Affairs

Betrayal and The Protective Part

I’ve been getting more clarity around the protective part of clients I see, and wanted to flesh out some of my thoughts. Those of you familiar with Internal Family Systems (IFS) will immediately know what I’m talking about. You can learn more about IFS here

IFS explains parts in more detail, which I won’t go much into here, but for today’s purpose it helps to know we all have a protective part, and it protects us from our wounded part getting hurt again. Often times wounded parts, or “exiles”, are born in childhood, and are quite young and frightened inside of us. I see this a lot in clients who have trauma triggers in their current relationship, but the trauma is from their family of origin.

What I’m becoming more aware of, though, is a wounded part born out of adult betrayal and a unique protective part that emerges. I’ve had several couples where there has been a massive betrayal/attachment wound. And there seems to be two main ingredients that create a very unique protective part:

1)  A betrayal that cut to the very core of the person, that involved Partner B making a series of decisions that made Partner A feel profoundly unsafe. I think all betrayals are going to cause a ton of awful emotions for Partner A, but these are ones in which Partner A felt that their safety and wellbeing, financial stability, something core to their safety was intentionally put at risk by their partner.

2)  The client feels they betrayed themselves by not being more aware of what was happening. The client lost their ability to trust themselves. This may be because they weren’t aware of something huge happening, or because they had an inkling and didn’t stop it. Sometimes clients will say something like, “if I were to trust and then get hurt again, I honestly don’t think I could forgive myself, I couldn’t even live with myself.”

When these two combine, it’s like the protective part almost completely blocks soothing from the other partner. This protective part says, “You were too stupid to protect yourself before, now I won’t budge an inch.” And of course, it’s completely devastating and exhausting for their partner. Battling any protective part, as a therapist or loved one, feels impossible. 

I am still feeling out how to work with this part, but I’ve found two ways that are helping me get a little wiggle room. The first is to honor the protective part. This sounds like validation, but it’s more specific. I’ll say something like, “I want to honor this protective part that’s coming up right now. It’s understandable it’s here. Like you said, you are so angry at yourself for not catching this sooner. So this protective part is here now, saying, I won’t let you not catch this again, I won’t let you be asleep again.”

The second way is to ask where their true self, or other part is. Is it behind this protective part? Can they feel that other part? And feel out what it’s longing for. All the while, I never push that too much. If the protective part senses I’m trying to get it to drop it’s defenses, it will roar back to life. So I’m always trying to dance between the two. 

My final thought with this is that I don’t know if it’s safe for the client to trust again. So I don’t ever want to push or lead a client to trust if their system is truly sensing that they may be betrayed again. I want to be on the leading edge, with the purpose of the client really feeling out if they want to trust again.

Fearful Avoidant Attachment and Affair Recovery

I’ve been reading my way through Lorrie Brubacher’s incredible book, Stepping into Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, and read a piece about trauma and attachment. She is describing what the fearful avoidant attachment style is like:

Fearful avoidance: simultaneously pursuing and fearing closeness

Imagine you are alone, lost on a dark street in a strange city, where you know no one, except your travel companion from whom you have mysteriously become separated. You do not speak the local language and your phone is without power. You have wandered up and down several streets, searching for your companion, and you are becoming increasingly anxious. Suddenly, ahead of you, you see the familiar jacket, breathe a sign of relief, and call out. He turns around and you discover it is not your companion, but the menacing face of a person carrying a weapon. You turn and run down a back alley, heart pounding, palms sweating. Continuing on, once again you see the familiar hat your companion was wearing, and you pick up the pace and call out, hopefully and desperately. The minute the person turns towards you, you recognize not your companion, but the grim reaper, and you turn again, this time running several blocks before you dare stop. Over and over again, the one you hope to count on becomes a face of death and threat! … There is an overall sense of needing someone, yet trusting no one. (p. 62, 63).

 

While this passage was about people in general, while I was reading it I thought – holy cow, this is what is happening for my affair recovery clients as adults.

Because in EFT we are always on the leading edge of attachment with our clients, and wanting to progress and help them rebuild their bond, I can sometimes move too fast into expecting the client to be able to go to their partner and seek reassurance when they feel anxious and triggered about the affair. I know that while they are the source of their pain, they are also the only source of their healing and re-bonding. Consciously, I know that the trust has been ruptured, and that this person has become a stranger to them, but sub-consciously I can be encouraging them to turn to their partner when they get triggered.

Reading this passage from Lorrie’s book, I realized that I have not been fully, fully appreciating how the trauma of the affair is going to affect their ability to be soothed by their partner. I see this happen in the room, when a partner is so hurt, and their partner comes to put their hand on them and lean in, and then the wounded partner pushes them away. Then the partner who tried to comfort feels rejected and defeated and pulls back. 

In the past, I would have still validated both partners (“It’s so hard to trust they want to help you with this” and “It’s so hard to want to soothe your partner and feel pushed away,”). But I would have stayed more neutral, tracking the cycle over and over. What I find sometimes, though, is that we can stay in this cycle loop for months and are unable to step out of it, especially if the affair has caused a really big attachment wound. All the while the wounded partner is not healing, and sometimes getting more dysregulated, because their brains are truly on fire and they don’t know where to go for the soothing.

In a non-affair cycle, I think each person is, for the most part, coming to the cycle equally, and so the work would be for both to slowly gain awareness that the more he accuses/demands/pushes away, the more she shuts down/gives up/moves away. However, now that I am sitting with how this trauma may have affected even this person’s attachment method, and that they truly don’t know if this person they have trusted is safe to go to for soothing, but also needs desperately to be soothed by them, I am feeling a little less neutral about it.  I can’t imagine this healing if the offending partner continues to allow themselves to get pushed away and give up during this come close/go away dance. I also wonder if the wounded partner is going to be able to self-regulate and adjust their behavior with just awareness of their cycle, since they are so dysregulated.

I know that there are so many constellations of affairs that we see. There are ones where the leaning out partner has been hurt for years, and doesn’t even know if they want to be here any more, and has an affair. There are couples where I think the bigger attachment wound is one partner’s treatment of them before the other even considered having an affair. There are couples where the bond remains fairly strong between the couple, even with the affair, and they can regulate more easily. And so on, and so on. But for couples where there was a decent amount of love and trust, and then one partner has a significant, lengthy affair, I wonder if it will be possible for them to heal if the offending partner keeps throwing their hands up and saying, “I give up, they don’t want me close,” and if it’s fair to expect the wounded partner to be able to self-regulate to the point where they are not coming at their partner with anger and accusation for a while.

Is it really realistic to ask a wounded partner, in the flare of trauma, to say to the person they don’t know if they can trust, “I am feeling anxious and triggered right now, and need some reassurance that you love me,” ?

I am always clear with my affair partners that verbal, physical, or sexual abuse or coercion in affair recovery is not ok. But I wonder if I need to lean a little more on the offending partner to be a stable pillar for their hurt partner while they go through the come close/go away dance.

Regardless of what method you choose, it is always helpful for me to really allow myself to come into contact with how terrible a client feels, and not be so on the leading edge of attachment that I ignore what might make that coherent reach incredibly difficult in a moment of pain.

 

Brubacher, L. (2018) Stepping into Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, Key Ingredients of Change. Karnac Books, Ltd. London, England

Concrete Help for Working with Affairs in Stage 1 - An Interview with Lori Epting

I am so excited to share this interview with you all! Lori Epting, LPC is an amazing EFT therapist with extensive experience in affair recovery work. She works out of The Wellness Counseling Center, an incredible EFT counseling center in Charlotte, NC. In her past, she worked at a center specializing in sex addiction in Scottsdale, AZ. She was generous enough to sit down with me and let me ask her questions about working with people who are in recovery from affairs, especially in Stage 1. Lori epitomizes the calm, gentle, nature of an EFT therapist, while also bringing the courage and backbone into the room needed for managing the rodeo ride that is affair recovery work. I know you'll find her insights as helpful as I did. 

 

With the infidelity situations I’ve seen, I’ve only seen the affairs had by the Withdrawer, have you noticed a pattern with this at all in your work?

In my office, it is usually the Withdrawer who has had the affair. Now, whether statistically the Withdrawer usually has affairs, I have no idea.  I think the Withdrawers don’t always know how to lean into their partner for the affection and the attention and care and the desire.  Another reason it may be showing up that way, is that likely, a Pursuer is more likely to pursue marriage counseling to repair.  

When I hear you talk about your work with affairs, something I think you do really well is naming the thing that is difficult to name. And I’ve heard you speak previously about dropping in the affair as part of the cycle. What I imagine is that the person who’s had the affair doesn’t want to talk about it, the other partner kind of does but also kind of doesn’t want to talk about it, how do you take that leap and start naming it in the room?

I definitely used to want to beat around the bush about it, as this ambiguous thing that happened. But I remember learning about this concept in Core Skills with Lisa Palmer-Olsen in a role play. The therapist was just stating the obvious and putting it out on the table, and Lisa was telling us what a calming affect that is for things just to be stated directly, and that has a calming affect for the hurt partner. The beating around the bush or the attack is what they do at home. So recognizing the calming affect of just stating it as it is and helping them have comfortable language around it. And you have to get comfortable with it as a therapist, I think that’s the biggest hurdle. When they see your comfort level in talking about it, being able to put labels on it, and have those calm conversations, I think that translates over. I think there is a calming nature to saying what is.

I think “affair” can be a very charged word, similar to the word “abuse”, and what I see is if there has been more of an emotional affair, or brief physical affair, the offending partner might bristle at labeling what happened as “an affair.” Is there language you use to label what happened that you find helpful?

I find the word betrayal helpful because no one is going to disagree that it’s a betrayal. I also will use the word infidelity, which can sometimes fit better for people.

In individual sessions in EFT we ask if there has been an affair. Have you had to go into the room knowing that one partner is going to disclose?

 Oh, yes. If I know it’s going to be disclosed, I try to feel out the stability of the receiving partner, and how is this going to land on them. Are they going to have the support and the strength to handle this information? And I definitely want the partner who had the affair to be the one to tell their partner.  What I’ve noticed over and over again, is that when the partner who has had the affair is able to tell their partner without them having to find out by the ATM receipt or in an email exchange, if they’re the one to lay that information in their partner’s lap, by their own admission, the repair process is much easier.

Have you ever been in the room when someone discloses their affair for the first time and you didn’t realize this was going to happen, because they didn’t disclose in the their individual session?

Absolutely. A lot of times when it’s been brought up in the room the person hasn’t been intending to say it. They didn’t come into the session planning on disclosing. Sometimes it happens when we’re unpacking the cycle there’s this confusion for one partner about why there’s been this pulling away and this distance. As we’re trying to unpack the distance and pulling away, sometimes the other partner will just blurt it out. Because that is a big part of the answer of why their partner has been acting in certain ways. And I think that’s ok because they might have never disclosed it without the proper conversation and proper setting. I’m also glad the injured partner has a support in the room to help them take in the information. Because at that point they’re in crisis and I’m glad they have someone who can give them some specific directives of what to do for the next 24-48 hours.

What specific directives do you help them with?

We talk about boundaries. By the time they’ve left the session they’ve decided if it’s ok to be in the same home, the same room, or the same bed. We keep it just to the next 48 hours. If there are any major plans on the immediate radar, like a trip planned or a kids birthday party, we talk about the comfort level of the injured party of who is attending. We do more logistical planning because we’re doing crisis management at this moment. And we talk with both partners about who could be their support systems for the next 48 hours, who can they each talk to. Depending on the level of the betrayal, especially if it’s something that is so life-changing, then I highly encourage they each find a support person to reach out to. Sometimes they don’t want to tell anybody yet, and that’s ok too, but is there a person you could tell, “something’s just going on, could we take a walk, go for coffee.” We also talk about the idea of physical boundaries, just for the next 48 hours, like if the injured partner doesn’t want to be touched or comforted then we put a label to that boundary, too, so there’s not confusion.

I also help the partner who just disclosed, I really validate for them the courage it took to do that. And I really try to instill hope in the couple that this was such a good step. That without this, we would have just been spinning our wheels, and so this is really good that it’s out and we can deal with it, and there is a process for that. So I try to really instill hope that it’s good that it’s out on the table, because the first thing the partner who disclosed is going to feel is, “I shouldn’t have told you.” And the other partner might even say that, “I can’t believe you told me like this,” So I really validate the progress of it.

With the affairs that you’ve seen, are there a percentage that are in the group who really fell in love with the affair partner, versus just got swept up in a crush?

There are the couples who come in and you can tell even by their report that the affair was just a physical thing. But there are a good number of couples who come in because they do feel like they fell in love with their affair partner. At that point, a lot of the work I do with the person who had the affair is helping them tease out those feelings - was it love, infatuation, or lust? And really helping them see they are now comparing apples to oranges. The thing about an affair is that it’s similar to alcohol, drugs, or gambling in that it’s a substitute for the intimacy. Where they might feel like they have that intimacy with the affair partner, they could be misled in their feelings because they’re not doing the day-to-day life with their affair partner. They’re only doing the fantasy part – the secret phone calls at the end of the day, the texting they hope doesn’t get caught, the secret romantic getaways, and none of that is real life at all. So to get caught up in the emotion of that, and to tell yourself, “this is love,” is easy to do, because it’s exciting and it’s the newness and there aren’t the complications of life.  And then they come back home to their partner with whom they do have all the complications of life, who they are disconnected from to begin with or they wouldn’t have had the affair. A lot of the work I do with them is helping them tease out the fantasy life of the affair compared to what real intimacy is about.

If I do that in a really non-judgmental way with them and really validate that they were searching for something that was missing and it makes sense, I can help them come to the conclusion that it was a substitute for true intimacy. And what they’re searching for is true intimacy and that’s not what they were getting from the affair.

And will you do that work with the other partner in the room?

I’ll start planting the seeds in the individual session and get a feel for how they’re viewing the affair partner (in our work there is an agreement that they are ending the relationship with the affair partner). But absolutely I’ll talk through this with them in the couples session because the other partner is already thinking it, they’re trying to get him/her to see it, so for me to just put it out there is reality. They are already fighting about it behind closed doors at home. The hurt partner can’t make sense of it but they are trying to ask those questions anyway. Like, “Did you really love her??” So for us to just all put it out there and talk about it as a substitute, and what it was and what it wasn’t, can be a healing process.

Something I am always trying to balance with EFT is trying not to heighten shame. How do you manage that the injured partner will need to hear the pain and remorse from their partner, with also not wanting to submerge the person who had the affair into shame?

I feel like with the shame, it’s definitely going to be there, and it’s going to keep the partner who has had the affair from showing up the way their partner needs. I will try to tease out the healthier part of the shame, the healthier part of the guilt, the healthier part of the regret. And as I hear the elements of that I’ll really heighten the part how he/she feels sadness for their partner. There is shame in all of that but it’s not what I’ll heighten in the room. Usually they really want to repair this for their partner, they don’t want them to be hurting this much, so I’ll validate that for them and track their desire for their partner not to be hurting. I’ll try to help them understand that their shame (and I’ll use their own words for this) is more about them, but their desire to help and comfort their partner is moving towards their partner.

If they say, “I just want them to be able to trust me,” we might tweak that and guide them to, “What can I do for you right now when you’re feeling this way?” I want to try and pull out the helpful emotions they have, and ask them, “what does that make you want to do?” So we try to build on that part. The parts language is really helpful and beautiful for working with shame.

In the beginning of Stage 1, I often hear people say “I want to look towards the future, and I don’t want to talk about the past, I just want us to move forward.” As therapists, we know that’s not possible, but how do you approach communicating that using the EFT model?

At that point I’m helping him/her make sense of the value of them being able to have healthy communication around the affair. We can talk about the raw spots and the triggers, and how the injured partner has a lot of these now. The injured partner could have a really good day but then they get triggered and all of a sudden they are in the pain of the affair, and in the betrayal feelings. I tell them, "I want to help you know how to be there for your partner when those raw spots happen." I definitely validate it would be great if that’s how it worked, and we could just put the behind us, but I try to give them motivation that as they start to learn how to communicate about this in a healthy way that it will help their recovery process.

I validate for them that they probably have not had one of these conversations go well. So they truly are coming in thinking “I don’t get why we have to talk about this,  it doesn’t do anything good. My partner never feels better.” Because they’ve never been able to talk about it in a way where they’ve been connected and can provide comfort for their partner. So it truly might seem ridiculous to them to talk about it.

How do you take care of yourself with the vicarious trauma of infidelity? For me, the more I work with infidelity, the most sensitive I can feel about it at home. How do you self-care around hearing so much about infidelity?

I think to remind ourselves that these are the more extreme scenarios and we live in it every day. We live in the stressful couples, not the healthy, care-free, intact couples. That’s our work, with the distressed couples. So I remind myself of that.

Thank you, Lori, for your insight and your time!

 

I, Wesley here now, want to normalize for you all that vicarious trauma is an expected part of the work. If you work with sexual assault, domestic violence, infidelity, etc. your brain does develop a hyper-vigilance. So to make sure that you are exercising, getting fresh air, seeing happy and funny things with friends or on TV, seeing beautiful things, these are all important ways to help our brains rest in the positive when we sometimes spend all day in the scary. And, like any good EFT-er, on a particularly hard day we can always turn to our partner and say, “I know this has nothing to do with you, but I’m feeling kind of freaked out about all the affairs I heard about today. Could you hug me for a minute?”