by Allen Shive, a Doxa counselor
In my last article I asked the question, “Can couples heal their marriages after an affair?” The answer is that they can and many times do. The Gottman Institute framework for this healing and rebuilding is known as the three A’s: Atonement, Attunement, and Attachment. It offers hope and practical steps for couples who want to rebuild their marriage after infidelity.
The first phase, Atonement, is a necessary first step if the marriage has a chance to heal. It focuses on the willingness of the partner who had an affair to acknowledge that their actions have betrayed and hurt their spouse. This phase is about transparency and accountability by the offending spouse.
In the second phase, Attunement, the focus turns to building a new relationship. Webster’s dictionary defines attunement as “to bring into harmony; to make aware or responsive.” Gottman’s definition includes the desire and ability to respect and better understand the inner world of a partner. One necessary element is for both partners to accept that there were some needs not being met on both sides and problems with the way that communication was handled. Rebuilding after an affair requires a new strategy for speaking, listening, and meeting each other’s needs.
Conflict avoidance is common in couples that have affairs. To shift from avoidance to disclosure and transparency, the therapist teaches the couple new conflict management skills. The therapist helps the couple address what each person feels and what they need from one another. Part of this is learning to listen, reflect back, and validate the feelings and needs of the partner. New methods are taught to help couples arrive at a compromise on issues where they were previously gridlocked. Teaching permission to take a break from a conversation before it deteriorates into attacking and defending is a key part of the new strategy. This includes each person learning to calm themselves instead of relying on their partner to do this. Another key element is helping a couple express admiration and fondness for each other and better appreciate and be grateful for the value the other person brings to the relationship.
One practical solution is for a couple to set a daily time to ask the other person about the good and the challenge in their day. This is part of hearing, valuing, building trust, and reconnecting. Expressing feelings more often is key. People cannot read their spouse’s mind, and when they assume what the other person is feeling, they often get it wrong. It is helpful to use language like:
“When you said or did _________, I felt _________.”
This is telling the other person what is being felt without attacking by saying things like “you are always so selfish” or “you never understand me.” A couple can also check in with an open-ended question when they sense that their partner is having a strong emotion. This can sound like “you seem to be disappointed – what’s up?” or “you seem frustrated – would you mind telling me what’s on your mind?” Remember, men and women both want to be valued and heard.
Resist the temptation to problem solve and instead seek understanding by listening. Make sure you really hear what your partner is saying by reflecting it back to them. Tell your partner that you accept their feelings as real whether you agree with them or not.
In many cultures being vulnerable is considered a weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to committed relationships. Being vulnerable and willing to share emotions is part of the key to feeling more connected to a partner. It builds trust, because one partner no longer has to guess what the other partner is feeling. True connection relies on trust, and trust in part relies on knowing the truth of what our partner feels.
Sharing vulnerabilities helps to stop either partner from feeling invisible or lonely. Vulnerability requires a lot of courage. A therapist can help a couple better express their feelings in a healthy way and shift the default interaction away from avoidance, defensiveness, and attacks and toward sharing, listening, and seeking to understand. Just like all other areas of life, the more one practices something, the more it becomes a habit.
Attunement is a key part of building trust, connection, and intimacy in the relationship.
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