Working With Infidelity In Couples Counselling
The aim of couple therapy is to facilitate a relationship for a couple this may involve a number of factors, for example improving communication. As a goal of working with couples and relationships, relationship facilitation is not meant to just imply helping a couple stay together but also includes support in the process of separation for a couple, if that is what is required of the therapeutic process.
Partners may choose to go into couple therapy for a variety of issues; however, infidelity has been rated as being one of the most problematical issues to work with therapeutically.
What is Infidelity?
A simplistic definition of what constitutes as an affair is: any relationship (emotional or sexual) that involves secrecy or betrayal, romantic or sexual feelings and most importantly, is seen as interfering with and detracting from the primary couple relationship.
Despite the substantial injury and considerable negative after-effects of affairs (on the couple relationship), extra-marital affairs and unfaithfulness is unfortunately quite common.
Research has indicated that men do have affairs more often than women do; it has also revealed gender differences in quality of affairs, with men regarding affairs as more sexual than emotional, while women regard affairs as more emotional. The emotional component is seen as being quite significant for women with regards to affairs, for themselves in an affair and even in the case of their partners’ affair(s), with women, at times, getting more upset at a partners’ emotional connection with another person, rather than with their sexual behaviour.
Affairs have also been significantly linked with marital dissatisfaction, as both a cause and effect of them. For men, affairs have also been linked with sexual dissatisfaction. Various researchers have indicated numerous other “reasons” for engaging in affairs: revenge, sexual addiction, wanting the excitement of an affair or to feel validated or to enhance their self-esteem, to compensate for feelings of loneliness or feeling unwanted in the primary relationship, or fulfill needs that are not being met in the primary relationship.
The Impact of Infidelity
The impact of infidelity in a relationship can vary from it being seen as insignificant, having quite minimal impact, to devastating a relationship. Infidelity is thought to be one of the most frequent causes of divorce.
Couples have reported experiencing oscillating intense emotions that vary between rage towards the participating partner and feelings of shame directed towards the self, and feelings of depression, victimization, betrayal and abandonment. For the partner who was not involved in the affair, this gamut of emotional responses are often thought to be accompanied by persistent and intrusive rumination about the betrayal, which can impact upon daily functioning and level of concentration.
The obsessive and intrusive thoughts can lead to obsessive-compulsive questioning, regarding the affair by the partner who was not involved, which can cause considerable friction in the relationship. The obsessive rumination and questioning regarding the affair is also thought to be an attempt to ‘make meaning’ of the infidelity.
Another element of the impact of the affair on the relationship is intense feelings of betrayal by the partner who was engaged in the affair, along with a lack of trust in the partner and in the relationship, and possible changes in beliefs about the partner, knowing who the partner is, and the relationship itself.
Amidst all of the intense negative emotions, some partners have also reported feeling introspective and moments of real awareness regarding the state of their relationship.
All of the above reactions can have an intensely negative impact upon the already damaged and tenuous relationship between a couple in which one of the partners has engaged in an affair.
Provided both partners decide to stay together and commit to making the relationship work, the partners are thought to then attempt to engage in a process of rebuilding trust and a reengagement with the relationship and increased communication and eventually forgiveness. Research has indicated that at times couples do find themselves having an improved communication and even an improved relationship after an affair.
Working with Infidelity in Couples Counselling
In working with couples, therapists often mention having to ‘play courtroom’, that is a ‘pull’ to collude with one partner over another, or having to ‘settle’ arguments and disagreements for a couple. This ‘pull’, along with being intensified with complications to confidentiality, is also intensified in the case of working with affairs as one partner, the one who was not involved in the affair, is often seen as the ‘injured’ partner and a victim, while the partner who had engaged in the affair in often seen as the betrayer.
Implicit in the polarized roles is the idea that the partner who was not involved in the affair was wronged by the other partner, hence should be supported, while the betrayer is condemned for partaking in the affair. However, therapeutically it is quite damaging to ‘take sides’.
Allowing both partners to express their views and opinions in an open and nurturing environment is quite challenging to create when the relationship is experiencing a lot of negativity and friction. The ‘injured’ partner has to be supported to allow for a constructive and open expression of their negative emotions; however, this can be seen as a reinforced attack upon the partner, who was engaged in the affair, by both the partner and the sanctioning therapist.
This also allows the partners to remain in their polarized roles, where all the ‘blame’ is afforded onto the partner who engaged in the infidelity, not allowing the couple to come together and examine their relationship issues which may have superseded the infidelity itself. Part of the therapeutic work, especially while battling against taking sides, is to normalize what both the partners may be experiencing.
To allow a couple to truly express how they may feel regarding an affair may involve assessing what the couple perceive to be a normal and expected reaction to an affair, and how and where they may have received those messages from.
Couples Therapy in the instance of an affair, promotes personal ownership of the client’s emotional experience, which is thought to help partners focus on identifying and verbalizing their own needs and concerns rather than focus on blaming the other partner or feeling victimized, a feeling state that is commonly associated with infidelity.
The first few sessions of therapy would be focused on addressing the impact of an affair and directly targeting problems arising from the immediate impact of the affair. The initial task, upon entering therapy, is to assess the relationship, the couple’s history and the impact and knowledge of the affair. Therapeutic tools, like cognitive-behavioural skills and the identification of negative cycles, are then used to target the behavioural impact of the affair, by targeting couple communication and exchanges. These strategies are quite useful during times of distress where a couple needs firm boundaries along with strategies to constructively express themselves and strategies for self-care.
The second stage of counselling is focused on helping the couple explore the context in which the affair occurred by examining factors that potentially contributed to the affair and identifying and deconstruction of negative cycles that led to the maintenance of relationship distress. This is to promote an awareness of the current relationship struggles in the context of their own and their partner’s relationship and developmental histories. This is carefully done while emphasizing the distinction between exploring the context of the affair and taking responsibility for the affair, which is not considered exempted by the contextual factors.
The focus is then on the issue of forgiveness and a re-examination of the relationship, with a view to the decision of staying together or not after the discovery of all the underlying factors. If the decision is made to stay together, a couple engages in strategies of relationship improvement and maintenance. The stages of therapy are not considered linear or progressive, with some work being done at all the different stages at a given point in time in therapy.
As a LifeWorks therapist, I look forward to seeing you.
Dr Lavina Ahuja