A Better Understanding of Betrayed Spouses

As a seasoned therapist and author whose decades-long career has focused on the treatment of sex and relationship issues, in particular, infidelity, I’ve recently felt conflicted when hearing other clinicians talk about their approach with betrayed partners. My concern is that sometimes the standard clinical approaches can lead to further pain for the client, or even drive the client out of treatment altogether.

Basically, rather than helping, I believe that our typical approaches to assessment and treatment sometimes worsen the experience of an already confused, overwhelmed, and possibly self-blaming cheated-on partner.

It is unfortunate that therapists sometimes opt for well-intended but unhelpful paths of assessment and treatment when working with betrayed partners. Moreover, they make these choices because this is what they’ve been taught to do. Thus, they are completely unaware of the fact that they may be doing more harm than good.

This blog is an attempt to uncover the most common of these therapeutic errors. The information presented is based entirely on feedback from brave individuals who, despite their pain and anger, have carved a productive path for themselves in therapy, primarily by helping me know their needs in ways my education never did.

Based on this feedback, I have listed below the most common mistakes made by counselors when first meeting and working with a betrayed spouse. And yes, I realize this information will not be helpful to every client in every situation, so please take what you like and leave the rest.

Clinicians understand that cheated-on spouses have experienced an enormously distressing, in-the-moment trauma (finding out their significant other has betrayed them), and they are likely to behave and react accordingly. Typically, these clients will display extreme emotional mood swings coupled with a variety of behaviors that might qualify them for any number of diagnoses.

Therapists should expect to see and/or hear about some or all of the following perfectly normal responses to deep emotional betrayal during the early stages of healing:

  • Detective work: Betrayed partners will search for evidence of cheating, checking phone bills, browser histories, emails, texts, wallets, credit card bills, phone apps, etc. They might also hire hackers and/or private detectives, surreptitiously install tracking and monitoring software on digital devices, etc.
  • Mood swings: Betrayed spouses can be sad and depressed one minute, filled with rage and anger the next, and then desperately affectionate, loving, and even sexual the next. And their moods can swing from one extreme to the other with little to no warning.
  • Global shame: After being cheated on, self-esteem can take a huge hit. Betrayed partners can suddenly feel unattractive and unlovable, even when those feelings do not mesh with reality.
  • Sexualization: Betrayed spouses sometimes seek out lots of sex with their cheating partner. Maybe they are trying to feel desirable again; maybe they are trying to use sex to control the cheating partner; maybe they think that if they offer enough sex at home, their partner won’t feel a need to continue cheating; etc.
  • Global mistrust: Because their trust has been violated by the person they most believed in, betrayed spouses may question absolutely everything that anyone, not just the cheater, says and does.
  • Controlling behaviors: Because their relationship feels out of their control, and they no longer trust anything their partner (or anyone else) says or does, betrayed partners might try to micromanage all aspects of life—family finances, childcare, chores, free time, etc.
  • Rage and attacks: Betrayed spouses sometimes behave like a feral cat backed into a corner—snarling and lashing out in any number of ways. They call the cheater names, devalue the good things the cheater does, tell the kids and neighbors what the cheater has done, lawyer up, etc.
  • Obsessive questioning: Sometimes, betrayed partners want to know every little detail of the cheating—what happened, with whom, where it occurred, how many times, and all sorts of other very specific information.
  • Avoidance: This is the opposite of obsessive questioning, but equally likely. Basically, betrayed spouses may try to avoid thinking and/or talking about the infidelity. Even more perplexing is that they might flip-flop between obsessive questioning and avoidance. One minute they want to know everything, the next minute they want to bury their heads in the sand.
  • Escapist (and maybe addictive) behaviors: Betrayed partners sometimes try to escape their emotional discomfort by drinkingdrugginggamblingbinge eating, spending, exercising, acting out sexually, etc.

Needless to say, these perfectly natural responses are not easy to deal with. Clients, cheating partners, and even experienced therapists can feel like they’re riding an emotional rollercoaster. The trick for therapists is to not base their assessment solely on the client’s lability and unstable behaviors, instead recognizing and understanding that as a betrayed spouse, this volatility is normal and to be expected.

Most of the time, if a cheated-on client’s current emotional state was our only guideline for the diagnosis, we would label the client as rage-filled, vengeful, impulsive, inappropriate, unstable, and the like (possibly as having Borderline Personality Disorder). And heaven knows, no matter how well-trained we are, it’s not fun to treat an angry, tearful, out-of-control client on a regular basis. So it’s tempting to hang a label on this person, even when we know the behaviors are mostly situational.

As therapists, we must resist this temptation, instead remembering one of the primary tenets of assessment: We don’t make diagnoses based solely on a client’s current appearance and behavior. Instead, we consider the person in the situation.

We need a bigger picture that takes into account the reasons for the client’s feelings of betrayal and grief, and what she or he was like before the betrayal was uncovered. If this individual was kind, secure, gentle, and loving before her/his world was upended, resulting in a loss of faith and trust in her/his most important dependency relationship, then the majority of psychiatric diagnoses are likely inaccurate (unless the problematic symptoms continue unabated for months on end).

But in cases of infidelity, this sort of questioning can actually deepen the trauma, especially early in the process when betrayed partners are mostly trying to sort through the facts and figure out what happened. In other words, they’re asking for the license plate of the truck that just ran them over, not for a list of their character flaws and shortcomings.

Not that any of us sits around listing flaws and shortcomings with our clients. But we do tend to ask betrayed partners questions about their early-life issues and their current sexual life. And when we do, this can feel as if we, as therapists, are trying to blame them for their partner’s bad behavior. And this can feel like a continuation of what the cheating partner has done to cover up his/her betrayal—manipulating, lying, keeping secrets, and flipping the script in ways that make the cheated-on spouse feel like the cause of all problems in the relationship.

And many betrayed spouses will take this blame on because they love their mate and want/need to believe what he/she says. For instance, when we ask about their current sex life, they might hear: “Are you a good enough lover to keep your partner interested?” Based on that, they might decide, “The cheating is all my fault.”

And no, this tendency to accept unwarranted blame is not a sign of low self-esteem or an unhealthy emotional dependency. In fact, this desire/need is based on a human strength—the perfectly natural tendency of loving individuals to trust the people they care about.

In the early stages of treatment, rather than treating betrayed spouses as damaged people whose long-standing issues may underlie the infidelity (and other life problems), we need to approach them as we would approach survivors of a natural disaster, a car crash, a lost loved one, etc. So instead of immediately exploring family dysfunction and their current sex life in ways that seem to blame them for the issue, we should try to normalize and validate the pain and confusion they are feeling and experiencing, pushing exploration of underlying issues onto a back burner until they’ve developed a modicum of emotional and psychological stability.

Another early-treatment issue when dealing with betrayed partners is transference, where we as therapists find ourselves thinking things like, “Why on earth would you stay with that awful person? Why would you put up with this level of betrayal for this long?”

Basically, no matter how hard we try to remain neutral and to focus on what the client wants and needs, we can never fully leave our own histories and preconceived notions at the doorstep, especially if we have personal experience with infidelity. And yes, even the most experienced counselors can fall into this transference trap.

Usually, we struggle to sit with the client’s strongly expressed and painfully felt emotions. Sometimes we want to scream, “My God, just file for divorce, and get it over with!” Or maybe we want to say something judgmental about the client’s character or personality that we wouldn’t want to put up with in our own relationship.

Of course, acting on these thoughts would be extremely unhelpful. Instead, we need to realize that (for now) the client is probably not coming to see us because she/he wants to end the relationship, or even to work on aspects of self that might be damaging to the relationship. Rather, the client wants to sort through the facts, to understand why she/he feels so out of control, and to get support for the grief she/he is feeling in the midst of this ongoing trauma.

This shifts our clinical focus to simply helping the client figure out how to make it through of the day, how to deal with children and other family members, how to stay focused at work, and what immediate protective steps should be taken—all while feeling confused, miserable, and out of it. And even when those items are dealt with, the client tends to be more focused on repairing the relationship, rebuilding trust, and staying with her/his mate than on breaking things off. As therapists, we must recognize this, respect it, and act accordingly.

Even when betrayed partners suspected something was amiss in the relationship prior to the discovery, they are usually blown away when the truth is revealed. In fact, research tells us that after learning about a trusted partner’s infidelity, many betrayed spouses experience stress and anxiety symptoms characteristic of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and powerful mood swings. (As with Borderline Personality Disorder, mentioned earlier, they don’t usually have PTSD; they simply display the symptoms for a period of time.)

In response to this instability, therapists will often attempt to treat the client’s symptoms instead of simply validating what the client is feeling and supporting the client in her/his grief. And this usually does not work well, as betrayed spouses early in the healing process typically do not appreciate this type of direction.

If, for instance, the therapist suggests the client might want to stop drinking, the client may say, “With what I’m going through right now, you want me to look at and change my behavior? I’m not the one who cheated. How about a little sympathy for me?” And then that client might walk out the door, never to return.

Instead of trying to directly address the client’s symptomatic behaviors, it is better to empathize with the client’s feelings and to say things like, “I know you don’t want to be the kind of person who drinks away problems, and I totally understand the allure of the bottle right now, but I’m worried about your health and your safety if you continue drinking like this.” This is a way to point out a problematic symptom while supporting the client’s pain, loss, anger, and fear, rather than just stating that the client has a problem that needs to be dealt with.

If you can normalize the symptom based on the situation the client is in, even better. If the client knows you understand that her/his world has been deeply disturbed by sexual betrayal and that you don’t think she/he is crazy for reacting in inconsistent, unhelpful, and possibly even harmful ways, then the client will be far more likely to receive and act upon your gentle suggestions.