By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.
Table of Contents:
Approaches to Affairs and Infidelity
Typology of Affairs
Women and Affairs: Equal Opportunity Betrayal
Four Phases in Dealing with, and Healing from, Affairs
This summary of the literature and research aims to provide a broad update and summary of the theories, research and therapeutic interventions regarding infidelity. While there is very little agreement among clinicians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and researchers regarding the causes, origins and implications of infidelity, there seems to be a consensus that marriages can survive affairs and, with the right support, commitment, clinical interventions, and guidance, can even grow stronger.
This summary was inspired by the important work of David Atkins, Ph.D., David P. Barash, Ph.D. Judith Eve Lipton, Ph.D., David Buss, Ph.D., Helen Fisher, Ph.D., Shirley Glass, Ph.D., ABBP, Alfred Kinsey, Ph.D., Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D., Michele Scheinkman, Ph.D., Janis Abraham Spring, Ph.D., Peggy Vaughan and Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW.
Infidelity, contrary to what most people assume, is neither rare nor exclusively male behavior nor is it certain to end the marriage. In fact, almost a third of all marriages may need to confront and deal with the aftermath of extramarital affairs and women’s infidelity statistics are swiftly catching up to those of men. Infidelity has become an equal opportunity sphere. Even more bad news is that Internet or online affairs have become extremely prevalent and, some claim, pose one of the biggest threats to modern marriage. The good news is that extramarital affairs are survivable and marriages can even grow stronger when members of the couple deal constructively with the affair by facing it, apologizing and ultimately forgiving or by simply accepting it.
The marital infidelities of many famous people have been dealt with publicly. These include presidents, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Thomas Jefferson and French President Francois Mitterand (whose mistress stood beside his wife at his funeral) and other public figures, such as Prince Charles, Marion Barry, Gary Hart, Frank Gifford, poet James Dickey, writer John Cheever, Martin Luther King, television evangelist Jim Bakker and Representative Bob Livingston, Eleanor Roosevelt was strongly rumored to have had an affair with journalist Lorena Hickok and similar rumors surrounded Princess Diana extra marital affair. Actors and actresses have long provided endless material to the tabloids on affairs and infidelity. Some better known examples are Spencer Tracy’s life long affair with Katharine Hepburn, Bill Cosby, Sophia Loren and a seemingly endless stream of other Hollywood celebrities. Correspondingly, many movies have dealt with affairs, most notably, The Bridges of Madison County, Out of Africa, The Horse Whisperer, Matchpoint, Icestorm, Closer and, of course, The Graduate.
Long before our modern era, infidelity was a recurrent element in literature and art. History is laced with accounts of faithlessness. The Ten Commandments devotes a specific commandment to it. Thou shalt not commit adultery. King David had an affair with Bathsheba. Homer’s Iliad describes the affair of Helen of Troy, and the list goes on – works, such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Henry James’ The Golden Bowl are prime examples.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once suggested that monogamy is the most difficult of all human marital arrangements. Similarly, many anthropologists have repeatedly claimed that Homo sapiens throughout its evolution, like most animals, has not been naturally monogamous. This has made it very difficult to comply with the Western-Judeo-Christian proscription. Barash & Lipton poignantly wrote in their book The Monogamy Myth “Infants have their infancy. And adults? Adultery.”
Clinton’s assertion that he did not have sex with Monica raised the question of not only what sex is but also how marital affairs are defined and whether sex or intercourse are the defining factors in infidelity. With the introduction of the Internet, the definitions of affairs or infidelity become more elusive and complex. The common belief is that affairs are about sex but, in fact, affairs are most often about secrecy, sexual attraction and sexual activities. Infidelity is essentially disloyalty or unfaithfulness to a sexual partner in what was supposed to be a sexually exclusive relationship. The root of the term infidelity is ‘lack of faith’ and disloyalty, as in ‘infidel’ which is the denial of belief in a certain religion. Secret sexual or intimate online relationships constitute an affair even when they involve neither actual intercourse nor oral sex nor actual physical contact. Adultery, unlike infidelity or affair, is a legal and biblical term.
The literature about affairs has struggled to differentiate between platonic friendships and emotional affairs. While sexuality is not the determining factor in such differentiation, the issue of faithfulness, exclusion, deception and betrayal are. Similarly, there is some confusion between infidelity, an affair and extramarital sexuality. Many couples in many cultures seem to accept infidelity as part of the culture and unavoidable aspect of marriage. These couples do not face a crisis when the infidelity is exposed. Another example is a man who discovers his homosexuality in the later part of his marriage and comes to an agreement with his wife that they will stay married but both will pursue extramarital sexual relationships. In this example, extramarital sexual relationships are neither associated with betrayal or unfaithfulness nor do they involve deceit and secrecy.
During their professional careers, most marriage and couples psychotherapists have dealt with marital crises brought about by affairs. While extramarital affairs are very common, couples psychotherapists are often uninformed about how to address the infidelity crisis. The professional literature in the last couple of decades has provided increasingly helpful information and assistance to therapists by presenting statistics and data, mapping the complexities of marital infidelity and articulating helpful models to assist couples through the crisis. Many authors in this area ground their work in Systems Theory, Family Systems, sex research, personality theory and Social Psychology. They also adopt theories and research generated by sociologists, anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists. However, some authors adopt a moralistic and rigid view of affairs. Ignoring the fact that affairs are common and part human nature, their prescription for healing infidelity is that the “sinners” must fully confess and repeatedly atone before they can be forgiven by the victimized and betrayed spouses. The latter approach may be more harming than helping for couples in crisis as it often focuses on one-sided blame to the exclusion of the marital, sociological, evolutionary and technological (i.e. Internet) roots of modern affairs.
Another major misperception among lay people and psychotherapists is that extramarital relationships are never consensual and are always harming to the marital relationships. Some couples have reached a consensus regarding extramarital sexual relationships, as is the case when one partner has decided to pursue gay relationships with the consent of the partner. Consent to extramarital sexual relationships can be passive or active; it can implicit or explicit. This paper emphasizes the importance of understanding the nature and context of each affair and each couple so that healing and resolution can be achieved.
Following are some of the most common myths or faulty beliefs about extramarital affairs and infidelity (Research findings debunking these myths are presented in the next section and throughout this paper):
- An affair inevitably destroys the marriage.
- Human beings are naturally monogamous.
- Monogamy is the norm in our society and most other societies.
- Society, as a whole, supports monogamy. Men initiate almost all affairs.
- An affair always means there are serious problems in the marriage.
- Infidelity is a sign that sex is missing or unsatisfactory at home.
- Women are more likely to have an affair because they feel unhappy in their marriages while men, on the other hand, will do it just for sex.
- Men who have affairs are more likely to do so without emotional involvement, whereas women’s affairs are more often accompanied by emotional involvement.
- Telling all the details of the affair to the betrayed spouse will help heal the marriage.
- Affairs should always be disclosed to the un-involved partner (regardless of the potential for domestic violence or even murder when such disclosure take place).
- Men are more concerned about their romantic partners having passionate sex with someone else, while women are more concerned that their partners are falling-in-love with someone else.
- Most people are monogamous, so an affair indicates a moral failure, character deficiency and a failure of the marriage.
- People generally seek in an affair what they do not get at home from their spouse.
- Concerns about AIDS will reduce the frequency of affairs.
- Marital sex is always safe sex.
- Internet sex and Internet infidelity are not considered extramarital affairs.
- Extramarital affairs are never consensual.
- Parental infidelity increases the likelihood of their children’s infidelity.
Following are some basics facts about marital affairs and infidelity that often contradict and debunk the above myths:
- Most couples survive the affair rather than end up in divorce.
- Many couples, in fact, come out of the infidelity crises stronger and more committed.
- Society gives lip service to monogamy, but actually supports affairs through role-models, advertisements, TV, news media, literature and the movies.
- Infidelity is an equal opportunity issue that cuts across gender lines, educational levels, sexual orientation, social and economic class and culture.
- Women are rapidly catching up to men’s stats of infidelity.
- Infidelity is a choice. No one and no circumstances “force” anyone to be unfaithful.
- Non-monogamous relationships are common in some gay communities. Some gay couples consciously, intentionally and systematically negotiate non-monogamous relationships.
- The effect of infidelity can be negative, neutral or positive.
- Jealousy is biologically wired and also socially constructed.
- Modern western cultures tend to over-emphasize the importance of monogamy in marriage in comparison to values such as kindness and compassion.
- Many individuals who get involved in an affair have not been able to go beyond the romantic (unrealistic and often short term) ideal or falling-in-love phase that often characterizes the first phase of romantic relationships.
- Sexual infidelity by a woman, either actual or suspected, significantly increases the likelihood of spousal battering and spousal homicide.
- No marriage is immune from affairs. Preventing infidelity requires ongoing, honest communication and commitment to sexually exclusive monogamy, among other measures.
- As infidelity takes place in a certain social, historical and evolutionary context, no couple can fully understand why an affair happens by looking only at their own marriage.
- A conservative interpretation of infidelity statistics suggests that although perhaps roughly 2/3 of all married couples remain faithful, the other one third will experience infidelity over the course of a marriage. Some of the estimates in the United States are: 1 in every 2.7 couples, some 20 million, is touched by infidelity.
- Narcissistic individuals may be especially prone to marital infidelity.
- While some of those who were involved in affairs report high marital satisfaction, research has shown, not surprisingly, a general inverse correlation between marriage satisfaction and infidelity.
- People having affairs tend to rationalize their behavior, and a part of that rationalization is ignoring or denying the possibility of any negative consequences, such as divorce or acquiring STD.
- When someone has an affair, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she isn’t “getting enough” at home. Many researchers have found out that one can feel a strong attachment to the spouse and still be madly attracted to and romantically in love with someone else.
- Contrary to one commonly held view, many people who report being in happy marriages commit adultery. Shirley Glass’s ground breaking research revealed that 56% of men and 34% of women who were involved in affairs reported that their marriages were happy.
- Generally affairs that take place earlier on in the marriage are more highly correlated with dissatisfaction than those that take place later on in the marriage.
- Men in long-term marriages, who had affairs, had very high marital satisfaction. On the other hand, women in long-term marriages who had an affair had very low marital satisfaction.
- Some research reports that extramarital sex can increase sexual activity within the marriage. The hydraulic pump theory that there is only that much sexual energy available and it is spent outside the marriage with nothing left for the spouse, has been debunked by several researchers.
- Some affairs are better kept secret. Not all affairs must be disclosed. There are situations where disclosure can result in domestic violence or even murder or trigger extreme emotional response by the psychologically vulnerable un-involved partner.
- Some couples consent to extramarital affairs. Sometimes the consent is implicit and at other times is explicit. It can be passive or actively and openly constructed.
- A striking paradox is that while polls indicate 90 percent disapproved of extramarital relationships, almost a third engaged in such relationships.
- Unlike what we may predict from analytic or behavioral therapies, there are no findings on the influence of parental infidelities on the likelihood of their children engaging in infidelity.
- Having children increases the likelihood of marital affairs.
- Lifetime rates of infidelity are twice as high among men and women who have been divorced or legally separated.
- Not only did AIDS not reduce infidelity, in fact less than one-half of individuals reporting sex outside the marriage use condoms with their primary and secondary sex partners.
Approaches to Affairs and Infidelity
Researchers, psychologists, anthropologists and clinicians significantly differ in their approaches to dealing with infidelity. Their views on infidelity effect their rationales for the causes and significantly color their proposed solutions. The different approaches are not mutually exclusive and, except for # 2, the moralistic view, complement each other. Following are brief descriptions of the different approaches to marital affairs.
1. Family or Systems View:
Infidelity, in this view, is seen as a “family affair” that must be understood and treated within the marital system rather than from an individual perspective. Therapists who have taken this position use marital therapy and Systems or Communication Theories to understand the relational dynamics that led to and/or sustain the affair. They shy away from blame and focus on issues of intimacy, communication, expectations, agreements and conflict management in the marriage. They look carefully at the familial legacy of each partner and pay attention to the phases of the marriage, i.e., years of marriage, ages of children, empty nest phase, etc. This approach contends that strengthening the marriage and increasing the quality of communication and intimacy can reduce the chance of infidelity. This approach also views the infidelity crisis as an opportunity for individual growth and a chance for strengthening and solidifying the marriage. The systems view also takes into consideration that the affair may serve the supposedly betrayed spouse. Some partners may even encourage the spouse to have an affair, as is the case with gay spouses who wish to avoid sexual entreaties from their partners by encouraging them to instead satisfy their sexual needs with others.
2. The Moral-Puritan View:
Affairs, in this view, are seen as primarily individual, sinful and immoral acts of betrayal and therefore are likely to irreversibly damage marriages unless the betrayer fully confesses, repents and atones. Authors and therapists who take this puritanical-moralistic, often religiously based, position, generally view the betrayed partner as an innocent victim and put almost exclusive emphasis on the spiritual, emotional and relational rehabilitation of the betrayer.
3. Individual View:
This view focuses on the betrayer’s emotional deficit, personality, addiction or phase of life issues. Men often philander as a way to affirm their sense of masculinity by “scoring” with as many women as they can. This approach looks at issues of sexual addiction, early history of abuse, personality disorders and exposure to parent’s infidelity. It also attends to issues, such as middle-aged crisis, and often does emphasize marital discord as a significant causal factor in the affair. The focus in this view is on the individual’s stage in life, development, history, culture and personality rather than a moral or familial focus.
4. Cultural View:
Affairs, in this view, are not seen as inherently pathological but are a quite normal and even a healthy part of marriage with some people or certain classes in certain cultures. Unlike the puritan or the pathological views, this anthropological approach cites the Japanese’s “love wife” practices, the courtesan of the 16th century era in Europe (as depicted in 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons) and many other cultures where extramarital sex has been an accepted norm. Along these lines, the anthropological view also cites the Middle Eastern harem and many polygamous cultures as examples of cultures where multiple or extramarital partners are an accepted and normal practice, especially and often only for men.
5. Anthropological View:
Most anthropologists have documented that humans are not biologically designed to be monogamous and while they may be able to “civilize” themselves to monogamy, nevertheless they will follow the “be fruitful and multiply” tenet at every possible opportunity. Monogamy in the animal kingdom is so rare that those romantic Hallmark cards with pictures of swans or other types of lovebirds should more accurately feature the flatworm. Swans may mate for life, but they’re not necessarily faithful to their mates. To a degree, on the other side of the debate is anthropologist Dr. Fisher’s claim that human beings are among 3 percent of the world’s 4,000 species of mammals pre-programmed for monogamy. With a handful of researchers, she has been investigating the “monogamy gene.”
6. Modern Culture and Media as a Promotional Culprit of Infidelity
Affairs, in this view, are seen as a result of a permissive, modern, mass media culture that subtlety promotes affairs in the same way as it promotes violence. We live in a society that is preoccupied with sex and commercializes this sexuality in any way and form possible. Along with the obsession-fascination with sex, there is titillation surrounding other’s affairs. The media has been sensationalizing affairs such as those of Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby and Prince Charles. Similarly, movies such as Same Time, Next Year, The Bridges of Madison County, and Prince of Tides and TV shows, such as Desperate Housewives, Sex in the City, normalize affairs and create a permissive atmosphere. The Internet and its booming pornographic and sexual businesses have probably contributed not only to an epidemic of online affairs but also to real life affairs, as well.
Typology of Affairs
Affairs come in different formats. Not all affairs are the same: they serve different purposes, are carried on by different types of people, fueled by a variety of motivations and having different impacts. One of the most apparent weaknesses in infidelity research and scholarly writing is the lack of differentiation between types of affairs. This has often lead to inaccurate, misleading and unhelpful generalizations or stat averages regarding the nature, implications and what constitutes effective intervention with affairs. Understanding the individual, biographical, familial, marital and cultural-anthropological etiology of affairs is crucial to planning effective intervention. The types described below are neither always mutually exclusive nor presented in order of importance or frequency.
Following are short descriptions of eleven different types of affair:
1. Conflict Avoidance Affairs:
Men or women who go to any lengths to avoid any and all marital conflicts sometimes resort to affairs to have their needs, which were not expressed to their spouses, met. This type of affair usually does not last long and may repeat itself several times during the marriage.
2. Intimacy Avoidance Affairs:
“Intimacy avoiders” are frightened and therefore reluctant to be intimately close and use the affair to keep themselves at emotional distance from their spouse. The affair serves as an emotional-relational barrier in the marriage. This type of affair also usually does not last long and may repeat itself several times during the marriage. When both members of the couple are intimacy avoiders, this type affair can, in fact, help some couples sustain an emotionally distant marriage.
3. Individual (Existential or Developmental) Based Affair:
Middle-age crises, empty nest, depression, sense of emptiness are factors that can fuel an affair. Men and women may turn to a lover to revitalize self, individuate or mask anxiety, depression or other unwelcome feelings that they experience as a result of the existential anxiety of facing one’s old age and mortality or one’s spiritual void. A partner may turn to an extramarital affair as a way to affirm their sense of masculinity or femininity. Some extramarital affairs are about yearning and loss and the freedom to enact one’s own desires and fantasies, which has very little to do with the marriage itself.
4. Sexual Addiction Affairs:
Sexual addicts, like any addicts, are compulsive and display poor impulse control. They use sex over and over again to numb inner pain and/or a sense of emptiness. Generally, among married couples, men are sexual addicts more often than women. Sexual addicts are compulsively attracted to the high and the anxiety release of sexual orgasm. But such release often comes with a price — feelings of shame and worthlessness.
5. Accidental-Brief Affairs:
This type of affair is neither planned nor characteristic of the person. It “just happens” when a person is at the right (wrong) place at the right time; often it surprises the person who commits the infidelity. Curiosity, pity, drunkenness, and even politeness may lead to such a brief and often never to be repeated affair.
6. Philandering & Other Individual Tendencies:
Some individuals are prone to infidelity, often due to insecurity and low self-esteem and a constant need to “score,” conquer or get affirmation about themselves. Narcissistic and impulsive individuals may be especially prone to marital infidelity. Many men are socialized to ‘score’ and get reinforcement for womanizing. Philanderers perceive extramarital sex as an entitlement of gender or status and often take advantage of opportunities without guilt or withdrawal symptoms.
7. Retribution Affairs:
Sometimes, one partner wants to “get back” at the other partner by having an affair. This may be payback for the other person having an affair, withholding money, love, emotion or any another perceived wrongdoing.
8. Bad Marriage Affairs:
This kind of affair is a direct result of a bad marriage with poor communication, intimacy, support or sexuality. It can also arise from incompatible cultural and familial values. When there is marital dissatisfaction, discontent and lack of love, one or both partners may be seeking comfort and intimacy in another lover’s arms. Dissatisfied spouses who experience their partners as emotionally or sexually withholding or view their partners as easily sexualizing others or as moody are especially vulnerable to affairs.
9. Exit Affairs:
“Affair exiters” use the affair as a jumping board to end a marriage. This can be a conscious or unconscious act intended to ensure that a backup relationship is in place before leaving the original marriage. The left-partner often blames the affair rather than looking at how their marriage got to this point.
10. Parallel Lives Affairs:
These kinds of affairs include those who are involved in long term extramarital relationships while continuing to be part of the original marital dyad. Examples of those are Spencer Tracy’s life long affair with Katharine Hepburn or Prince Charles’ long affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. Such extramarital relationships are often known, accepted or tolerated by the spouse and other family members but are neither addressed nor talked about.
11. Online Affairs:
Online affairs have become extremely prevalent since the inception of the Internet and the proliferation of online dating, chatrooms and pornography. Some have argued that online affairs pose the biggest threat to modern marriage since women entered the work force. Fueled by what Copper called, “the Triple A engine” of “accessibility, affordability, and anonymity”, the Internet population seems to be exploring sexuality in ways that are unprecedented. Hundreds of thousands of web sites are primarily or exclusively designed to promote and financially benefit from pornography and eroticism and their frequent derivative, online affairs. Online affairs may include watching partners online on video, communication via Instant Messaging, chatrooms, simple emails or via the telephone. Online affairs can be even more disruptive than any other form of affair because it can take place any time of the day or night and often takes place in the family home. The fact that there is no actual physical contact during the sexual act often intensifies the relationship and increases its potential to be highly disruptive to the individual and the family. The frequency of this form of affair is likely to increase as the Internet grows and intrudes upon more aspects of personal and emotional lives.
Consensual Extramarital Sexual Relationships:
Sometimes the extramarital relationships are explicitly incorporated into the marriage life. Many couples in many cultures seem to accept infidelity as part of their marriage. These couples do not face a crisis when the infidelity is exposed. “Open marriages” were popular in the 1970’s following the sexual revolution. An example of a consensual extramarital affair is the case when one spouse discovers later on in the marriage that they are gay but the couple decide to stay married for reasons that range from deep care and love for each other, children or taxes. In such a case, the couple may decide to preserve the marriage and that each person may pursue extramarital sexual relationships.
Emotional vs. Sexual:
Some authors have differentiated between emotional vs. sexual types of affairs. The importance of the latter is due to sex-differences in responses to spouse’ emotional or sexual involvement with the extramarital partner. The emotional and/or sexual typology can be applied to several of the eleven types of affairs described above.
Women and Affairs: Equal Opportunity Betrayal
In the last couple of decades, it has become clear that women are no longer the only “victims” of marital affairs but, in increasing numbers, are also the perpetrators of such affairs. The prediction is that before long they will initiate affairs as frequently as men.
There are several reasons why women are likely to catch up with men’s infidelity statistics:
Research on gender differences in infidelity shows that the first few years of marriage are clearly a red zone. It reveals two distinct patterns in the timing of affairs. A married woman’s likelihood of straying is highest in the first five years, and falls off gradually with time. (Men have two high-risk phases, one during the first five years of marriage and again, after the 20th year.)
Four Phases in Dealing with, and Healing from, Affairs
As was noted above, many couples in many cultures or subcultures accept and/or expect affairs as part of their marriage. The partner is often aware of the “other” and accepts the arrangement willingly or reluctantly. However in modern western cultures, the discovery of an affair often leads to a marital crisis. The literature about the crisis of affairs seems to consistently indicate that couples go through certain quite predictable phases in dealing with affairs. Following are the descriptions of certain phases that many couples go through when dealing with the crisis of a marital affair.
Phase 1: Affair Takes Place
- Affairs can happen suddenly and unpredictably or can develop over a long period of time. They can last a very short time or a lifetime.
- Unless it is an open affair, in most cases, secrecy, lies and deceit take a direct or indirect toll on the relationships.
- The nature of the affair often dramatically changes once the betrayed partner has discovered or is ready to confront the involved partner. The discovery can happen abruptly or it can evolve gradually over a period of time when suspicion grows and there is at last a realization that the affair is indeed taking place and confrontation ensues.
- Often the discovery of an affair or the confrontation regarding an affair launches the couple into a marital crisis.
- Therapists may be privy to an affair before the uninvolved spouse when the unfaithful partner reveals the secret during individual therapy.
- Therapists who are privy to such information should explore with the client his/her attitude, values, history, fears and worries regarding the affair.
- Therapists should also try to identify the type of affair it is and sort out if it is driven by addiction, desire to score, midlife crisis, marital dissatisfaction, etc.
- Therapists should attempt to be compassionate, understand the historical, cultural, marital, and other forces that may have contributed to the affair.
- Risk assessment should be undertaken as part of helping the client explore the options that s/he may want to consider. Physical risk must be considered with women of certain cultures and situations. The reason being that the discovery of a woman’s affair by her husband or family can significantly increase the likelihood of the woman being ostracized by her family, friends and community and can also increase the probability of domestic abuse and even murder.
- While concern regarding the safety of children and others who may be hurt by the affair and/or its disclosure should be considered, therapists should be careful in imposing their own values on their clients. When therapists have an un-negotiated, moralistic, punitive or negative judgment regarding the affair, they should state it clearly to the client at the beginning of therapy and offer the client referrals to other therapists who may have a different attitude towards affairs.
Phase 2: Discovery, Confrontation and Crisis
- When a secretive extramarital affair comes to light, it often launches a marital crisis.
- In response to discovery and/or confrontation, the betrayed partner and the unfaithful or involved partner often experience strong emotional responses concerning the affair.
- The compromised partner often feels a sense of betrayal, violation, despair, hopelessness, rage, anger, revenge, fear (i.e., AIDS), distrust, depression, etc. These reactions may resemble a response to catastrophic events. Common reactions to the loss of innocence are anguish, grief, distrust, anxiety, and shattered assumptions including obsessively pondering details of the affair; continuously watching for further signs of betrayal; and physiological hyperarousal, flashbacks and intrusive images. The betrayed spouse is often in a kind of shock during this phase.
- The involved spouse’s feelings may range between shame, remorse, fear, anger, etc. He or she may fear that they will be punished forever for the betrayal while they grieve for the lost dreams associated with the affair. Additionally, the unfaithful partner may experience fear of losing important or meaningful relationships and may experience grief and anguish over the loss of the relationships.
- At this stage, the betrayed partner often seeks support and empathy from anyone who will listen. The involved spouse is often upset when the exposure exceeds his or her comfort zone or includes his or her own friends, family and even children.
- Basic disclosure of some aspects of the affair usually takes place at this early phase. While X-rated details can be harmful, basic general information of when, where, how long, etc. may be appropriate if requested by the non-involved partner.
- Usually people seek help during this phase. More often than not, the betrayed spouse initiates the therapy.
- At this stage, the therapist may help the couple realize three important facts:
- Affairs are very common.
- An affair is not necessarily the end of the marriage.
- This is not the time to make major decisions, such as separating, filing for divorce or selling the house.
- It is very important for the therapist to help the couple realize the importance of this last point regarding avoidance of decisions effecting the marriage or family.
- The therapist may be able to develop a hypothesis at this early phase establishing the type of affair being dealt with. While listening to the couple and reviewing their background information, the therapist should start hypothesizing whether the affair was a result of a sexual addiction, out of control online activities, marital dissatisfaction, retribution, etc.
- Once the therapist gains some understanding of the history, nature and meaning of the affair, it may be possible to strategize a course of action with the couple.
- Obviously, treatment plans should be constructed according to the clients’ history, culture, personalities, type of affair and their stated goals. For example, a clear and admitted “Exit Affair” should be treated very differently from an online affair, sexual addiction or retribution-type affair.
- The therapist may guide each spouse to seek support and help from family and friends and help each spouse effectively deal with the, often overwhelming, emotions of betrayal, guilt, shame or anger.
- The therapist must take into consideration that sometimes relief is the dominant feeling on the part of the involved, or even the betrayed, partner. The relief often stems from not needing to conceal the secret any longer or it may be a relief from an ambiguous and confusing state of affairs.
- The therapist may want to help the betrayed spouse avoid indiscriminately revealing the secret of the affair to every family member and friends of both spouses. Instead, s/he should help the betrayed spouse to seek support from a chosen group of people that are not likely to fuel the fire but support the marriage.
3. Initial Dealing with the Affair
- After the initial shock wave following the discovery or initial confrontation has passed, it is time for the couple to gain perspective to become more reflective.
- This is a time where people get some support to normalize their initial and often strong emotional reaction and to start thinking about the meaning and potential implications of the affair for themselves, the marriage and family, including children, parents, in-laws, etc.
- This is a phase that often involves a lot of blame between the spouses with unresolved and often unspoken hurt often coming to the surface.
- It is of utmost importance to the potential positive future of the marriage for the involved spouse to focus ASAP on several initial issues:
- Cut off all contact with the lover, if possible.
- In an office affair, a complete disconnect is often not possible. In these situations, the involved spouse must promise that the romantic connection will be severed completely and all contact will be short and restricted to business matters.
- Make a commitment to future honesty and marital integrity.
- Offer a sincere apology. Repeat the apology, as necessary.
- Honestly answer legitimate questions regarding safe sex and be willing to take AIDS or other STD tests.
- The betrayed spouse may legitimately want to know details about their involved spouse’s safe sex practices. These safety issues must be addressed fully. Both spouses may need to perform AIDS or other STD tests.
- One of the most complicated and complex issues at this stage is how to respond to the betrayed spouse’s wish to know the many details of the affair. The concern is that if the betrayed spouse is privy to too many graphic and other details of the affair, it may come to haunt him/her and prove destructive to the marriage in the long run.
- After the affair is exposed, revealing some basic and general details is appropriate. This general information may include:
- How long did the affair last?
- How did it start?
- How often did the involved spouse meet with the lover?
- Who else knows about the affair?
- The mandate of complete and explicit honesty, as advocated by several experts, seems to me unrealistic and potentially dangerous for the following reasons:
- Too many specific or graphic details can unnecessarily fuel fear and obsession and can be needlessly haunting to the betrayed spouse for a very long period of time.
- Unfaithful women are in increased danger of domestic violence and even murder when an affair is revealed. Adding unnecessary details can increase such dangers.
- At this very stage, President Clinton announced that he had chosen to work closely with several clergy members to help him “avoid temptation and heal his marriage.” Commitment to the marriage and to dealing with temptations on behalf of the strayed spouse is extremely important at this phase. While the betrayed spouse may still be sitting on the fence regarding the future of the marriage, a commitment to the marriage on behalf of the involved spouse is essential so the process of healing can continue.
- In this third stage, a roadmap is provided for rebuilding the marriage if both partners are willing. Some couples are not ready to re-commit but instead either consider separation or are willing to stay in the limbo of uncertainty.
- At this stage, couples tend to review the marriage from its inception and try to understand what happened and, if possible, why. The reason for the affair and the events that led to it may be clarified. Whether the affair was fueled by a midlife crises, empty nest, sexually withholding spouse, sex addiction or revenge, the likely factors that led to the affair should be acknowledge and attended to.
- The injured partner also has difficult work to do. He or she may need to come down from the pedestal, drop the saint or martyr role, move past the anger and hurt, and, often, hardest of all, be willing to examine his or her role in the underlying marriage problems.
- In order for the process of jump starting the marriage to move forward, the involved partner should continue to apologize, affirm his/her commitment to have no contact with the “other” and affirm his/her commitment to the marriage. The betrayed spouse, hopefully, is now less obsessed with the affair and can focus on the big picture of the marriage and start feeling some forgiveness.
- The therapist, at this phase, should focus on implementing the treatment plan that was developed through understanding the context and meaning of the affair and the couple’s stated goals. Accordingly, different situations require different treatment plans:
- An affair that was driven by retribution, marital dissatisfaction or a withholding spouse should focus on marital therapy geared to increase effective communication, empathy, compassion and love.
- A clear exit affair should be followed by therapeutic interventions that are meditative in nature.
- An affair that was driven by sexual addiction or by online obsession is most likely to benefit from couple therapy in conjunction with individual treatment for the involved spouse and his or her addictive or obsessive issues.
- Therapists should help the couple further identify their concerns, hopes and goals. They should facilitate the individual and joint decision-making process regarding the future of the marriage so it is neither rushed nor impulsive.
- If the couple have children, it is of extreme importance that the couple tries first to resurrect the marriage before they plan a separation.
- Most family therapists work with the couple together as the primary approach. However, a deeply ambivalent spouse or a severely agitated spouse may also need some individual therapy sessions.
- Research has shown that men and women who had affairs and kept the fact from their spouses — but disclosed it to researchers in anonymous questionnaires — failed to make much progress after several months of counseling.
- If the involved person needs to grieve the loss of the lover in the affair, this should be done privately or during individual sessions with the therapist and not in the presence of the spouse. Therapist should never take a punitive or moralistic stance relative to such grief.
- If the betrayed spouse may need some individual therapy due to continued extreme suspicions and insecurity, and/or frequent painful flashbacks, or obsessive scrutiny of the other partner’s behavior, especially vis a vis members of the opposite sex, therapists may want to offer such individual consultation or refer if appropriate and/or requested.
- The person who had the affair must learn to tolerate distrust by the partner and not become self-righteous or indignant.
- The therapist should help couples to develop strategies to reduce suspicion and increase trust.
- Therapy should introduce couples to some of the challenges they are facing and articulate the process that may take place to assist healing.
- Ambivalence on the part of the betrayed partner should be tolerated at this stage.
- One of the hardest tasks for therapists, in general, and especially in infidelity cases, is to help the betrayed partner move beyond the feeling of betrayal and victimization. While the betrayed partner did not cause the affair, it is true in most cases that he or she has passively or actively co-contributed to the events that led to the affair. Sometimes the contribution was to ignore red flags, sometimes it was a matter of being abusive, suspicious, controlling or withholding.
- If the couple decides to separate, hopefully the therapist can help them achieve it in a constructive way, especially if children are involved.
- It is important that therapists, at this stage, help couples understand the evolution or story line of the marriage and the complex personal, vocational, developmental, familial, etc. elements that may have contributed to the affair.
- The clinical interventions must be closely tied to each couple’s specific and unique situation. They should not be standard or generic because there is no one size that fits all.
- While it is may be premature for the betrayed person to forgive, the goals of forgiveness and letting go should be introduced at this stage.
- Without assigning guilt and innocence, each spouse, at this stage, hopefully, with the help of the therapist, would be able to identify the way they have contributed to the infidelity crisis and how each can do things differently in the future.
- Therapists should explain that in most cases, recovery cannot begin until contact with the affair partner is terminated. Stopping an affair does not just mean ending sexual intercourse. All personal discussions, coffee breaks and phone calls must also be stopped. When the affair partner is a co-worker, the contact must be strictly business, and necessary or unplanned encounters must be shared with the spouse in order to rebuild trust.
- Therapists must explain to the couple that rebuilding trust is an uneven process that often takes three steps forward, two steps back.
4. Beginning again: Building a Stronger Post-Affair Marriage
- The fourth and last stage concerns the metamorphosis of the relationship into a mature love. Unlike the falling-in-love stage that characterizes the inception of most marriages, this mature love is based on realistic expectations, knowledge and caring for each other.
- Some scholars have pointed out that the initial falling-in-love phase, with all its idealization and unrealistic expectations, is partly responsible f or the prevalence of affairs. Some psychologists have described the falling-in-love state as similar to a psychotic state where reality is distorted and facts are twisted. The idea is that the unrealistic, idealized expectations of the early phase can never be fulfilled and therefore the spouses are inevitably doomed to be deeply disillusioned and disappointed. They then act out their disappointment by having an affair.
- In the idealized love phase, the partner does everything right and appears to be your perfect soul mate. It is a phase of a relationship that many people go through, but it is not a phase that lasts forever, nor is it a phase that leads to a lasting, realistic or mature relationship. A later stage in the relationship, called mature love, occurs when an individual becomes aware not only of his/her own strengths and weaknesses, but also of their partner’s strengths, weaknesses and limitations. A mature person, who is capable of mature love, accepts one’s own and the partner’s limitations and weaknesses. In mature love, an individual starts to learn how his or her own weaknesses result in difficulties in a relationship. In mature love an individual is willing to consciously work on developing their relationship and each partner consciously works on making their relationship interesting and fulfilling. In mature love, both partners recognize that their relationship will have problems and conflicts and that the conflicts can be seen and used as opportunities for growth and development. At best, they develop the important capacity to agree to disagree.
- At this stage, the betrayed partner should have resolved his or her resentment and come to a place of either acceptance or forgiveness.
- At this fourth stage, the therapist should help develop mature love, based on realistic expectations, self-knowledge, acceptance of the partner’s weaknesses, mutual caring, empathy, compassion and responsibility.
- The second therapeutic challenge, at this stage, is to promote an affair-proof marriage.
- The therapist should help the couple understand that remembering, regression, suspicions or grief are all normal feelings that may be evoked at different times. However, one should neither indiscriminately share these upsetting feelings with the partner nor always act on them.
- At this point, the therapist may want to evaluate the strength of the marriage and vulnerabilities for future infidelity by looking at:
- The strength of the marriage, e.g., is it couple-centered rather than child-centered.
- The couple’s capacity to address and resolve conflicts.
- The couple’s level of trust and commitment.
- Each spouse’s level of assumed responsibility.
- The couple’s capacity to avoid future affairs.
- The therapist also works with the couple to develop new or improved communications skills and methods for resolving conflicts, which were previously avoided and submerged in the pre-affair era.
- Some couples should be encouraged to begin “dating” again, focus on rebuild trust and bringing joy back into the relationship. They should learn how to spend time alone together and enjoy each other’s company.
Forgiveness & Resentment
- Ultimately, the key to healing from infidelity involves forgiveness, which is frequently the last step in the healing process.
- To forgive is to pardon, exonerate, absolve, make allowances for, harbor no grudge against and bury the hatchet.
- The unfaithful spouse can do everything right, be forthcoming, express remorse, listen lovingly and act in a trustworthy manner, and still, the marriage won’t mend unless the betrayed person forgives his or her spouse and the unfaithful spouse forgives him or herself.
- Forgiveness is letting go of anger and resentment.
- Forgiveness opens the door to real intimacy and connection.
- A sense of injury is an aggrieved feeling about something or towards someone as a result of real or perceived insult, harm or ill-intentioned actions.
- One definition of resentment is “when one takes the poison, but hopes the other person dies.” Resentment, according to this statement, is toxic to the person who feels it and in turn to the marital relationship.
- Evidently, forgiveness and letting go of the pain inflicted is of extreme importance in healing from an affair. Holding on to the angry pain is a significant obstacle to mature love.
Therapists encounter infidelity not only in couple therapy but also when working with individuals who have affairs, partners betrayed by affairs, the “other” man or woman, or children who report their parents’ affairs. Sometimes friends of those who have had affairs and have ended up being part of the cover up or in other roles, also report distress in therapy.
Regardless of how the affair is introduced in therapy, therapists must attend to the following important issues:
Seeing affairs ONLY as a personal failure of you or your spouse or your particular marriage inevitably leads to personal blame, personal shame, wounded pride, and almost universal feelings of devastation. Self-help strategies alone seldom bring full recovery from this experience, either as a couple or individually. Recovery depends on getting beyond our strictly personal view of affairs and gaining an understanding of them within a broader framework.
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