Guiding Couples to Repair When Trust Has Been Broken: Setting Expectations with Digital Use


Many couples struggle to form agreements for cellphone and computer use after an affair. Providing guidance to establish expectations around digital use is a valuable service provided by therapists in the field of marriage and family therapy. Setting shared expectations with digital use can be hard to accomplish in any relationship, and post affair, the need for clear, agreed-upon guidelines is of importance for the health of a relationship. Unlimited digital use can inhibit opportunities for emotional connection, which may have been a contributing factor in the etiology of an affair. Therefore, helping couples to heal from the trauma of a betrayal in trust will also involve setting new ways of relating. Digital habits can leave those in relationships feeling a pervasive sense of loneliness, which complicates healing.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community (2023), an important indicator of declining social connection is an increase in the proportion of Americans experiencing loneliness. Their surveys found that approximately half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates among young adults. These estimates and multiple other studies indicate that loneliness and isolation are more widespread than many of the other major health issues of our day, including smoking (12.5% of U.S. adults), diabetes (14.7%), and obesity (41.9%). Despite such high prevalence, less than 20% of individuals who often or always feel lonely or isolated recognize it as a major problem (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2023). Feelings of loneliness within a relationship can stem from overuse of social media or other digital habits.

Couple relationships are challenged by partners’ time spent on cell phones and computers in a myriad of ways, especially after an affair. For example, a partner may wonder about a threat to the intimate partnership when their loved one is texting. At that moment, one may feel that asking about the recipient of the text seems intrusive. This dynamic highlights issues of personal autonomy within a coupled partnership. Do people who have an affair lose their right to digital privacy? If so, who gets to decide how long the privacy ends? Should therapists advocate for digital transparency after an affair? Few established guidelines exist to assist with answers to these real questions that spring forward in our modern families making the work that we conduct of great value.

While not every betrayal is caused by a problem in a partnership, the betrayed person can use the crisis of contending with agreements after a breach in trust to better understand their partner, which is a vital step toward rebuilding trust. Encouraging clients to host conversations about the role of digital distractions in the creation of an affair is an important step in the process of rebuilding stability in a relationship.

Over the past 20 years in my work as an MFT, my recommendation to couples is to start a dialogue during times of calm toward the goal of digital agreements. The ability to accomplish a productive conversation requires the couple to manage emotionally unpleasant feelings. Many people leave problem-solving about these challenges to the time when the behavior is most disturbing. This is best avoided. Picking an ideal time to discuss the impact of digital use is primary to the success of the conversation.

Do people who have an affair lose their right to digital privacy? If so, who gets to decide how long the privacy ends?

For example, at the end of the day, when two people are possibly short-fused, may not be the best opportunity to discuss feelings of alienation. Additionally, people will benefit by establishing boundaries on cell phone use during home life toward the goal of emotional connection. I recommend that clients start a dialogue with the goal of increasing emotional intimacy: “I want to feel that we connect each day when we see each other after time apart.” In this case, the couple can focus on a solution rather than becoming triggered by a break in trust. I encourage clients to inquire about the perception of their loved one: “Do you feel that we are both available to each other in a way that feels connected, especially in the realm of our digital habits?” This is a very good question that may lead to success in more ways than digital boundary setting. In my experience, a high percentage of affairs are discovered by text or email.

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Helping clients recognize the association between an object, such as a cellphone or laptop, and feelings of pain can be helpful in repairing a relationship. The person who had the affair can be educated to appreciate the natural triggering effect on their partner when they write texts in the presence of the partner. If a client is triggered in a session, helping the client focus on stabilizing emotions using grounding techniques is an important component of clinical work.

Marriage and family therapists will need to help clients remain calm so that they are able to focus on making agreements. Using psychoeducation to increase understanding of normative behavioral responses to triggers may allow a couple to reduce reactivity or lessen arguments that grow out of routine use of devices. Couples can be encouraged to eliminate cell phone use during time together to focus on the quality of their relationship. Developing a shared understanding of triggering events will assist in establishing agreements that are constructed to lessen emotional volatility.

Some individuals may want to establish an agreement that all cell phone and computer content be transparent. These conversations can be hosted after all communication between the two individuals involved in the affair has ended. The ability to set this boundary is complex when two people share the same occupational space if the affair began between co-workers. In this situation, a complete cut-off in contact may not be possible. Your practice will be strengthened by having your own set recommendations regarding transparency after an affair has come to light and addressing coworker affairs should be part of the dialogue.

Seven in ten Americans—regardless of whether they are in a relationship—say it is rarely or never acceptable for someone to look through their partner’s cell phone without that person’s knowledge

In these situations, partners will benefit by creating concrete plans about the boundaries of communication with emphasis on elimination of all emotional or sexual content when communicating with the co-worker. Allowing conversations that solve workplace needs versus post-affair recovery will help couples establish trust. Couples will need to avoid looking at digital content without expressed permission from their partner, although an affair has occurred. According to research from the Pew Research Center, “there is widespread agreement among the public that digital snooping in couples is unacceptable. Seven in ten Americans—regardless of whether they are in a relationship —say it is rarely or never acceptable for someone to look through their partner’s cell phone without that person’s knowledge” (Vogels & Anderson, 2020, para 4).

Is it a toxic interactional pattern or part of a healing agreement to encourage individuals to share digital activities on a partner’s phone or laptop? Hosting discussions in a therapeutic safe space is a valuable service to promote growth and change. To look through the partner’s phone after an affair as a form of assurance and to reduce anxiety may be a useful exercise; however, there is no guarantee that individuals are not communicating on hidden platforms. Therapists can educate clients on the shortcomings of transparency as technology allows ways for most people to circumnavigate agreements when the will to do so persists.

>>AAMFT Webinar: Secure Attachment and Mindfulness in Affair Recovery

Any agreement for transparency through sharing content on cell phones and laptops is limited due to technology, and any agreement in this area will require this caveat. Digital sharing of content and passcodes can be a temporary arrangement for a couple as they work on rebuilding trust in their relationship. Emphasis on trust building will be a useful therapeutic endeavor and maintaining this focus during sessions may be accomplished with a therapist who is situated in the room as an educator and a guide.

Keeping the focus on healing after trust has been broken by constructing clarion digital agreements designed to address specific habits is an important function of the work conducted in our offices.

Jody Eyre, MS, is an AAMFT Professional member holding the Clinical Fellow designation and a licensed marriage and family therapist in the State of Rhode Island. She is a board member of the Rhode Island Association for Couple and Family Therapy. She is the founder of, providing workshops and counseling. Eyre is currently working on her second book, Rel@ting: How to Find Emotional Closeness in the Digital Age. She makes her home in Newport, Rhode Island.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023). Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Retrieved from

Vogels, E.A, & Anderson, M. (2020). Dating and relationships in the digital age. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

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