Healing Wounds from Marital Infidelity Often Requires Years of Hard Work
Couples such as the Clintons who are trying to heal their marriage following an affair may take as long as two years to sort through painful emotions, recover from embarrassment and humiliation, and re-establish trust.
"Trust is based on positive predictability over time," said Dr. Pat Hudson, a marriage and family therapist in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. "These wounds heal slowly. It usually takes from one to two years of hard work to re-establish reliability and trust."
Healing a relationship also requires that both parties want to continue the marriage. "There are lots of reasons for hope that a couple can survive an affair," said Dr. Bill Doherty, Professor and Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota. "If they are committed to the relationship and to their children, and speak honestly with each other, the pain and humiliation will go away with time."
An affair can also serve as a "wake-up call" for many marriages. In fact, infidelity is so common that many couples will probably find themselves in the same boat as the Clintons at some point during their own marriages. One 1992 study found that 44 percent of husbands and 25 percent of wives had engaged in at least one extramarital sexual experience (Glass and Wright, Journal of Sex Research 29, 361-387).
"Couples who get professional help are more likely to stay together and often emerge with stronger marriages," Doherty added. "It takes a skilled therapist to help these couples work through their pain and trauma. A few heartfelt apologies and a few good talks are not enough. The injured spouse may need to talk about the affair many times and the unfaithful spouse may need to reveal additional painful information. A skilled therapist can provide a safe environment for such conversations."
Marriage and family therapists are especially trained and skilled to help couples who want to keep their marriages together. They are mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems, and licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples, and family systems.
"The most important thing for an injured spouse to remember is that the affair had nothing to do with them as a person," explained Doherty. "The infidelity is the total personal responsibility of the unfaithful spouse and must be seen in the context of that person's sense of entitlement or emotional problems."
Even so, some marriages will inevitably end following an affair. "In these cases, an affair is the final nail in a coffin after an emotional divorce has already taken place," said Doherty. "Usually the unfaithful spouse has someone waiting in the wings. The best we can do is help the family through the trauma of a divorce."
AAMFT is the national professional association representing over 23,000 marriage and family therapists in the United States and Canada. - Washington, DC - (August 26)