Houston therapist helps relationships survive after affairs

By Sara Donchey - Anchor/Reporter

HOUSTON - For many married couples, an affair may seem like the end of the relationship, but a local therapist is helping dozens of couples to not only overcome infidelity, but end up stronger than ever.

Kay and Mike are clients of Carrie Cole, a family therapist and director of research for The Gottman Institute. We are not using the couples’ real names for our story.

After 16 years of marriage and raising children together, Kay began to notice that something seemed to be “off” in their marriage.

“I knew something was definitely going on,” Kay explained.

She noticed that Mike began to seem distant and less engaged in their relationship.

For Mike, things began to unravel too.

"One thing (led) to another, and it does not happen overnight,” he said. "I had gone through a phase where I just took on an extreme narcissistic personality and was in dire need of attention that I didn't feel like I was getting at home, which is what led me to stepping out."

Mike had an affair with an acquaintance, and began sneaking around behind his wife’s back. When the guilt became too much to bear, he came home and confessed to Kay.

"It just devastated me,” Kay said. “Because I just never thought that (he) of all people would do that to me. Ever. Never even crossed my mind."

Kay explained that her initial reaction was to end the relationship, though after taking some days to think about it, she decided it would be best to seek help. That is when she sought out the assistance of Carrie Cole and her husband, Dr. Don Cole.

Carrie and Don learned techniques from Dr. John Gottman, a professor of psychology, researcher and famed author who has used extensive scientific studies of behavior in thousands of couples to formulate best practices for married couples who desire a healthy and stable relationship.

“He looked at all of these couples -- both healthy and unhealthy couples -- and discovered that there are some real differences between those groups,” Carrie explained.

Researchers tested how healthy couples reacted to conflict by collecting data on their heart rates and facial expressions during specific interactions, and used what they learned to create a three-pronged approach to surviving an affair.

The first step is disclosure, or confessing what you have done to your partner.

"There has to be some atonement -- complete disclosure about what happened and complete transparency from that moment forward,” Carrie said. "(It is) tuning back into your partner, emotionally engaging with your partner, and working though some of the difficult things that need to be worked through.”

And the third step, known as attachment, aims to rebuild the bond with your partner.

Carrie explained that sometimes couples form an even stronger bond after working through an affair.

"Through having healthy discussions around your conflict, you can actually develop greater intimacy -- and that's our goal," she said.

She also noted that affairs are often a symptom of other problems in the relationship, and sometimes those problems will lead to the end of a relationship.

But for Mike and Kay, understanding why the affair happened helped them reach a new level of intimacy.
It took hours of counseling.

"If you can move past the hurt and the pain of what happened and work on the why and how it happened, you will be in a much better place,” Mike said.

The Gottman institute is conducting an ongoing study on infidelity throughout the United States and Canada, and is looking for local couples to participate. The study is being conducted in the Clear Lake/Friendswood area. For more information on the study, click here.

John and Julie Gottman will also be in Houston training therapists on treating affairs and trauma May 18-20. Therapists interested in attending can register through the National Marriage Seminars' website.

To learn more about Carrie Cole's and Dr. Don Cole’s work at The Center for Relationship Wellness, visit their website.

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