What do you do when both partners have cheated, but they point the finger of blame at each other?

In many cases, we call this “revenge cheating.”

These situations can be incredibly tricky for a therapist. It’s especially difficult when a cheating partner blames the one they betrayed, who then internalizes that blame and begins to wonder if the affair was somehow within their control.

I received a similar question from one of the clinicians in my Gottman Method Therapy group.

“Consider a couple who are having issues with trust and commitment. Both have cheated. One partner blames the other – the one who cheated first – citing the jeopardy the original cheater’s behavior put them in. What intervention would you use to start addressing trust and commitment?”

I’ve dealt with this situation several times in my career. Here are some important points to consider:

  1. It’s the therapist’s role to help the couple avoid criticizing each other. In these situations, the therapist must take an active stance and shut down the blame game. If you’re not able to command this kind of authority, why not? It may be a great time to review your own comfort level around conflict.
  2. Don’t “bite the hook.” Often, the one who needs your help most is the one who feels worse. The betrayed partner often has the latitude for an emotional reaction, while the cheating partner feels like they don’t have space for their own process. I’ve seen therapists unknowingly gang up on the cheating partner. It’s better to stop the interaction and have them address their own flooding or physiological overwhelm.
  3. Consider how you’re using your time outside regular sessions to help the couple process what’s going on. Are you making yourself available for shorter, one-on-one sessions, even over the phone or online? Giving them space to express their ambivalence toward the relationship can be helpful. As they talk through their fears, look for opportunities for them to bring up what they’ve said at the next joint session.

One of the best books on this topic is Not ‘Just Friends’ by Shirley Glass. Creating space for warring partners to express their ambivalence while minimizing blame was a cornerstone of her work.

If you’re having difficulty supporting couples through infidelity and would benefit from some consultation around the topic, you can reach out to us here.