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Sometimes, my work with a couple will concentrate more on the person having the affair; at other times, especially when the affair is out in the open, the focus may be more on the person who feels betrayed. In working with the one involved in the affair, the main consideration is usually to understand the timing of the affair and its function, if any, within the marriage. Is it an alarm bell about ongoing difficulties? Is it the third leg in a tripod holding the marriage together? Is it mostly a parallel experience, related to unresolved family-of-origin issues? Could it be related to struggles with sexual identity, simple curiosity, or a different view of the importance of fidelity?
When the partner chooses to keep the affair undisclosed, therapy must include a flexible combination of individual and joint sessions. Individual sessions tend to be especially useful in helping the person evaluate the meaning of the affair and the amount of pull felt toward the lover. In these sessions, the therapist has opportunities to highlight what direct or indirect impacts the affair may be having on the marriage: divided loyalties, the drain of sexual energy away from the primary relationship, feelings of irritability, and distance toward the marriage partner. A major goal of these sessions is to evaluate whether an understanding of the individual's yearnings can illuminate what needs to happen in the primary relationship and what to do about the love triangle. Also, individual sessions can help one partner work through his or her mourning about the end of the affair.
In a parallel way, individual sessions with the other partner provide an opportunity to determine what he or she wants to do, given the person's understanding of the situation. We may discuss ways of confronting the partner about the possible affair or what other actions to take. One of my clients, tormented by suspicions, ended up deciding to hire a private investigator. The most important focus of the individual sessions, however, is on what might be missing from the primary relationship and how it may be addressed by each partner.
Working with Secrets
Often in our first session together, a couple presents a riddle that makes me wonder whether a love triangle of some sort is going on behind the scenes. I experienced this on meeting Marcos and Karina. Strikingly handsome and in their mid-thirties, they'd moved from Brazil to New York a few years earlier to pursue career opportunities. A year and a half later, their daughter Mila was born. "This should be a wonderful time in our lives," Karina said, "but it's been miserable." She complained that Marcos traveled to Latin America to see clients almost every week, and when he was in New York, he was rarely home before 11:00 p.m. She said she felt lonely, and that their sex life had evaporated. Marcos looked sad and contributed little to the session. Once in a while, he'd say things like, "Yes, she's right. It's been difficult."