After the devastating disclosure of infidelity, intense emotions and recurrent crises are the norm. The good news, however, is that the majority of relationships not only survive infidelity, but marriage and family therapists have observed that many marriages can become stronger and more intimate after couples therapy.
Infidelity is one of the most common presenting problems for marriage and family therapists. It is devastating to relationships and can be one of the more difficult problems to treat. While the majority of couples disapprove of infidelity, some national surveys indicate that 15% of women and 25% of men have experienced intercourse outside of their long-term relationship. And, by including emotional and sexual intimacies without intercourse, these percentages increase by 20%.
Causes and Types of Extramarital Relationships
The causes of infidelity are complex and varied. Affairs can occur in happy relationships as well as in troubled ones. It can be difficult and sometimes impossible for the faithful party to understand their partner’s capacity to engage in an affair. And while the majority of affairs happen as the result of relational dissatisfaction, they also happen as a result of personal dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. In such cases, the involved partner may be unaware of his or her contribution to what is lacking in the relationship. Satisfactory relationships hinge on reciprocity and a prolonged imbalance of give and take can easily lead to unhappiness. In addition to low self-esteem, reasons for infidelity include relationship deficits such as a lack of affection, or a social context in which infidelity is condoned.
Multiple affairs may be symptomatic of an addiction to sex, love or romance. Love and romance addicts are driven by the passion of a new relationship. Sexual addicts are compulsively attracted to the high and the anxiety release of sexual orgasm. But such release comes with a cost to his or her self-esteem, resulting in feelings of shame and worthlessness. Conversely, philanderers who perceive sex outside of a long-term relationship as an entitlement of gender or status take advantage of opportunities without guilt or withdrawal symptoms.
In the age of social media and technology, a new crisis of infidelity often referred to as the emotional affair has emerged. People who never intended to be unfaithful are unwittingly crossing the line from platonic friendships into romantic relationships, particularly in the workplace and on the Internet.
Emotional affairs differ from platonic friendships in that there is 1) greater emotional intimacy than in the long-term relationship, 2) the involved partner engages in secrecy and deception, and 3) there is often sexual chemistry. Internet affairs, which cause relational distress despite lack of actual physical contact, exemplify emotional affairs. In some instances combined-type affairs occur in which intercourse outside of the primary relationship occurs within a deep emotional attachment. This type of infidelity will have the most disruptive impact on committed relationships such as marriage or long-term coupling.
Vulnerabilities for infidelity can be linked to relationship problems such as conflict avoidance, fear of intimacy, or life cycle changes like the transition to parenthood, and empty nesting. Some dissatisfied partners begin an external relationship as a way of exiting an unhappy relationship. And frequently the involved partner will re-write the relational history in order to justify an ongoing affair. It is unreasonable to compare a forbidden love affair that is maintained by romantic idealization with the routine familiarity of marriage and long-term coupling.
The Impact of Discovery
Following the initial disclosure of an affair, it is common for both partners to experience depression, including suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and a profound sense of loss. The reactions of the injured party can begin as acute stress that quickly resemble the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Common reactions to the loss of innocence and shattered assumptions include obsessively pondering details of the affair; continuously watching for further signs of betrayal; and physiological hyper-arousal, flashbacks and intrusive images. The most severely traumatized are those who had the greatest trust and were the most unsuspecting. The involved partner may fear that they will be punished forever for the betrayal while they grieve for the lost dreams associated with the affair.
Treatment and Recovery
During the initial assessment a marriage and family therapist will help the couple clarifying the purpose of treatment by externalizing the options. After an affair, couples who want to rebuild their relationship need to resolve any ambivalence about staying in the relationship, or work toward separating in a constructive way. One partner may want to reconcile while the other is still ambivalent or has decided to leave. Either way, painful emotions will get activated inside and outside of the therapy room. The injured partner feels angry while the involved partner commonly struggles with feelings of shame and guilt.
Most family therapists work with the couple together as the primary approach. However, in cases of an ambivalent or a severely agitated partner, the therapist may suggest some individual therapy sessions. Treatment can be confusing and difficult for couples, and the manner in which couples recover or uncouple after an affair depends on various factors including each partner’s commitment to healing the relationship, cultural values and norms, and the impact on children should they disband the relationship.
When working with infidelity therapists often use an integrative approach best suited to the couple. There are a number of modalities such as experiential and emotion focused therapy that a therapist can use when treating infidelity. Regardless of the theoretical preference guiding the recovery process treatment is rooted in a common ground approach that emphasizes safety and forgiveness.
In the initial stages of therapy, the primary task is to establish safely and address painful emotions and traumatic symptoms. In essence, the therapist needs to manage and stabilize the emotional reaction to the affair, and also get a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the affair.
Once safety has been established and emotions aren’t as high, the therapist will ascertain what made the affair possible. Understanding the vulnerabilities for the infidelity and telling the story of the affair allow couples to move toward the final phase of therapy— forgiveness. Successful outcomes are closely linked to the development of empathy and hope in each partner— one of mutual exploration with a compassionate process.
Establishing and maintaining safety is a crucial part of treatment. 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.
Telling the story of the affair is not easy for either partner. A guiding principle is how information will enhance healing. The injured partner may engage in a destructive process of interrogation and defensiveness, which never promotes healing, even if the answers are truthful. The initial discussions commonly resemble the adversarial interaction between a detective and a criminal. Simple facts such as who, what, where and when can be answered during the early stage of therapy to relieve some of the pressure for information. It is preferable to delay complex questions about motivations and explicit details about sexual intimacy until the process itself is more healing. The disclosure process evolves in therapy from a truth-seeking inquisition to the neutral process of information seeking – similar to a journalist and an interviewee.
Signs of healing and recovery
The marriage is stronger and is couple-centered; the dyadic relationship is a priority.
The vulnerabilities for infidelity are understood and addressed as they occur. The couple has developed trust, committment, mutual empathy, and a shared responsibility for change.
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