FEELINGS VS FACTS TRAP
Empathy requires prioritizing feelings over facts. Even an unfaithful partner who deeply loves his wife, wants to express genuine empathy, and is sincerely working hard at recovery can fall into the "feelings vs. facts trap".
To illustrate the problem, consider the following painful exchange between Tom and Sue:
Sue: You were so thoughtless to call that woman every night in the garage when I was in the kitchen preparing your dinner just two rooms away. And you did that for over a year!! What were you possibly thinking? You broke my heart. I will never trust you again.
Tom: You are making things up. I didn't call her every night. And the affair only lasted 9 months. You are making everything sound so much worse. No wonder you can't trust me.
In this example of broken communication, Tom may have been willing to take responsibility for what he actually did but he gets stuck when the accusations does not align with the facts in his head. Tom is an engineer who highly values logic and information; therefore, he feels compelled to set the record straight. Also, because he feels so guilt about what he did, he does not want his wife to think it was even worse. And he's worried that his wife will penalize him even more if she is stuck on an exaggerated set of facts.
FOCUSING ON EMOTIONS FIRST
To help this couple, Tom needs to learn that emotions need to be prioritized. It's not that we ignore facts, but that an emphasis on facts overlooks the "elephant in the room" which is that the most important "fact" is that he betrayed Sue. Arguing over the details before he acknowledges that fact is a recipe for disaster.
Let's break down facts that he overlooked:
his betrayal of Sue by his interacting with the affair partner in their home, only a few rooms away.
his deception of Sue by pretending that the call was related to work.
Sue's broken heart.
Sue's lost of trust.
We encourage couples to practice dialogs (betrayed partner's feelings about an event and unfaithful partner's response) in a therapy session and then at home when they are NOT triggered.
This will help your awareness of the "facts vs. feelings trap" so that the unfaithful partner will be better able to resist the temptation to correct facts when feeling unfairly accused. This will allow your conversations about the infidelity to feel like they pull you together, not split you apart. Also, remember that consistently responding with emotions first takes practice. Be patient as you try to establish this new communication pattern together.