When past abuse hinders affair recovery

Dear Anne & Brian,

“My spouse had a very traumatic childhood and my affair has triggered the buried feelings of rejection and abandonment. Since having attended Healing From Affairs, I have been able to understand and communicate how and why the affair happened and discuss it with my spouse. My spouse has decided to stay and we are fighting for the marriage.

“However, when I see the cycle of the obsessive thoughts taking control, my spouse goes to a place where nothing I say, or do, helps. As well, if something comes up and triggers a pain that is connected to my spouse’s childhood, I become the bad person and there is no separating the affair from the childhood trauma.

“Is there a place during the healing process, when past abuse hinders affair recovery? Should my spouse get help for the childhood issues that seem to be the filter for all of the emotions now brought out by the affair?  Or would that take the focus off the affair and what I did, and imply that my spouse was responsible for the place of being stuck in our healing and not being able to move forward?”

A+BPassionateLife-42Anne & Brian’s Answer: Great Question. We’re sorry to hear that you are having this problem, but we want you to know that you are not alone. We commend you for reaching out for help.

To some degree, everyone has “issues” from childhood, some more so than others. A traumatic event, such as an affair, is likely to surface unhealed wounds. Most people could benefit from a season of counseling or therapy. I highly recommend it. It’s a quality of life issue. Yet, it is my experience that these things have an appropriate timing. It’s natural to have apprehension towards dealing with past wounds, and life in it’s mercy allows us to bury them for a time, because we are not yet ready or mature enough to cope.

This is one of the benefits life’s painful experiences can leave us with. Sometimes they become our time to deal with our stuff.

As we often say at Passionate Life,

“Until the pain of remaining the same becomes greater than the pain of change, we are not likely to change.”

So the answer to your question is “yes,” for any betrayed spouse the sooner you get into counseling and begin to deal with your past, (including any trauma), the sooner you get to healing, and to restored happiness.

The truth of the matter is that this can become one of the “wins” that come out of something terrible … because you face your demons, you are able to gain your freedom from past hurts and start living a freer, more fulfilling, and authentic life.

Would counseling or therapy to deal with childhood hurts take away from healing from the affair?

No, as long as the therapist has a good understanding of affair recovery, therapy to deal with childhood hurts would enhance the affair recovery, and expedite it. The mistakes to watch for in counseling or therapy are the avoidance of affair issues or blaming the affair on marital issues (which indirectly puts responsibility for the betrayers behavior on the person who did not have the affair). The other damaging approach that some counselors take is to refuse to discuss the affair at all, and that won’t work for a betrayed spouse. Attempting to avoid confronting the actual affair will impede rather than promote healing.

Would that take the focus off the affair and what I did, and imply that my spouse was responsible for the place of being stuck in our healing and not being able to move forward?”

The painful truth of the matter is sometimes the betrayed partner is responsible for being stuck on the healing journey.

For the sake of being complete, there are a number of things that the betrayed partner can do that will cause the healing to be stuck. They include:

  • Not acknowledging their anger
  • Not processing their anger in healthy ways
  • Refusing to listen (they don’t get answers, because they do all the talking)
  • Refusal to get help for themselves – insisting only the unfaithful needs help
  • Unhelpful belief systems (like believing you can never forgive)
  • Continuing to say negative things (what you say is what you get)
  • Promoting lies by punishing their spouse for being truthful

The first thing that is needed is an acknowledgement that there are past wounds and hurts that need to be healed. However, it is walking on thin ice for one spouse to be telling the other spouse what they need to do, especially in the case of affairs, for the one who has been unfaithful (committing such a big offense in the marriage), now to be turning around and telling the betrayed partner about the healing they need. This approach is unwise, and most likely will just cause more problems.

Here’s some things you as the one who had an affair can do:

  1. Make sure you are answering all the questions, leaning into the pain, initiating affair recovery discussions, showering your spouse with actions and words that show your love and commitment to them and to the healing process. In other words, you need to be above reproach. If you are not doing your part, you cannot expect, your spouse to be healing. Then you are stuck, because you are actually not doing your part.

When it comes to affair recovery, the old saying, “talk about the pot calling the kettle black,” applies. It’s easy to see what our spouse is not doing right, while we can be blinded to our own issues. Before we address our spouse, we need to make sure we really are doing our part.

As long as fingers can be pointed back at you (legitimately), you yourself are hindering the process. It is most likely that your betrayed partner can begin to recognize (and acknowledge) their own issues that they need to address, when they are no longer legitimately able to point fingers at you and what you are not doing.

  1. Then you can begin to help your spouse, not by saying directly, “you have to go for counseling for the abuse (or trauma) you’ve suffered in your past.” But rather by being able to hear their outbursts without becoming emotional yourself, or responding by withdrawing emotionally. So you stay engaged, and you stay calm, sensible and in control. You are there to really help your spouse. In order to do this, you need to be able to discern clearly between your issues and their issues. In this place, when they are responding out of those childhood hurts, lovingly, you might say something for example like, “Do you think what you might be feeling right now could also be connected to how your father treated you?”

In this way, you begin to help your spouse, by in some ways being a counselor for them. By asking good questions, that cause them to look at themselves, and then by listening, you really help them.

Finally, it all comes down to boundaries. What I’m suggesting is not easy to do, and yet you can do it. It takes intelligence, genuine love, and a real willingness to face your own stuff first. Therefore, I highly recommend that you pursue counseling or therapy for yourself, while you genuinely work on “being there” for your spouse. We all need an outside, neutral pair of eyes when it comes to ourselves, and our own relationships. This can be in principle like “Al-Anon” where family members of alcoholics have their own support groups. Sure! You might not be the one with the problem, but because you are married to someone with a problem, you DO have a problem. By learning how to not contribute to the problem (enabling), and by learning about ourselves (after all we picked this person to marry), we are able to recognize and break unhealthy patterns in the relationship, not by telling our spouse what’s wrong with them, and what they need to do, but rather by learning how to stop perpetuating unhealthy patterns – our contribution to the problem.

An ideal situation for affair recovery is a combination of the Healing from Affairs Intensive weekend (to give you a major jump forward and all the skills you need), combined with ongoing coaching, counseling or therapy. And often times individual counseling can be more helpful than couples counseling.

PS – We at Passionate Life Seminars and the Beyond Affairs Network, care about you and your personal situation. We want to help you! Please feel free to write to us sharing your story, and your personal question. How can we help you? We do our best to respond to every email personally, and you can be assured complete confidentiality. You can write to us directly at info@beyondaffairs.com.


Brian & Anne