The following post consists of a summary of an article written by Winek and Craven (2003). I have added personal comments.
In previous posts I have listed the causes of infidelity and the different types of adulterous relationships. I also wrote about healing and triggers. The article by Winek and Craven does not include significant newer or additional information on these topics.
One part I do feel is important to add relates to the very reason why so many partners of those who have committed adultery do not recover. The authors go back to the very well-known “attachment theory” of Bowlby (1988), who wrote that “attachment theory emphasises the propensity for human beings to make and maintain powerful affectional bonds to significant others”. The spouse of the adulterer is without emotional support in times of need. The trauma of the betrayal and the memories of the affair (triggers) interfere with daily life and result in an attachment injury. The words “trauma” and “triggers” describe the depth of the injury as well as the length of time the injury requires in order to heal, if indeed possible.
The authors describe the use of therapeutic rituals in couple therapy. Many of the rituals can be done by the couple themselves as long as they are safe and are not injuring themselves or each other. The authors describe macro and micro rituals. A macro ritual is e.g. a wedding, or the renewal of vows with more people present. A micro ritual is e.g. the making of a cup of coffee with love and care for a spouse.
My comment: Although macro rituals can play an important part in the healing of a relationship after betrayal, it are often the micro rituals that make a deep impact as they can become a daily ritual and /or something special the couple does not share with others.
Winek and Craven (2003) identified 5 important stages that can aid healing.
Stage 1. Knowing the Details: A coming clean ritual is done with a therapist. The betrayed partner is given time to write down questions about the affair and a time is set aside during which the betrayed spouse can ask all questions and the adulterer agrees to answer all of them truthfully. The spouse is not allowed to “interrogate” the adulterer again. This phase needs to be followed up with some time of peace and love for each partner in the company of loved ones.
My comment: The above sounds very good, but in my experience the adulterer often is not truthful and might need a long time to come clean. There are many reasons why adulterers are not telling the truth. One of them is that due to continued lying the adulterer has lost track of lies and half-truths. Another reason is that they are ashamed and rather “forget” some of the most shameful of their behaviours. When asked, they often answer that they want to protect their spouse from more pain. In reality however, the behaviour causes more pain as the truth often comes out (later) and re-traumatises the spouse. The main reason for keeping secrets, in my opinion is that the adulterer is not brave enough to disclose all. The result of withholding details results in more damage to the already vulnerable level of trust.
Stage 2. Releasing the Anger: This ritual, the authors write, is unique to each couple. The releasing ritual is destructive in nature and symbolic. It might take the form of burning and smashing objects. It might mean writing letters that are not sent. These can be burnt when ready and perceived as a “funeral service for anger”. The authors state that it can help a couple to moving past anger.
My comment: Due to triggers and the fact that adulterers tend to take their time to disclose all the details of the affair, a “releasing of the anger” ritual although helpful, very likely will not help a couple move past the anger. The anger, often described as “rage”, comes and goes and can flare up after a relatively good day, simply due to something that triggers the spouse.
Stage 3. Showing Commitment: Often couples think about renewing their vows. Several couples however, question the value of a renewal of the vows. The authors of the article direct couples to more meaningful actions of commitment. They describe a man who decided to paint the cabin where he took his AP. Not only did he show that he understood how hurt his spouse was that he had taken the AP to a place that was important to her, he spent his weekends painting rather than golfing with his friends. Another adulterer who hardly wore his wedding ring made a commitment to wear his wedding band every day. Other couples buy new wedding bands.
My comment: I agree that renewal of vows and buying new wedding bands might work for some couples. Again, the reason that it is not working for more couples is that many spouses who engaged in adultery need a long time to come totally clean. Because of this, the symbolic gestures of renewal of vows or buying new rings does not mean anything. This does not mean that when a couple is ready, the ritual of new wedding bands and a ceremony is not powerful, but the timing has to be correct. The ritual can be informal and made personal and does not need to include a crowd.
The more creative and individualised ritual of the man who “refreshed” the cabin where he had taken his AP feels meaningful to me. As he also devoted his weekends to doing something for his spouse and for their relationship rather than going golfing adds value.
Stage 4. Rebuilding Trust: The authors write that rituals such as merging finances can be helpful. They also list the more frequent contacting of the spouse when a partner travels for work and to include their spouse more in their work life particularly when traveling.
My comments: This article is from 2003, and a lot has changed since due to advancements of technological devices and opportunities to communicate in cyberspace. Many couples find it helpful to know that if they want to, they can check a partner’s cell-phone, email and involvement in social media as they have been given full access to passwords. For many couples trust develops when a spouse who used to hold back information voluntarily discloses information. The unprovoked sharing of information is very powerful. It provides peace as otherwise a spouse might feel that they have to ask questions and feel that they only receive answers to questions asked. They become uncertain about the questions they did not ask. It is not OK that the onus lies with the betrayed spouse.
Stage 5. Rebuilding the Relationship: The authors discuss the importance of establishing couple boundaries in relation to dating. The “courtship” can be made special so that the date is not used to discuss household chores.
My comment: Dating is nice, but can also be a trigger. Many adulterers took their AP on fancy dates. Although going out for a date is important, it is up to the spouse who committed adultery to make the date special by placing some effort in organising the event. This can be an opportunity to show their spouse that they did listen to them when they talked about wanting to go to a concert, ballet or play or rather have a burger and fries in an Irish pub. My second comment is related to couple boundaries. I do think it is important to discuss this topic. As all boundaries have been violated when one spouse betrayed their partner, talking about boundaries is crucial. In my Post 69, I discussed boundaries at work and that information can be used to explore and establish couple boundaries.
Winek, J.L., & Craven, P.A. (2003). Healing: Rituals for couples recovering from Adultery. Family Therapy, 25(3), 249-266.