Michele Weiner-Davis, LCSW, is the Founder of The Divorce Busting® Center in Boulder, Colorado. She is recognized for her groundbreaking work with couples on the brink of divorce. Weiner-Davis is a bestselling author and bestsellers include, Divorce Busting and The Sex-Starved Marriage. Her most recent book is, Healing from Infidelity.
Weiner-Davis is also a sought after speaker whose TEDx talk (The Sex-Starved Marriage) has been viewed more than 2 million times. She has received several prestigious professional awards, including the Outstanding Contribution to Marriage and Family Therapy Award from AAMFT. Her website, www.divorcebusting.com, offers valuable information for people in troubled marriages.
Weiner-Davis’ work has been widely featured in major newspapers, such as USA TODAY, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and magazines, including Time, Newsweek, Redbook, and Ladies Home Journal. She has made countless media appearances on television shows, including, 48 Hours, CBS This Morning, 20/20, Good Morning America,
CBS Evening News, The Today Show, and Oprah.
Kathryn Rossi: What are the most important elements in your life, and what is your growing edge right now?
Michele Weiner-Davis: My most recent book, Healing from Infidelity, was released in January of this year and I have postpartum elation!
KR: You have authored seven books and coauthored with Bill O’Hanlon, In Search of Solutions. Your books on building and healing relationships are epic, including, Divorce Busting, Getting Through to the Man You Love, The Divorce Remedy, The Sex-Starved Marriage, and The Sex-Starved Wife.
MWD: I’m very excited about Healing from Infidelity, because over the last decade or so, I have been specializing in work with couples that have difficulties due to affairs. I no longer do hourly sessions; I only offer two-day intensive sessions with couples in my office. Through these experiences, I developed a down-to-earth approach to helping couples move through the shock, pain, hurt, blame, and devastation of infidelity, to begin sorting out what needs to change in order to rebuild trust.
KR: Where do you begin in helping people come to terms with healing from infidelity?
MWD: One of the things I’ve noticed with couples that are struggling, is that they doubt whether they will be able to work out the marital issues for two primary reasons. First, many people feel enormous shame because they told themselves early on that, “I am going to stay married ‘till death do us part…unless there is an affair. If that happens, I’m out of here.”
Infidelity is rampant, yet no one thinks it is going to happen to them. When confronted with the reality of betrayal, people start rethinking the promise that they made to themselves about leaving. They reflect on their long history with their spouse, breaking up the family, financial situation, and more. But then, there’s the shame. People wonder, “What kind of a person am I if I go back on that promise I made to myself? I must be weak. I must be a coward. I have no backbone. What kind of message will I be giving my kids if I stay?”
Second, many people doubt their ability to work things out because they simply don’t have the skills to navigate the pain.
KR: So, where do you start?
MWD: I start by reassuring the betrayed spouse who is feeling shame by saying, “You are not weak. You are not a coward. People who work through the pain of infidelity are heroes.”
KR: Or, “sheros.” My father explained to me as a young child that I could never be a hero, but I could be a shero. Isn’t that darling? He was a feminist before the term was invented.
MWD: Shero. I like that. The second primary issue I address with couples is that when confronted with infidelity, there’s no reason most people should know what they’re supposed to do to make things better. It is uncharted territory. And unfortunately, many therapists, including myself, never received training on how to help couples recover from infidelity.
KR: This is true. Even my UCLA two-year post-doctoral training as a certified sex therapist did not include how to work with infidelity. Therapists are going to love learning from Healing from Infidelity.
MWD: In the beginning, I didn’t know how to help couples either. I learned by trial and error. In the true spirit of Milton Erickson, I promised myself to pay close attention to what works and what doesn’t work with each couple. I eliminated strategies that hit dead-ends and I expanded on strategies that seemed to help people move forward. I always consider my therapy approach to be a work in progress. My approach to helping couples heal from infidelity is no exception.
It is so difficult when a person finds out that their spouse has cheated. Even if they’ve suspected that their spouse has been unfaithful, when faced with concrete proof, it completely upends their life. They have no idea of how to deal with the erupting emotions.
KR: I’m sure people feel quite hopeless in having their core beliefs shaken and feeling lost on how to proceed.
MWD: Yes, people are disoriented, and quickly feel hopeless. They can hardly imagine ever being able to get over the terrible feelings they’re having. Over the years, I’ve realized that while I’m truly Ericksonian in my approach with couples — accessing resources and solutions within — I also strongly feel that when couples are in crisis, many of their natural resources go offline. So, unlike Erickson, I am very directive at this stage, coaching both the betrayed and unfaithful spouse as to what they need to do differently to stack the deck in favor of rebuilding and reconnecting.
KR: Erickson could be very direct. It is interesting to ask the question, “What is Ericksonian?” Ernest Rossi originally compiled The Collected Works of Milton H. Erickson, which has been re-edited by Ernest and me, and Roxanna Erickson-Klein. It is important to note that these books came through the lens of Ernest Rossi, who is by nature, non-directive. Erickson tailored and matched his style with how the person thought and processed things. Some people resonate with images, some, metaphors, and some, directives, and so on. He was a genius to connect with people on their best perceptions of how to change and grow. Erickson would use his laser-like stare and say, “I am very direct in my indirectiveness.” He would lay it on the line if he felt like that was the thing to do. I think this is practical. For instance, if a child reaches out to touch fire and you slap their hand away, that is the best and most effective thing you can do. In Mrs. Erickson’s last keynote speech, she shared that her husband had many ways of working, not all of them indirect. I believe that we stand on shoulders of giants until we develop our own unique, well-thought-out, confident, and able shoulders.
MWD: It is good to hear you say this. I spent a lot of time with Steve de Shazer and he asked brilliant solution-focused questions aimed at helping clients identify their own solutions. While I try to follow in his footsteps, the truth is, these days I often find myself being much more directive. In fact, in an effort to instill hope in these incredibly distraught couples, I often say things like, “I know that you don’t believe this now, but you will get through this. You will get to the other side. I can promise you that.” This is not something I did as a rookie solution-focused therapist.
KR: In these initial stages of recovery from infidelity that you speak of, I think in terms of brain neuroscience. When you “flip your lid” your prefrontal cortex (executive functioning thinking) largely goes offline, while your limbic system (emotional) becomes hyperactive. How are you going to access your inner resources when your limbic system is going crazy with anger, grief, and more? We think it takes a long time to make and break neuronal brain connections, but this is not true. Gene expression, which creates brain changes, can happen in seconds, and certainly within hours.
MWD: When you think about it, part of being frantic is not knowing what to do. So, when I coach clients, this calms their limbic system.
KR: Absolutely this will calm limbic systems, and then there really is hope.
MWD: I am on the frontlines with couples in my practice and they often experience many symptoms of PTSD. In workshops, I show videos of people saying things like, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I am depressed. I am anxious. I cry all the time. I cannot think. I cannot go to work. I cannot take care of the kids. I feel like I will never get myself back.” They are so devastated. Of course, not everyone responds this way. However, people who come for help are asking how to put themselves back together again.
KR: How do you begin the healing process with these couples?
MWD: The healing process happens in stages. First, I deal with the crisis of the discovery and let the betrayed spouse know that whatever they are experiencing is completely normal and natural, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. Plus, I let them know that it is important for them to feel free to express their feelings openly and honestly. As difficult as it may be, the unfaithful spouse needs to listen and express empathy and remorse.
Additionally, the betrayed spouse often has a tremendous need to ask questions. They want to know factual details such as, “Who is she or he?” “How long has this been going on?” “Where have you been having sex?” “What does this person mean to you?” “Do you love him or her?” “How am I different from this person?”
But the two questions asked most often by betrayed spouses are always, “How could you do this to me?” and “How do I know that you won’t do this again?”
My experience is, early on in discovering infidelity, many couples have marathon “talk sessions” that go into the wee hours of the morning. Unfaithful spouses who are committed to saving their marriages will engage in these conversations in hopes that the information will satisfy their spouse’s curiosity and eventually put an end to the painful discussions.
When that doesn’t happen according to the unfaithful spouse’s timetable, the couple often hits a dead-end. The betrayed spouse still has questions, but the unfaithful spouse fails to see the benefit in continuing to discuss the affair. This is when they often reach out for professional help.
KR: Do you think it is a good or bad idea that details are shared about the infidelity?
MWD: That is a great question. This is where I return to my Ericksonian roots. I believe people have their answers within. I turn to the person asking the questions and say, “So you just got information. Tell me, was that helpful to you?” A lot of people will say, “Yes, that was incredibly helpful. The ideas in my head were so much worse than what I just heard.” And, I often hear, “Even though it is uncomfortable to hear the details, the fact that my spouse is willing to share the information with me tells me we are on the same page and handling it as a team. That feels good.” I know then that this person benefited from detailed information.
Other times the betrayed spouse will say, “No, this has not been helpful. I now have images in my head of pictures and places. It’s all is too real.” I then say to this client, “Since asking questions has not been helpful to you, over the next few weeks, if you’re tempted to do so, ask yourself, ‘What can I do to resist the temptation to ask?’” I then help that person to develop a concrete game plan, such as going for a walk, calling a friend, meditating, playing the piano, reading a book, dancing, and so on. In short, I encourage clients to decide for themselves about the value of asking detailed questions.
KR: It is so important to develop a feedback loop as to what is helpful and what is not.
MWD: Yes, we should take our cue from our clients. It’s about what works for them. I just wrote an article on infidelity for Psychotherapy Networker, where I addressed my concern about using a universal, one-size-fits-all approach to working with clients. As a rookie infidelity therapist, for example, I had a hard and fast rule that if I found out in an individual session that someone had an affair, I insisted they must share this information with their spouse. Sometimes this resulted in a fabulous turning point in therapy because now all the cards were on the table. Honesty prevailed.
Conversely, other times, upon learning about the affair, betrayed spouses sometimes said, “That is all I needed to hear. It is over. I am out of here. I am going to an attorney.” The truth is, no therapist can predict the response in advance. I decided I did not want to play God anymore in these situations.
Now if I find out about an affair in an individual session, I will explore the pros and cons of disclosing the information. I might encourage truth-telling, but if in the end, clients say, “I can’t share the information because it will end my marriage,” or “I don’t want to hurt her anymore. I just want to move on and I am ready to stop this affair,” then I am willing to keep this information confidential. This is a very difficult thing for me to do because one of my core values is honesty. But therapy isn’t supposed to be comfortable for Michele Weiner-Davis; it’s what’s in the best interest of my clients. And in this case, I consider the marriage to be my client.
And here’s something else I’ve discovered about what helps couples heal: If a couple wants to rebuild trust, then the one who has been unfaithful must be willing to have his or her life be an open book for a period of time. That means being willing to share passwords to email and Facebook, texts, and other accounts such as bank statements and credit cards.
If the unfaithful spouse resists, saying, “I feel like she is my mother. I feel like I am in prison.” I respond, “I understand. This is no way to live, and I wouldn’t for a moment imagine that you will do this for a long period of time. However, when you are in the midst of a crisis, it means you might have to do things during a transitional period — and I intentionally use the word “transitional” — that you won’t have to do over the long run.”
KR: Yes, rebuilding dashed trust sometimes calls for extreme measures…if you have nothing to hide.
MWD: I also remind the betrayed person that, “Being on top of every little detail is no way to live in the long run. It overtakes your life. But for now, it’s understandable that you want to have the facts.”
When the betrayed spouse’s appetite for asking detailed questions about dates, times, sexual positions, and so on, seems insatiable, I begin to wonder if those are the wrong questions. The real underlying questions might be, “How could you do this?” “What were you telling yourself that made it okay to have an affair?” “How could you continually lie to me?” So sometimes I suggest we address these questions instead.
KR: I think it is kind that you suggest to the clients that they might not be asking the questions that matter most.
MWD: Thanks. And once people who have been betrayed start dealing with the answers to the real questions, they begin to deal with their grief. Their dreams, assumptions, and expectations of their marriages have died. How do you make peace with the fact that the person who you love the most has made a choice so different from anything that you could or would have done?
We talk about this deeper issue. Overcoming grief takes time.
KR: Yes, whether they choose to stay together or not. They still have to deal with the aftermath of what they’ve been through. The healing curve is often two steps forward and one step back. This is true with all physical, emotional, and mental challenges.
MWD: Absolutely Kathryn! But call me the eternal optimist, though not all couples choose to remain together after infidelity, I believe that with the right guidance, most couples can rebuild trust and restore their love. I teach the couples in my practice how to “divorce” their old marriages, and create new, stronger ones with each other.
Kathryn Rossi, PhD, has edited or coauthored 20 books in the field of psychotherapy, including co-editing 16 volumes of The Collected Works of Milton H. Erickson with Ernest Rossi and Roxanna Erickson-Klein. She has authored with Ernest Rossi numerous scientific articles on psychosocial genomics and therapeutic hypnosis, along with other current topics of social and spiritual significance. She is passionate about bringing yoga into the field of psychotherapy and has taught innovative psychotherapy internationally for more than 30 years.
Rossi is a professor at The New Neuroscience School of Psychotherapy and The Mind Body Institute in Solopaca, Italy, and is a founding member of The International Journal of Psychosocial and Cultural Genomics Consciousness and Health Research. She is a gifted psychotherapist working with individuals and couples in Los Osos, on the central coast of California. She is certified through the UCLA School of Medicine to work with couples and sexual issues.