When 41-year-old Elaine (a pseudonym) found out about her husband’s affair last May, it had been a decade since it happened. Her partner of 21 years admitted his infidelity during an argument, initially telling her that he’d slept with a former colleague just once, 10 years ago, but immediately regretted it and cut off contact. Later, he backtracked, claiming that he kissed and “touched” his co-worker, but stopped it before it went any further. Elaine was both heartbroken and confused — what was the real story? As the days went on, her husband continued to, as she calls it, “trickle truth” during their conversations. Eventually it emerged that not only did her husband have sex with this other woman, he actually had a year-long affair with her.
“I don’t know how I’ll ever get past this,” Elaine wrote on Reddit two days after she found out. “What hurts the most is we built this whole life. It’s been a decade, but I feel like he took my choices away. He bought this home with me knowing what he did. He continued to have sex with me knowing that he’d been with her.”
Shortly after, Elaine and her husband started going to therapy — both individually and as a couple — but she never found any of it to be a fit. She went through two therapists in three months, describing them as “equally bad.” “They told me to read books and focus on ‘self-care,’” she says. “Which was fine, but they also told me that ‘good people make mistakes.’ One of them even said, ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.’ I felt like I was being asked to view my husband’s affair as just a ‘mistake’ that he made and not a series of decisions that have had a huge negative impact on my life. Their advice was that I just needed to forget about it, focus on the good parts of the last 10 years and move on.”
This advice likely wouldn’t sit well with Talal Alsaleem, a self-described “infidelity recovery expert,” who says there are “very specific, concrete milestones” that couples need to go through after infidelity in order to heal. They include creating the right environment to start the process — which basically means not telling anyone except the therapist about the affair — agreeing on whether what happened is actually infidelity, and then sharing the whole story of the affair. “Healing from infidelity doesn’t just mean repairing the relationship,” says Alsaleem. “It’s a journey that can be done as a couple or an individual — not everybody is going to be able or willing to do what it takes to rebuild trust.”
Alsaleem is one of the rising stars of the so-called “infidelity recovery industry,” which comprises individual experts, established (often, seemingly, Christian) companies with names like Affair Recovery, the Infidelity Recovery Institute and After My Affair, private detectives, polygraphers, podcasts and even TikTok creators. According to Psychology Today, the industry is “large” and “lucrative” — and yet, aside from the ones mentioned, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of companies or experts specifically offering infidelity recovery expertise, meaning it’s difficult to know just how “large” or “lucrative” it really is.
The lack of clarity about the size and influence of the industry might be because, as Psychology Today notes, there’s still “very little research on effective therapeutic strategies to assist couples in dealing with infidelity.” Alsaleem says this is exactly why he entered the industry almost a decade ago. “I realized that I loved working with couples, and most couples are coming in because they have a crisis — [most often] related to infidelity,” he tells me. “I started looking at the trainings that I have, and none of them were adequate enough to actually help deal with infidelity. There wasn’t a specific modality of treatment, which was mind-boggling for me, because it’s one of the most devastating, prevalent issues that couples deal with.”
“Prevalent” is right. A recent survey found that nearly 50 percent of people in monogamous relationships have had affairs — but just 24 percent of married couples reported staying together afterwards. So, as long as cheating is here to stay, Alsaleem at least hopes that his infidelity therapy model will help those suffering to recover. Right now, he’s getting a lot of interest from clinicians looking to develop the skills they need to treat infidelity effectively, suggesting that the industry is only going to grow.
None of Elaine’s therapists (individual and marriage) touted themselves as infidelity recovery experts, though. Could this explain why she had such a bad experience? Or were her counselors just not a match for her? Alsaleem thinks it’s the former. “The common license in the U.S. is marriage and family therapy,” he explains, adding that the graduate programs for this kind of counseling mostly focus on theory. “Infidelity is something we’ve been dealing with since the dawn of history, but somehow we’ve failed to create a system to train [therapists to help with it],” he says.
Clinical psychologist and sex therapist David Ley isn’t so sure, though. In his experience, infidelity is “extensively addressed” in sex therapy training and research, and he credits a modality called Integrative Behavioral Couples’ Therapy as an example. Notably, it avoids taking a black-or-white stance against cheating, and interprets it in what he calls a “much more sophisticated, clinically based manner, which doesn’t incorporate the punitive, morally driven characteristics endemic to the infidelity recovery industry.”
Ley is also dubious about any one-size-fits-all methods to address cheating, which he says “ignores all of the individual differences” of a couple’s situation — including gender, age, education and wealth — and instead applies guidelines “that are based on moral assumptions about infidelity, not empirical evidence.” Oftentimes, continues Ley, issues of infidelity live in conjunction with substance abuse, sexual narcissism or personality disorders, all of which require their own, very different, treatments. So, he says, it’s “critical that the therapist understands how to work effectively” with these issues, alongside or before problems with infidelity.
It’s not just therapists that make up the infidelity recovery industry, however. Couples in crisis are increasingly turning to social media influencers — whether they’re professional therapists or not — for advice on their situation. Some creators, like TikTok psychotherapist Joe Kort — who offers guidance on everything from infidelity and sexuality to cancel culture and narcissism — are certified sexologists and make clear warnings that “TikTok isn’t therapy.” Others, however, are just regular people or self-described life coaches sharing seemingly toxic advice on how to hack your partner’s phone if you suspect them of cheating, or telling their own stories of infidelity.
Then there are the polygraphs. Paul Bramley, the founder of British Polygraph Testing, says that most of the lie detector tests he administers are to couple’s struggling with infidelity. “It’s always been a popular service,” he explains. “I think that’s because of the Jeremy Kyle Show [the British equivalent of Maury].” Although polygraphs are 80 to 90 percent accurate, for many betrayed partners, they seem to be a sure-fire way of getting to the truth — whether that comes during the test, or in a panicked confession before it. But they’re not cheap — a lie detector test at British Polygraph Testing will set you back £400 to £600 (approximately $544 to $816).
“In the days leading up to [his polygraph] test, my husband was a total mess,” says Elaine. “He started confessing things like crazy, and admitting things he had lied about previously.” When her husband did take the test, he was “so upset and nervous” that the examiner said she thought “he was going to have a heart attack.” After she got the results, Elaine felt relieved. “I felt like I finally had the truth,” she explains. “That didn’t last long, though. The affair came back into the forefront of my mind, and I started going over the details again and again. After pushing him on it, he finally admitted that he had lied about additional details. One of the questions on the polygraph was, ‘Are you presently withholding any details about your affair?’ and he answered ‘no’ and passed, but it turns out he was lying to the examiner.” Elaine says the test was a “huge waste of $600” — although credits the threat of it with squeezing more confessions out of her husband.
Unsurprisingly, both Alsaleem and Ley discourage polygraph testing for infidelity — particularly when it’s done in exchange for therapy. “You can’t really trust that information,” Alsaleem tells me. “Even with [the polygraph], or texts, emails and videos, you’re only capturing behaviors, you’re not capturing the thinking process and the emotional process behind them.” Likewise, Ley criticizes both polygraphs and any other sort of full disclosure process, saying they’re “based on a view of infidelity that involves an assumption that people who engage in infidelity are inherently untrustworthy, and must be compelled and forced to be truthful. That’s not therapy, but something more akin to interrogation and criminal monitoring.”
However, Bramley believes that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. “[Betrayed partners] are looking for certain things that have happened,” he says. “They’re coming [to me] to find something out, and afterwards they can go, ‘Well, now I’ve got the information I need to make the decisions that I want to make for my life going forward.’ I always advise people to use the services of mental health professionals as well.”
Of course, mental health professionals aren’t cheap, and therein lies the rub — while couples experiencing infidelity might really need a cottage industry like this one to help them cope, the more quality services cost an arm and a leg. Alsaleem, for example, charges $245 an hour — around $100 more than the average cost of traditional couples’ therapy in the U.S. (Ley charges $250.) How much more valuable is infidelity-specific therapy than regular counseling, then? Furthermore, is the infidelity recovery industry more broadly just profiting off the pain of vulnerable people who don’t actually need these services?
Alsaleem doesn’t think so — when it comes to his model of therapy, at least. “Doing infidelity recovery is like doing surgery work versus outpatients,” he says. “There’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of trauma. Your role as a therapist is different. In traditional couples counseling, it’s a softer approach. This is more of a crisis. You’re investigating, you’re calling BS, you’re pushing to get the truth, and to make sure that the truth makes sense to everyone. It’s messy work.”
This obviously is at odds with Ley’s view of the infidelity recovery industry, which he describes as employing techniques that “look much more like confession, penance and repentance in religious traditions, not the improved communications, insight, coping skills and changes to cognitions and behaviors that we pursue in therapy,” he says.
Still, what Alsaleem is offering does seem to fit with what betrayed partners want. “What I’m seeking from counseling is to have the affair ‘unpacked,’” says Elaine. “My husband has given me so many different versions of events it’s all jumbled in my head, and his answers to my questions just lead to more questions. I’m hoping that he can start from the beginning and explain it properly, and that the therapist can help me formulate the right questions, and help him formulate the right answers so that it makes sense.”
For Alsaleem, that’s the goal — to help make sense of a devastating deception. “People can be traumatized for a long period of time, especially when they don’t have the proper treatment,” he explains. “The goal isn’t necessarily to repair the relationship, it’s to [prevent you from] living with the trauma for the rest of your life, because people carry these wounds forever.”