right away, we discovered they had a deep habitual communication pattern. John had a veneer of sweetness that we decided to call the “chill dude.” He liked to maintain this state of seeming “easy-going,” which appeared flexible but was actually a defense—another form of rigidity. Meanwhile, Shannon’s nervous system ran hot. She functioned from a high-energy, high- productivity demeanor which her family referred to as “the boss.”
John’s “chill dude” triggered Shannon’s “boss,” and vice versa. He blamed her for being uptight. She blamed him for being immature and indifferent. They each stimulated disintegrating shame in the other. After arguments, they’d reinforce their own angry beliefs through the stories they’d tell themselves in their heads.
When Shannon’s world collapsed through her discovery of John’s two-year affair with their mutual friend, Robin, she entered therapy with me. She was reeling from the double betrayal and wanted to focus exclusively on her own healing. We set to work on emotion regulation, processing her trauma, rage, and grief, and recovering from her life-long kinship with stress.
“I’m committed to my own healthier future with or without John!” she declared, which was the wisest thing she could have done.
John also agreed to do some therapy with me. He was interested in healing his childhood wounds so that the emotional blocks from the past, which he suspected were getting triggered in his relationship with Shannon, could be resolved.
In time, they agreed to attempt couple therapy to see if they could save their relationship. A sequence of therapeutic changes was the key that unlocked the damage in their relationship and allowed a healthy bridge of attunement to grow between them.
Although counter-intuitive, the first step they needed was detachment. This was followed by a form of empathy called cognitive perspective-taking, which paved the way for the deeper exquisite empathy needed for actually healing trauma.
After a few weeks, Shannon’s calmer, detached demeanor was the first thing that helped them both. It changed the dynamic of their ordinary interactions. She had pulled back—to protect herself—and she was no longer “the boss,” but her genuine self.
Although deeply hurt, Shannon was respectful with John. The differences in her seemed to leave some room for John to feel remorse, and his “chill” warmed a bit. He wasn’t using any energy to defend or to hide as he had before, since now Shannon wasn’t blaming or criticizing him.
John was more comfortable connecting with Shannon. Meanwhile, he and Robin completely ended their affair, and after wading through a murky sea of complex grief in his personal therapy, John could reexamine the situation. He had a deep shift in perspective, felt used and betrayed by Robin, and regretted the affair that had wounded Shannon so completely and cost him so dearly.
Even though he was under tremendous emotional strain, if he were to salvage the marriage with Shannon, it would be essential that he be able to listen well and actually empathize with Shannon by adopting her perspective.
And, even though she was essentially blameless in the situation, Shannon was willing to own her part in some factors in their relationship that had made John unhappy.
What he’d done about his unhappiness was never okay. They were perfectly clear on that. But she wanted to extend empathy to him, as well, and this helped them both. She owned that she’d been preoccupied with the kids and work and had taken him for granted; that she hadn’t put any effort into their relationship for a long time.
This didn’t level the playing field, but it did offer an opportunity for connection. It was Shannon’s way of reaching out to him, a reach in his direction.
If they were each able to share in the others’ experiences, needs, and desires, they might be able to create the emotional bridge needed to cross back over to a committed marriage.
We processed their most painful issues together, and slowed all of these important conversations way down, allowing them to reflect and resonate with the emotions of the other. It was important that they take the time to deeply validate the feelings they heard because that process stimulates cognitive perspective-taking, a very important part of empathy.
After the first few couple sessions, I had John interview Shannon. I wanted him to stay open and genuinely curious to learn how Shannon was doing. He needed to slow his brain and keep his natural defenses from rising so he wouldn’t emotionally flee and put on the mask of the “chill dude.” I reminded him to start with learning her feelings first, before getting the whole story. That would help him stay open, curious, and nondefensive.
He leaned over toward her and looked into her eyes. “Can you tell me the feelings you’ve been having since you found out I cheated?”
She looked up at him from the feelings chart in front of her. “This is going to be a lot, I hope you’re ready!” she exclaimed.
A little smile of shared sadness passed between them, and she softened. Her feelings of betrayal trauma poured out, and he patiently reflected them all back to her.
She then narrated the account of her discovery of the affair, and he responded by mirroring it all back to her slowly, checking to see if he got the details of her experience correct.
If she was ever going to trust him again, Shannon needed to see him fully engaged — emotionally and cognitively — with her experience.
At one point, she stopped and asked him how he was feeling.
He glanced at a feelings chart. “Fragile,” he answered. “But not that fragile. It hurts, but let’s keep going.” He softened and soothed, so he could stay present as his genuine self.
“Okay,” she agreed.
“Tell me more,” he said until she was finished, and he’d reflected it all back to her with loving kindness.
John heaved a full breath and paused, with eyes closed. Then his gaze reconnected with Shannon’s, and he said, “I know I did this to you. I don’t know where my head was at. Obviously not connecting to you like this. And I’m so sorry. You never deserved this.”
“I can’t make it up to you,” he continued. “All I can do is tell you how much I want to be with you now. I’m really feeling hopeful that we can love each other again, if you’ll have me.”
Through tears, she nodded “yes.”
He continued, “I know it’s going to take time for us to fully reconcile, but I owe you that time. I am all in. I’m not going anywhere.”
While Shannon longed for a new, whole-hearted commitment from John and accepted it, when offered, she would also need to continue to process the trauma of John’s betrayal to piece together her fragmented sense of the timeline from the past two years. This helped her clarify her feelings about the relationship and determine what changes she needed if things were to move forward.
At the same time that he witnessed healthy changes in Shannon, John also saw the scars that his betrayal had left on her. When she reached out for him, they both had to acknowledge her worry and insecurity.
She had to confide to him that she needed him to check in with her or disclose where he’d been, what he was doing on his phone, or what he’d spent money on. John willingly did these things because he understood he needed to be an open book for Shannon if she were ever to trust him again. The trauma of betrayal wounded her brainstem, giving her a form of PTSD, which could heal in time if he was consistently transparent with her.
Exquisite Empathy and Memory Reconsolidation
In order to stimulate deeper empathy between them, I had them voice what they imagined their partner was going through—and how they would feel if roles were reversed. In using their imaginations this way, they were engaging in a complex interplay of neural networks allowing them to experience exquisite empathy. This solidified the connection upon which they could continue to build their relationship bridge.
Through this process in therapy, each partner became a safe support to the other, where once they had been the source of their partner’s pain. The deeper listening conversations I was able to facilitate between them did reactivate painful memories in the present moment, but through a therapeutic process of memory reconsolidation, built upon exquisite empathy, true healing happened in this couple. Their old painful memories were now paired with the new experience of loving attentive care from their partner.
In therapy together, they each experienced a mismatch between their expectations from old patterns and this new exquisite empathy. Shannon once assumed John’s “chill dude” would continue to be untrustworthy and would refuse to commit to her, while John had expected that her “boss” would perpetually blame and criticize him. When neither of these old patterns reappeared, and they met instead with the very safe supportive love they longed for from the other, old triggers stopped firing in their brains. New bridges of deeper bonding were literally built through the loving surprise of new firing and rewiring in their nervous systems.
As they repeated these experiences by turning towards one another frequently, processing everyday arguments in healthier, more supportive ways, and giving one another positive reminders of their loving presence, the bridge of attunement was reinforced and strengthened.
So many factors contribute to recovery from an affair, and not every couple is able to reconcile as well as John and Shannon. Both of them did significant individual therapy to bring growth and healing changes to their own parts in the relational rupture. And most importantly, they each genuinely desired to stay together.
Now, for John and Shannon, the affair is not only in the past, but has been integrated into their shared story. They can each describe how it devastated their marriage, and then how together they rebuilt a stronger, more intimate relationship. John Gottman’s book What Makes Love Last describes research on betrayal in a relationship, as well as steps a couple can take to heal from the trauma of betrayal.