So Your Client Is Having an Affair...

Should You Be a Secret-Keeper or is Honesty the Best Policy?

Michele Scheinkman

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!"

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.

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.

Today, 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. 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!

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.

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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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 okay about it. But I've often felt less than persuasive when answering such questions.

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.

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Michele Scheinkman, LCSW, is a faculty member of the Ackerman Institute for the Family.

This blog is excerpted from "Foreign Affairs" by Michele Scheinkman. The full version is available in the July/August 2010 issue, The New Monogamy: Can We Have Our Cake and Eat It Too?

Illustration © Miguel Viera de Silva/Images

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Topic: Couples | Sex & Sexuality

Tags: affair | affairs | cheating | couples | Couples & Family | couples conflict | couples counseling | couples therapists | failing marriage | have affairs | infidelity | love | love and relationships | marriage | marriage and family | Michele Scheinkman | secrets | spouses | trust

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6 Comments

Monday, June 3, 2019 8:24:55 PM | posted by Jill
So my therapist actually convinced me to have an affair after I initially told her I was happy that I decided not to sleep with the married man. I overrode my deeper instinct and listened to her and ended up going through so much pain. She said he and I had a connection that I may never have again and we spent many therapy sessions with her helping me plot how to be with him. I didn’t ever end up sleeping with him. But she was talking about my connection with him in ways that made me form deep attachment to him. it threw me into a disruption in my being that was devastating. And she never took ownership of her role.

Monday, October 17, 2016 8:00:18 AM | posted by Feeling Too Vulnerable To Share
I found it fascinating that some responses to this piece referred to life-long pain that comes from affairs. To me, this highlights exactly what recognition of cultural variation is about. My personal experience illustrates that there is nothing universal about this pain. Several family members had affairs when I was growing up, and they were also common in our social circles. I remember feeling sadness and understanding learning about them as a teenager, and wanting to communicate better with a partner when I grow up to avoid them. But life-long, or even great pain? It shocked me to find out after immigration how much people in North America hurt upon discovering affairs, and how common it was to hurt this much. Where I am from originally, multiple factors contributed to what made affairs more or less painful (e.g., how open a secret, attitudes, other aspects of relationship quality). which means a lot of variability in the pain itself and approaches to affairs. (P.S. I tried to post this earlier so hopefully this won't end up posted several times...)

Monday, October 17, 2016 7:42:54 AM | posted by I.N.
Another commenter referred to life-long pain that comes from affairs. To me, that is exactly what recognition of cultural variation is about. Several family members had affairs when I was growing up, and they were also common in our social circles. I remember feeling sadness and understanding learning about them as a teenager, and wanting to communicate better with a partner when I grow up to avoid them. But life-long, or even great pain? It shocked me to find out after immigration how much people in North America hurt upon discovering affairs. There is nothing universal about this pain.

Monday, October 3, 2016 6:24:45 PM | posted by David
Greg can you please point me towards some data that shows securely attached individuals have less affairs that anxiously attached individuals? I understand your logic, but I could also present reasoning that a securely attached couple, without religiously derived morals around sex, might be more likely to pursue and/or accept affairs. Laura, surely the hurt felt by the deceived partner is proportional to their beliefs about the meaning and consequence of the affair. If the belief is "I trust my partner to prioritise our relationship, I don't need to know everything they do, one can seek sex for a great many reasons, it is not actually a holy sacrament only permissible within a religiously sanctioned marriage", then their hurt may be a good deal less.

Saturday, October 1, 2016 12:26:21 PM | posted by Laura Greenlee
The author's rationale for explaining the reason adultery occurs may be all good and well; but she fails to grasp the lifelong pain that victims have to deal with. I am sure that a therapist can explore the reasons why adultery occurs with his/her clients, and even compare his/her behavior to what other cultures believe about adultery. But the bottom line is adultery is deceptive and causes great pain, not only to the partner who is cheated on, but also the children and the extended family members of all involved. I would not be a keeper of secrets such as adultery.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 10:26:21 AM | posted by Greg Popcak
I appreciate the cultural perspective, but what the commentary misses is that infidelity is most common among people with insecure attachments. It is possible that a person who is securely attached would, for instance, become intoxicated and commit an error in judgement but it would be very unusual for a securely attached person to carry on an ongoing affair. By and large, infidelity does, indeed, speak to deeper characterological issues. This issue both transcends and supercedes cultural differences insofar as some cultures are simply less securely attached than others. I do not know the rates of insecure attachment in Brazil or France--the two examples cited in the article--but in Germany, 50% of children are insecurely attached (in particular, Avoidant). It is simply insufficient to say, "Well, that's not how X nationality thinks about it." We are responsible for helping people identify the healthiest responses to the problems they face. Not just a particular region's attitude toward a problem.