Therapy is not a magic cure-all, and there is little value in attending couples’ therapy if one partner is either unwilling to go, or still engaged in an affair.
Therapy can often be seen by the faithful partner as an opportunity to have a ‘professional’ vilify the cheater. There is often an expectation that the therapist will reinforce the views, beliefs and values of the betrayed partner, as ‘moral’, ‘ethical’, and just plain right … confirming that the cheater is just plain wrong. The faithful partner is seeking validation from the therapist, and is seeking to use the therapist as a professional confirmation that their devastation and pain from the affair is justified.
It can also be about wanting to see the cheater punished, scolded and hurt by the therapist, under the faithful partner’s justification of ‘to get through to them’. The betrayed partner essentially wants to witness their cheater suffer a professional beating. Individual therapy might be a better option for both parties if this is the case.
Therapy does have value and can help people deal with the fallout from an affair. This article gives an insight to how the therapist themselves are approaching the matter.
What Do We Know About Infidelity?
Marriage is the only war where you sleep with the enemy.
~ Gary Busey
Some stats on infidelity:
- In the clinical population, 25-30% of couples come to therapy in the aftermath of an affair, and an additional 30% report during therapy that there has been an affair, so roughly 1 in 2 couples in your office will have had experiences with affairs… although (consistent with Gottman’s report) loss of intimacy was the larger reported problem for most couples, according to therapists
- Domestic violence (minor and major types) is the only other similar kind of problem that rivals this 1 in 2 couples rate.
- When client couples are asked about marital satisfaction, 34% of women and 56% of men having affairs report being happy in their marriage… so cheating can happen in apparently happy couples.
- As for the general population, today 32% of men and 21% of women admit to sexual infidelity at some point during the marriage (Tafoya & Spitzberg, 2007). Some of the lower estimates came from studies that asked people about infidelity while their partner was present or nearby. There is also a strong desire to appear socially acceptability, and so reported rates of infidelity are likely lower than actual rates.
Glass offers there are three kinds of affairs:
- The primarily sexual affair, seen in 44% of general male and 26% of clinical male populations
- The primarily emotional affair, seen mostly in women…
- The combined type of affair, which is the most destructive to the marriage.
How Does A Couple/Person Recover After An Affair?
Glass conceptualizes therapy after infidelity using a trauma-based model with a few key developmental tasks:
- The couple must first deal with the significant depression and anxiety experienced by the faithful partner that can take on a PTSD-like quality, intense shame and guilt, and raging anger at the betrayal.
- Next the couple must deal with the depression, guilt, impulsiveness or addiction, and sometimes narcissism in the unfaithful partner.
- Finally, the couple must rebuild some trust and faith in the commitment to the relationship.
Some argue that depression and bereavement is the most critical emotion to face in recovering from infidelity. For the faithful partner, it may be easier to focus on feeling betrayed by the unfaithful partner. While this is a normal and quite understandable reaction at first, staying “stuck” in this place with this emotion can prevent the faithful partner from moving on to an even more painful and critical realization. The relationship the faithful partner thought they had never was what they believed it to be. At that point, faithful partners can feel even more betrayed, ashamed, or exposed, and can believe the therapist is blaming them for the affair.
Therapists should begin with some basic steps:
- Before therapy begins, conduct an assessment
- Each member is seen conjointly as well as separately, and confidentiality is held between therapist and couple member. This creates a difficult therapeutic bind though, as one person may reveal significant information and want it withheld from the other.
- Trace the history of the affair, which should cover past affairs if there were any. These may not have been revealed to the partner; however, even without past affairs, a good history should go back two years or more tracing the development of the relationship
- The cheater must end the affair (whether it is sexual or emotional, “real” or “cyber”). Many argue that if the cheater refuses, then therapist should not offer couples therapy, explaining that the couple is not yet ready for therapy.However, some therapists would agree to a limited therapy to help the cheater admit the affairs hidden from the partner.
- If the therapist has concerns about domestic violence or substance abuse, these assessment or treatment needs must be addressed first.
- At the end of the assessment, the offered therapy is labeled as
- “reconciliation” for those continuing their relationship who will work on healing
- “separation” for those who will end the relationship
- “ambivalence” for those unable to decide what to do next (in which case the point of therapy is to decide what to do next)
- Therapy begins with setting goals:
- The early goals should include getting a short-term commitment to therapy. Often 12 sessions is enough (not counting the assessment meetings), with a “12th session review” built in. This creates safety, which means ending all contact with the affair partner or ending behaviors that used to lead to affairs. Therapy will also need to instill some sense of hope for the future of the relationship, perhaps by recalling the early positive days and envisioning the future (hopefully good) days…
- During early and middle phases, the therapist may have to explicitly teach the cheater how to respond to the pain and shame of the partner, as well as how to simply be a better partner.
- The therapist has to tell the couple to focus on relationship building at home, but focus on the affair itself only during sessions – therapy may be the only safe place to talk about it productively without “pouring salt over old wounds.”
- In the middle phase, goals include constructing an explanation of what happened, as well as dealing with “similarity errors” that occur when one partner assumes the other conducted the affair for the same reasons and in the same ways they would have.
- the therapist has to help the couple grieve the loss of innocence and trust, and accept that they both had illusions about what the relationship was for each of them.
- Ending goals focus on understanding the reasons for the affair, including family and cultural factors, as well as healing through forgiveness rituals.
Telling The Story of the Affair
This is a joint process during the middle and ending phases of therapy, initially focused on the unfaithful partner explaining the what, when, why, and how of the affair. This takes some preparation and so too many details at first is not good, especially as lies are likely to be uncovered. However, a staggered disclosure of “a little here” and “a little there” over time is more likely to be harmful than an “all at once” approach over a few sessions. The therapist should get only the basics at first, and once a safe place is created in therapy, allow the couple to get into the “dirty details.”
- The therapist may have to be available for regular sessions, as well as crises calls. Cotherapy as well as individual therapy sessions may be offered; collaboration with outside individual therapists is likely helpful, as otherwise they can unwittingly support the affair or the splitting processes that led to the affair.
- Neutrality is next to impossible for the therapist, and may be harmful since it subtly reinforces the power imbalance that the affair created. However, most people do not have affairs because they want to hurt their partners. Rather, they feel lonely, or distant, or desperate for love, and these powerful feelings can make an affair very tempting, and the chance to meet these powerful emotional needs overpowering.
- An active style is needed for the therapist. Allowing the couple to fight without resolution, or rehash old points over again, or never move past the initial hurt can be very detrimental to the couple.
- The couple may look very distressed for a long time. It may be very hard to make it through 10 sessions, and they may not seem to make real progress for two years after the affair has ended, as the trauma symptoms, anniversaries, and slow process of (re)building trust may be continuously marked with starts and stops.
- Some education may be a good idea for the couple – explaining that it is common to have a re-emergence of old feelings of anger and distrust around anniversary dates; that “flashbacks” or mental images of the affair can be unwanted, unexpected, and very disruptive; and that obsessive thoughts on the part of the faithful are not uncommon.
Over time, the telling of the story shifts to the committed relationship itself, what was missing, how partners actually felt, and what they still feel after the affair. If the faithful partner believes the affair happened because the unfaithful partner is callous or unloving, these explanations will be woven into the story of the affair and likely spell the end of the relationship. However, if the faithful partner can understand other reasons for the affair, such as loneliness, depression, or disconnection in the committed relationship, these explanations can be woven into the story and lead to forgiveness and healing (see for example Hall and Fincham, 2006).
Therapists Values About Infidelity
- Therapists should not disclose their own history with affairs or personal opinions about affairs, as this is likely to take the focus off the couple’s experience, and alienate one of the members of the couple. Therapists who have a personal history of infidelity (as either the faithful or unfaithful partner) should be very clear about how competent they are to treat a couple struggling with infidelity. If the therapist has any doubt, they should consult with a trusted colleague.
- I think that if a value statement guides the therapist’s work, they should state it clearly for the couple. Some therapists might believe that the purpose of the therapy is to heal the relationship, while other might believe the purpose of the work is to determine whether continuing the relationship is even possible. In such cases, being open mean the couple can give informed consent to the therapy process.
The analogy in use is of a garden. Some gardens have weeds, not because they were intentionally planted there by the owners, but because the owners neglected the garden and didn’t do the things they should have done to care for it. Thus, affairs happen in neglected marriages, and the couple must be responsible for the neglectful maintenance of their marriage. However, the decision to plant poison ivy is one person’s decision, not the couple’s decision, and the one having the affair must take sole responsibility for that. Therapists have to be careful that they do not blame the faithful partner for the affair, but if the marriage had deteriorated prior to the affair, which usually is the case, the couple together must hold some responsibility for that and for changing that if the relationship is to move through the injury of the affair to a more adjusted and healthy place.
Glass offers a couple of other ideas for therapy like:
- The couple might establish a private detective fund or an understanding about ongoing monitoring of the cheater.
- The unfaithful partner may send a letter to the affair partner explaining “it’s over” and that they are choosing their partner and committed relationship over the affair.
I would offer establishing “safe” people with whom the faithful partner can discuss the affair. The faithful should get first say over this, but should not disclose the affair details to the unfaithful partner’s mother, for example, or the children in the family. While faithful partners may choose to confide in their own sibling or parents, they should realize that this is not likely to make family gatherings a peaceful place ever again should the relationship survive.
Glass says 38% of couples remain separated at the end of therapy, and so therapy reconciled the relationship in at most 62% of cases…. meaning therapy may have a 2 in 3 chance of working, at best. The couple is more likely to end the relationship before therapy is over is the affair was ongoing during therapy, if the affair was a combined type, or if the affair was an emotional one for a male partner. Therapy is also less likely to be effective if both partners were having affairs, and there was little commitment to repairing the marriage at the start of therapy.
One question often debated is whether an “online affair” or “internet affair” or “cybersex” is as harmful as a “real world affair” or “offline sex” in which the partners physically meet. Schneider (2000) conducted a qualitative study of 94 people who had a partner engaged in an online affair. She found several interesting results:
- In almost 40% of cases, online sex led to offline sex.
- About 30% of online affairs began after the partner showed a history of compulsive sexual behaviors.
- After learning of the online affair, participants reported feeling angry, hurt, and betrayed, as well as feeling they had to “measure up” or compare favorably with affair partners, just as people who discover a partner having a real world affair feel.
- Lying to cover up the affair was just as common in cases of online affairs as in cases of real world affairs… and just as hurtful according to the participants.
- Over 20% of the couples split up or divorced after the online affair was discovered.
- Almost 70% of the couples with an online affair had experienced a significant decrease in relationship sex during the course of the online affair.
- Additional issues raised by participants were that the partner having the affair inadvertently exposed children in the home to computer pornography, and neglected care of the children by engaging in the affair while the children were home and in their sole care.