Save Your Marriage,
Starting Today

marriage counseling

Marriage Counseling for Affairs: Can it Make a Bad Situation Even Worse?

It happens every day: a spouse discovers their husband or wife is having an affair and starts Googling marriage counselors. They assume that if they can get (or persuade, or threaten, or force) their unfaithful spouse to attend couples counseling, everything will be better – their partner will become more honest, cooperative, committed and remorseful. They assume their partner will realize how badly they have hurt them and how wrong their actions were. They assume their partner will end the affair and stop seeing the other person so they can focus on saving the marriage.

A counselor’s office does not create a magical dome of honesty

But when it comes to assumptions, one quickly realizes they don’t always reflect reality. Too many betrayed spouses have discovered the hard way that a marriage counselor’s office does not create a magical dome of honesty or collaboration, and that counseling can come with some pitfalls, including some that can potentially make a bad situation even worse.

That’s because a surprisingly large number of cheating spouses whose affair has been discovered just aren’t ready to be honest or faithful.  Many will continue with the affair, whether openly or in secret. That means that spouses may have very different agendas going into the process. In unfortunate cases, an unfaithful spouse can use counseling as a way to buy time and cool down the situation while they continue to do what they are doing.

Many clients have said to me, “We went to counseling, but I found out that he was seeing her the whole time and lying to me and the counselor.” Unfortunately, the ongoing nature of couples counseling – appointments week after week – can provide the perfect cover for an insincere spouse to maintain an affair.

Although a betrayed spouse may assume that their unfaithful partner will realize the error of their ways and apologize in the counselor’s office, they may find that they are the ones apologizing as their partner uses the counselor’s office as a “safe place” to complain about the marriage: You never listened to me, you focused on the kids, you worked too much, you weren’t sexual enough. In the worst of cases, an unfaithful spouse may use this as justification for having or continuing the affair.

Cheating spouses may use different tactics to continue the affair

As many betrayed spouses can attest to, a husband or wife who has had – or is still having – an emotional or sexual affair can be very defensive and protective of that affair. When pressured to end it, they may fall back on any number of assertive tactics: anger, belligerence, threats of divorce or blame-shifting.

A cheating spouse may act as if they’re ready, at any moment, to storm out of the counselor’s office. This can put both the counselor and the other spouse in a position where they start tiptoeing around the unfaithful spouse and appeasing them, just so they’ll stay seated (and keep booking appointments).

Alternatively, the unfaithful spouse may take a softer approach. They may act confused or say they need time to figure things out. Because counseling often focuses more on individual needs than the needs of the partnership, a betrayed spouse may find that the counselor unfairly spends more time talking about their unfaithful spouse’s needs than the needs of the marriage. The case that springs to my mind was an unhappy wife whose husband had reconnected with an ex-girlfriend on social media. When his wife asked him to stop seeing her, he broke down in tears in the counselors’ office and said he “wasn’t sure” about his feelings for his wife, and even hinted at divorce. From what my client related to me, instead of representing the wife’s side of things, the counselor then wondered aloud whether it would be best for the marriage if he “explored his feelings” for the other woman.

Cheating spouses can create a dynamic where they are “in charge”

In a case like this, it may be that neither the counselor nor the betrayed spouse felt like they were able to reasonably challenge the unfaithful partner. That’s because some cheating spouses have a way of masterfully creating a dynamic where they remain in charge.

And to be honest, I understand how that can happen. Cheating spouses can be quite strategic in terms of what information they reveal, or how they present themselves and their feelings and behavior. And this doesn’t just happen in a counselor’s office. I faced it all the time in my mediation practice. It took me years to learn how to manage these folks and the situation in a way that was fair and balanced for both spouses.

Here’s a simple truth: if a person doesn’t want to be honest, they won’t be

Yet ultimately, it doesn’t matter how impartial or skilled a mediator, counselor or coach is. If an unfaithful spouse doesn’t want to end an affair, they aren’t going to end it. If they don’t want to be honest, they aren’t going to be honest. That’s just people. Infidelity is an inherently deceptive and self-focused event so this should not be surprising.

Still, if you’re a betrayed spouse and you want to attend couples counseling with your partner (providing they’re willing to go), and you’re willing to do a little homework and perhaps go through some trial and error, you may indeed find a counselor or coach who has the skills to manage your uncooperative other half, or at least not let them completely “take charge” of the proceedings. They’re out there, and many do wonderful work – in fact, some situations such as abuse, addiction, mental illness or emotional crisis will require a mental health professional, whether you see one alone or with your spouse. In terms of relationship progress, however, you’re likely to have far more of it if your spouse truly wants to be there and is ready to fully and sincerely participate in the process. Here’s a tip: if the two of you do book with a marriage counselor, always choose one who specializes in couples, rather than a generalist. You may also want to choose someone who is married themselves and who is old enough to have true life experience. Additionally, you may wish to hold off on purchasing any “package” counseling sessions before you’ve had at least a couple sessions with the counselor… you don’t want to add arguments about money to your arguments about your marriage.

In any event, for my part, I stopped seeing couples together in the office years ago. Why?  Because despite my partnership-focused marital mediation training and my years of experience, I just felt that I was still seeing too many unfaithful spouses who were simply not ready to be fully honest and/or end the affair, regardless of how hard I tried, or their partner tried, to get them there. It’s like the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I came to realize that betrayed spouses who were dealing with such partners needed a better, more realistic option and approach.

A “one spouse approach” may be better than a couples approach

That’s why I adapted my services into a “one spouse approach.” Because many unfaithful partners resist office visits – as well as honesty and ending the affair – I’ve found that, to put it plainly, there’s no point banging your head against a wall.

In my opinion, a betrayed spouse may improve their situation sooner by,  on their own, learning how to manage their spouse’s behavior and the infidelity itself with clarity and confidence. This prevents a bad situation from becoming even worse. You can move forward as a couple, even if you as the betrayed spouse need to take those first steps alone.

Yet that’s sometimes easier said than done. If you’re tired of the drama and frustration, and if this article has resonated with you, you may wish to review my online program for betrayed spouses. And if it’s not right for you, keep looking – you will find the approach and person that is. You have options, and you and your marriage are worth exploring them.


About Debra

Debra Macleod, BA, JD, is the creator of Marriage SOS™. She has served as an expert resource for major media around the world, from The New York Times and Entrepreneur to ELLE and Men’s Health magazine.