Judith E. Rader, MA, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Bala Psychological Resources
Marital infidelity is a common issue which may ultimately give rise to a divorce action being filed. It is also one of the most challenging issues for therapists to handle. When infidelity is involved, both partners are simultaneously grappling with acute and competing emotions, including a combination of shame, grief, fear, anxiety, and anger. The level of physiological, emotional, and cognitive distress may be so high that it threatens to derail any therapeutic effort as well as any effort to amicably resolve a separation or divorce without involving a long, painful and bitter court-contested divorce.
The most useful definition of infidelity encompasses the breaching of an emotional and/or physical relationship boundary. The specific nature of these boundaries varies somewhat from couple to couple and are derived from the explicit or implicit agreements couples make about what is acceptable and unacceptable in their relationship.
Physical contact that does not progress to genital contact may be infidelity. Consistently sharing more of one’s intimate emotional life with a person, whom one is also turned on by, even if there is no touching, may be infidelity. An intense emotional relationship may progress to a physical relationship over time. Even if it doesn’t, an emotional affair can damage the marriage bond. A simple “rule of thumb” is whether someone would feel comfortable describing to his/her spouse the conversation or interaction with the “friend,” including the length and/or the frequency of contact.
Revelation of an affair is a traumatic event for the injured party regardless of whether the infidelity is discovered or disclosed. The injured partner may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress including flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, racing thoughts, intense anxiety, and difficulty eating, sleeping, and focusing. Flashbacks may be triggered by something as innocuous as being introduced to someone who shares the name of the third party or passing a motel.
The discovery of a betrayal shatters the injured party’s assumptions about their marriage, including beliefs about who their partner is as a person and the meaning of their relationship. Just a few of the agonizing questions and racing thoughts the injured partner grapples with include: How could my partner so calculatingly commit lies of commission and omission to protect an intimate relationship with another? Will there ever be a sense of “We-ness” again? Will I ever be able to trust again? Has our whole marriage been a lie?
Post-traumatic stress symptoms take many months or years to resolve, depending on how emotions are addressed and processed. Paradoxically, the unfaithful partner becomes the healing agent if symptoms are to abate within a continuing couples context.
Symptoms of the Unfaithful Partner
Unfaithful partners are often blind-sided by the depth of crisis that discovery precipitates. The infidelity could only be maintained by using some combination of rationalization, justification, and compartmentalization. The unexpected traumatic responses of their spouse typically obliterate any protective cover that these defenses afforded. Unfaithful partners are suddenly confronted with the breadth and direness of potential consequences such as losing a marriage, losing an intact family, and having their actions exposed to family members and friends. Therapists help them manage and process emerging feelings of fear, guilt, shame, worry, anxiety, and anger. If the affair has been emotionally intense, the unfaithful spouse may need months to mourn the affair, or may attempt to remain in contact with the affair partner. Therapists may intersperse individual sessions amongst regular couple sessions to help each partner process their respective emotions.
Determining Ambivalence or Resolve to Work on the Relationship
The partners’ desire to recommit to and work on their relationship should be gauged throughout therapy. Understandably varying degrees of ambivalence will emerge and recede based on, among other things, the quality of the marital relationship before the infidelity, the injured partner’s ability to process difficult pieces of new information, and the intensity of emotional connection between the unfaithful partner and the affair partner. Normalizing this ambivalence and patiently sticking to helping partners process ever-changing emotions is highly therapeutic at this juncture.
Co-Creating the Story of the Affair
If and when both partners agree to work on the relationship, the task of co-creating the story of the affair begins. Injured partners continue to seek and get answers to any remaining questions. At first glance, this continued attention to clarifying details may seem counterintuitive.
How could determining the number of times extra-marital sex occurred possibly help? What benefit could there possibly be in determining whether there was phone contact with the third party during the couple’s anniversary vacation?
Simply put, human nervous systems have less difficulty processing difficult information than remaining in a perpetual state of “not knowing what’s what”. Hence, the obsessive quest for answers to provide relief from the “not knowing”. When injured partners finally know “what it (the extent of the infidelity) was,” they also blessedly know “what it wasn’t.” And then the important grieving process can truly begin.
Research suggests that piecing together the story of a traumatic event is vital to recovery. The reason support groups and debriefing are so helpful is that they satisfy this basic human need to heal by creating a coherent story of traumatic events and thereby gaining mastery over the previously emotionally unmanageable information.
Therapists encourage and coach the injured party to ask troubling questions. If certain answers do not “add up” or seem incomplete, therapists continually reassure the unfaithful partner of the importance of complete truthfulness in order to heal the relationship injury. While some therapists do not encourage focusing on details of the sexual relationship or obsessive ruminations over details of the events, others support the injured partner determining the level of detail needed. Therapists also encourage complete transparency in current behaviors; for example, allowing the injured partner access to email passwords, cell phone records, etc., until they are able to feel safe enough to let go their vigilance and concern. Because secrets and withholding create barriers and guardedness, the process of collaborating over questions and answers begins to restore intimacy and authenticity to the relationship as partners begin to co-create their new story together.
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