Foreign Affairs

Infidelity Has Different Meanings In Different Cultures

Foreign Affairs

This article first appeared in the July/August 2010 issue.

I can still recall that late afternoon in an outdoor cafe in Paris 10 years ago, when, after I’d given a workshop on couples therapy, my host—a French family therapist—expressed his horror at my observations about how therapy is done here. I’d explained that, in the United States, intimacy is often equated with transparency and truth-telling, especially with couples who come in for therapy when one of them has had an affair. My Parisian colleague was shocked to learn that American therapists typically encourage couples not only to confess their affairs, but also to share the details.

Shaking his head in disbelief, he said, “Mystery is an essential ingredient in maintaining interest in our partner over time. To keep my marriage enlivened, I must feel there’s always more to my wife than what I already know.” Then, with a dramatic flair, he picked up a pen and drew two intersecting circles on a paper napkin, each representing a marital partner. “In France,” he said, “when we think about the relationship,’ there’s rarely more than one-third of each circle that overlaps. Married people here are not only entitled to their privacy, they must have private lives to remain interesting and alluring to each other.”

It wasn’t the only time I’ve heard colleagues and clients from other countries express views about ­intimacy and fidelity that ­differ sharply from North American views. I’ve repeatedly heard my Latin American and European friends and clients say things like, “Infidelity is part of our human condition, but if my partner is having an affair, I don’t want to know about it.” With a booming laugh, one of my Brazilian clients once told me, “I’m not naive enough to think my husband will never be attracted to another woman or that he’ll never stray, but he’d better know how to manage his feelings, because if I find out about it, I’ll break everything in the house!”

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.

Pittman was followed by Emily Brown, Janis Abrams Spring, Don-David Lusterman, Shirley Glass, and Kristina Gordon, Donald Baucom, and Donald Snyder, all of whom added ideas about how to deal with the impact of affairs in couples therapy. Their approaches, which incorporated in differing degrees elements from trauma theory that were dominant in the 1990s, emphasized the shock of revelation and discovery, the centrality of confession and truth-telling, the critical need to make decisions about the third party, and, eventually, forgiveness and repair. Most of these authors shared the view that an affair is always a symptom of problems in the marriage.

These assumptions—that affairs are traumatic and symptomatic—inform the work of influential couples therapists today, such as Susan Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, for whom an affair represents a “broken bond.” Underlying the perceived magnitude of the rupture is an idealized view of marriage as the “shelter” in our lives, with a primary function of providing emotional security and attunement. Within these expectations of marriage, affairs are always profound attachment injuries, which require an intense reparative process.

The impact of an affair can be devastating, but it can also be neutral or positive. In Sexual Arrangements: Marriage and Affairs, published in London in 1992, psychologist Janet Reibstein and reproductive behavior researcher Martin Richards proposed that the impact of an affair will vary according to what kind of relationship it is—a one-night stand, a purely sexual liaison, or a long affair of the heart—and whether it’s disclosed, undisclosed, or unintentionally discovered. Considering the possibility of a positive impact, individually and for the couple, they explain: “Affairs have brought people increased self-esteem, more sexual conÞdence, more insight into how one is with the opposite sex, a wisdom about relationships, and a greater sense of autonomy. . . . Through affairs, a redefinition of marriage can evolve; and there may also be a revaluation of what is possible and desirable.” In writing about gay affairs, psychologist Elizabeth Kassoff has reinforced these points, saying, “Affairs can end in heartbreak, or in wisdom and renewal. Certainly, many people in long-term relationships have been able to use the experience of an affair to remind themselves of both the fragility and renewability of their bond.”

Despite the perspective offered by authors like Reibstein, Richards, and Kassoff, the clinical guidelines for dealing with affairs have continued to focus almost exclusively on the emotional impact of affairs and the trauma of betrayal. Influenced by Pittman and other authors, the therapeutic norm has been that when faced with secret affairs, couples therapists must encourage and even insist on their disclosure. Therapists must also demand that the affair be terminated right away as a precondition for the couples therapy to continue. If the unfaithful individual is unwilling to comply with these strictures, therapists are supposed to discontinue the couples therapy and refer the partners to individual therapists. What’s oddest about this prescription is that, when encountering an obstacle to therapy, rather than requiring that couples therapists find another route to help the marriage that’s potentially derailing, we’re supposed to abandon the couple right when they need us the most!

This clinical approach, consonant with premises deeply ingrained in the fabric of the larger culture, repeats the basic script of all the great American stories of infidelity, from the fictional character of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, to Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, and Tiger Woods. The sequence is clear: first there’s discovery, accompanied by the pressure to confess and reveal the details of the transgression. Confession leads to moral condemnation, penance, and contrition—and then, presumably, redemption. This sequence informs the ways in which many couples therapists in the United States continue to feel most comfortable dealing with infidelity.

From Trauma to Yearning

Since I was born in a different culture and practiced couples therapy in Chicago for 15 years before this clinical framework based on the trauma of betrayal took root, my own approach evolved from different premises. I’ve always recognized that the impact of affairs can be extremely painful and damaging, but I didn’t assume that affairs are invariably traumatic. I didn’t consider them to be primarily about betrayal and deception, nor did I view them as referenda on a person’s character. I didn’t think all affairs necessarily involved a perpetrator and a victim, or that they were always caused by problems in the marriage. Instead, as I’ve listened to stories involving affairs—inside and outside the therapy room—I’ve started from the premise that affairs are first and foremost about our human yearnings.

For centuries, writers, poets, and philosophers from all over the world have grappled with our attainable and unattainable longings, the inherent fragilities of love, and the limitations of marriage. In Marcel Proust’s short story “The End of Jealousy,” the love-obsessed HonorŽ anticipates the inevitable time when he’ll no longer love or be loved in the same way by Franoise, the object of his passion. While seeking magical assurance about the security of their mutual feelings, he’s painfully aware that, one day, their love will have lost its intensity. In their immortal classics Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert created tragic characters who struggle with the contradictions of their desires, sacrificing secure marriages in the pursuit of freedom and romantic love.

The yearnings that can drive a person into an affair are rooted in a range of human desires and needs, and may differ according to gender—to find the passion no longer available in a relationship that’s gone flat, seek some connection missing from one’s marriage, revive parts of the self that have become dormant, or to love two people at the same time. The yearnings may be driven by a sense of power and entitlement: “I’m a man, therefore I can.” As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out decades ago, women’s infidelities can be an expression of their yearning for independence and self-direction in contexts where they feel coerced and subjugated, as is still the case in many parts of the world. An affair can be an attempt to prove that one still has the capacity to seduce, an antidote to boredom, or an act of revenge. In the face of tragedy, illness, or loss, it can provide a shot of adrenaline that helps recapture one’s lost vitality.

In Can Love Last? Stephen Mitchell incisively addresses the strains between our human need for commitment and the unruly nature of our yearnings. In our unions, we endlessly strive to create the safety, permanence, and predictability that we had, or wish we’d had, in our childhoods, he says. However, it’s this intense pursuit of ultrasafe relationships that can lead to a loss of spontaneity and freedom, which may kill desire. The more constrained our view of marriage and family life, he concludes, the greater will be our yearning to find freedom and excitement elsewhere.

The Management of Affairs

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.

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.”

Karina was particularly annoyed that Marcos didn’t set limits with his boss, Eva, with whom he worked closely and traveled regularly. Eva often texted him after business hours—even on weekends and in the middle of the night. One Sunday afternoon while the family was on a rare outing at the Central Park Zoo, she’d called Marcos in a panic. Without explanation, he’d left his wife and child alone with the picnic basket and rushed back to the office. While Marcos acknowledged that Eva could be extremely demanding, he justified his actions by saying that he’d come to the U.S. to build a financial nest egg and was just doing whatever he could to get the bonuses he deserved.

I’ve worked with many couples—especially European and Latin American—in which the person having an affair was dead set against revealing it. I’ve also worked with couples in which it was the other partner who preferred the comfort of ignorance or denial to the agony of knowing. In this case, I felt I was dealing with a joint pact, in which both partners had implicitly decided that they weren’t going to deal openly with the secret at the edge of their relationship. Given the way I work, that meant that I’d have to manage the many ambiguities inherent in this situation. I’d most likely sit with Marcos—and his secret—to explore the meaning of this affair. I’d also meet individually with Karina to see what she wanted to do about her situation. At the same time, I’d want to offer them a “holding environment,” which could allow them to review problems in their relationship and possibly work on rekindling their connection. I was aware that, to be effective with them, I’d have to sustain a delicate balance of empathizing with Karina, who was probably mystified and frustrated, while trying to gain Marcos’s trust to help him face whatever this affair meant for him, and what he wanted to do about it.

By the end of our first session, I’d explained my confidentiality policy to them and suggested that we meet individually. In my session with Karina, we talked about why she thought her relationship with Marcos had derailed. We went over her feelings of loss and isolation after they’d moved to the new country, the impact 9/11 had had on them, and the stresses from complications in her pregnancy and, later, of caring for an infant. When she mentioned Eva, I asked her directly, “Do you think that Marcos is having an affair with her?” To my surprise, Karina responded that she was pretty sure that there was nothing sexual going on between them. She’d met Eva once, and thought that she was “vulgar,” and she was convinced that she wasn’t Marcos’s type. When I asked her what she expected from therapy, she said that most of all she needed to know if Marcos still loved her, and she wanted my help in deciding how to give him a deadline for leaving his demanding job.

When I first met with Marcos, he skirted around the issue of the affair. Finally I said to him firmly, “I can see you’re in turmoil, Marcos, but if you don’t tell me what’s really going on, I won’t be able to help you.” He explained that he didn’t want to hurt Karina, and that he’d deny the affair no matter what. When I reassured him about my confidentiality policy, he took a deep breath, rearranged the pillows on the sofa, sat back comfortably, and was speechless for several minutes. Then tears began to roll down his cheeks. Passing him the tissue box, I said, “Why don’t you tell me about it from the beginning?”

In his own way, Marcos went over the same stressors that Karina had described, adding that after Mila was born and had become the center of Karina’s attention, he remembered feeling restless. “I began to feel pressure about being the main provider, and I often felt lonely seeing Karina so happily wrapped up with our daughter.” He started having fantasies about turning back the clock and being free again. This coincided with his job change, and he started traveling regularly with Eva.

The two-year affair with Eva had started like a thunderbolt when they were on a business trip in Buenos Aires. In the midst of an evening’s drinking, laughing, and learning a few steps of the tango, Eva told him seductively: “You were amazing today! I couldn’t have closed the deal without you.” Hungry for the visibility underlying her compliments, he felt “like a giant.”

At first in our sessions, Marcos said he felt trapped in an impossible dilemma: he loved two women at the same time and couldn’t make up his mind. But as he spoke more openly about what was going on with Eva, his ambivalence about her began to show. Having recently left her husband, she was having daily “tantrums,” making him increasingly tired of having to “take care of her.” Given his ambivalence, I was puzzled about why he continued to be more loyal to Eva than to his wife. He repeatedly said that he wanted to break off the affair, but week after week, he couldn’t do it. So I asked him directly, “Can you imagine leaving Karina and building a life with Eva? How do you think it would be?” About this Marcos was very clear: “I absolutely cannot conceive of having to live for the rest of my life with that kind of intensity.”

Once we’d looked at his family history, it didn’t take long for Marcos to make the connection between Eva and his mother. Ever since he was an adolescent, he’d alternated between fury and acquiescence toward her demands and criticism, and now that Mila had been born, he was stonewalling her more and more by ignoring her daily phone messages from Brazil. In an important decision-point, I suggested that we needed to do some family-of-origin work to help get him past this emotional sticking point. I explained that his withdrawal strategies were only making things worse, and I coached him about becoming more assertive. As he talked about his lifelong experience of never feeling “good enough” for his mother, it occurred to him that he’d fallen in love with Karina exactly because she was so different—so “elegant” and “undemanding.”

After some rehearsal, Marcos called his mother to tell her that he realized that, while he wanted more than anything to have a good relationship with her, he needed her to respect his space and not use their time on the phone to be critical or complain about what he hadn’t done. He told her he was willing to call her once a week, but needed her to stop nagging. After this call, he came to the session with a totally different demeanor, laughing and telling jokes. He told me his mother had been delighted with his directness, and had readily agreed to his terms. In our subsequent joint session, Karina expressed her delight about his new assertiveness, touching him affectionately throughout the hour. After this session Marcos called me at the office and asked for the name of an individual therapist to help Eva deal with their break-up.

In her individual sessions, Karina continued to explore the ways in which she and Marcos had become distant. She recognized that after Mila was born, she’d been overwhelmed and in a “fog.” Unintentionally, she’d stopped paying attention to the marriage and had started to experience Marcos as a stranger. I asked if she was willing to take the risk to be more physical and present, and she spontaneously began to dress up and even be flirtatious. Marcos responded. They started going out dancing again, and at some point, they regained their physical comfort and sexual connection. Also, Karina gave Marcos a deadline for leaving his job. Soon after he got his bonus, he accepted a new position with the same company in Brazil, and they left the country.

Six months after our last appointment, I was surprised to get a phone call from Karina asking whether I knew of an individual therapist for her to see in Brazil. Then she gave me an update. On the previous weekend, she’d borrowed Marcos’s cell phone to call Mila’s doctor and, scrolling through his contacts, she’d come across Eva’s name. Then, for the first time in all these years, she was suddenly curious to see if Marcos was still in contact with her. She went into his messages and found several old e-mails that he’d never erased. She was stunned—the affair was all right there in plain sight. That same day, she confronted Marcos and he finally admitted what had happened. She told him she didn’t want to know any details, but made it clear that she’d never put up with a situation like that again.

I was curious about why Karina had decided to look into his messages at that point, given that while she was in New York, she’d had plenty of opportunities to do so, but hadn’t. “Looking back, sure, it’s obvious now that Marcos was having an affair,” she said. “He was totally absent emotionally and physically, and we were nothing more than roommates during those years. But it’s clear now that I wasn’t ready to see the truth. I was feeling so vulnerable and alone—a new mother, so far away from everything I knew. If I’d found out that Marcos was having an affair then, I’d have packed my bags and left to go home to my family. I’m angry with him right now, but I’m also grateful that we’re still together. I know that we’re going to have some rough months ahead, but I’m sure that we’ll get over this hump.”

Cultural Wisdoms

When I teach here in the United States, I frequently encounter bewilderment at my willingness to sit with secrets, especially about affairs, despite my acknowledgement that it’s indeed a difficult position for the therapist. “Doesn’t your approach ever backfire? Don’t you feel deceitful?” students ask. I usually explain that, because of my confidentiality policy, I haven’t had any problems, and that I feel OK about it. But I’ve often felt less than persuasive when answering such questions.

Then last week, as I was about to discuss the complexities of keeping secrets in couples therapy to a group of 140 experienced Mexican family therapists, I said, “If you have difficulties—ethical and otherwise—about holding secrets in couples therapy, please raise your hand.” No one did, so I tried again: “It’s very common for therapists to find this dual position of the therapist to be uncomfortable and unsavory.” After a few minutes of silence, one woman raised her hand and explained, “Here in Mexico, we don’t have any illusions that partners in a marriage need to, or should, tell everything for them to be close and feel intimate with each other. We assume that individuals have private domains, and that we therapists just have to find ways to deal with that aspect of the relationship. But even more important, talking about affairs can lead to violence and, therefore, be very dangerous, especially for women.”

I realized I was preaching to the converted and that my position—unorthodox in North America—is actually mainstream in other cultures. As I continue to meditate over these cultural differences, I think that, for many decades, our North American models and ideas have been exported to other countries, influencing the ways in which couples therapy is practiced all over the world. Maybe it’s time for a two-way exchange, so that we can learn from the wisdom of other cultures. Listening to our colleagues from other countries may help us work with more flexibility, and better deal with nuances and complexities, as we grapple with all the varieties of love that we encounter in our offices daily.

Michele Scheinkman

Michele Scheinkman, LCSW, is a faculty member of the Ackerman Institute for the Family and in private practice in New York City.