|Attachment CE Comments Trauma Clinical Excellence Men in Therapy Great Attachment Debate Clinical Mastery Attachment Theory Mindfulness Mind/Body Diets Challenging Cases Community of Excellence Linda Bacon Future of Psychotherapy Etienne Wenger Alan Sroufe Couples Wendy Behary Brain Science David Schnarch Ethics Symposium 2012 Anxiety Couples Therapy Narcissistic Clients The Future of Psychotherapy Mary Jo Barrett Gender Issues William Doherty|
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When it comes to understanding the roots of an affair and what to do therapeutically about it, I take the position that one size does not fit all. For some couples—especially North American couples—disclosure about the affair may be crucial to reestablishing trust in the relationship, but for many others, telling the truth may be disastrous, leading to intrusive thoughts, unending jealousy, and even the break-up of the relationship. Hearing too much about what took place during an affair frequently amplifies the hurt partner's painful feelings. The more he or she feels like a betrayed victim, the harder it is for the couple to start investing jointly in a renewal of their bond.
During 30 years of practice, I've often seen situations in which the person who had the affair kept the infidelity private, but still managed to bring what was learned through the affair into the marriage, making it stronger. I've also seen situations in which the person was encouraged by a well-meaning therapist or a friend to spare no detail, and witnessed how such revelations backfired, leading the couple into an escalating cycle of blame and shame, or hurt and guilt, which ultimately made the marriage more fragile.
Therefore, I don't take it upon myself to persuade a client who's having an affair either to tell or not to tell. Instead, I let him or her decide what to do, and then carefully and respectfully follow what unfolds.
When working with an undisclosed affair or any other private matter, I clarify my confidentiality policy at the beginning of the therapy, spelling out that whatever I discuss with either partner separately is confidential until such time as he or she decides to share the information. Although I may recommend on occasion that one partner discuss something that's come up in an individual session, my role isn't to be a messenger: my main job is to help couples clarify their individual yearnings and values, and then figure out whether and how to bring that awareness back into their relationship, implicitly or explicitly.
The course of couples therapy around an affair depends on whether the partner knows about it. If an affair is revealed or discovered, the disclosure usually spurs the couple into a crisis, which must be the initial focus of the therapy. Therapy is productive in these cases if it leads to the termination of the affair, reparation of hurt feelings, and a commitment to review the status of the primary relationship and/or a more deliberate cultivation of the couple's bond.