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Ask a Latter-day Saint therapist: What does infidelity recovery look like?

Editor's note: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author. Readers should consider each unique situation. This content is not meant to be a substitute for individual, professional advice.

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Q: Responding to your article on healing from infidelity and pornography abuse in marriage, I enjoyed the read immensely as a betrayed spouse. What I think might be a very helpful second part is a generalized statement of what recovery looks like.

What does recovery from an affair look like? What is blame-shifting? What does taking responsibility look like? What does transparency in a marriage look like? Having been through three discoveries (not disclosures, and it’s very different to be told versus having to find out) I can attest that because I didn’t know what any of this looked like, I was so overwhelmed the first time. The second time was worse. The third time I had a significant amount of personal work behind it and I still wasn’t near perfect, but it was way better for both of us.

A: Thank you so much for asking this. I’m happy to write a follow-up to further expound on how a couple can heal from infidelity. According to Dr. John Gottman, infidelity recovery occurs through three phases: atonement, attunement, and attachment.

As Latter-day Saints, we often associate the word atonement solely with the Atonement of Jesus Christ. While this is certainly the most important and vital example of this concept, atonement itself is a concept to be practiced by all of us. It is necessary for repentance. It means “reparation for a wrong or injury.”

In the context of healing a marriage from an affair or other betrayal, the atonement phase requires that the person who was unfaithful take full ownership of the infidelity. In other words, no matter what else was going on in the marriage, no matter how lonely, hurt, or attacked one may have felt, the choice to cheat represents the crossing of a moral line. It is not caused by the behavior of the other spouse no matter what he or she may have done.

It is an eternal principle that we are responsible for our own behavior. The gospel of Jesus Christ is given to save and redeem us. It is also given “that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (D&C 101:78). We don’t get to blame others. We don’t get to say, “I’m sorry that I cheated, but you shouldn’t have done this or that.” Not if we want to heal, repent, and be free. We have to own the behavior.

So, what does accountability look like? It looks like “I’m sorry that I hurt you. No matter what else was going on, you didn’t deserve to be betrayed. That’s on me. I alone am responsible for that. You may feel that that choice is a reflection on you. It’s really a reflection on me, on how far I let myself drift from God and on how much I was putting my own desires first instead of showing integrity and selflessness.”

The atonement phase finds the person who was unfaithful being completely transparent. Any question that the betrayed partner wants answered, the unfaithful partner answers with complete honesty without making excuses or telling half-truths. It’s worth noting, however, that Dr. Gottman warns that knowing specific sexual details may do more harm than good and discretion should be used here by the betrayed who still has the final say in what he or she wants to know. Other questions and details, however, should absolutely be asked and offered.

A penitent person who was previously unfaithful, if he or she wants to restore trust in the relationship, ought to give internet, social media, email, and phone lock-screen passwords to the betrayed. If the betrayed says “let me see your phone,” it ought to be surrendered without hesitation. This is because there’s usually a history of dishonesty and gaslighting in these situations so that a spouse’s word cannot be taken at face value for a time until it has been demonstrated to consistently be in line with the facts, which the betrayed partner has access to.

During the atonement phase (and hereafter), the unfaithful partner shows a broken heart and a contrite spirit (see Psalm 51:17). The spouse must show genuine remorse and reassurance towards the betrayed partner. The betrayed partner, for their part, must express their hurt, fear, disappointment, and even anger without resorting to criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling. He or she must practice forgiveness, or letting go of bitterness and enmity, every day. If the relationship is to heal, he or she has to be open to extending trust to the degree that it is earned.

The atonement phase is ongoing, even as the couple segues into attunement and attachment. When the focus shifts to attunement (even though atonement continues) the couple works on their issues outside of the infidelity. Whatever conflict resolution struggles, communication breakdowns, lack of love and affection, hurt feelings, broken trust, or other “two-to-tango” situations exist, they are addressed in this phase.

The final phase, attachment, is entered into when healing is truly happening, closeness is being restored, trust is being renewed, attachment and intimacy are happening, and the focus is now on how to keep these going and maintain them moving forward. A thorough breakdown of all this is beyond the scope of this article, but it often requires the guidance of a therapist trained and experienced in healing from betrayal trauma to help the process along. Combining these strategies with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His ability to make all things new, so that the marriage can experience a rebirth, ensures the greatest chance of success.

God bless you. I hope this helps.

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Jonwe

Jonathan Decker, LMFT, Contributor

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily gospel-based relationship tips. 

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