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."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.
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.
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 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.
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?Cultural Wisdoms
Recently, 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."
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.This blog is excerpted from “Foreign Affairs." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!