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Marriage Counseling for Affairs: Can it Make a Bad Situation 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. They assume their partner will become more honest, cooperative, accountable, 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. They assume, and they hope, that the counselor will make all of this happen.

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 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, those weekly appointments, 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 can create a dynamic where they are “in charge”

As many betrayed spouses can attest to, a husband or wife who has had, or is still having, an emotional or physical affair can be very defensive and protective of that affair. When pressured to end it, they may fall back on belligerence, threats of divorce, blame-shifting and more.  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, an insincere unfaithful spouse may take a softer approach by saying they’re unsure of their feelings or they need time to figure things out.  And since counseling and psychotherapy tend to focus on the individual, this can potentially derail resolution of the marital conflict: the betrayed spouse may find that the counselor starts spending more time talking about their unfaithful spouse’s needs than the needs of the marriage. There is an imbalance. The accountability that an unfaithful spouse must accept dissolves into a discussion about the unfaithful spouse’s childhood, or is explained away by a theory or an internal struggle of some kind.  These may indeed factor into some cases, but they can also be used as excuses, and it is unfair to a betrayed spouse to disregard this.

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 counselor’s 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 unresolved feelings” for the other woman.  This, even though this couple had young children at home.

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 when that happens, the betrayed spouse is denied the kind of forthright guidance they need to deal with the infidelity, and their spouse’s insincere or untrustworthy behavior, in a real-world way.

Yet 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 this challenge 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 I felt was reasonably 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.  Similarly, if a spouse doesn’t want to be held accountable for their actions, they will find a way to excuse them or complicate matters or blame their partner. They may try to get a counselor “on their side” in their efforts to do these things.  Couples often say they fight in the car on the way home from the counselor’s office, and these are some of the reasons why.

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 will likely find a counselor or coach who has the skills to manage your uncooperative other half, or at least not let them control the proceedings. They’re out there, and many do great work. And of course, some situations (e.g. abuse, addiction, mental illness, severe emotional distress or cases where crisis intervention is indicated) will require the help of an in-person mental health professional (among other resources), 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.

A few tips:

This seems a good place to offer a few tips for those who do wish to book with a marriage counselor. I highly recommend you choose someone who specializes in marriage counseling and only sees couples. This is not the time to take your chances with a generalist. You may also want to choose someone who is married themselves and who is old enough to have true life experience. And don’t hesitate to ask about their method, how many sessions a course of therapy typically entails, what it costs, whether there is a religious aspect, and so on. You are paying for a service, and you have the right to ask these things.

As your course of counseling or therapy proceeds, make sure you’re comfortable with the direction it’s taking. For example, if you believe you, your spouse, or your issues are being needlessly pathologized, or if your issues are being overcomplicated or blurred, or if you feel the counselor is becoming biased or not offering strong practical guidance, it may be time to try a different practitioner. It’s okay to shop around. What one practitioner can’t do, the next one might be able to do very well.

(And just an aside here about individual or personal support. Every person and situation is unique: many betrayed spouses turn to their family, friends, and social circle for support, while others prefer a counselor, spiritual advisor, or even an in-person or online support group. Regardless of who you turn to, if you do discuss the details of the infidelity, I encourage you—as hard as it may be—to try and remain fair in the way you present information, as this will influence how these various people advise or comfort you.)

But back to it…

But back to our larger discussion. 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.”

Plus—and perhaps this is just due to my nature and legal training—I just reached the point, personally and professionally, where I wanted to present must-know information to the betrayed spouse (and, frankly, to the spouse who had strayed), in a more forthright, you might say blunt, way.

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, accountability, and ending the affair—I’ve found that, to put it plainly, there’s no point banging your head against a wall.  Why put a betrayed spouse through the further frustration of trying to drag this person to a place they don’t really want to be, and then trying to get them to be honest or accountable about things they just aren’t ready to be honest or accountable about?

And especially, why delay giving the betrayed spouse the kind of information that can help them understand what is happening and manage an insincere partner’s untruthful, even manipulative, behavior?  A betrayed spouse is entitled to that kind of real-world guidance, and they need it presented quickly, clearly, and with candor. They need it so they can regain a sense of control over their own life, thoughtfully decide how to proceed, and exercise self-determination within the marriage.

In my opinion, a betrayed spouse who is dealing with an insincere unfaithful counterpart can improve their situation sooner by taking steps to understand and manage what is happening without waiting for a resistant partner to join in. This can prevent a bad situation from becoming worse.  I’ve had many clients (both when I was a divorce mediator and later, when I moved into marital mediation to help couples stay together) who “dropped out” of counseling because they felt like they were spinning their wheels and getting nowhere, simply reliving every word spoken in anger or hurt… and then fighting in the car on the way home from their session.  Any progress was then halted entirely when the unfaithful spouse refused or delayed going back to counseling. This can be avoided if the more motivated spouse takes the lead, makes some changes, and gets some traction—their more resistant spouse may respond to that by making changes of their own. That’s when good things can start to happen.

And since I encourage individual spouses to take a “Fair, but Aware” approach to any marriage conflict, that one spouse is leading the way toward a more collaborative marital mindset, one where spouses are considerate of each other’s needs, perspectives, and so on.  Spouses need to forgo that individualistic focus, and the finger-pointing and self-indulgence that can accompany it, and instead focus on their partnership. Nowhere is this kind of open-minded and open-hearted spirit of collaboration more important than in marriage and family life, and it’s that kind of collaboration that is at the core of a mediation-styled approach to marriage help.  That, and its unique capacity to balance fairness and tact with realistic and candid guidance, is why I believe so strongly in it.

But circling back to the title of this article. Can marriage counseling for affairs make a bad situation worse?  The answer depends on a multitude of factors, not the least of which are the competency of the individual counselor and the sincerity and agendas of each spouse.  Perhaps, in the end, the question isn’t whether it can make a bad situation worse. Perhaps the better question is, “Is marriage counseling right for you in light of what you’re dealing with?”  Because that’s all that matters.

In the end, you are the captain of your own ship and it’s up to you to decide what approach is right for you and your circumstances.  That holds true whether you’re dealing with infidelity or another marriage problem.  It’s all about what best suits your situation and what approach provides the kind of guidance that you need to truly move forward.

You might even find that you end up using a variety of approaches.  From support groups to spiritual advisors, from therapists to retreats, from coaches to mediators, and from in-person help to online programs, you certainly have options these days.  You and your marriage are worth thoughtfully exploring them.

image of Debra Macleod

Debra Macleod, BA, JD, is an international marriage author-expert whose plainspoken style and proven resources have empowered millions worldwide to save their marriage.