(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)
Male 1: if you weren’t so damn stubborn, you’d apologize to Ros and everybody would be happy.
Male 2: As usual, you’re overlooking a key psychological component in this whole issue.
Male 1: You’d have to admit you were wrong?
Male 2: Exactly!
Female: I don’t see what’s so hard about telling Ros you were wrong.
Male 2: You don’t understand. It’s not the same as Dad being wrong or you being wrong. I have a degree from Harvard!
Dr. Kenner: And that’s from Frasier, I’m sure you recognize the voices. What do you do? Are you able to apologize and one of the most serious things that a couple needs to apologize for, one partner in that couple, is if they had an affair. And how do they bring themselves to apologize for such betrayal? With me today to discuss the topic of apologies, but more broadly of affairs, and damage control, is Dr. Tiffany Kisler. She is an assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Rhode Island and Dr. Kisler teaches courses on couple and family relationships and in sexuality and sex therapy. She’s published and presented at national and international conferences on her clinical research, which includes sexual functioning, relational and satisfaction and sex therapy techniques. Dr. Kisler is the co-founder of the Psychological Center for Sexual Health in Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome Dr. Tiffany Kisler.
Dr. Kisler: Thank you very much for having me.
Dr. Kenner: You’re very welcome. It’s a pleasure. Now let’s imagine that a couple comes into yours or my office and the woman has just learned - it is raw, a wound - that her husband has had an affair. What are some of the things you might do to help the woman and the couple absorb the blow of the affair?
Dr. Kisler: This is a very intense situation upon discovery of an affair. Emotions can be quite tightened on both partners’ perspectives, so here are the most important things to help with damage control. Restoring equilibrium. What we need to do is encourage the couple not to make a rash decision about the future of the relationship just yet, because when emotions are high, they can’t think as clearly about what they want to do with the next step. So we might start with trying to get a little bit of information about what happened, when it began, when it became sexual, has it ended, and who else knows about it? Sharing that information is very important at the beginning stages of discovery.
Dr. Kenner: But what happens if I’m that woman and I say, “I am in such pain, Dr. Kisler. I’m in such pain. I just want to leave him. I can’t think of anything. It hurts. And I’m so angry with him. I want to kill him - I know I’m not going to kill him - but I want to throw all of his clothes out. I just can’t believe that he was in the arms of another woman.”
Dr. Kisler: I think it’s important there to have some sympathy, sympathizing from the perspective of the person who is going through this, or the injured partner.
Dr. Kenner: So what would you say to me?
Dr. Kisler: First I would put it in normative context and probably talk to you about some of the feelings that you’re experiencing. So that it’s normal to feel betrayed, to not be able to sleep well at night, to feel like your world has been turned upside down. Depression, anxiety can raise in times like this, and you can feel very uncertain about absolutely everything in your life. So I’d want to normalize some of the process that the person is feeling.
Dr. Kenner: So you do need to tend to me and it was fascinating, because I was role playing and my shoulders were all crunched up in this real tight … I was so anxious, angry and depressed. And as you were telling me, saying that you would listen to me and tell me it’s normal to feel angry and upset and hurt and whatnot, my shoulders just relaxed. I relaxed! It was like, “She’s listening to me!”
Dr. Kisler: Isn’t that wonderful? I think another part of it that’s really important is teaching some time out and some venting techniques. As you said, you felt that tension in your shoulders. All kinds of emotion just flowing through your body and we need to learn an adaptive way to release it that’s going to also minimize additional damage to the couple. Minimize hurtful behavior that is occurring between them. So a safe place to get out some of this emotion that’s building up.
Dr. Kenner: What would be one of those techniques that you could give me?
Dr. Kisler: Basically asking for some space is really important, as you’re working through the anger. There can be all kinds of triggers that come up, and you’re noticing interruption and here you need to tell your partner that you’re going to need to take a timeout, that you need to go off on your own, get on a treadmill, get some exercise, and tune into some of the self care techniques that I think are also important, like to eat well at this time, watching your diet and all different aspects that can contribute to your overall health
Dr. Kenner: So it’s really learning how to self nurture during this time, rather than just flail.
Dr. Kisler: Yes, nurturing is a beautiful word to think about here. You need to be nurtured at this time, now more than ever.
Dr. Kenner: And with yourself. With other people it’s wonderful, but with yourself too.
Dr. Kisler: Absolutely.
Dr. Kenner: How do you help a couple talk about the affair while minimizing the damage because usually it’s finger pointing, “You did this!” “I can’t believe you did this!” “We hadn’t had sex for six months. What do you expect?”
Dr. Kisler: Oh absolutely. I think one thing that is absolutely critical here, at least in the therapy room, is that you do not let your couple - as tempting as it is to get into that pattern - get into that negative dynamic in the therapy room as they do outside. So here you’re going to model a different way to communicate about these issues. Focusing on your own emotion and your own feelings is an important place to start, rather than accusations or what you did to me and what happened in the past. That’s going to be really important, to try to learn how to regulate in session.
Dr. Kenner: So it’s better to say, “I’m feeling so hurt or so vulnerable or I don’t know who I am anymore.” That’s better to say rather than, “You bleep bleep bleep.” Rather than the finger-pointing stuff, right? So you keep them in a safe territory. Now what about dealing about the graphic details about sex? “Where did you have it?” “In that hotel.” “Oh my God, I have to pass that hotel every time I go to work and now that’s all I’ll think about.”
Dr. Kisler: What an excellent question and this is a question that comes up a lot. That is, how much detail do I give my partner as we’re talking about this? Usually the injured partner wants to know everything, but I tell you, most of the time, they report later on that they wished they hadn’t have been told all the graphic details. It doesn’t help the healing process, and it doesn’t restore safety. So what I do with couples is help them set limits about which type of information to share with each other, and spare each other of the graphic sexual details of the encounters.
Dr. Kenner: Right, so you don’t get, “Did he do it better than I did, or did she do it better than I did?”
Dr. Kisler: Absolutely.
Dr. Kenner: So what type of questions would you explore with couples?
Dr. Kisler: I would want to know about where they are now. How did they get here, what are they thinking about the relationship, do they want to move forward and try to stay together? If so, what do they think needs to happen in order to get there? Also, looking at what sorts of factors might have contributed to getting them to this place that they are at this point in time.
Dr. Kenner: And in case people want to get in touch with you, I’m speaking with an expert - Dr. Tiffany Kisler, who is the assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Rhode Island, and she is the co-founder of the Psychological Center for Sexual Health in Providence, Rhode Island. Your email, if anyone wants to contact you?
Dr. Kisler: Yes, it’s email@example.com.
Dr. Kenner: And there are wonderful books too that you can read. I know one of them is After the Affair, and the other one is Getting Past the Affair. Wonderful resources. I’m Dr. Ellen Kenner. It’s been so great being with you today Tiffany, thank you so much.