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Manual of Articles Sections 15 - 27
Not all negative events are experienced as traumatic; instead, the literature suggests that people are most likely to become emotionally traumatized when an event violates basic assumptions about how the world and people operate (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; McCann, Sakheim, & Abrahamson, 1988). The cognitive disequilibrium resulting from an interpersonal trauma, such as an affair, can be better understood when placed in this light. Several marital assumptions are typically violated by an affair, such as assumptions that partners can be trusted and that the relationship is emotionally safe. When these assumptions are violated, individuals lose predictability for the future and are likely to experience a loss of control, which can then lead to feelings of anxiety and depression (see, e.g., Seligman, 1975). As long as individuals do not have a clear sense of why the trauma occurred, their assumptions remain violated and they cannot trust their partners not to hurt them again. The recovery process is further complicated by the fact that the partners who had the affair often are dealing with their own feelings of guilt, shame, anger, or depression and, thus, are often ill-equipped to respond effectively to the injured individual’s strong expressions of emotions and attempts to understand why the affair occurred.
Many of the behaviors observed in injured partners following the discovery of an affair can be viewed as resulting from disruption of their basic beliefs and their strong needs to reconstruct a shattered world view and protect themselves from further harm. If working through the aftermath of an affair is conceptualized as a response to interpersonal trauma, then the recovery and forgiveness process can be understood as parallel to the stages involved in the traumatic response. Therefore, we propose that the three major stages of this treatment are: (a) an impact stage, involving absorbing and experiencing the impact of the interpersonal trauma; (b) a search for meaning for the trauma, along with an awareness of the implications for this new understanding; and (c) moving forward with one’s life within the context of a new set of relationship beliefs.
Once the partners develop a shared view of why the affair occurred, it gives both members of the couple the ability to try to prevent it from happening again (either while maintaining the relationship or by ending it). It may also give them the sense of safety needed to “move on.” From a cognitive perspective, developing more accurate and comprehensive attributions for the traumatic event can contribute to the development of new expectancies or predictions for the future; without understanding why an event occurred, it is difficult to predict whether it will recur in the future.
In fact, it is expected that the emotions and thoughts associated with the event will reoccur, similar to PTSD flashbacks; however, these thoughts and feelings are no longer as severe or as disruptive as they once were. In order to move forward, the injured partner needs to achieve three goals by the end of this third stage: (a) to develop a realistic and balanced view of the relationship, (b) to experience a release from being controlled by negative affect toward the offending partner, and (c) to relinquish voluntarily his or her right to punish the participating partner.
After the couple has re-evaluated their relationship and discussed forgiveness, the treatment turns to either helping the couple terminate their relationship in a constructive manner or helping them make the changes necessary to stay together.
Reflection Exercise #1
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