American Therapy's Cultural Standards on Disclosure in Affairs

Why Not Disclosing in the Aftermath of an Affair Could Save Marriages

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."

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!

Topic: Couples | Trauma

Tags: cheating | counseling | divorce | Esther Perel | infidelity | psychotherapy | sex | sexuality | Susan Johnson | therapist | therapy | marriage | affair | networker | bonds | husband | wives | Michele Scheinkman | disclosure | secrets | Frank Pittman | Private Lies | culture | foreign

Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Tuesday, September 15, 2015 4:15:52 PM | posted by Lori Cambas
Well said, Dr. Johnson.
Lori Cambas - COO of Couplestrong

Tuesday, September 15, 2015 3:21:26 PM | posted by Sue Johnson
My response to this article is simply amazement! –
We, as mental health professionals, are still turning to personal anecdotes from Europeans, a European man in fact, as a viable guide to how to conduct our relationships? As a European myself, I find this myth of European sophistication regarding relationships very strange. May I suggest that Europeans are also notoriously terrified of intimacy and needing others! This sophistication myth is now being used in the couples media and even books on parenting to suggest that North Americans, who are leading the world in the science of attachment relationships, are somehow naïve not to accept the old idea of impenetrable privacy and rigid boundaries around the self as a sign of health and optimal personality development.

All this flies in the face of the last 50 years of science into bonding and how as human beings, as bonding animals, we need emotional connection with others who we can depend on like we need oxygen. It is true that we have pathologized this need in social sciences because we did not understand it and did not see that constructive dependency is the basis of any kind of fulfilling life. In the light of this science, the French gentleman who keeps his loved ones out of two thirds of his life is simply deprived and probably avoidantly attached – he cannot manage the risk of reaching for others and including them in his inner world. Why would we ever think that this is something to be desired let alone put on some kind of pedestal and offered as a corrective to our North American recognition of the value of responsive intimacy – an intimacy that you cannot have without taking some kind of responsibility for how your actions affect others in issues such as affairs. Let us be clear – this is not a moral issue per se. It is about what works in relationships and what ultimately works for us as human beings.

I am referred to in Ms Scheinkman’s article as some kind of idealist. I am that – I believe we are cracking the code of love and can make long-term loving relationships more viable for more and more people. But this term is used here as a kind of dismissal. And yes, my experience is that most affairs are experienced as injurious and incredibly hurtful – unless you are unable to invest in relationships and are obsessively self-reliant in which case they will bounce off you. At least this is the theory. My experience of folks who have trouble trusting and treat others an option not a priority is that, when they find themselves abandoned, they are as devastated as anyone else. The pretense of invulnerability is not a sign of strength, it is a broad path into emotional isolation.

The author refers to “cultural wisdom” which, in this case, is evoked to suggest that affairs are inevitable and best kept under the carpet. In North America, the best survey data states that 77% of men and 89% of women never have sex with anyone other than their current partner and that nearly all of us value loyalty and fidelity. It is true that cultures differ and in many women do not dare speak out and assert their needs and so take their place in men’s lives. Also attachment crosses cultural boundaries. The need for safe loving connection is wired into our brains – into our neural networks. Cultures can deal with this in differently ways but we are all human beings; we are homo vinculum, the one who bonds.

What I most object to here is the seemingly arrogant implication that anyone who accepts the need for attachment security is somehow naïve or simplistic while the assertion that good relationships do not require openness, honesty and commitment is seen as a kind of sophisticated wisdom. The general public in North America know better. They want to be able to depend on their loved ones. Science now tells us that we can learn to make loving honest bonds, where, as research tells us, we are happier and sex is better than that found in random affairs or one night stands. Research tells us that an attachment based therapy called EFT – emotionally focused therapy, helps 86-90% of distressed couples to understand their attachment needs, to reveal secrets in a safe constructive way and then to heal such injuries through bonding conversations and so move into satisfying, more loving relationships. I think this is a better guide for therapists than personal anecdotes or out of date ideas about privacy.

I wonder why we would chose to ignore the pathway home to fulfilling partnerships that has opened up in attachment science and in couple therapy and education to continue to wander down the old cul de sac of guarding our individual boundaries to the point where we cannot truly let others close?

Perhaps the Frenchman in the article does not know that passion is the longing for connection linked to attunement and erotic play and that he is likely missing out on this and many other joys if he cannot let another human being into more than a small part of his heart and soul. He may not know it – but I hope his therapist does.

Dr Sue Johnson -
Author of Love Sense: The Revolutionary New science of Romantic Relationships

Sunday, September 6, 2015 9:39:15 PM | posted by Rachael
Thank you so much for this Michele! I live in a country that if most women admitted their affairs (I only see women as clients) - their partner would usually respond with violence. And thereafter bittnerness, veiled threats, controling behaviour, use of children as pawns, being outed to family and friends and all else you would expect, of course. We too have taken on a very American approach to couples therapy here. I do not practice such counselling, but I deal with women who are having affairs. Many times their husbands are also having affairs. It seems that if things were not good at the outset, it only got worse from there.

BUT as these women unveil the truths of their affairs, much comes to light. Other than feeling loved, many can finally feel free to share the deepest parts of themselves with another, they can feel supported, whole, learn new ways to think, have compassion for others who have had/have affairs - instead of judgement. They can practice assertiveness, boundaries and much else. In many cases these affairs have helped the women become better and few have really ever felt guilt. So when you wondered about the function "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?" - this resonated! In my office, it seems to be a parallel experience.

Granted, these affairs last no more than 6 years or so (sometimes more), but at the end - these women sometimes have a greater sense of self. Some end up choosing to divorce, others stay in their marriages.

I try to guide and support as much as I can, but my culture says to be VERY careful of the woman sharing this with her husband - careful to the point of not doing it. It doesn't work the other way - men often admit to their infidelity without severe consequence. I allow them to work through their dissonance if there is any and hope that eventually they can reach a place where they can be truly at peace.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe this approach is immoral. But as people and psychology continues to evolve, one day, the approach may be different. Again, thank you.