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Later on in our cafe conversation, my Parisian host quoted a popular bit of French folk wisdom: "It's not good to speak all truths." "Lying," he went on, "is sometimes the best way that we have to be discreet and to maintain social graces, and to protect others from truths that will cause unnecessary hurt." I agreed with him. "When it comes to keeping secrets or telling the truth," I said, "it all depends on the circumstances."
Infidelity and the One-Track Mind
I was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and came to live the United States in the 1970s. Since the early days of my life in America, I've felt a sense of cultural dissonance with colleagues and friends about how infidelity is approached here, both in the culture and in the therapy profession. I've found it perplexing that, although we live in a pluralistic society, ostensibly liberal and sexually permissive, therapists typically have one-track minds regarding how to approach the range of infidelities that inundate our therapy practices.
I became a therapist in the heyday of the family therapy movement, at a time when the couple was considered primarily a subsystem of the family. In that paradigm, emotions, any sense of subjectivity, and most matters related to the interiority of a couple's life, such as desire, intimacy, and infidelity, were ignored in favor of cybernetics, feedback loops, and systemic processes—the dominant therapeutic concepts. Until the late 1980s, family therapists had written nothing on how to manage affairs in couples therapy. The conventional therapeutic wisdom among family therapists was to avoid knowing secrets, especially about affairs, to prevent any "triangulation" and "alliances" that might compromise the therapist's objectivity.
Then in 1989, Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman broke the silence about the forbidden topic with the publication of Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy. Starting from an explicit moral position against affairs, he described the dynamics of infidelity in terms of "a betrayer and a victim," and defined it as abnormal behavior, "a breach of the trust," and "a symptom of problems." He proclaimed total honesty as the ideal for all marriages and the unearthing of the secrecy and lies at the heart of infidelity as a primary therapeutic consideration, irrespective of the couple's personal code, values, and culture. His therapeutic stance was that confession and full disclosure about the affair are the only pathways to healing and recovery.