Show Transcript for Episode 219: Forgiveness After an Affair

Laurie Watson:
So today we’re going to talk about forgiveness after affairs.
Laurie Watson:
Welcome to Foreplay Radio – Couples and Sex Therapy. I’m Laurie Watson, your sex therapist.
George Faller:
And I’m George Faller, a couples therapist.
Laurie Watson:
And we are passionate about talking about sex and helping you develop a way to talk to each other.
George Faller:
Our mission is to help our audience develop a healthier relationship to sex that integrates the mind, the heart and the body.
Laurie Watson:
Hi George.
George Faller:
Hey Laurie.
Laurie Watson:
How are you doing up there?
George Faller:
Pretty well, can’t complain.
Laurie Watson:
In New York? I’m in Raleigh. This is our first remote recording. We’ll see how it goes.
George Faller:
All right.
Laurie Watson:
So we want to talk about affairs and how people get over them, how they forgive this. I love what you did recently. You did that video on ambivalence and how people don’t make decisions when they have to about any relational difficulty, but certainly this comes up a lot in affairs where the hurt party kind of says, I don’t even know if I want to forgive or if I can forgive or should forgive. And they kind of teeter on the fence and it’s difficult to get to healing until they decide, yeah, I will forgive. And that’s not a moment, it’s a process.
George Faller:
Exactly.
Laurie Watson:
But, tell me a little bit more about how that ambivalent point makes so much sense for people who are struggling, how they don’t go into one direction or the other.
George Faller:
Right. I like to remind myself that in not making a decision, even if it’s not explicit or conscious, we are kind of making a decision. We live in a culture that wants us to be decisive, so do I want to have sex with my partner again after the affair? If I do have sex is that going to mean everything’s over with and it’s better or if I don’t have sex, what do I mean? So it’s like both extremes can really lead to some serious costs. If I leave the marriage, I break up my family, I have to deal with that devastation. But if I stay, what if it’s, I can never trust again. So moving in one direction or the other can bring so much pain. So not making a decision is a way of avoiding that pain temporarily. There’s actually hope that, all right, let me give time to this and maybe it’ll make it easier for me to head in one direction or the other.
George Faller:
So it makes a lot of sense why people get stuck in this place. And I think when we start out honoring that saying, Hey, this ambivalence is actually your way of fighting for the relationship, it’s not you just trying to be indecisive. You’re trying to give this process some space to unfold. Trust is something that happens. Too often people see trust as a choice. And I like to explain to my couples that trust is really the natural byproduct of safety of interactions going well. It’s like math equations that add up. Two plus two equals four. When you start stringing those together, the couple starts to feel like they’re at a very different place. So especially in the beginning, that ambivalence can be a really wise course of action.
Laurie Watson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean this idea that they’re waiting, I think they’re hoping for something on the inside that tells them it’s safe to go forward. They’re maybe hoping for enough remorse or something from their partner, and I think that we can forgive a lot easier when we really feel like our pain has been felt by our partner. And it’s so hard for people who have acted out the involved partner to go toward their hurt partner because it’s like, I wounded you, you’re gaping, bleeding and I’m supposed to go toward this wound that I caused. It’s just they want to stay away from it, they have difficulty seeing what they’ve caused and so they can’t attach, they can’t provide that support for their friend, their partner. And so they’re staying away, the involved partner is staying away and the hurt partner is bleeding out saying, I need you to come close to me. You’re the one that I need to tell about how painful it is that you hurt me.
George Faller:
Exactly. This is one of the biggest message in a talk like this, it’s the avoidance of pain that’s the main culprit that gets in a way of rebuilding trust. If I had an affair and I’m the guilty party, it makes a lot of sense why I don’t want to have any conversations. I want to just say I’m sorry and move on and promise never to do it again. Because I don’t like what it feels like to feel guilty and I don’t like to see your pain. But it’s the avoidance of that that actually just continues to maintain that mistrust. So yes, it’s counter intuitive to want to head towards it if that’s the opportunity in the pain, that’s where they healing. The research is crystal clear on this. It’s like when the person who has been betrayed looks in the eyes of the person, the offender, and they see reflected back their own pain, like the partner is getting it. Then they start to feel that trust again.
George Faller:
The main two questions that you want to have answered is, do you think my partner understands me, what this did to me? And, do I think my partner would do it again? Knowing the answers to those questions are, my partner would never do it again because I see in my partner’s eyes, him or her, getting my pain. That’s really how trust starts to grow. And so many of the couples that I’m working with, the partners, when they say they’re, sorry, say the offender, I’m sorry, the sorry really is, I don’t like how this feels and I want to stop having this conversation. The sorry is in really, I want to enter your world and help you with this pain.
Laurie Watson:
Yeah. Because it’s so uncomfortable to see what they did to their partner. And I think as the hurt partner, that’s the separation. That’s the attachment breach. Until I can get back to my best friend, my partner, my lover who cares so much and so deeply about me, I can’t feel safe again. I talk with people, they call in crises and we try to get them in right away and it’s like their whole world gets turned upside down. The hurt person as they discover the affair, they can’t find their way to the grocery store anymore. I mean, literally they’re dissociating and they can’t think because our world is often very secure based on the love of our most important people in life. The love of our partner says, I am important, my world works. And when suddenly they discover an affair, it’s like, okay, do I even exist? Does my world work? Their world doesn’t, they crumble and it’s a huge breach of security for them.
George Faller:
Absolutely. It’s devastating how the ripple affects, not just the act itself, but it’s the mistrust that it creates, something you take for granted like the oxygen you breathe. All of a sudden you have to question everything. Like, how did my partner lose me? How were they able to tuck me away somewhere and do an act that’s going to have this ripple effect that’s going to influence the kids and the family and our future and our past. I mean, yeah, it can hit on so many levels. That’s why you need a process that allows … I mean, the best case scenario when the fear comes, when these triggers come for the person hurt, the more that they can ask for help, and the partner, the offender, sees the opportunity in these conversations to say, look at how this ripple effect has influenced something like going to the grocery store. Oh my goodness. I mean, that’s the furthest thing on my mind. But if I don’t want to talk about the grocery store because it makes me feel bad, then it means you’re going to face your fear alone.
Laurie Watson:
Right? Or you’re looking at the children and you’re saying, you’re about to tear these kids’ world apart, how did you do that? And it’s like, I don’t want to think about that. And so they stay away from their partners. And then their partner feels, I can’t change, I can’t decide to go forward because I’m not going forward with you. You’re over there thinking one thing or another, either justifying it or just wanting it to be over, not examining it. And I think in an affair, processing an affair, both parties have to really examine why this happened.
Laurie Watson:
I always tell the hurt party that you’re not responsible for the affair, but both of you are responsible for the marriage as it got to this point where it was vulnerable. And that’s not to say that there aren’t people who are philanders, right? They’re going to cheat no matter what, or they have sexual addiction or something, but most of the time what I’m dealing with is a partnership and there are flaws and there are problems and one person thinks the best solution is to have an affair. And that’s so difficult to hear, but I think one of the ways that we forgive on the other hand, is for the betrayed party, the hurt partner, to begin to also see through their partner’s eyes, okay, you have a logic, this was your best solution, even though it was the most painful solution that I can imagine. For you, this was a solution to some of your pain.
Laurie Watson:
I’m thinking about a couple that I had and this man, he was a man of color, he had been raised in the South and had endured unbelievable racism. I could really feel the difference when I first moved to the South in terms of how people were feeling about each other. And this man had had literally the Ku Klux Klan come and threaten his home as a child. His father had also traumatized the family, he had been an alcoholic, beating his mother beating him. It was just a terrible story and he had never told anybody this story. And so he has, as an adult male, had started acting out sexually kind of as a teenager, and it had escalated and they were in a very solid partnership, just good upstanding people in the community. But he had done all kinds of things and she was the type that was saving and scrimping money so that they could recover the couch. You know, she was very frugal and careful about the way she managed their household. And he had spent a lot of money on escorts and prostitutes and things like that. And so he told both stories to her in my office, the story of his childhood traumas and the story of his sexual acting out and it was the most beautiful moment I’ve ever seen I think in my room.
Laurie Watson:
When he was done, she looked at him and she was able to say, I know you didn’t do this to hurt me. There was so much grace and care and she got really angry and was appropriately really hurt, but it was like her first moment of grace, she was able as a person to put herself in her partner’s shoes and see that there was also motives that were beyond the marriage, that his acting out and stuff. Both people have to have eyes that it’s not just you’re a bad person and you did this to hurt me, you’re selfish and you just took advantage of me and my ignorance by doing this, but that has to happen on the parties who is hurt and the person who is involved, like we’ve talked about, has to go into the pain.
George Faller:
Wow, what powerful story. And you’re adding some more layers to this conversation. A lot of times when people make a decision to have an affair, work with hundreds of couples with affairs, most of the time it doesn’t start out as sex, there’s more going on there. So that you kind of open up some space to get curious about that. And when you talk about this African American man’s history, you start to see that there’s also contextual issues that really influenced the choices people make when they’re marginalized and they got pressures that it’s hard to really express. They show themselves in different ways. So I look forward to having more conversations about that, to help people appreciate the many influences. It’s not as simple as a choice sometimes.
Laurie Watson:
Right. It’s not always just about the relationship. There are other things that happen and that is one way I think, to come to help us with forgiveness, is we can see that potentially there’s cultural issues, there’s trauma that our partner suffered as a child. There are like the classic midlife crises, right? Midlife crisis, it’s no joke. I mean, people feel a lot of pressure at that stage in life. It’s like, do I really want to go forward with this? Is this enough for me? And all kinds of things are happening. They’re looking at their careers, they’re looking at their relationships. There’s developmentally in our lives, there are lots of things that are happening that impact the choices that we make. So I’d love to come back and talk some more about withdrawers and pursuers as they struggle to forgive and their difficulties and how we can get their … I know you have an example of an affair that we can talk about and how this actually works out in a live relationship. So we’ll come back with that.
Laurie Watson:
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George Faller:
Hey, listen man, Uberlube is a good thing. If it helps your partner, it helps you.
Laurie Watson:
Hey, I want to let you guys know all about George. He’s written and contributed to several books and I’d especially like to draw your attention to his book, Sacred Stress: A Radically Different Approach to Using Life’s Challenges for Positive Change. His book is about a mission on how you adopt new strategies and turn stresses into a positive force in your life. And who among us doesn’t live with a lot of stress these days? We’ll keep you posted as to all he’s doing, but George and other EFT therapists all around the country and the world, hold couples retreats called Hold Me Tight, which is developed by Sue Johnson, and it helps secure your own relationship. If you’d like therapy with George, find him at georgefaller.com.
George Faller:
Welcome back. All right Laurie, so let’s get into an example. And the most typical affairs that I’m going to see is a couple that distance is starting to increase, the persue is getting a little bit more frustrated, needs not being met. The withdraw is here and messages of criticism. They don’t want escalations, they start to disengage. That negative feedback, that cycle starts to take over the relationship.
Laurie Watson:
Yeah, that is, I will say for forgiveness, an important pre-situation to see. And it’s hard to see because people say, well then I’m to blame for this, I didn’t act out. But that’s not what we’re saying. They’re not responsible for the choices their partner made about having an affair. But you know, affairs often don’t happen in a vacuum, right. So what happened with your couple?
George Faller:
Well, when you look at it, it’s important to highlight what you’re saying. When the levels of engagement in a relationship really start to go down and operate at a low level for a long period of time, the relationship is more at risk for an affair.
Laurie Watson:
Okay. Say that again because I absolutely agree with you and you and people do this and for many different reasons. I hear people come in and say, Oh, let’s just put our relationship on hold and really pour our lives into these young kids. It’s like, well I’m sorry, but a relationship is not going to be sustained for the three or four or five years that your children are infants and toddlers, without attention.
George Faller:
It’s beautiful that some people can do that and pull that off. They can put their needs aside and sacrifice and try to do what feels like the right thing to do and still not go outside the relationship. I mean, we want to applaud that, but other people fall short of that and it’s usually not their intent. But when your needs are not being met because their levels of engagement are so low, you start to become a little bit more susceptible to someone at work laughing at you and kind of wanting to engage. And so that’s what happened with Joe and Amy. Joe was, he didn’t expect it, he was a good family guy and before you know it, he got caught up with a colleague at work and it started off as just kind of talking about struggles during the day, like an emotional fair. That’s what started first, and then it went down to the road.
Laurie Watson:
Let’s just say for a minute, the emotional affair. So he’s starting to confide in her and share about his life or share about his struggles, that kind of thing?
George Faller:
Exactly. What he’s not doing at home, because he don’t want to have conflict, he’s now turning towards somebody else who seems to understand and seems to listen and seems to get it. That’s a slippery slope.
Laurie Watson:
And thinks he’s terrific and …
George Faller:
Right, and he doesn’t think it’s going to turn into affair, he just thinks it’s nice that somebody’s understanding me and validate in my struggle. And sure enough, after a couple of months of that they have drinks one night and it turns into a kiss and boom, here we go. Now it’s a physical affair. And that lasted a couple of months. When Amy found out, as you talked about earlier, it devastated her world. She sacrificed everything to support his career, put her career on hold, raise kids, and this is what she gets for it. I mean, her world was devastated. And this couple had to do that work with Joe accepting responsibility. His work is to try to understand what led him in this direction. And the couple starts to see, yes the affair is the issue, but there’s also the issue of the distance and the low levels of engagement.
George Faller:
So they did their months of work of kind of calming down a lot of that reactivity, that ambiguity. Amy starts wanting to try it again. And so they decide … She wanted no part of sex with him.
Laurie Watson:
In the beginning?
George Faller:
In the beginning.
Laurie Watson:
Yeah, because they so vulnerable.
George Faller:
So vulnerable.
Laurie Watson:
That’s where she’s hurt, yeah.
George Faller:
Exactly. They’re building, they’re repairing trust, that they’re getting to this place where they want to have sex. So, they have sex and they come back and I asked about the details, how is the sex? Joe was like, yeah, it was great. And Amy’s like, yeah, it was good. There’s just something that-
Laurie Watson:
Great and good. There’s something that tells you, wait wait, wait, wait.
George Faller:
Something different there, right?
Laurie Watson:
The energy, the way they talked about it, was a little different.
George Faller:
Exactly.
Laurie Watson:
It was a hint.
George Faller:
It’s some little hint in the voice, right? So as I try to explore, I will tell me more about good. Well, it’s nice that we were able to have sex again and we both had an orgasm. And so, I want to go play by play. I really want to know what’s happening because that’s where the emotions are, right? That’s where the blocks are.
Laurie Watson:
Yeah. I think this is important to talk with our Foreplay Fam about, that in sex therapy we actually do ask, and in couples therapy we’d actually do ask about the actual sexual experience. Not because we’re voyeuristic, but because at different points people have different feelings and the body is where we heal people both emotionally and sexually, like when they’re in touch with those feelings. So yeah, I ask as well, like okay, so what happened?
George Faller:
Well said. The body keeps score, right? It holds on to the memory of things. So, they start off, he kisses her neck, she really likes that. She responds back and rubs his chest, levels of engagement are high. I can see as they’re talking about it, there’s the lightness there as the playfulness is in the room. And then he describes going down on her and then all of a sudden something … I asked her, what was that like for you? And she goes, Oh, it was okay. Now the word’s changing again.
Laurie Watson:
Yeah, it goes from, he says great, she says good. Now she says it was okay. So, you’re onto something here.
George Faller:
What’s okay about it?
Laurie Watson:
Yeah.
George Faller:
So she normally loves when he goes down on her, it’s usually a place where she can really focus and just let herself go. And as she’s doing that, all of a sudden what pops into her head? An image, has he done this with this other lady?
Laurie Watson:
Sure, she’s-
George Faller:
Huge turnoff.
Laurie Watson:
Yeah. No wonder it was just okay. She probably turned off completely.
George Faller:
So now, what does she do with that? The brakes have come on inside of her, her body is going to a more fear response as she thinks about him with another woman, the worst case scenario. But what if she tells him what’s going to happen?
Laurie Watson:
Well, it’s going to stop the event.
George Faller:
It’s going to stop the event.
Laurie Watson:
And then he’s not going to be happy because he’s already told her one of the things that made him unhappy in the relationship is probably there wasn’t enough sex.
George Faller:
Exactly.
Laurie Watson:
So, she’s in that terrible place, that dilemma. Do I just go forward? Oh, well, whatever.
George Faller:
So what does she do? She just keeps going. She keeps going at the cost of turning off her body and just kind of just going through the motions.
Laurie Watson:
You said they both had orgasms. Are you sure she had an orgasm after she turns her body off?
George Faller:
Well, again, we never even got back to that. They described it as good. So what’s so fascinating is in that pivotal moment, she chooses to hide herself in sacrifice for the relationship. So now that we are going into the details-
Laurie Watson:
She’s hiding her vulnerability, her pain, her trigger at the memory, and her body is probably withdrawing as well as her heart.
George Faller:
I remind myself all the time, vulnerability with no solution leads to craziness and isolation. So even though it comes from a good place of trying to protect my partner and serve my partner and to sacrifice, it comes at a heavy cost. So that she was willing to share that. I mean the beautiful thing of vulnerability, it pulls our partner closer. So Joe winds up saying, I had no idea that was happening for you. I feel so sorry that in the midst of what we’re doing that’s beautiful that you have to face those fears, but I don’t want you to face those together. That yes, it will be a little bit of a turn off [crosstalk 00:23:50]
Laurie Watson:
Say that again. He says, I don’t want you to face those alone.
George Faller:
Exactly. And he says, yeah, it would be a little turnoff to know in the middle of that, that’s what’s happening for you. But I’d rather you tell me and if it means we stop having sex, at least I could learn to be there for you because that’s what we’re trying to do differently for each other.
Laurie Watson:
Hmm, I love that. And you got it, right. He was empathic back, that’s beautiful. And that’s the partner who acts out is empathic to the partner who was hurt, and that’s part of what she needs. She needs him to come toward her.
George Faller:
He had never done anything like that before. He kept his focus solely on her and he wants to fight for her in a way that he didn’t know how to do before that. I mean, that’s the opportunity even for the offender, that this process kind of starts to break both people down. And in that brokenness they find it easier to find each other. Fast forward another 10 sessions. As they continue to build safety and we start to explore with him his frustration historically about the lack of sex, and he always gets angry and he walks away and he becomes really critical. So we start to explore that a little bit more and he winds up letting himself and her into, in that moment right before he gets angry, he’s actually feeling pretty inadequate and pretty bad about himself.
Laurie Watson:
He’s telling him things like she doesn’t want me because I’m not good enough, or she doesn’t love me enough, or she’s not attracted to me. That feels-
George Faller:
I’m not attractive enough, I’m not manly enough. I’m not, whatever the tape plays in his own head. But he never talks about that, he just expresses the anger. So we start exploring that, like, where do you feel that? And he talks about this fire in his chest, where he just felt he’s a little boy too. This inadequacy, this sense of failure that I’m less than, which he never lets her in. She reaches over to him and she starts to rub his chest. And she starts saying, I had no idea, I just thought you upset with me all the time. I didn’t know you felt so bad. And she starts to actually go to where this is stored and rubbing his chest. And I ask him, what’s that like? And he’s like, wow, nobody’s ever done that for me. He starts to feel a little bit calmer. The cool thing for me, and this is what love does, is she turns to him and she says, I’m so glad I stayed with you.
Laurie Watson:
Oh, I love that. And you’re describing the beautiful opportunity that even in this betrayal and this bad thing that has happened in the relationship, they process it in a way that they find each other. They find each other in a deeper, more intimate, more vulnerable way than they ever did before. We always hope that pain and betrayal are not necessary for that to happen. But when the couple, I think, contextualizes it this way and they say, yeah, this was a bad thing. But on the other side of it, we’ve been able to hear each other in such a new way, we’re more deeply intimate than we ever could have been. I mean, that’s true healing and it’s something constructive that comes out, more than constructive. It’s not just the remnants of a marriage, it’s a new marriage that they formed together that is based on this intimacy that you’re talking about. It’s beautiful work, sir.
George Faller:
And no couple wants to hear that when it’s happening, that this could lead to growth and transformation. And yet as a couples therapist and a sex therapist, we see this all the time. A couple’s not trying to get back to a place before the affair, they try and get to a new place.
Laurie Watson:
Yeah, this is so good. So we obviously believe that affairs can be healed and that it isn’t just reparative, going back to that place, that you can go forward and have something more. So thanks for listening to Foreplay Radio. Keep it hot.
Laurie Watson:
So George, we’re going to offer an intensive on May 14th, in Raleigh, to two couples. We have two two-hour slots and we would love to get a couple to come in who has sexual problems and you’ll be able to work with George and I, right George?
George Faller:
That’s right. And what a great opportunity to just open up some space, to hang out and see if we can make some progress in these areas we’re stuck in.
Laurie Watson:
You can just reach us on Foreplay Radio by email, and let us know if you’re interested. There is a cost for both George and I and we are videotaping this for our trainings that only are shown to students. Thanks so much.
George Faller:
We look forward to seeing you there.
Laurie Watson:
And Foreplay Family, I want you to know we had our highest download day ever thanks to you. Our downloads are just increasing by leaps and bounds. We are so grateful for your sharing. Thank you again. Definitely subscribe, that helps our rankings in iTunes, which is important for us.
Announcer:
Call in your questions to the Foreplay question voicemail. Dial 833- my4play. That’s 833, the number 4, play, and we’ll use the questions for our mailbag episodes. All content is for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered as a substitute for therapy by a licensed clinician or as medical advice from a doctor.

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