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Affairs and how relationship therapists work with them

As part of the BACP requirements for Continuous Professional Development, I recently attended a training course on Affairs and their impact on the couple relationship. It was a fascinating course with therapists from different cultures, training and moral values. Affairs are always a controversial subject, often touching both therapists and clients deeply and on a personal level. 25% of couples coming for relationship counselling present an extramarital affair as their reason for seeking counselling. A further 30% of couples disclose the existence of affairs in the course of therapy. These numbers only reflect the prevalence of affairs for couples seeking counselling but there are obviously many more couples not seeking counselling who have been, are or will be impacted by them.

So how do therapists work with couples impacted by the disclosure of infidelity, be it with a real person, virtual or through the use of pornography? First it is essential to understand that such disclosures are often experienced as cataclysmic for the unsuspecting partner. Some authors e.g. Glass (2002), liken the symptoms experienced by the ‘betrayed’ partner to the ones experienced by people affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This emphasises the intensity of the trauma experienced within the couple and how critical it is to dedicate a considerable amount of time to acknowledge and work through these symptoms.

Others like Monika Sheinkman (2005) concur that working with trauma is an essential part of the work that needs to be done when dealing with affairs but disagree that it should be the only focus of therapy. She recommends that the couple and therapist should take this opportunity to develop a full picture of the reasons for the affair taking into account the contextual and cultural factors. This echoes my clinical experience when dealing with affairs. I generally find helpful to ‘normalise’ the situation and all the intense thoughts and feelings experienced by the couple and reassure them. I then do a lot of work exploring the motives and the circumstances leading up to the affair.

Controversially, Sheinkman suggests that monogamy is often assumed to be the ideal but in fact it may not be essential in certain cultures nor for certain individuals. I guess this has been recently illustrated in the differences in the French/British press coverage of the adventures of Mr Hollande and his various partners… Sheinkman rejects the idea that affairs are ‘immoral’ and ‘abnormal’ and also brands the language of betrayal as unhelpful. Levine (2005) acknowledges that in a long-term relationship people change and what was assumed at some stage about one partner may no longer be true. His approach is fairly direct offering his ‘hunches’ to the couple regarding the motives and meanings of the affair hoping to trigger debate for the couple. Levine’s approach is similar to Sheinkman as they both recommend the need to present a balanced view of each partner’s difficulties and perspectives and not only focus on the basic ‘Victim’ and ‘Perpetrator’ concept. I believe this is the most helpful way for couples seeking to salvage their relationship but for it to be successful a pre-requisite should be for the affair partner to take full responsibility for his/her actions.

Sheinkman also disagrees with the values of absolute transparency and truth telling as these can further increase the trauma that therapy is aiming to address. While I think there is a lot of merit in Sheinkman’s approach, my clinical experience is that the cheated on partner often is desperate for the full truth. Hours are being spent picturing every minute detail of what might have happened. Cheated on partners often believe they are still being lied to and until they ‘know’ they have been told everything, they cannot move on. Ultimately the affair needs to ‘make some kind of sense’ to the cheated on partner to allow him or her to move on.

Glass, S. P., (2002). Couple Therapy after the Trauma of Infidelity In Gurman, A.S. & Jacobson, N. S Clinical handbook of couple therapy 3 ed. New York: Guildford Press.

Levine, S. B., (2005). A clinical perspective on infidelity. Sexual and Relationship Therapy. Vol 20, No. 2.

Sheinkman, M., (2005). Beyond the trauma of betrayal: Reconsidering Affairs in Couples Therapy. Family Process 44:227-224.

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