When I wrote about extra-relationship affairs years ago, I didn’t have a lot of experience treating couples who were struggling with an affair. I didn’t have enough experience at the time to realize that infidelity is perhaps the most complex issue encountered by couple therapists. The work with couples when it is straightforward, without complication is hard enough, but when infidelity is added to the mix it often challenges even seasoned couples therapists. A few examples that have come up and make the work even more complex:
A couple has seen a therapist for a few visits, always conjoint. At the first visit, the therapist explained that the alliance was to the couple. Consequently, he asserted, don’t call or text and begin by saying, “Don’t tell my partner, but. . .”
Despite that admonition, one partner showed up alone for a session, contending her mate was called out of town last minute for a business crisis. She then tells the therapist she is having an affair. How does the therapist protect the wife’s disclosure while being fair to the husband?
A couple presents with an affair by the husband. He strongly contends that the affair is over and he has no contact with his former paramour. However, one night the therapist spots the husband at a local bar with a woman who is not his wife; by his contact with the woman she appears to be more than a friend, much more. The husband didn’t see the therapist. What’s the therapist’s next move?
And the complications continue. . .
Now, so many years later as a psychologist specializing in treating couples and sexual issues, I have accumulated a few decades more experience. What have I learned that stands out? I’ve learned that it is wise to be prepared for the treatment traps clinicians treating affair-involved couples are likely to encounter. Further, most clinicians, including myself, don’t have all the answers; couples work is not for the beginner. Further, when there is an affair, it requires experience with this issue as well as colleagues to confer with from time to time as needed, in addition to keeping up with the relevant research that applies to practice.
I’ve learned that some views of affairs are unconventional but may have credibility, at least to some. I recall sitting in a clinical meeting with about a dozen clinicians from psychiatry, social work, and psychology. A psychologist was presenting a couples case and stated that the affair-involved husband contended, when caught, that his affair actually saved the marriage. What? It sounded like he was claiming that an affair was a sacrifice he was making for his family. My first thought was, “No, he didn’t say that!”
However, after I got over the shock and listened carefully I could see the point. He loved his wife, he had two children, one with special needs, but the marital relationship left him more than a little empty. Couples therapy didn’t improve his satisfaction and divorce was not an option. His wife had a hard enough time coping even with his support; divorce, he believed, would break her. The affair, he claimed, was superficial—can getting naked with someone ever be superficial?—but it provided enough satisfaction to compensate for what he sorely missed in his marriage.
Sometimes a relationship needs three to survive. It is certainly unconventional, but far from rare. Some affairs have run parallel to long-term marriages. Then there are the genetic factors we discussed earlier. We are a product of nature and nurture, but psychologists like myself are steeped in the factors of nurture, to the neglect of nature. Some people, men and women, by nature are not particularly restrained by the monogamous code; he or she will probably be more likely to step out. They are, by nature, varietists. We vary in predispositions. Just as some of us naturally tend toward being heavier despite having tried numerous diets, while others have less restraint and stay slender. Is this a pass to those who violate their partner’s trust?
This is not to offer an excuse for the “wanderers,” only to make the point that maintaining a monogamous relationship is more difficult for some, just as other factors are for others. If the marriage is not a close one, these affairs may be unnoticed and without major consequence. They may even have the positive effect of keeping a marriage that is satisfactory in most respects, alive and intact. If the marriage is a close one, a strain, like an undiagnosed virus is going to undermine love, and if discovered, a crisis is likely to develop even if the affair is casual.
Of course, few of those on the betrayal end of an affair will not find anything casual or of minor consequence if it is discovered—and “I’m genetically predisposed to variety” is not likely to go over well with the offended. That’s understandable; the impact is anything but casual. More likely, it is often profound shock followed by hurt and anger. It has also occurred to me, after some experience, that discovery is often not purely accidental. When a man leaves his mistress’s underwear in the trunk of his wife’s car, stupidity is one possible reason, but it is more likely a hidden wish to be discovered, hostility is also likely.
And what about the man I saw several years back who went on a vacation with his mistress and dropped his wife a postcard, signing off, “Wish you were her.” That was the rare instance where one “e” too few changed lives.
As with all things, the prognosis for repair is always more positive if the status was decent beforehand. If the relationship was a mess and then the affair is discovered, it may be beyond repair. However, if the couple is game and will follow a repair prescription faithfully, the effort can result in a stronger relationship than before the affair. That has been my experience many times. In all areas of life, strong, unwavering commitment toward a goal is a very big advantage in the chase for success.
What I haven’t learned is how to help save a relationship when one partner continues to lie in the face of a broken trust. Or how to assist a man or woman who is intent to destroy their life and the lives of their children by continuing in an affair that is like a drug and is likely to end as badly as drug abuse does. Most affairs don’t end in a new primary relationship, and those that do often teeter on the unstable trust that initiated their alignment.
What I do know about what I don’t know is why these failures bother me so much. I lost my father at age four and subsequently, my mother married and divorced twice. It was in Brooklyn, New York, during the 1950s and 1960s when the “D” word was uncommon and support and understanding unknown. I’ve experienced the impact of a broken family and after all my years of working with couples, it still breaks my heart when it occurs unnecessarily.