Helping Your Partner Following Your Affair: Using Compassionate Response to Manage Triggering Events
As a couple's therapist working with couples recovering from infidelity, I regularly encounter situations in which the hurt partner desperately needs compassion from the partner who had the affair. Couples at times though are unable or unwilling to offer a compassionate response when it seems so obvious that this is the one thing their partner most needs.
In the context of infidelity treatment, compassionate response, even when the partners have limited interest or ability in doing so, can be a therapeutic tool used for a soft, supportive way to handle triggering events and situations that have the potential to escalate to high levels of emotional intensity.
If your partner is triggered, consider a few of the following strategies:
1. Begin by allowing yourself to hear the message without judgement. In doing so, you can more effectively take your partner’s perspective and help him/her process difficult emotions. Passive listening (very limited talking on your part) can be effective in stabilizing your partner’s emotional experience. If you use active listening (reflecting back content and feeling) be careful to stay focused on only your partners experience.
2. Responding with empathy. It is better to demonstrate that you understand than it is to say you understand. So resist the temptation to say “I understand” and demonstrate that you understand both the feeling and the meaning of what your partner is telling you. Later you can integrate your ideas about the situation. First though, demonstrate you understand. Example: “You felt anxious (feeling) because I did not answer the phone (meaning)”.
3. Resist apologizing when confronted on your behavior in favor of accepting responsibility for some part of it. Too often, an apology for the hurt partner feels empty and overused. To take responsibility, acknowledge the behavior and then discuss your understanding of the impact of your behavior. Consider discussing the impact to your partner, the relationship, your children etc. Initially, try to stay away from discussing the impact to you. For example: “Yes, lying to you about the text messages that I sent to her was wrong and it makes it very difficult now for you to trust most things that I say to you”.
4. Begin to attune to your partner’s distressed mood states. For example, you come home and you see the look on your partner’s face and you become concerned. You ask “What’s wrong?”
A better approach would be to state the feeling that you believe is associated with the facial expression you are observing and invite discussion with your partner. For example, instead of asking “What’s wrong?” state “You look hurt. Would you like to take a walk with me?” Another possible response would be to state “you look hurt, maybe you are thinking about what I said earlier”. The second strategy attaches both feeling and meaning to the facial expression. Both statements invite discussion.
5. When your partner attacks your personally, such as calling you a name, try to address the underlying feeling or meaning. Matching name calling with name calling never leads to anyplace positive.
Infidelity recovery is a slow process. Small moments of compassion can make a big difference in the stabilization of the relationship immediately following the discovery of infidelity. It can also increase intimacy even when times are difficult.