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How do you guide couples through the decision-making process of divorce? Which strategies presented in this session will use to help couples navigate “the moral crucible moments” when they are on the brink of splitting up? How will you best advocate for children whose parents are considering divorce?
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Couples therapist, David Schnarch, is not interested in having a couple feel secure in the consulting room.
In fact, David asserts that therapy is the one place where partners should be able to be uncomfortably honest, and take responsibility for their problematic behavior and actions. The couples therapist’s role is to challenge them to do just that.
Even though our ideas about sex and sexuality have greatly advanced over the last half-century, our culture still holds a double standard about infidelity. While no one is entirely surprised by the behavior of a Bill Clinton, an Elliot Spitzer, or a Tiger Woods—men will be men, after all—we still tend to pathologize women or shame them (or both) for having affairs.
In my view, far from being evidence of pathology or marital bankruptcy, a woman’s affair can be a way of expressing a desire for an entirely different self, either separate from the marriage altogether or still in it. An affair can be what I call “a can opener” for women unable to articulate for themselves why they’re unhappy in their marriages, much less empower themselves to leave or begin an honest conversation with their husbands about what they feel is wrong. In my practice, I’ve heard many women say, “I didn’t even know what I wanted until the affair was over and I realized that I really wanted to end my marriage,” or “I had no idea that I used the affair as a way to wake up our relationship.”
Many infidelity treatment approaches today are based on the idea that the unfaithful spouse is a perpetrator, someone who wronged the other person. While the pain caused by infidelity can’t and shouldn’t be denied, it generally isn’t understood well enough that many women cheat because they struggle with their self-identity in their lives and lack of empowerment in their marriages. To some extent, the affair makes up for a felt lack of an adult self. Sometimes, understanding an affair as an unconscious bid for self-empowerment, relief from bad sex, or a response to a lack of choices or personal freedom is an important first step toward a fuller, more mature selfhood.
Searching for the Bartered Self
Sarah came to therapy with her husband, Rob, for couples therapy after he caught her cheating. Married for 10 years, he felt hurt, angry, and hopeless about the marriage. He sat across from Sarah on the couch, with his head in his hands. “I have no idea how we’re going to get past this. Sarah says she wants to work this out, but I don’t know if we can put this marriage together again after what she’s done.”
Rob had read emails between Sarah and her boyfriend that explained in detail how much they were enjoying virtual sex—watching each other masturbating over a webcam—which had both shocked and devastated him. He’d thought their sex life was good, but admitted that having kids had gotten in the way of their relationship. He thought they still loved each other, and Sarah agreed. They were both unclear why the affair had happened, but said they wanted to recover their marriage, if possible.
At the end of their first joint session, Sarah asked whether she could see me individually. Rob consented, so I asked if they’d be OK with an open secrets policy: what’s said in the individual session stays in the session. They agreed that whatever Sarah said could be kept private, though she could share with Rob what she wished to from our individual sessions.
In our first individual session, Sarah asked if therapy could be a place where she could talk honestly about the affair. This led to a discussion of the difference between privacy and secrecy, both in her marriage and in her sessions with me. Keeping secrets in her marriage had given Sarah a sense of space—a secret place where she could grow her sexuality, dream her dreams, and keep a part of her that no one else had control over. Our first conversation revolved around how the space she’d created could be shifted from secret to private, and how she could keep a differentiated, individuated boundary around herself in her relationship. This could give her a healthy degree of separation from her husband without having to lie or be deceptive to stake out her space.
I then explained to Sarah that, in my view, infidelity recovery has three phases: crisis, insight, and vision. The crisis stage occurs right after disclosure or discovery, when couples are in acute distress and their lives are in chaos. At this point, the focus of therapy isn’t on whether or not they should stay together or if there’s a future for them, but on establishing safety, addressing painful feelings, and normalizing trauma symptoms.
In phase two, the insight phase, we talk about what vulnerabilities might have led to the extramarital affair. Becoming observers of the affair, we begin to tell the story of what happened. Repeating endless details of the sexual indiscretion doesn’t help, but taking a deeper look at what the unfaithful partner longed for and couldn’t find in the marriage—and so looked for outside of it—as well as finding empathy for the other, who was in the dark, can elicit a shift in how both partners see the affair and what it meant in their relationship.
Phase three is the vision phase, which includes seeking a deeper understanding of the meaning of the affair and moves forward the experience and resulting lessons into a new concept of marriage and, perhaps, a new future. In this phase, partners can decide to move on separately or stay together. This is where the erotic connection will be renewed (or created) and desire can be revived. In this phase, the meaning of monogamy changes from a moralistic, blanket prohibition on outside sex to a search for deeper intimacy inside the marriage. A vision of the relationship going forward includes negotiating a new commitment.
During early sessions in the crisis phase of treatment, Sarah’s view of the world was shifting, and she didn’t know what she wanted. She wavered about whether she wanted to stay with Rob, wondering whether she should move on and seek genuine emotional independence alone or stay and try to be both fully herself and fully married to Rob. She wasn’t sure she could trust me to understand her and didn’t trust her husband, either, even though she herself had acted in a way that wasn’t trustworthy.
Gradually, Sarah revealed that she’d felt that she had no space of her own in the marriage, literally or figuratively. Her husband had a home office, but she had no comparable space for herself. Her dependence on Rob was nearly total: he balanced the checkbook, paid the bills, earned the money, and told her when she could make ATM withdrawals. He even counted the cash in her wallet and decided how much she should spend at the hair salon. She’d never been encouraged or allowed to feel empowered and independent. As a result, she’d started rebelling against her husband like an adolescent against a too-strict father, sneaking out at night or during the day when he was at work and having clandestine sexual encounters.
Sarah’s affair consisted primarily of quick liaisons in the back of her car. Her boyfriend met sexual needs not being fulfilled at home. Although the sex was quick, furtive, and secret, he gave her orgasms and oral sex and was willing to experiment in ways she found exciting. But while buoyed by the thrill and energy of this new relationship and her long-buried ability to feel pleasure—even wondering if she might be falling in love—she also felt guilty. Frightened by the growing intimacy with her lover when they were together, she began meeting him online, masturbating with him through a webcam.
After Rob discovered the affair, he’d demanded Sarah’s email and voice mail passwords, which she gave him. Although this made her feel exposed, vulnerable, and humiliated, she thought her husband deserved the transparency—as the “innocent” party—and that she should be punished. All these thoughts conformed with many of society’s constructs about women who have affairs, but they reinforced her long-brewing resentment that her marriage wasn’t an equal partnership: she was the “bad child”; her husband, the aggrieved parent.
At this point, I reframed the affair for Sarah in a way quite different from her own perspective (and that of many therapists). I asked whether it was possible that the infidelity was less a transgression than a move toward self-respect and self-empowerment. Could she have been seeking autonomy and individuation, as well as a more mature state of sexual development? Was she trying to find her voice, maintain a stronger sense of herself, create a personal boundary that no one could cross, and remain in her marriage? Yes, she’d betrayed her husband; this was beyond doubt, I added. And this method for finding herself was clearly not working if she wanted the marriage to survive. But perhaps she’d paradoxically tried to sabotage the marriage as a desperate attempt to develop more emotional maturity and become a more independent and grown-up wife.
As we spoke, Sarah realized that, while her intentions in having the affair hadn’t been conscious, she did want to grow into a fuller woman and mature sexual adult. She admitted she thought she could bring that woman back into the marriage and into the relationship. This made one point crystal clear: she could no longer be satisfied with the marriage as it was.
Having gotten a clearer portrait of Sarah’s marriage, we moved on to the insight phase of treatment. What did the affair mean about her? What did it mean about Rob? And what did it mean about their marriage?
As we explored these questions, Sarah discovered quickly that the affair had far more to do with her marriage than with her husband, whom she said she loved and with whom she wanted to stay—but only if it could become a more equal partnership. When I asked what the affair told her about Rob, she said, “I felt that he wanted me to fill a certain kind of role; it wasn’t just about replaying my mother’s position. Rob liked being in charge, liked bossing me around and being a kind of father. I know why, too. He recently lost his job, and the only place he felt any power or control was at home. He was mad that they’d fired him and took it out on me. In a way, he’s always done that: when people reject him, he gets angry and controlling. But with us, the more he tried to control me, the more I wanted independence from him.”
We worked in sessions to identify some key areas where she could feel more autonomy and still be in relationship with Rob. She started small, choosing their television shows, making decisions on where to go to dinner, instead of saying, “I don’t care where we go. Where do you want to go?” When Rob asked her to have sex, she told him she wasn’t ready yet, but would let him know when she was. Although Rob felt he had little or no control in these situations, he did begin to appreciate signs of the new, more adult Sarah, someone equal to him, with whom he could have a conversation and negotiate choices. He realized it was a relief that he didn’t have to do it all himself, and he actually felt less lonely in the marriage.
When I asked Sarah what the affair meant about her marriage, she said, “In the affair, I felt stronger, more mature, sexier, calmer, more charming, and more alive.” We talked about whether she could integrate her sexier, more mature self into the marriage or whether the relationship was fundamentally flawed. To her, being in her marriage meant giving up a sense of personal power, while having an affair gave her a sense of independence, choice, and more control. She didn’t know how to have a grown-up relationship with her husband that encompassed safety and desire.
Reenvisioning a Marriage
Treatment in the third phase included helping Sarah get in touch with her fantasies and reconnect with pleasure—one of her greatest challenges in therapy. She felt guilty when she thought about her own pleasure, and had compartmentalized her needs into the affair, as something separate, wrong, and forbidden. Her fantasies and desires were something she felt shame about sharing with her husband. Bringing that sexual part of her into the marriage was the beginning of erotic recovery for her and for her marriage, but she still had to learn to connect with her desires and to communicate them to Rob.
I asked her to write down some of her sexual fantasies and share what she thought the desire or longing underneath them was. For instance, if the fantasy was to have someone grab her hair and kiss her, was this spurred by a longing to be held, to be out of control, to know that she was wanted and desired, or all of the above? The goal was to normalize her sexual needs: her affair had been a breach of monogamy, not a sexual pathology.
“If you could have anything you wanted, what would you ideally expect from your sex life with your husband?”
Sarah answered shyly, “That he’d pursue me and we’d try new things in bed.”
When I asked her if she knew what the longing underneath might be, she said, “My real longing underneath is to be totally special to him.”
Sarah went on to work on a vision of a more intimate and adult sexuality. This included asking Rob to behave in ways that made her feel special and trying to make him feel special as well. By this point, she was committed to creating a mutual vision of a new monogamy with her husband, and I suggested they return for couples therapy and focus together on their erotic recovery.
Several months later, Rob and Sarah are still working on an agreement for a new, monogamous marriage together. Sarah is committed to sharing her real thoughts and feelings with Rob. In this way, her adult self and her adult needs become a priority that can be talked about and negotiated in the relationship. She feels they’re now given as much importance as Rob’s needs.
Rob’s commitment to Sarah is that he tries harder to share his feelings and work on creating a more emotionally intimate relationship. They both try to be conscious of the distant and disconnected roles learned in their childhoods, and focus instead on the emotional intimacy they really want from the relationship.
Their new monogamy includes a focus on their erotic recovery. The affair created an erotic injury to their relationship, and Rob and Sarah continue to work on this as a goal of healing. They’ve made a commitment to sharing their fantasies and talking about what’s working in their love life. When they feel distant or dissatisfied, they want to learn to talk about it and turn toward each other instead of shutting down or turning to someone else outside the marriage.
Sarah now understands that her journey to self-empowerment and freedom can happen at the same time that she’s a wife and partner. Her adult choices include staying in a mature, monogamous relationship, while creating space for working on her own self-identity. Her worth in the relationship continues to be a focus of our couples therapy. Her cheating makes sense to her now in the context of her life issues, but she has a new empathy for Rob and how it affected him.
As therapists, it’s important to discern what our goal is for the women we treat in infidelity therapy. Are we helping them end an affair or end their marriage? Is it our job to remind them of their vows or simply to help them heal? By viewing women’s infidelity as a possible search for a new way of being, we can help them reenvision a fully committed relationship with greater empowerment and equality.
By David Treadway
While I admire the sensitive work Tammy Nelson did in rejuvenating Sarah and Rob’s marriage, both emotionally and erotically, I believe that zooming in too quickly to examine the root causes of an infidelity without addressing the emotional impact of the betrayal on both parties usually leads to incomplete healing. Although I say to couples that each partner is 50 percent responsible for what’s not working in a marriage, I always add that choosing to have a secret affair is 100 percent the responsibility of the unfaithful spouse. Most of the time, couples need a way of healing the fundamental breach of trust before being able to fully repair the relationship.
In working with couples following a secret affair, I use a four-step model based on the treatment approach of clinical psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring:
Step 1: The betrayed partners have as much time as needed to share their hurt, anger, and sense of devastation while unfaithful partners listen as nondefensively as possible without explaining or rationalizing their behavior. The therapist helps the partner who had the outside relationship to be compassionate and caring about the impact of the affair. Needless to say, this may take more than a single session.
Step 2: The unfaithful partners are then taught to write a letter in which they take full responsibility for having done harm, indicating what they’ll do to ensure it won’t happen again and what concrete steps they’ll take to make amends. In addition to agreeing never again to see the other party in the affair, other ways to make amends might include giving up drinking for a year or getting rid of the boat where the affair took place.
Step 3: The letter of amends is read in session, and the concrete actions that constitute an attempt at atonement are agreed upon by both partners.
Step 4: Only at this point is the challenge of learning how to forgive discussed, and only if betrayed partners are ready to begin to work on it. If so, they’re coached on how to write a forgiveness letter that involves accepting the attempts at atonement and expressing a willingness to let go of a sense of injury. This all takes place with the understanding that forgiveness can’t be legislated; it has to grow over time.
It’s my experience that patiently and thoroughly working through this difficult process without shaming and blaming is what allows a couple to move on to achieving a level of intimacy and trust that they typically never had before. I remember a man named Paul who’d gone on to transform his relationship with his wife after her affair and referred to their new sense of connection as his “second marriage.” In one of our last sessions, he put his arm around his wife, smiled at me conspiratorially, and said, “You know what I like best? Here I have this extraordinary woman and a brand new ‘second marriage,’ and the lawyers didn’t get a dime!”
I agree with David Treadway’s observation that working with couples after an infidelity takes lots of finesse and that, of course, the feelings of the person who’s been deceived and betrayed need to taken into account and addressed. Like Treadway, I think Janis Spring’s “secrets policy” can be invaluable, offering helpful clinical guidelines for individual work when necessary.
Since this case study was told from Sarah’s point of view, it doesn’t delve into Rob’s feelings, nor do we get to see much of the couples work. Instead, the focus is on the special issues of identity and empowerment for women who have affairs. If I’d told the fuller story of the therapy with this couple, I’d have devoted more attention to the third phase of treatment—the attempt to help them develop a new vision of their marriage, which I call the “new monogamy.”
However, the most important message I hope readers take away from this case is that even after the wrenching pain of an affair, therapists still have an opportunity to help troubled couples create a new relationship with better communication, fuller intimacy, and realistic hope for a better future together.
Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., M.S., a board-certified sexologist, licensed professional counselor, certified sex therapist, and Imago therapist, is the founder and executive director of the Center for Healing. She’s the author of The New Monogamy; Getting the Sex You Want; and What’s Eating You?
David Treadway, Ph.D., is director of the Treadway Training Institute. He’s the author of Home Before Dark: First Year with Cancer and Intimacy, Change, and Other Therapeutic Mysteries: Stories of Clinicians and Clients.
By Rich Simon Back in the 1970s, as boomers like me came out of grad school and flooded the psychotherapy field, the big challenge to the mainstream tradition of psychodynamic orthodoxy was posed by the iconoclastic family therapists like Salvador Minuchin, Virginia Satir, and Carl Whitaker. Their version of therapy seemed like a thrill-a-minute joyride in comparison to the staid predictability of therapy-as-usual. Read more
By Barry McCarthy
Recovery from an extramarital affair asks a lot of partners. They must not only process painful feelings, repair the rupture of trust, and share their deepest vulnerabilities, but also take steps to build a new, resilient bond, both emotionally and sexually. Allocating the right amount of time to deal with the affair and determining when partners are ready to focus on the present and future marital bond is a struggle for both clinicians and couples.
Cheryl and Justin, a couple in their mid-thirties, were both demoralized and alienated when they arrived in my office. Two years earlier, Cheryl had discovered that her husband of nine years had been spending some $700 a month on Internet sex sites, massage parlors, strip clubs, and prostitutes. When she’d furiously confronted him, he’d refused to admit that his behavior constituted an extramarital affair, dismissing it as normal male fooling around. Cheryl had considered leaving the marriage, but she didn’t want her son and daughter to suffer the same pain, loss, and family fracturing she’d experienced as a result of her mother’s three divorces.Cheryl and Justin had received lots of conflicting advice from family and friends during the past two years. Some thought they should end the marriage and get a lawyer, while others encouraged them to see a pastoral counselor or marriage therapist. A friend of Cheryl’s even recommended that she forgive her husband in exchange for $5,000 worth of jewelry.
As their mutual bitterness escalated, the couple’s sex life ground to a halt. Cheryl accused Justin of being an irresponsible sex addict who was bankrupting the family, and Justin shot back that she was acting like the sex police. For two years, they remained stuck in mutual recrimination, unable to decide how to move forward. Finally, Cheryl’s older brother, an accountant, confronted them with the reality that they were spending more money on counselors, computer surveillance equipment, and a private detective than Justin had spent on all the sex sites, clubs, and prostitutes. Shocked by this realization, the couple accepted the brother’s suggestion that they see a clinician who specialized in marriage, sexuality, and extramarital affairs.
My approach to affairs is heavily influenced by the work of clinician–researchers Douglas Snyder, Donald Baucom, and Kristina Coop Gordon, who advocate that partners go through a three-phase process: (1) focus on self-care, slow down the process, and do no harm to each other; (2) make personal and relational meaning of the affair; and (3) decide to either recommit to the marriage or achieve a “good divorce.” In my work, I emphasize an additional phase: sexual recovery from the extramarital affair. Few theoretical and clinical models include this vital aspect of treatment.
Justin and Cheryl came in for a four-session assessment that included an initial couples session, an individual session focusing on each partner’s psychological, relational, and sexual history, and a couple feedback session with a recommended therapeutic plan. Not surprisingly, our initial session was difficult, since both were still trapped in a blame/counterblame cycle. Cheryl fluctuated between raging at Justin—calling him a jerk who was destroying her life and family—and begging him to love her and be a trusted partner. Justin barely looked at Cheryl, at one point muttering, “This is useless.” It was hard sitting with their pain, but such raw suffering is frequently part of the initial couple session.
The subsequent individual sessions were more productive. In listening to Justin’s story, it was clear that he brought a number of strengths to the marriage: he loved Cheryl, valued sex, cared about their family, and wanted to heal the marriage. But while Justin loved his wife and found her attractive, he was an anxious sexual performer and didn’t value marital sex. He couldn’t imagine his wife in the erotic role that most turned him on—that of a dominatrix. Justin eroticized transgressive sex, specifically the role of being a sexual submissive. “I’ve struggled with this my whole life,” he said, adding that he’d never revealed this part of himself to any intimate partner, including Cheryl.
Justin continued to resist labeling his secret sexual life as an extramarital affair. He rightly noted that a large percentage of men use porn and get turned on by socially unacceptable images and scenarios. Feeling my empathy and respect, he gradually grew less defensive and began to examine both the healthy and unhealthy components of his sexuality. While maintaining eye contact and reflecting how difficult this sexual split must be for him, I said, “You owe it to yourself to resolve these conflicts.” Once we acknowledged his sexual strengths—valuing sex, enjoying eroticism, and having regular orgasms—I looked him in the eye again and said, “Be honest with yourself. What don’t you like about what’s happening with you sexually?”
After a silence, Justin said in a low voice, “I’m embarrassed about spending so much money on sex clubs and all the rest.”
Gently, I pressed the issue: “After a sexual encounter, what do you think and how do you feel?”
More silence. Then he answered: “I just want to get away.”
After a moment, I suggested to Justin that keeping his sex club encounters a secret and de-eroticizing his wife were part of the problem. “Your sex is controlled by high secrecy, high eroticism, and high shame, isn’t it?” I asked. When he nodded agreement, I added, “Don’t you feel that’s a poison that you’re taking into yourself?” This was a new, non-shaming way for Justin to understand himself, the role of his secret sex life, and how it affected Cheryl. For the first time, he understood that his secret sexual activity did negate marital sexuality and, therefore, was an extramarital affair. His voice shaking, he said, “Dammit, Cheryl’s right. It is like an affair.”
In her individual session, Cheryl revealed that she’d grown up feeling fearful and inadequate in the sexual realm. Her mother had raised her to link sexuality with pregnancy and being labeled a slut. She never felt pretty or sexy enough and feared that no one would ever want to marry her, so when Justin pursued a relationship with her and proposed marriage, she felt she’d been saved. Now she was devastated by her husband’s lack of erotic interest. “I feel like a sexual neuter,” Cheryl said. “I can’t imagine that any man would think I’m attractive or want to go to bed with me.”
A crucial component of our sex therapy model is the couple feedback session. The goals of this 90-minute session are: the development of a new, more genuine narrative about each partner’s strengths and vulnerabilities, especially regarding sexuality; the creation of a therapeutic plan addressing the relationship, the affair, trust, and the couple’s sexuality; and assigning the first psychosexual skill exercise to be completed at home. As both partners confront painful personal, relational, and sexual realities during the feedback session, the clinician must be particularly empathetic, respectful, and caring.
I started the session by turning my chair to face Cheryl as Justin looked on. “Cheryl, you bring great psychological, relational, and sexual strengths to this marriage,” I began. “You want a marriage that’s satisfying, stable, and sexual. You’re committed to developing a healthier family than the one you grew up in, and you’ve survived the painful last two years and haven’t given up trying to understand what’s happening to you and Justin sexually. But you also bring major vulnerabilities. You deal with hurt feelings by becoming angry and attacking, your sexual self-esteem is low, and you’re now Justin’s worst critic.” I then turned to Justin and addressed the particular strengths and vulnerabilities that he brought to the marriage.
During this session, both partners learned new and valuable information about the other. Cheryl hadn’t been aware of Justin’s desire to be sexually submissive or his performance anxiety during sex. For the first time, she understood that her husband’s affair had been driven by his own internal sexual conflicts, rather than his judgment of her sexual desirability. Rather than having to defend herself by attacking him, she felt freed to be more emotionally present with Justin in a new way.
For his part, Justin hadn’t realized how desperately Cheryl needed his love and sexual desire, nor did he know how devastated she was by his loss of sexual interest in her and his avoidance of marital sex. For the first time, he took some responsibility for the impact of his secret sexual life. “I never wanted this to happen to you or to us,” Justin gently told his wife. “I never intended to hurt you.” Then, with my urging, Justin took her hand, looked into her eyes, and said, “I love you and want to be with you.”
This larger focus on the couple’s marriage and sexual connection enabled them to begin addressing the fuller meaning of the affair. Until then, it was as though Justin and Cheryl had been speaking completely different languages about the affair’s significance, and now finally were able to communicate in English. Both understood that the affair had nothing to do with Cheryl’s erotic allure and everything to do with Justin’s need to act out a secret sexual life that was split off from his married life. This crucial shift helped them reengage emotionally and begin experiencing themselves as allies instead of the adversaries they’d been in the last two years.
By the end of the 90-minute feedback session, the three of us were emotionally drained, but Justin and Cheryl exuded a new sense of hope. They committed themselves to a therapeutic plan for trying to rebuild a new marital and sexual bond. Toward the end of the session, I described a psychosexual trust exercise and asked them to practice it at home. It focuses on nude, whole-body touching that promotes safety and attachment. The trust position that Cheryl and Justin chose was her lying in his arms as he stroked her hair. Over time, this exercise helped them experience being part of an intimate team in confronting the past and building a satisfying new sexual connection.
Building a New Bond
Our next several therapy sessions were emotionally challenging as Cheryl and Justin continued to reveal painful hurts and disclose their vulnerabilities. At the same time, I continued to offer them encouragement and tools for developing a new, positive connection. In one session, I asked them to engage in the attraction exercise, in which each shared what they valued about their spouse emotionally, relationally, physically, and sexually. When Justin told Cheryl that he found her to be “a smart, attractive, loving woman with whom I want to share my life,” she teared up, but didn’t look away. “I need you to love and want me,” she replied, holding his gaze. “And I love and want you.”
I continued to express my belief that they could build a new marital and sexual bond by acknowledging the past and learning new ways to experience the healing value of touch, trust, and attraction. Rather than relying on traditional sensate focus exercises, I taught psychosexual skill exercises that related directly to sexual desire. Developing healthy sexual desire involves not only valuing intimacy, but also a willingness to try out erotic scenarios and techniques, and engaging in “non-demand pleasuring”—affectionate, playful touch that may or may not lead to intercourse.
It was Cheryl who took the initiative to promote sensual and playful touch both inside and outside the bedroom. Though Justin hated the clinical-sounding term “non-demand pleasuring,” he greatly enjoyed touching and being touched by Cheryl. In one session, with tears in his eyes, he told her, “For the first time since I was a kid, I feel there’s someone who really knows me, accepts me, and loves me.”
Facing the Tiger
We still needed to confront the most sensitive issue facing the couple: Justin’s variant sexual arousal—his need to play a sexually submissive role and be demeaned in order to be turned on. I explained to the couple that they had to commit jointly to a therapeutic strategy to deal with Justin’s sexual pattern. They could choose to accept it, compartmentalize it, or give it up as a “necessary loss.” Clinicians remain split regarding which strategy works for which couples.
Justin spoke first. He told Cheryl how much he appreciated her empathy and support for his dilemma and made it clear that he didn’t want her to become his dominatrix. “I don’t want that for either of us,” he told her. His choice was to relinquish his submissive sexual pattern as a necessary loss.
Cheryl was deeply moved, seeing his willingness to change his lifelong arousal pattern as a tremendous gift and a symbol of how much he valued her, their marriage, and their family. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Acceptance of the necessary loss strategy was vital, but not sufficient. With my encouragement, Justin also acknowledged to Cheryl that the combination of secrecy, eroticism, and shame surrounding his behavior had been destructive to their marriage. He took hold of her hands, looked into her eyes, and said: “I’m so sorry I hurt you. I’m totally committed to being your intimate sexual spouse. You can trust me.” He’d arrived at a place where he genuinely and deeply regretted his betrayal, yet was no longer sunk in shame and self-hatred. He was ready to learn to value intimacy, pleasuring, and eroticism within his marriage.
The challenge for Cheryl was to discover the erotic scenarios and techniques that turned her on and to risk expressing her own wishes. By giving each other the freedom to experiment and express his or her sexual voice, the couple began to find a new path. Justin discovered that when Cheryl was sexually involved and responsive, it enhanced his own involvement and arousal. Meanwhile, Cheryl found that feeling wanted and needed by Justin was her most powerful aphrodisiac. Gradually, the couple began to enjoy sex as a team sport.
This doesn’t mean that Justin’s issues evaporated. In an individual session with me, he acknowledged that being sexually submissive with a controlling, dominant woman was still a 100 for him in terms of erotic intensity. He didn’t believe that he’d ever experience that same degree of erotic charge during intimate sex with Cheryl. However, he understood that it was still possible to create a rewarding new couple sexuality. “It’s already happening,” he told me. He rated his sexual bond with Cheryl as a solid 85 in terms of intimacy, intensity, pleasure, and sexual satisfaction. He added with a grin, “Who knows where it’ll go from here?” As this case demonstrates, I advocate the both/and path that Cheryl and Justin negotiated with courage and commitment. Helping couples fully express difficult feelings and process the affair to make meaning of it enables them to build a stronger trust bond and a more satisfying sexual connection.
By Michele Scheinkman
Traditionally, couples therapists have assumed that if they helped couples repair their emotional relationship after a betrayal, their erotic bond will somehow magically flourish. Lately, however, many therapists have questioned this idea, realizing that the couple’s sexual connection is a delicate matter that must be dealt with directly and skillfully. This case illustrates a therapist’s sustained effort to explicitly help a couple develop a lasting erotic connection in the aftermath of infidelity.
A central feature of Barry McCarthy’s approach is his assessment of the couple by sequencing conjoint, individual, and conjoint feedback sessions. In doing so, he illustrates the effectiveness of individual sessions in disarming defensiveness and creating a safe space to explore erotic details that might otherwise remain secret. While the initial conjoint session gives him a full picture of Cheryl and Justin’s history and dynamics, it’s only in the safe environment of the individual sessions that McCarthy is able to understand their hidden vulnerabilities and yearnings.
While respectful and empathic of Justin’s desires for transgression and submission as elements of his sexual arousal, McCarthy firmly challenges his defensive justification that his extra-marital behavior was nothing more than a “normal male fooling around.” McCarthy asks a masterful question: “Be honest with yourself. What don’t you like about what’s happening to you sexually?” As Justin is encouraged to reflect on his sexual split, he’s forced to come to terms with the consequences of his behavior—the empty feeling after his transgressions, the money spent on sex clubs and all the rest, his loss of sexual energy toward Cheryl. In the individual session with Cheryl, McCarthy is equally skillful at uncovering her inhibitions and lack of sexual entitlement.
The million-dollar question in this case is what McCarthy calls “facing the tiger.” Can Justin really abdicate his desire for submission and pain? While McCarthy seems convinced that Cheryl will keep learning to be assertive and take sexual risks, he admits that Justin’s “variant” pattern is more complicated. Once again, he skillfully creates a narrative for solving the couple’s problem by posing Justin’s dilemmas in terms of choice and will.
McCarthy discusses three different alternatives for them. One possibility is for Justin to continue compartmentalizing his sexual needs. But with Justin’s now-heightened awareness of the painful consequences of his pattern, this isn’t an option. Justin also rejects the possibility of inviting Cheryl to play the dominatrix. The third choice, the one that Justin ends up choosing, is for him to relinquish his desires as a necessary loss for him, but a gain for the marriage. However, McCarthy isn’t naïve. Despite this reasonable choice, he understands that Justin’s intensely erotic yearnings for submission and pain will not miraculously disappear, so he keeps on working with Justin individually.
What lies ahead for this couple? Do we believe that entrenched sexual blueprints like Justin’s ever really change with therapy? Reading this case, we can say that, with McCarthy’s help, Justin and Cheryl may have broken the spell of secrecy and forbidden pleasures, once Justin shared his sexual dilemma openly with Cheryl and they’d entered a positive cycle of sexuality and intimacy in the marriage. The therapy seems to have helped them create a strong enough bond to deter the forces that might otherwise pull them apart again. But more than anything, it’s clear that this couple found a special therapist who’ll help them face any new crisis.
Barry McCarthy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at American University, is the author of Discovering Your Couple Sexual Style, Enduring Desire: Your Guide to Lifelong Intimacy, and Sexual Awareness. Lana Wald, M.A., and a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at American University, collaborated in this treatment and the preparation of this case study. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele Scheinkman, L.C.S.W., is a faculty member of the Ackerman Institute for the Family and in private practice in New York City. She’s written extensively on the topic of affairs, including “Foreign Affairs,” published in the July/August 2010 Psychotherapy Networker. Contact: email@example.com.
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