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Affairs and Infidelity

Shaun McMahon is a couples counsellor in Melbourne who helps couples repair and improve their relationship after an affair.

There are few things that can be more damaging to a relationship than infidelity. Discovering that your partner has been unfaithful can be like a wrecking ball smashing into your relationship, destroying the core foundations of trust and commitment that you so heavily relied upon.


Whether you have been betrayed by your partner, or are the one who has been involved in an affair, it might feel like the relationship is over. Maybe this is the lowest point in your relationship, or even your life, and you may be thinking that there’s no coming back from this. 


As a couples counselor, I’ve had countless people walk into my office still shaken from the revelation that an affair has taken place. Looking into their sunken faces, it was easy to tell that they had given up any hope of things getting better and being able to move on from this hell they’ve found themselves in. I’m guessing you might be feeling hopeless right now too.


However, if you have learned that your partner has been unfaithful, or are the one who was involved in an affair, I want you to know that there is still hope. Not only is it possible for you to recover from an affair, but it’s not uncommon for a relationship to improve after an affair, becoming even better than it was before everything unraveled. 


But before we get to the future, let’s take a look at where you are now, and where you’ve been so far.

Infidelity and Trauma

Infidelity has forever been a feature of human relationships. Its harms are so significant that it made its way onto the list of the 10 commandments, alongside “thou shalt not steal or kill”. But only until recently has it become known that experiencing a betrayal of this nature often results in PTSD, not unlike what a soldier might experience on the battlefield, or a victim of a natural disaster might carry with them after the storm has passed. 


To understand this, we need to recognize that two of the most fundamental parts of a relationship are trust and commitment. This has been established by Dr. John Gottman, a researcher who has spent over 40 years studying relationships. The model he uses to represent relationships is called the ‘Sound Relationship House’, and the two walls that are holding the house together are trust and commitment. 


Commitment is the essence of a relationship. To not be committed to a relationship is to have a casual arrangement, one that can be broken by either partner at any time. We commit to a relationship to convey to our partner that we are going to stick with it, and in turn, expect them to have the same attitude. In short, there’s an agreement that “we’re in this together”. 


Meanwhile, it’s very difficult to have a relationship with anyone if there’s no trust. Being able to count on that person to stay true to their word, to be honest with you, and to be reliable, is imperative to having a successful relationship. Without it, we’re constantly questioning and doubting that person, and over time, we become less and less committed to the relationship.

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If we continue with Dr. Gottman’s analogy of a relationship being like a house, an affair is like a wrecking ball crashing into the side of that house, obliterating the wall of trust. Without the wall of trust holding some of the weight, all the pressure is now put onto the other wall of commitment. This is why the reveal of an affair can often be a make or break point for a relationship, a time when people question whether or not they should stay committed or should leave. 


The destruction of trust in a relationship is typically what generates the PTSD-like response in the betrayed partner. For the length of your relationship you have been steadily building a sense of trust in your partner, which informs your experience of reality. To have that shattered can generate PTSD-like symptoms as you reel from this revelation, including:

  • Self-Doubt: The betrayed partner can begin to doubt their own perception of reality, wondering how they managed to miss the affair, if they noticed the signs but ignored them, and if they can trust their mind in future if it happens again.

  • Flashbacks: The betrayed partner can find themselves caught up in flashbacks of the time they discovered the infidelity, such as the moment they saw their partner with the other person, or read the text messages. 

  • Intrusive Thoughts and Rumination: The betrayed partner can find themselves getting lost in thought, sometimes for hours, about the affair as they comb through all of the details and endlessly question their own mind and reality. 

  • Anxiety, Depression and Trouble Sleeping: Because infidelity can threaten something we rely upon so heavily for our day to day wellbeing, it’s not uncommon for the betrayed partner to experience new or returning anxiety and depression, as well as difficulty functioning.

While it’s tempting to believe that the affair was the main cause of the relationship coming to a head, Dr. Gottman has found that this is rarely the case. It’s quite unlikely that an affair occurs out of the blue in a relationship that is completely satisfactory and fulfilling to both partners. Instead, it's more common for the cracks to begin to show much earlier, sometimes years before the affair occurred. 


This isn’t to say that the betrayed partner is responsible for their partner going out and cheating on them. However, in order for a couple to be able to move on from an affair, they need to be able to conduct an ‘autopsy’ on the relationship and discover what created the conditions in the relationship for the affair to occur.

The Cascade of Affairs


If your partner has cheated on you, you might feel as though it has come out of nowhere. While there might have been issues in the relationship, you might be wondering how you went from those seemingly small problems to such a dramatic betrayal of trust.


It turns out that things are rarely this simple. Psychologists Dr. John Gottman, Dr. Caryl Rusbult and Dr. Shirley Glass suggest that affairs are often the result of a ‘cascade’ of minor incidents and transactions in the relationship which eventually culminates in one partner looking outside of the relationship to get their needs met.


These minor incidents in a relationship can be barely noticeable, but can add up over time, furthering the divide between you and your partner, until the sense of disconnection and loneliness is so severe that something breaks.


In their research, Gottman, Rusbult and Glass found that an affair can be traced back to something as minor as a missed bid for connection. For example, one partner came home excited to share about their day, only to find they were ignored. This small event might have been a seed of doubt which was planted in their mind.

The next might have been a partner turning away in a time of need, a negative comment, an unwillingness to sacrifice or take time out of their day to engage with their partner. Over time, these minor incidents chip away at the foundation of trust in the relationship, leading the person to ask: “is my partner really here for me?”

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It’s in these conditions that an affair can occur, because there might be someone else - a friend, a colleague or an ex - who is able to meet the needs that are no longer being met in the relationship, whether that’s attention, sex, or emotional intimacy.


Again, this isn’t to suggest that the betrayer is justified in going elsewhere to get their needs met. What I often find is that the betraying partner never felt like they could approach their partner to talk about how much they missed them, how lonely they felt, or how hurt they were, or if they did try, they weren’t really heard and their needs weren’t taken seriously. 


Ultimately, the affair can reveal some significant shortcomings in the relationship, including a failure to notice and express one’s needs, not feeling safe enough to communicate challenging or uncomfortable feelings, and a lack of solidarity and shared meaning in the relationship. 


If you find yourself thinking back over your relationship and wondering what went wrong, or are still reeling from the discovery that your partner has betrayed you, it might be of comfort to hear that seeing a couples counselor can not only help you to process the affair and understand what went wrong, but also to rebuild the relationship.

The Three Stages of Affair Treatment

It turns out there is hope after an affair has happened. Dr. John Gottman, along with his wife Julie, have created a three step treatment plan which can help a couple recover from an affair. You’ll find the three steps detailed below.

Phase One -


The first phase of repair involves the betraying partner coming clean. The atonement phase creates a space for the betrayed partner to ask as many questions as they like about the affair, from “what did you like about her” to “how many times did you kiss him?”. There are some limits on the kinds of questions asked, as well as how they are asked, but the idea is for the betrayed partner to clear their head and get the full story. At the same time, it gives the betraying partner the chance to get it all out into the open, and express true guilt and remorse over their actions.

It’s worth noting that no affair is the same, and there might be certain parts of this process that do not apply to you. As an example, some couples I’ve worked with are dealing with an affair a decade after it occurred, and recalling the finer details might make the first phase of atonement difficult. Or perhaps your sex life has resumed as normal and there might not be much to explore on that front.


With that said, I have found that, regardless of the circumstances, there’s always room for improvement in relationships which have been scarred by infidelity. A couples counselor like Shaun McMahon can help you to repair your relationship after an affair.


Whether you’ve just found out that your partner has cheated, or you yourself are the one who has been involved in the affair, I invite you to reach out to me for a FREE 15 minute consultation. We’ll spend the time on the phone going over the basics of your situation, and then make a time for your first session. It will also give you a chance to ask any questions about the process or how I can help you and your partner repair your relationship. 

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It’s completely normal to worry that there’s no coming back after the affair. You might be thinking that it will never be possible to trust your partner again, or worry that there’s nothing you can say or do to make your partner trust you again. I want to let you know that it is possible for things to not only go back to how they were, but dramatically improve.


However, it’s important to note that this is a time sensitive issue. While things might feel raw and too difficult right now, it’s important to start working on the affair as soon as you can. When reeling from an affair, both partners are often at their worst, and it can create more opportunities for spite, contempt and accusations to seep into conversations, making things even worse.

Not only will working with a couples counselor like Shaun McMahon help you to keep this kind of behavior in check, but it will also mean you have someone who can point you in the right direction to get things back on track, and start the journey of healing. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to take the next step, I want you to know that there’s no pressure for you to book a session after our phone call, and you’re welcome to get in touch to see if I’m the right fit for you. Visit this page to fill out a quick form and I’ll get in touch to arrange our FREE 15 minute consultation.

Interested In Couples Counselling With Shaun?


If you and your partner are ready to commit to this process and try to make it work, I strongly encourage you to get in touch with me by filling out an inquiry form here. We’ll arrange a time within the next week for us to have a 15 minute call about your relationship, and you’ll have a chance to tell me about what’s going on and ask any questions you might have about the process. If I feel I can’t help or that I’m not the right fit for the problems you’re experiencing, I’ll refer you on to someone who can help.

Please Note...

If you are reading this and are currently in an abusive relationship, please know that I do not work with relationships where on-going domestic violence is present. If you are a victim of domestic violence, please reach out to Safe Steps on 1800 015 188 to speak to a specialist who can assist you with your situation.


My partner has had an affair and refuses to stop seeing the other person. Can you still help us?

As much as I would like to help you if your partner has had an affair, I’m afraid one of the conditions of being able to work on the affair is for the betraying partner to cut off any and all contact with the person they committed the affair with, and to stop seeing them altogether. While this might seem like a lot to ask, especially in circumstances such as workplaces where they might see the person every day, it’s crucial that the betraying partner makes the relationship their first priority. Without this, it's unlikely that couples counseling will be successful.

The affair that has occurred was an emotional affair and didn’t involve any sex. Is this something you work with?

I’ve learned from working with many couples who have experienced an emotional affair that, even though it hasn’t involved any sex, the effects can be just as devastating. Often the betrayed partner still feels incredibly hurt that their partner was operating behind their back, sharing a deeply intimate part of themselves with another person, but not them. It’s still normal to feel the trust has been destroyed in these instances. I can certainly help you if an emotional affair has impacted your relationship and encourage you to reach out.

My partner is willing to stay with me and work on the relationship but doesn’t believe in therapy. What should I do?

I understand how hard it can be when you wish to work on the relationship with a couples therapist, but your partner does not want to. In most cases it’s incredibly difficult to generate any change or improvement in a relationship if one party is not interested in taking a look at their behavior or making any changes. If they are sitting on the fence I’m happy to offer you both a 15 minute consultation to ask any questions, but I’m afraid there’s little I can do to convince your partner to do something they fundamentally don’t want to do or believe in.

We’ve tried couples therapy before and it didn’t work. Can you help?

If your previous couples therapy hasn’t worked, my first thoughts would be about whether or not you and your partner made a consistent effort to improve things, and if you stuck with it. In most cases when I hear that couples therapy didn’t work, it’s because people didn’t do anything differently, and they only tried it for 2-3 sessions. It’s important to know that it typically takes 2-3 months of weekly couples therapy before people begin to recognize noticeable improvements in their relationship. That said, I understand it’s possible that you didn’t gel with your past therapist, or that their approach wasn’t suited to your situation. I encourage you to reach out for a 15 minute consultation and we can discuss how things might be different with me. 

Addiction is a big part of our relationship difficulties - is this something you work with?

While I recognize the challenges that addiction can place on a relationship, whether its drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, or a myriad of other addictions, it’s not something I’m formally trained in. If you feel addiction is your primary issue in the relationship I advise you to find someone who specializes in this area.

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