This is an advanced level course. After completing this course, mental health professionals will be able to:
Given the degree to which infidelity occurs in our world today, it is not surprising that a significant number of therapy cases involve helping couples overcome the shattering interpersonal and intrapersonal effects of infidelity.
Of course, many couples never make it into couples therapy after infidelity has been discovered or revealed. Sometimes the relationship is over then and there. Most often, the couple tries to deal with (or not deal with) the infidelity on their own. However, many couples, often to their own surprise, do come in for therapy in response to this deepest betrayal in the relationship.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, in our practices we have found that many of these couples do indeed heal their Long-Term Love Relationship (LTLR) from the ravages of infidelity. Not only do they overcome the emotional damage and the shattered trust resulting from the infidelity, but they rebuild their LTLR so that it is much stronger and healthier than it was pre-infidelity. In so doing, they become closer, more intimate, and more fulfilled in ways they never were before in their relationship.
How do couples accomplish this in the face of the heartbreaking destructive force of infidelity, the ultimate relationship betrayal? How do we as therapists guide them through this daunting and challenging process? That is what we will share with you in this course. We will go over the theoretical framework underlying how we work in therapy with Long-term Love Relationships in general as well as in the treatment of infidelity couples, specifically. We will also cover specific treatment strategies and techniques. Both short-term and long-term infidelity couples treatment issues will be addressed, from the process of healing from the trauma of infidelity through helping the couple restructure and rebuild its LTLR on a foundation of real intimacy.
Before we delve into treatment theory and practice, let’s look at some statistics on infidelity. However, in reviewing these statistics, it is important to remember that the numbers on infidelity vary. They are far from exact. Unfortunately, there is probably a great deal of truth to a point made by Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring, author of After the Affair – if partners will lie to their spouses about their behaviors why would we expect them to tell researchers the truth (personal communication, 2006)? That being said, although the incidence statistics on infidelity are far from exact, they are powerful indeed.
Research reviews consistently document the rate of infidelity, that is respondents reporting having sex with someone other than their spouse while married, ranging between 22 and 25% for men and 11 to 15% for women (Allen et al., 2005; Mark, Janssen & Milhausen, 2011). At times the research has indicated that the rate of infidelity among married couples is quite high across the board – 45-55% of married women and 50-60% of married men engage in extramarital sex at some time during their relationships (Atwood & Schwartz, 2002). In a research finding particularly relevant to couples therapists, Glass and Wright (1988) looked specifically at the population of couples seeking therapy and reported that 50-65% of them initiated therapy as result of an infidelity. Infidelity is the most frequently cited cause of divorce reported by couples (Schneider, Irons & Corley, 1999; Whisman, Dixon & Johnson, 1997; Winek & Craven, 2003). Not only is infidelity one of the most difficult issues faced by couples, but it is also viewed by couples therapists as one of the most damaging problems couples face and one of the most difficult problems to treat (Heintzelman, Murdock, Krycak & Seay, 2014; Whisman, et al., 1997).
The research on gender differences in infidelity incidence rates suggests that the gap in incidence rates between men and women is decreasing; women appear to be catching up to men in the frequency with which they are unfaithful. In fact, one survey study found there is no difference in incidence of infidelity between male and female respondents younger than 40 years of age (Wiederman, 1997). For women, it has been found that they are most likely to be unfaithful between the ages of 30 to 50 years (Wiederman, 1997), while for men the ages of greatest likelihood for infidelity is between 55 and 65 (Atkins, Baucom & Jacobson, 2001). In addition, it has been found that one’s level of formal education did correlate with infidelity incidence in women but not for men (Janus, S. S. et al, 1993). These researchers reported that women with the fewest years of school and those with the most education had higher levels of infidelity than those with moderate levels of education.
When researchers looked at the effect income might have on infidelity incidence, they found a positive correlation between income and infidelity for individuals making more than $30,000 a year (Atkins, et al., 2001), suggesting that perhaps higher income helps create more opportunities to be unfaithful.
Infidelity not only threatens the marital relationship, it also affects the mental health of both partners. The spouse who learns of his/her partner’s affair has an increase in depression and anxiety (e.g. Gordon, Baucom & Snyder, 2004). The fall out of an affair is known both anecdotally and through research to have immediate and far-reaching negative effects on Long-Term Love Relationships, as well as on the children in the family, and often on extended family and friends.
Given the prevalence of infidelity, it is surprising that until the last 15 years little research had been done about the effectiveness of couple therapy after an affair. Fortunately, research has begun on this very important treatment area. A flurry of research in early 2000 on the efficacy of therapy with infidelity has strongly supported the finding that infidelity couples who pursue marital therapy have shown strong improvements during therapy, including greater marital satisfaction, reduced psychological trauma symptoms, and greater forgiveness in the uninvolved partner (Atkins et al., 2005 ; Atkins et al., 2010; Gordon et al., 2004). Atkins et al. (2005) examined the level of distress in infidelity versus non infidelity couples when entering therapy. Results show that infidelity couples began therapy significantly more distressed than non infidelity couples, and secret affair couples were even more distressed. Unsurprisingly, outcomes for revealed infidelities and secret infidelities indicated that couples with a disclosed affair had a positive trajectory for relationship satisfaction during therapy and they improved at a greater rate than their distressed non infidelity peers. Meanwhile the secret affair couples showed early gains in therapy but deteriorated in later periods of therapy and ended treatment highly distressed. Atkins et al. (2005) found that both partners in the infidelity couples achieved similar gains in therapy. Taken together, these findings strongly indicate that couples struggling with infidelity can be successfully treated in couples therapy, indicating that infidelity does not have to doom a relationship. However, in a couple where the affair has not been disclosed, pursuing therapy is contraindicated as benefit is not evident. Specifically, Atkins et al. (2010) found that infidelity therapy couples had the same levels of good therapeutic outcomes as did couples presenting for couples therapy for other reasons. The next step in research on therapeutic efficacy was to determine the whether the gains made in therapy were sustained beyond treatment. Marin, Christensen & Atkins (2014) followed up with couples every 6 months for 5 years and concluded that there appears to be two tracts for infidelity couples after successful therapy - some infidelity couples continue to improve and remain indistinguishable from their non infidelity counterparts or some appear to markedly deteriorate and divorce.
Marin, Christensen & Atkins’ (2014) five year follow up study of infidelity couples found that while there are two tracts that couples can take – creating a stronger marriage or divorcing – they also cautioned that these couples have a more than double divorce rate of non infidelity couples by the 5 years post therapy mark. This finding may suggest that clinicians stay in touch with their “graduated” couples and occasionally offer “tune up/touch base” sessions with these couples. Their findings also make very clear the limitations that an undisclosed affair has on therapy’s effectiveness. They state that “among the revealed infidelity couples more than half remained married by the 5 year follow up whereas only 20% of the secret infidelity couples were still together at the same point in time” (p.9). We find this supports our experience of couples’ resiliency and ability to sustain gains made during therapy, and the importance of integrity in therapy and relationships.
Most recently, Heintzelman et al. (2014) researched the hypothesis that committed partnerships can survive the trauma of infidelity, and that further, personal growth in the wake of infidelity is possible. Heintzelman et al. looked at specific variables that contributed to the survival of the relationship as well as personal growth. They found that differentiation of the self from family of origin was positively related to forgiveness levels, and that it also moderated the relationship between trauma and forgiveness. We are excited that researchers are demonstrating what many therapists know – that couples can both survive infidelity and create stronger, more resilient relationships.
With the research lagging behind clinicians’ experiences, working successfully with infidelity becomes all the more challenging because of the dearth of specific training opportunities for therapists in infidelity couples therapy. Most recently, this topic of how to work with these couples effectively has garnered more attention specifically at professional conferences where this topic is being taught and greater training opportunities are beginning to appear. Nevertheless, there continues to be a paucity of effective therapy models for helping these couples who come to us in intense crisis, marked by acute pain, rage and fear. Clearly both more research and training are needed for us to effectively serve this population.This becomes especially clear when one considers the aforementioned statistics indicating the high incidence rates of infidelity in our culture. Those statistics are powerful. They’re daunting. They can be depressing. They tell us a great deal about our culture and ourselves. Perhaps most of all they speak to us of the dramatic difficulties human beings have in maintaining a satisfying Long-term Love Relationship. Many, if not a majority of people do not know how to create and maintain this primary and significant connection, and as a result, many partners, when faced with the difficulties inherent in every relationship, act out by being unfaithful.
So, when these couples walk into our offices trying to save their marriages, once it has been established that both partners are sincere in their commitment to their relationship, our job is twofold – the healing and then the rebuilding of the relationship. We guide them in the often painful, often hostile, and often frightening process of healing after infidelity. During and alongside this process, we also work to provide them the insight, tools, and corrective intimacy experience that enable them to build a new love relationship with each other, one that does satisfy and fulfill them for the long-term, and one that is no longer so vulnerable to infidelity.
To describe how we do this, it makes the most sense to begin by laying out the theoretical framework we use to illuminate the workings of Long-term Love Relationships. Then we will present our model for understanding and assessing infidelity. Following this presentation of how we understand both LTLRs and infidelity, we will detail infidelity couples treatment strategies, tools, and issues.
As your read, please keep in mind that we have found that this model applies both to heterosexual as well as homosexual couples in today’s American, Western culture. Though there are distinct differences in the dynamics and stresses that straight couples typically experience as opposed to gay and lesbian couples, the dynamics of Long-term Love Relationships, as delineated by this model, apply regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple. Our experience working with both groups has taught us that the experience of infidelity and the process through which couples heal from it differs little across these populations.
In order for any couples therapist to effectively help couples to work through short-term crises as well as create long-term positive change in their relationships, the therapist must have a heuristic model that provides them with a conceptual framework with which to evaluate and understand each couple’s Long-term Love Relationship. Without such a framework, it is much more difficult for the therapist to make sense of the couple’s situation and to be able to guide them on their journey.
From our training and clinical experience we have developed The Relationship Institute’s (TRI) Model of Long-term Love Relationships that we find to be invaluable in assisting couples to achieve their goals in therapy. It consists of two main constructs, The Developmental Model of Long-term Love Relationships and The Three Intimacies. We also use an ancillary construct, The Three Deal Breakers, in evaluating couples and the prognosis for their LTLR both at the inception of the course of couples therapy and periodically thereafter.
The TRI Developmental Model of Long-term Love Relationships is the approach we take to understanding the stages of growth and change that any romantic relationship experiences. Essentially, this model describes the stages of love that every relationship will face, and helps the therapist determine where a couple’s relationship structural weaknesses began. Our model emphasizes the central role individual differentiation plays in creating the growing pains that cause a relationship to inevitably alter. Our Developmental Model of Long-term Love Relationships (LTLR) is a modification of the work of Bader and Pearson (1989, 2002) as it defines four stages of growth; we specify that every infidelity is born in a specific stage of relationship growth, Soured Symbiosis. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s examine the developmental model of LTLRs.
LTLRs grow and develop over time, just as individuals do. Moreover, just like individuals, they go through definable, predictable stages of growth that are marked by beginnings, endings, and recognizable characteristics. We’ve found that you can’t come close to having insight into what is going on in a LTLR if you don’t understand the growth process that all LTLRs go through. Without knowing where a couple is in the lifespan of its LTLR, you’re handicapped in understanding what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
Conceptually, the developmental model is elegant in its simplicity. As we define it, this model has three main elements. First is that it is a developmental model of long-term love relationships (Bader & Pearson, 1989). Second, this development revolves around the process of growth in the couple from symbiotic to differentiated functioning (Bader & Pearson, 1989; Bowen, 1974). The third element is the Three Intimacies concept (Solomon & Teagno, 2002). We assert that there are three types of intimacy that govern any couple’s progress, or lack thereof, in navigating from symbiotic to differentiated functioning.
Therapists need to have an understanding that couples go through a developmental process just as individuals do; this concept is central to the developmental model. As we conceptualize it, this process consists of four developmental stages (Solomon & Teagno, 2002).
Stage 1 is what we call Sweet Symbiosis, the honeymoon phase at the beginning of a love relationship. It is filled with love and passion and marked by the two partners merging into one identity, or what we half jokingly refer to as the “we-ness.” This is symbiotic functioning at its intoxicating best. This symbiotic magic is what many couples try in vain to recapture for many years hence.
But what is “symbiosis”? The dictionary defines it as “the living together in more or less intimate association or close union of two dissimilar organisms,” or more specifically for our purposes, “a relationship between two people in which each person is dependent upon the receiving reinforcement, whether beneficial or detrimental, from the other” (Random House Dictionary, 1987).
So, symbiosis is about dependency. Dependency and symbiosis get a bad rap; we are all dependent beings to one extent or another. Overdependency isn’t good, but dependency is normal and healthy for us humans.
In fact, each of us is driven at a very deep, instinctual level to bond with another – to create this dependency and to build this symbiosis. It is rooted in evolution, and in how we perpetuated and guaranteed the survival of our species over the ages. It’s easy to see that the survival of the species, in Homo sapiens as well as many other species, is greatly enhanced if two adults not only mate but also remain bonded to each other at least for some period of time. This enhances the survival chances of their young since two adults working together can provide caring, safety, and sustenance at a much higher level than can a sole parent. In humans, emotions such as love and jealousy have evolved to help cement this bond.
Symbiosis is a key ingredient in the experience of falling in love. During Sweet Symbiosis, the bond that is created causes us to minimize our differences and overlook what each of us doesn’t like in the other. This is the meaning of the famous saying, “Love is blind.” You don’t truly “see” each other. This magical time, one of the most wonderful experiences in anyone’s life, is almost always essential for long-term love success. It creates the deep, strong bond that will be necessary if the couple is to weather the inevitable storms ahead.
Those storms make their first appearance in the lifespan of the LTLR when differences and conflicts begin to occur between partners. This dispels the blindness of a couple’s sweet symbiotic love. This is what heralds the end of Sweet Symbiosis. When the fantasy component inherent in two people falling in love starts to butt up against the reality of their real weaknesses, mistakes, and differences, Stage 1 comes to a close.
It is very important, however, to note that even though this first, romantic stage of LTLRs may be partly based on fantasy, and though it may be relatively short, it is a very healthy, wonderful, and very vital part of any successful LTLR. The deep and fulfilling joy that two people experience as they fall in love is the strong foundation that all LTLRs need in order to build a strong future. The experience of Sweet Symbiosis creates a deep wellspring of strength in the young relationship and becomes a reservoir of hope and faith for the growing, challenged relationship. The bonding and commitment that Sweet Symbiosis provides are absolutely necessary for any couple in order to have any chance of weathering the inevitable storms that hit later in the life of the LTLR. Challenges do lie ahead, starting with Stage 2.
The honeymoon never lasts forever. No Long-term Love Relationship is able to perpetually maintain itself in the blissfulness of Sweet Symbiosis. The wonders of Stage 1 are unsustainable for ALL couples, no matter how well matched. Over time, the couple is able to see one another more realistically as the Sweet Symbiosis recedes and their differences emerge. When this happens, hurts and disappointments occur. With the emergence of reality, love is no longer “blind” and the honeymoon of Stage 1 is ending.
The emergence of the awareness of differences and their attendant tension marks the beginning of Stage 2, what we call Soured Symbiosis. This is where most couples get stuck in the growth and development of their LTLR. Most couples that come to see us have experienced their relationship getting arrested in Soured Symbiosis and unable to find their way out of it.
There is one very simple reason for this. Many, if not most of us, never learned how to develop good, healthy emotional intimacy with another. Most of us never learned how to really be close to another person not only in regards to positive, warm, and loving feelings but also with negative, painful, and angry feelings. This lack of learning is a result of both inexperience and the limitations that our early attachment styles have placed on each of us.
Now, most of us have at least some ability to be loving and happy with another, and to express and share these emotions in a way that feels good to our partners. However, it is much more difficult and much rarer for a person to be good at dealing with hurts, disappointments, and angers in a healthy way. It is rarer still for a person to be good at this as well as be good at dealing with one partner’s negative feelings toward the other.
As Sweet Symbiosis fades, and differences and conflicts emerge between two people in love, many of their LTLRs begin to become structurally stressed as they move into the stage of Soured Symbiosis.
This stage is called “Soured Symbiosis” because it is marked and defined by the conflicts that couples start to have and the hard feelings that those conflicts generate once Sweet Symbiosis starts to fade. It is marked by the couple’s struggle to develop the ability to be highly intimate once the blinders of the lost and lamented Sweet Symbiosis have vanished. Many marriages never get beyond Soured Symbiosis. Instead of fighting for the relationship, one or both partners either run away through infidelity and/or divorce, or they settle for a stagnated relationship that has failed its promise.
There are two main styles of toxic conflict process. They are what Bader and Pearson term the Conflict Avoidant and Hostile Dependent styles (Bader and Pearson, 1988). Simply put, couples either brush their conflict under the rug or they beat each other over the head with them. The Conflict Avoidant couple often appears well suited to one another, and are often envied by other couples for their “friendship” and ease of relating; however, beneath the placid surface lies a deep fear in both partners of conflict, differences, and tension. It is likely that both come from families that did not encourage the expression of feelings and the children learned early on how to comfort themselves when they had any type of negative or uncomfortable feeling by withdrawing or busying themselves with other activities or distractions. These individuals do not know how to ask for help, as they often do not know what they are specifically feeling. As adults, they can identify frustration, disappointment, and maybe anger but other more subtle emotions are unfamiliar to them. These couples eventually come to therapy because the passion of interests, sexuality, and fun are gone. We often refer to them as “brother-sister” marriages.
The Hostile Dependent couple generally finds conflict to be the most reliable and “safe” means of “connecting”. These partners likely came from families where there was overt, expressed conflict and the children would often be brought into the fray. As children, they learned to cope by becoming “false emotional adults” as they parried negative words in an attempt to self defend and comfort. These individuals also do not know how to ask for the kind of help or assistance that they need, and fear that admitting they have needs will bring them humiliation or at least into a light they would rather avoid. These couples will argue as a way to be “seen” but, in reality, each is making only a stab at asserting a small part of him/herself. They lead with anger but are not able to identify and offer that they are experiencing strong vulnerable feelings like fear, love, and need. Thus, the fighting continues as it maintains for each partner a familiar yet non-vulnerable way to stay connected. This connection feels fragile to many therapists, but it has the tensile strength of a spider’s web and is just as deadly when the arguments become heated and very personal.
Both of these types of maladaptive conflict process couples are unable to transition from Soured Symbiosis to Differentiation. We will talk more about how to help these couples break out of their arrested and toxic conflict process later in the section on The Three Intimacies.
It is very important to realize that while this stage in the growth of LTLRs can be difficult and painful at times, it is a normal phase of all LTLRs. It is a key transitional period for any LTLR. That is, whether a couple successfully navigates past Soured Symbiosis is the acid test for whether an LTLR is going to be able to last over the long-run, and not just last, but thrive and be a healthy and fulfilling union.
This is where that emotional intimacy comes in. It is the fuel that gets couples through the second stage of their LTLR. What we mean is that the couple gets good at communicating and at dealing with their feelings, positive and negative. Moreover, communication isn’t only about talking. It is also about acting – how you treat each other. It’s doing and saying things that make each other feel loved, respected, and appreciated.
But most often, the problems arise not in making your partner feel loved, but in dealing with him when differences and conflicts occur. There are two main ways that couples get into trouble here. They settle into one of two maladaptive patterns (conflict avoidance or hostile dependence) when dealing with the conflicts between them and, in so doing, get stuck in Soured Symbiosis which prevents them from moving forward in the growth of their LTLR.
A foundation of the TRI approach to couples therapy is educating clients about normal relationship growth, the inevitability of the tension of conflict, and the courage required of every partner to stretch him or herself to grow in order to be able to have the type of relationship they desire and value. Of course, such growth is not easy.
However, as we show couples where they are stuck in their relationship’s growth and help normalize their growing pains, we begin to help them understand the necessity of that growth. Growth, whether psychological, physical or spiritual, always includes some element of pain or discomfort. It is the couples therapist’s job to help each of the partners approach the part he or she plays in their LTLR’s problems with an attitude of curiosity rather than blame, fear, or avoidance.
As we assist our clients in understanding that growth holds promise for both of them, we also talk about the challenge to them of remaining connected in the unfamiliar and often scary process of LTLR growth. Normalizing their fears and the inherent difficulties of growth and change helps partners calm themselves and offer security to one another. When clients are able to feel the discomfort yet stay in it and stay connected to their partner marks the very early beginnings of the process of differentiation.
When both partners truly come to own his or her part in the relationship’s problems and sincerely works on those issues and weaknesses, the couple approaches Stage 3 of Long-term Love Relationship development, Differentiation. This is the stage where each partner struggles within the self and with the partner to learn how to deal with the dark side of passion. The key is being able to stay differentiated in conflict, to be able to hold onto the realization that the partner’s negative feelings, his or her hurt, disappointment, and anger is about the partner, not about ME. As Pete Pearson likes to say, this is all about being able to be “curious, not furious” (personal communication, 1996). Also vital to differentiation is the ability to self define, to hold onto one’s self in the face of the tension of conflict and to be able to stand up for one’s self constructively and effectively (Bader & Pearson, 1988; Bowen, 1974).
It is important to recognize and teach clients that as they enter the Differentiation stage they have begun to build into their LTLR the ability to deal well with their differences. It signifies that they are developing the true emotional intimacy that powers Long-term Love Relationship fulfillment.
But what IS differentiation? It is defined as the ability to experience difference; that is, the self in relation to, but separate from, everyone else (Roberto-Forman, 2002). The differentiated self is able to hold onto one’s sense of self, one’s values, feelings, ideas, and desires while facing the tension that is created when the other disagrees. In the face of this tension, each individual who is differentiated can maintain his or her perspective and attendant feelings while simultaneously respecting, though not necessarily agreeing, with the views of the other. “Differentiation includes the ability to distinguish one’s internal emotions and thought, to identify them as separate from those of others, and also to maintain one’s own observations and judgment when there is conflict” (Roberto-Forman, 2002). As mentioned earlier, Heintzelman et al. (2014) found that a partner’s differentiation was a significant predictor of an individual’s ability to forgive his/her partner. The researchers went on to note that individuals with higher levels of differentiation reported more forgiveness and less trauma overall than did respondents who were lower in differentiation. This is the first study supporting our work that differentiation of the individual plays a meaningful and significant role in an individual’s ability to forgive and deal with a stressor like infidelity. Heintzelman et al. wrote, “In essence, by increasing levels of differentiation of self, partners may be able to weather the processing needed to reach forgiveness” (p. 26).
Differentiation is the stage in an LTLR’s development in which a couple comes together in their love for each other and are able to be two separate individuals as they discuss and deal with the conflict between them.
The hallmark of personal and relationship growth towards the Differentiation phase of an LTLR is each partner growing in his/her ability to deal with conflict well. This means not going into Hostile Dependent or Conflict Avoidant patterns, but working to handle conflicts directly as each partner struggles and stretches him or herself to really hear and understand what is important or imperative to the other. This is called Conflict Intimacy and it will be discussed later in the section on The Three Intimacies. Suffice it to say that Differentiation is all about getting good, when in conflict, at both speaking up and at listening up. For couples in Stage 3, conflict is dealt with, resolved, and past. It doesn’t fester, poisoning the couple’s hours or days going forward. With such successful addressing and resolution of issues comes the realization that conflict is a natural occurrence in the relationship as opposed to a threat to it.
Pivotal to the achievement of Differentiation in a LTLR is both partners being willing to take responsibility for their part in the problems in the relationship, including committing to sincerely work on themselves to become better partners. Though it is counterintuitive for many partners, owning their weaknesses brings partners a sense of personal and relationship strength and self-confidence. And it is only when each is willing to do this that they can deal with conflict well. With humility and self-confidence in hand, the partners meet each other halfway and join hands in building a great LTLR.
If the couple continues this work, and learns this new, more mature intimacy through differentiation, they then enter Stage 4, Synergy. When couples learn how to handle the dark side of passion well, the light of positive passion comes to achieve brilliance. In this Synergy stage, the couple has created a loving bond and a life together for the long-term that is greater than either of them. They both merge and differentiate to create the full flowering of the mature long-term love relationship.
This is the gravy. This is where truly happy couples that have been together for years are. Those who know them envy these couples. They’ve weathered the storms and come out the other side stronger and closer for it. They’ve gone through changes and conflicts, dealt with them, and have grown closer as a result.
Synergy stage couples have learned through their LTLR experience that conflict done well is THE most powerful means to building love relationship strength. Meeting conflict head on, working it through, and resolving it builds confidence in the relationship and the confidence that each partner has in the other. This builds the sense of security each partner has in the relationship. It increases the intimacy in the relationship. It also grows the love, affection, and appreciation that each partner has for the other.
In Stage 4, a couple has solidified the gains they made in achieving Differentiation. Dealing with conflict well is second nature to them. They’ve developed the strength in their LTLR to deal with difficult times and the resiliency to rebound from the stresses and traumas that life can bring. They’re good at loving each other, and at showing love in ways that touch his or her partner. Each partner knows who he or she is individually and is good at sharing him or herself with their life partner. Synergy is the mature flowering of love; it is what we all yearn for.
It is important to note here that the movement of couples through these stages is bi-directional. For example, during times of high stress, couples that have reached Stage 3 and 4 functioning often regress to earlier, less mature functioning levels. For example, this can be seen when there is a serious illness in the family. One or both spouses often become more symbiotic. However, if the couple has previously grown into differentiated functioning, the partners can be expected to be able to work through the struggle and successfully reestablish differentiation, either on their own or with short-term couples therapy assistance.
The Long Term Love Relationship Model has four stages:
The growth process is governed by the level of symbiotic vs. differentiated functioning in the couple.
In our work helping couples move from Soured Symbiosis into Differentiation and Synergy, we focus on what we term The Three Intimacies: Self-Intimacy, Conflict Intimacy, and Affection Intimacy (Solomon & Teagno, 2002). These are the variables that determine the health of any Long-term Love Relationship. They are the key measures that enable the couples therapist to accurately evaluate the functioning of any couple as it presents in an initial consultation. They provide the therapist with a clear understanding of any couple’s functional strengths as well as also indicating what the weaknesses are in each partner and in the LTLR.
Thus, the diagnostic information provided by an assessment of the couple’s functioning in the Three Intimacies is invaluable in initial treatment planning. Subsequent to and based upon this initial diagnostic work, TRI therapists work with the couple to strengthen their functioning in each of the Three Intimacies. This is central to our approach to achieving a successful outcome in couples therapy.
Too often overlooked in therapy and especially in couples therapy is the importance of the individual’s intimacy with self; that is, the individual’s moment-to-moment awareness of his or her own feelings, desires, and thoughts (Solomon & Teagno, 2002). We put particular emphasis here on the individual’s awareness of his or her emotions, seeing one’s emotions as THE most intimate part of the self, the closest thing to our true self or soul. Indeed, we see emotions as messages from the true self, letting us know how we are doing at keeping our life along a path that is healthy and righteous for us.
In couples therapy, Self-Intimacy is particularly important because one’s level of intimacy with self determines or limits the real intimacy one can have with another. This is the root of the common grievance of wives whose husbands do not “open up” to them or share their “heart” with them. Men in our culture tend to have more trouble being emotionally self-aware and Self-Intimate than women.
The development of Self-Intimacy is also important because once one is aware of what he or she is feeling, one can then determine the cause of those emotions. With the feeling and its source known, the individual is then able to figure out how to take care of the self around the causal situation. This set of abilities is essential to being able take good care of the self in an intimate relationship. While women tend to be more self-intimate than men are, we find they often have trouble following up on this self-knowledge by standing up for themselves effectively in a relationship.
To help partners develop Self-Intimacy, we assign them a conceptually simple exercise consisting of three questions to be asked of oneself:
We tell clients to perform this exercise 2-3 times a day. We tell them not to spend much time on it – 30 seconds to five minutes at most – so that it won’t become a burdensome task that they will lose motivation to perform. The key is that the individual check in with the self day after day for very short bursts of time.
Often clients have trouble remembering to do it. In Western society, we tend to be so externally focused and when we are focused internally, it is almost always on our cognition. Another common problem that male clients in particular have with ESA is they are unsuccessful at achieving awareness of any feelings, or if they do become aware of affect, they have trouble knowing what emotion(s) it is. We tell them that it’s just like going to the gym and building up their strength; if they do not give up, both their emotional awareness and their emotional discriminative abilities will get stronger.
When practicing ESA, many people will often stop at familiar feelings like anger or anxiety. They think that these are the only feelings they have. We challenge them to look beneath the more familiar or “comfortable feelings” for more vulnerable feelings like fear, hurt, and the like.
We tell clients that if they engage ESA daily for the next couple of months, their Self-Intimacy will be dramatically increased and they and their relationship will be transformed. Indeed, we find this simple exercise to be the single most powerful tool we give clients in improving their individual emotional well being and the quality of their life in general, especially their Long-term Love Relationship.
LTLR partners becoming emotionally self-aware is essential to the development of an individuated self. The more any LTLR partner comes to know about his or her feelings, the greater capacity he or she has to engage in a truly intimate and committed love relationship.
For the therapist, it is important to keep in mind that there are two essential aspects to Self-Intimacy as it relates to LTLR functioning and emotions experienced by the partners toward each other:
It is the second of these aspects of SI that is a particular challenge for any LTLR partner. Sharing one’s feelings, especially negative feelings toward one’s partner, can be a very difficult and anxiety provoking thing to do. Nevertheless, doing so successfully is the primary challenge of Long-term Love Relationships.
Therefore, Self-Intimacy, with its emphasis on self-awareness and the sharing of the self is the foundation of differentiated relationship intimacy.
As Self-Intimacy is the foundation of differentiated relationship intimacy, Conflict Intimacy (Solomon & Teagno, 2002) is the framework built upon that foundation. The term Conflict Intimacy refers to the couple’s ability to deal with conflict in a healthy manner. Instead of seeing conflict as a negative indicator in Long-term Love Relationships, we see conflict in the couples that come to us for help as the growing pains of the relationship. It is an indicator that the couple is struggling to grow from a symbiotic level of functioning to a differentiated level, from an immature LTLR into a mature one. We encourage couples in their periods of struggle by letting them know that doing conflict well is one of the most powerful means to enhance the strength of a long-term love relationship. Helping couples to become adept at doing conflict well is the central focus of the therapist using the TRI Model of Long-term Love Relationships.
But what does it mean to do conflict well? It means that each partner is able to both openly and constructively voice his or her hurt, disappointment, anger, and other negative affect as well as to be able to be “curious not furious” in the face of his or her partner’s pain and anger. It is the ability to stay differentiated in conflict and to be able to do a good job standing up for one’s self as well as being there for the partner when he or she is in pain and angry.
To help our clients develop Conflict Intimacy, we mainly use an exercise developed by Bader and Pearson, the Initiator to Inquirer, or “I to I” exercise (Bader and Pearson, 1988). They have written extensively about this exercise and their work with couples; we highly recommend these writings to you.
We have found that a mistake many couples therapists (including ourselves early in our careers) make is that in trying to help couples with their conflict, they focus too much on conflict resolution. There can be a seductive pull to premature resolution for couples therapists; it lowers the anxiety of the therapist created by the couple’s negative affect laden conflict, and providing the couple with our ingenious, insightful solutions to their problems can be very ego gratifying. But we have found that couples are more than intelligent enough in most situations to figure out effective solutions to their problems. What hangs them up isn’t the resolution but the process of conflict. They get stuck in endless cycles of venomous explosive conflict.
Bader and Pearson’s I-to-I exercise is a powerful tool because it focuses on conflict process not conflict resolution. The I-to-I is the tool we use to teach clients how to express their feelings, hear their partner’s divergent feelings, and manage the tension and conflict created by these differences. As partners develop their capacity for Conflict Intimacy (CI), they are able to escape from their intimacy killing toxic conflict pattern, whether it be Conflict Avoidant or Hostile Dependent.
The I-to-I exercise places each partner in one of two roles, either as the Initiator or the Inquirer. The Initiator shares in order to be self-revelatory and intimate, to stand up for the self, and to – ideally – learn more about him or herself. The Inquirer’s responsibility is to listen well to their partner, to tell the other what he or she has heard and to ask questions designed to deepen the listener’s understanding of the Initiator, questions that ultimately assist the Initiator in understanding more about self. This exercise pushes the Initiator to be more Self-intimate and differentiated while it pushes the Inquirer to maintain differentiation and manage his/her tension as he/she self-soothes.
The I-to- I exercise pushes at Self-Intimacy as it also reveals to the partners their differences and just how far apart they are on a topic. While in the exercise, the partners are coming up against their differences and will experience the tension it creates in each of them. In the face of tension, each will want to use old defenses designed to eliminate the distance, tension, or conflict. These are all essentially moves toward the old symbiosis; they include minimizing the differences, pulling or pushing at the partner to accede to the wishes of the other, or “folding” to the perceived desires of the other.
To the great frustration of many couples, especially male partners, the I-to-I exercise does not deal with conflict resolution at all. In fact, oftentimes it is necessary, particularly when a couple is first learning the exercise, to stop them when they start to go to resolution. We want each of them to grow in their ability to handle the tension of unresolved conflict instead of allowing them to reduce this tension through premature resolution. The only way to increase tension tolerance is to force them to stay in the process of conflict unresolved.
Session after session, much of the therapy hour is spent working within the strict confines of the I-to-I format. After the couple has developed some mastery of the I-to-I, we tell them to try working with it outside the office. This is when more rapid progress starts to take place. This is especially the case if both partners have each worked on Self-Intimacy, which greatly enhances the individual’s ability to be able to fulfill both the Initiator and Inquirer roles well.
The Initiator-Inquirer format teaches clients how to be intimate in conflict while the ESA exercise teaches them how to be self-intimate. Both forms of intimacy increase tension both within the individual and between the partners. As individuals develop their ability to identify and express their thoughts and feelings, they also need assistance learning how to ease their internal struggle. This is the skill of Self Comfort. Self-Comfort is the individual’s capacity to bring ease to oneself when experiencing tension, fear or perceived emotional threats to one’s sense of self. A reflex of any human being is to escape or minimize pain and the way we do this reflexively is by fight, flight, or freeze. While these ensure immediate individual survival, they do nothing to ensure the survival of a relationship. In fact, what works for individual survival will keep the individual alive but often leaves them alienated, unable to sustain intimacy, and finally, alone.
As therapists, we need to teach clients the difference between self-comfort and individual survival skills. While survival skills lower the sense of threat, they also increase the tension between the partners as they are designed to only increase the survival of the one person. In contrast, self-comfort skills ease the individual’s sense of threat, and helps the person ease their emotional reactivity so that they can continue to think, decide and respond rather than reflexively react. In this regard, self comforting does not necessarily increase relationship stress and increases the chance that at least one of the partners is able to manage his or her reactivity so that the alternative of easing of relationship pain may occur. Self-Comforting skills include self-talk, using the Emotional Self Awareness exercise, sharing one’s experience with the partner, reminding oneself “It’s not about me,” and allowing one’s partner his/her separate experiences and pain. Self-Comfort can also include taking a time out. (More will be discussed about Couple Survival Skills in the Section on Treatment Issues.)
We have found that as the couple becomes more practiced in the I-to-I format and continues to develop Self-Intimacy through its work in Emotional Self Awareness as well as increase the partners’ capacity to tolerate internal and relationship tension, the couple finds that relationship conflict is no longer so daunting or so threatening to the relationship. The adoption of an attitude of growth about conflict versus one of threat helps the partners to see that needed change and closeness rather than increased alienation can come from their conflicts. As they find they can navigate differences and conflict with greater ease, they report finding greater confidence in self and in the relationship.
After we introduce our clients to the I-to-I exercise and use the roles of Initiator and Inquirer in the office once, we introduce the Maturity Goals of the I-to-I in the subsequent session. These goals define the Initiator and Inquirer roles from their least mature mindset (steps 1-4) to a more mature mindset (step 5) and to the most mature (steps 6-10/11). We recommend that all clients become familiar with step 5 as the beginning of maturity and stretch themselves to function at steps 8 and above on a regular basis. We remind them that under emotional stress on more “touchy” subjects, we all regress, but we encourage them to challenge themselves to remain at step 5 “at your very worst” and when they cannot, then inform the partner and ask for a “time out” to regroup (e.g., an hour or overnight). They then work to self comfort and return to their partner within the agreed period of time to reinitiate the discussion. This way they work to do no harm to the relationship.
The Initiator’s Goals
The Inquirer’s Goals
We find that as the partners work individually to hold themselves personally to these concrete goals, they report finding they can make clear progress. We emphasize to each partner to work on self and not on what the other is doing. We can only control our own progress.
Clients report that they feel stronger and safer in the relationship as they find they can better hold onto the self in the tense and difficult moments.
Again, Conflict Intimacy creates resilience in the couple to get through inevitably difficult times. It becomes the powerhouse or reservoir of faith and perseverance as the couple grows and stretches together and separately.
We find in couples that have done good work developing Self-Intimacy and Conflict Intimacy that the third intimacy, Affection Intimacy (Solomon & Teagno, 2002), begins to return and blossom. This result is why we see Conflict Intimacy as a most powerful relationship enhancer. As couples begin to have successful conflict experiences – that is, as they develop Conflict Intimacy – they begin to feel closer to each other. They begin to see the other more clearly as the person they fell in love with instead of the person they see disfigured through the lens of their anger. With growing CI, each partner also sees the other as a separate person with strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and as someone they love even with the differences and negative attributes. As the partners experience this progress, it builds up hope and confidence. They begin to build up not only hope, but also the stirrings of confidence in their ability to weather the storms of conflict. They begin to feel safer and more secure in the relationship, and that they are truly partners with each other, together on this journey.
Affection again flowers in the relationship. We define Affection Intimacy as the ability to feel, express, and share love. There are four kinds of Affection Intimacy: verbal, actions, non-sexual physical, and sexual. Couples may need some help in any one or all of these types of Affection Intimacy. Most couples therapists are quite capable of providing this assistance. The most common exception is in providing help for sexual Affection Intimacy issues.
This is another area where the therapist’s own level of maturation and differentiation is tested. An artifact of our culture’s mores is that many of us have our own unresolved issues around sexuality. Getting past these is essential for us to be able to assist couples with their sexual issues.
We have found that couples are most able to effectively work on their sex life when they already have done good work in Self-Intimacy and Conflict Intimacy, and are moving from Soured Symbiosis to Differentiation. That is the time for the couples therapist to deal directly and openly with the couple’s sexual Affection Intimacy. David Schnarch (1997) and Esther Perel (2008) have written extensively on this aspect of couples therapy and we recommend their work to you.
Reminders about ESA:
Perhaps the most amazing thing about couples is how much trauma committed relationships can endure; infidelities, substance abuse, spousal abuse – the list goes on and on. In fact, we have found only three things that couples cannot overcome. We call them the Three Deal Breakers (Solomon & Teagno, 2002).
The first Deal Breaker occurs in Hostile Dependent couples when, over a number of years, so much anger, disappointment, and pain has been inflicted by one partner on the other, or both on each other, that the love that one or both partners had for the other dies.
The second Deal Breaker occurs when Conflict Avoidant couples “drift apart” over quite a few years, again killing the love and intimacy they once had due to their refusal to deal with their differences. These two Deal Breakers are about a couple’s love dying, through either abuse or neglect.
The third Deal Breaker arises when one or both partners refuse to own his or her own part in the couple’s problems and refuses to work sincerely on the self to overcome these problems.
A great many couples end their relationship when their love has truly died due to one of the first two Deal Breakers. However, we believe that a majority of couples that end their long-term love relationships do so when their love is still alive. What dooms the relationship then is this third Deal Breaker, either or both partners refusing to take responsibility for their contributions to the relationship’s struggles. Sadly, these are relationships that could work well if only both partners had enough courage to face themselves. The divorce rate would go down precipitously if this third Deal Breaker could be overcome.
Our work as couples therapists is to help couples avoid falling prey to any of the Three Deal Breakers. Our work is to be a powerful force helping their love blossom for the long-term. In our therapy with couples, we have found that – equipped with the Differentiation Model and the Three Intimacies, and utilizing the I-to-I exercise and The Emotional Self Awareness Exercise – we often CAN achieve these goals.
We have found that relationships are incredibly and unpredictably resilient. Drugs, alcohol, infidelity, money, family, and myriad other problems do not end strong relationships, but there are three deal breakers that lead to relationships ending.
We seldom find the First Deal Breaker to be the reason for the ending of a relationship. The Second Deal Breaker occurs quite often. The most common reason by far that we find that LTLRs fail is due to the Third Deal Breaker. Our experience tells us that a large percentage of the marriages that end in divorce in our society do so as a result not of “irreconcilable differences” but due to this Third Deal Breaker. That is, if not for the Third Deal Breaker, many of these couples would have found that their differences were indeed reconcilable.
All too often partners run rather than face their own weaknesses and their own demons. Frequently, they convince themselves that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, that they won’t have these problems when they find the “right” spouse. They may indeed find a better match in their next partner, but unfortunately, if they fall victim to the Third Deal Breaker, their own issues will resurface and hinder or damage their next LTLR just as they did their previous one.
These individuals are also the ones that we find later in life often look back with regret on their decision to leave their marriage or other committed relationship or how they ended it. With the passage of years, they gain the perspective that enables them to acknowledge that they did not try their best, and that they did not give that relationship a fair chance. They wonder if they could have been happy in the relationship if they had truly tried instead of giving up perhaps too quickly.
Sometimes learning this lesson through the pain of regret does enable them to not make the same mistake again. We often see someone in distress in his second or third marriage come in for couples therapy because he don’t want to make the same Third Deal Breaker mistake he now sees he made in his previous LTLR(s).
Just as it is important to have a model of Long-term Love Relationships when working with couples, it is vital to have a theoretical framework enabling the therapist to evaluate and understand the dynamics leading up to and then resulting from infidelity. A variety of useful infidelity typologies have been developed (Brown, 2001; Lusterman, 1998). Many of these are quite complex. We have found a simpler model of infidelity typing to be more incisive and useful in helping couples dealing with such a betrayal and their therapists. Our work with countless couples struggling with infidelity has shown us that all infidelities can be clearly identified by the TRI typology of the Three Types of Infidelity.
We have found that the answer to the question of what motivates and powers an infidelity always comes back to the same thing – emotions. Individuals in Long-term Love Relationships end up betraying their partners only when they have allowed one of three negative emotions to build up inside them. By not dealing with this negative emotion, the individual sets herself up for the emotion to hijack her actions.
The Three Types of Infidelity are each defined by one of three unresolved negative emotions in the betraying partner that lead him or her to act out by being unfaithful. The result is an Infidelity of Fear, an Infidelity of Loneliness, or an Infidelity of Anger. Just as in the TRI Model of Long-term Love Relationships, we see here the central role that emotion, and how it is or isn’t worked through, plays in intimate relating.
Earlier we talked about the primacy of emotions, about how for the individual, being aware of one’s emotions and dealing with them in constructive ways (Self-Intimacy) is the key to individual well being. Then we emphasized how dealing well with the negative emotions felt between partners (Conflict Intimacy) is vital to a Long-term Love Relationship’s well being. The obvious flip side to this is that when partners do not pay attention to, and deal constructively with, the negative emotions, they’re inviting disaster to strike their LTLR. All too often, this takes the form of the LTLR “weapon of mass destruction” – infidelity (Ceo, 2003).
LTLR partners who feel increasing fear, loneliness, or anger, and who do not acknowledge and then deal successfully with these particular three negative emotions, are at high risk for infidelity. The negative emotion will become so strong within them that they can cause the individual to become vulnerable to giving up his or her integrity and choose to act to either create or simply assent to an opportunity to be unfaithful. We assert that this set of circumstances underlies every infidelity.
In addition to reinforcing the centrality of emotion in intimacy, one other aspect of this typology that we find especially powerful for the therapist working with infidelity couples is its treatment planning utility. As you will see from the following discussion of each of the Three Types of Infidelity, once the therapist has determined which infidelity type has occurred, she will have a clear direction and focus for the couple’s therapy, not only in helping them heal from the trauma of infidelity but also in assisting them to rebuild their LTLR so that the chances of infidelity occurring again are dramatically reduced.
Before getting into the specifics of the Three Types of Infidelity, let’s define infidelity. As we use the term, an “infidelity” refers to any action taken unilaterally by a partner in a committed love relationship that violates the overt or assumed agreement of sexual and/or emotional exclusivity between the two partners. This includes affairs, which are a subtype of infidelity that denotes an affectional relationship that may or may not include sexual relations, and sexual liaisons, which are a subtype of infidelity defined as an interpersonal relationship or interaction entered into expressly for the purpose of sexual satisfaction. One-night stands can be either an affair or a sexual liaison, but most often are the latter. Continuing infidelities can be either subtype as well, though more frequently are affairs.
Before we get into the specifics of each of the Three Types of Infidelity, there is one point that is important to emphasize. When working with infidelity couples, it is absolutely essential that the therapist be unambiguous in making clear to the couple that the responsibility for the infidelity rests solely and completely with the betraying partner. It is vital that this be explicitly established and acknowledged as true by all three people in the therapy room in order for infidelity couples therapy to be successful. Trust in the therapist is at stake, as is the clear delineation of responsibility for the trauma the couple is going through.
In the following discussion of the Three Types of Infidelity, we address in detail the relationship factors that contribute to a partner in a LTLR becoming vulnerable to having an infidelity. However, this in no way means that the relationship, or the betrayed partner – no matter how many mistakes he has made in the relationship, no matter how “bad” a partner he may have been – is in any way responsible for the infidelity. The betraying partner had other choices she could have made to deal with the problems in the LTLR, or to deal with her negative emotions, than to betray her partner. Just because the betrayed partner contributed to the problems in the relationship that created the vulnerability to infidelity, this does not mean he is in any way responsible for its occurrence. With these couples, this fact invariably needs to be explicitly stated. Most often, in fact, it needs to be repeatedly reiterated over the course of therapy.
Big problems result when any of us ignores our fear. Sometimes one ends up staying too long in a situation that is dangerous or destructive, and bad things happen to us. Sometimes what happens is our fear keeps building up inside until it gets to be so strong that it takes over our behavior, causing us to act out in the desperate attempt to escape from the feeling itself. This is the scenario played out in an Infidelity of Fear.
Fear is a primal and powerful emotion. It is an emotion that we find is often misunderstood and/or feared. It serves to keep us safe by causing us to avoid real danger or escape from truly threatening situations. It is important that we teach our clients that we are all well-served by listening to our fear, but that does not mean letting fear control us. The partner who is motivated by fear has a long history of conflict with self-confidence and attachment safety. These experiences are manifest in the individual’s Self-Intimacy, Conflict Intimacy, and Affection Intimacy.
The partner who has had an Infidelity of Fear has the following characteristics:
So an Infidelity of Fear results when a LTLR partner has one of these three strong, old fears about himself and love and he is unable or unwilling to confront those fears (low Self-Intimacy) within himself.
In the case of an Infidelity of Fear, the individual’s long-standing fear and tendency to ignore it laid the groundwork for the infidelity. This potent combination predated the relationship/marriage. In fact, of the three types of infidelities, the Infidelity of Fear, has the least to do with the LTLR that is betrayed and the most to do with the betraying partner’s psyche and his/her issues with early attachment and consequently, his/her capacity and experience of love and intimacy that was brought into the relationship.
The Infidelity of Fear partner comes from a family experience with an insecure attachment. This individual could not find certainty in being loved and feeling that she belonged. Therefore, she has a real conflict between a desire to be in a relationship and a desire to avoid one (i.e. protect herself from the fear of being hurt again). This partner pursues a relationship and for a period of time feels loved, connected and safe, but eventually and inevitably, as Soured Symbiosis is experienced, her fears surface. These feelings are sometimes clearly defined, but more often take the shape of vague, uncomfortable feelings.
There are three specific subtypes of fear that underlie an Infidelity of Fear: Fear of Intimacy, Fear of Commitment, and Fear of Being Unworthy of Love.
The first subtype is the fear of intimacy. This is most often experienced as a fear of allowing oneself to really get close to another person – a fear of losing a sense of one’s self. It includes a fear that the other person will take over one’s life; that the individual’s needs, desires and feelings will be lost; and this partner’s needs will be subsumed into the needs of the other partner.
This fear usually comes from the experience of having one or both parents who are narcissistic or self-centered. This partner’s needs were minimized or ignored while the parent’s needs were primary. The partner “naturally” expects the same in her primary adult relationship. Having needs and feelings is experienced as uncomfortable and fearful, as her expectation is that feelings will result in the experience of hurt and disappointment because her feelings will not be valued or attended to.
So what does a person with this fear of intimacy do when they get into a LTLR? If her fear of intimacy is strong enough, and especially if it is reinforced by her inability to stand up for what she wants in the LTLR, she will seek escape, often through an infidelity.
The second subtype of fear that results in an Infidelity of Fear is the fear of commitment, which is all about the fear of being wrong, the fear of closing off possibilities. This fear comes from continually being criticized as a child for the decisions you made, for always being told you’re wrong or that you could have done better. For this individual, having and especially expressing needs was not safe and he is anxious when feelings are experienced. He expects to be chastised and feel humiliated, with no one to defend or protect him. The person treated this way “learns” that he can’t trust himself and his decisions, so he becomes afraid to make them, and afraid to commit to any course of action. And, the bigger the decision, the more afraid he is to make it.
There are few bigger decisions than committing to a LTLR. From the moment he commits to the relationship, the person who has a fear of commitment has a building fear that it is a mistake. Too often he will betray the partner in order to feel less committed, to alleviate this fear, and to avoid risking rejection, loss, or hurt.
The last fear that can underlie an Infidelity of Fear is the fear of being unworthy of love. A person brings this deep-seated fear into a LTLR when she was “taught” early on by her parents that she is unlovable or undeserving of love and safety. Most often, this comes from parents who neglect their children, who “teach” their kids through their inattentiveness that they don’t deserve to be loved, and that they aren’t good enough to merit the love and affection that all children crave. These are individuals who have Insecure Avoidant attachment styles. They do not get in touch with their feelings, do not share them, and are often in competition with or jealous of their partner.
So the person who “learned” this lesson about herself goes into a LTLR “knowing” that it won’t last, that love for her will disappear once her partner really gets to know her. This fear and expectation of an impending rejection often will cause her to act out, escape before she is hurt, or reject the partner before she is rejected. Her fear of rejection and hurt drives her to betray. She would rather be the instrument of hurt than the recipient of it.
Each Infidelity of Fear partner has one of these three strong, old fears about himself and love – that he is undeserving of love, that commitment means a loss of self, or that his feelings will not be recognized or met. In each case, this partner is unable or unwilling to confront the fear within himself out of low Self-Intimacy.
In cases of an Infidelity of Fear, the betraying partner’s long-standing fear, the tendency to ignore these feelings, and the lack of ability to face and resolve them, laid the groundwork for the infidelity. It is important that we therapists help our clients recognize that this potent combination predated their relationship. As stated earlier, of the three types of infidelities, this type – the Infidelity of Fear – has the least to do with the LTLR that is betrayed and the most to do with the betraying partner’s psyche and his issues with love, intimacy, and attachment that he brought into the relationship.
The betraying partner who is bedeviled by any of these three fears likely feels defeated and betrayed from within and may not be fully aware of his fears and anxieties and their source. He will want nothing more than to outrun or slay these feelings. However, he is limited in his capacity. It is likely that he learned growing up to deny, minimize, avoid or indirectly represent his feelings and needs; therefore, try as he might, he cannot get them to vanish. His limited ability to be Self-intimate – that is, acknowledge and work through the origins of the feelings – causes him to feel weak because he cannot not deal with, change, or defeat them. Over time, the Infidelity of Fear individual learns that what worked as a child – to ignore, repress, or deny the feelings and their impact on him – brought some short-term relief.
However, short-term relief eventually leads to long-term problems. Ignoring, repressing or denying feelings is the opposite of being self-intimate regarding them. There are few things more harmful to an individual’s and a LTLR’s health than ignoring fear instead of confronting it.
That is why we say that low Self-Intimacy is the catalyst of an Infidelity of Fear. Just having one of the three fears that lead to an Infidelity of Fear does not mean that a partner will inevitably stray. By confronting the fear and developing Self-Intimacy, the person can overcome the limitations of his fear and early insecure attachment, but this requires courage on the part of the client. It is the responsibility of the therapist to help the client see his fear, understand its genesis, and overcome it. By doing so, he will create within the self the capacity to trust intimacy and attachment. When clients are not controlled by fear, they do not run from it into an Infidelity of Fear.
With the combination of an insecure attachment that includes a fear of being unworthy of love, a fear of commitment or a fear of intimacy, AND low Self-Intimacy, the chances of an Infidelity of Fear resulting are very high. Of the Three Intimacies, Self-Intimacy is the key one in Infidelities of Fear because low Self-Intimacy will activate deep-seated fear, will give it power over the individual, and cause him to run from his fear into the short-term respite of new “love” which is yet untouched by his underlying, now dormant, fear.
Not only do Infidelities of Fear tend to start early in a LTLR, they also are usually short-lived and not serious love affairs. This is because a person who is driven to have an Infidelity of Fear isn’t looking to find love; he is looking to escape from it. Therefore, it is not uncommon for a person in this situation to have serial Infidelities of Fear over the course of his primary relationship, having one infidelity after another and sometimes having more than one at a time. While these infidelities may span years, they do not appear to have depth as the individual lacks the emotional capacity to manage intimacy and trust the connection.
Of the three types of infidelity, Infidelities of Fear depend on change from the betrayed partner the least. While the betrayed partner has a role in helping to create the change necessary so that the partner never again commits an Infidelity of Fear, that change is much more about her relationship with the betraying partner than it is about his relationship with her.
The work of the betraying partner is primarily to acknowledge the deep fear that is driving him, whichever of the three fears it is. Then he has to work it through, deal with it, and unmask the false beliefs about himself and about love relationships that the fear is based on, and replace it with healthier beliefs. His fear will never completely disappear, but by confronting his fear and wrestling with it, he will become stronger and his fear will become weaker. If he has enough courage to do this work, his fear will lose the strength to control him – it will no longer have the power to drive him to betray.
As the betraying partner works on himself, he needs to include his partner in the process by being Self-intimate with both himself and his partner. He needs to talk with his partner about his fear. This practice pushes at both Self-Intimacy and Conflict Intimacy as it raises the tension and challenges both partners to differentiate.
The therapist’s role in this process is to provide a “holding frame” for the couple’s work. As you guide the betraying partner to confront his fears and discuss them, you also support him. You will simultaneously support the betrayed partner to hear the reality. This partner will need to be able to self-comfort just as the other partner will need to do the same as his level of fear is activated. The betraying partner will be expecting to be criticized, attacked, or humiliated.
The one emotion that none of us experiences when we’re falling in love is loneliness. You miss each other when you’re apart, but you don’t feel lonely. Just the opposite, in fact. You feel whole, loved, and appreciated by your partner above all others.
Once you find that love, you’re certain you’ll never feel lonely again. Such is the spectacular experience of new love. But all good things do change, and so it is with love. As the months and years go by, individuals in Long-term Love Relationships start feeling alone again. Instead of the closeness and union they experienced at the beginning of their relationship, they find themselves feeling separate, and at times isolated and estranged from their partner.
Sometimes, when a person realizes he is feeling this way, he will try to do something about it. He’ll try to address it by talking to his partner about it, by making more time for his partner in their busy lives, or by trying to be more affectionate or sexual. Many times, actions such as these help alleviate the problem. Often times, they do not.
Sometimes a person will do nothing about his loneliness, because he isn’t very aware of it, or when he is aware of it, he either doesn’t know what to do about it, or he is hopeless that anything can be done to change or eliminate the feeling.
Then the loneliness gets worse.
A lonely person – a really lonely person – is a very vulnerable person. He is vulnerable to the one thing that will most powerfully take his loneliness away – falling in love again. This is the very process that leads to so many affairs. These are Infidelities of Loneliness.
How do you determine when an infidelity was one of Loneliness? The conditions that underlie and define an Infidelity of Loneliness are:
Similar to an Infidelity of Fear, low Self-Intimacy in the unfaithful partner plays a role in the process that leads to an Infidelity of Loneliness. Unlike the situation that leads to an Infidelity of Fear, however, here the key is the low Conflict Intimacy in the LTLR has led to the creation of real distance between the partners and to the loneliness that has engulfed the relationship. Sadly, this is the fertile ground from which the unfaithful partner’s Infidelity of Loneliness sprang.
In all cases of Infidelity, we aver that the faithful partner is NOT responsible for the infidelity; however, the faithful partner did contribute to the weakness in the relationship that laid the foundation for the eventual erosion that allowed space for an infidelity. In addition, the faithful partner could have a part in strengthening the relationship. In the case of low Self-Intimacy and low Conflict Intimacy, the faithful partner’s role was one of ignoring the growing rift and distance in the relationship.
So how does loneliness overtake love and commitment? It is all about Conflict Intimacy. The closeness, the warmth, and the love in Long-term Love Relationships is more fragile than we think. That Affection Intimacy, which so deliciously dominated a relationship at the beginning, doesn’t last forever without help.
That help, strangely enough, comes from fighting or more specifically, Conflict Intimacy. When any couple fights well, they also love well. The couples that avoid dealing with their differences and conflict tacitly agree to grow apart with their lack of resolution. In the spaces of quiet and avoidance eventually grows separateness and aloneness within the relationship. Over time, while the couple is largely unaware of their lack of growing connection, vulnerability within the relationship develops. Without Conflict Intimacy, an effective way to navigate and negotiate their differences, these couples go through the motions of a relationship with little real intimacy both in terms of negative and positive passion. As the passion diminishes, the couple loses intimacy, closeness, honesty, and mutual respect.
Instead of feeling close, intimate, and loving, the partners feel distant and isolated. When they don’t do something about this, the loneliness begins to consume and eventually control at least one partner’s life.
Partners who have Infidelities of Loneliness are like the group that Shirley Glass describes in her book, NOT “Just Friends” (2003). These are not partners who seek an infidelity. When you meet these clients before they have an affair, they report a “good enough” marriage but lack enthusiasm about the relationship. They complain of a routine and a lack of passion, but do not express a clear desire for an infidelity. However, these individuals are very vulnerable to an affair. As the partner’s internal sense of loneliness continues to grow – a slow, insidious process, marked by the attrition of the betraying partner’s faith in the capacity of the LTLR to be successful, and the capacity of the relationship to take care of his need for love – the partner becomes vulnerable to someone new, someone who awakens his sense of aliveness.
Unlike Infidelities of Fear, Infidelities of Loneliness usually do not occur at the beginning of a Long-term Love Relationship. Because it takes time for loneliness to build to the point that it is strong enough to overtake the love that the LTLR was built upon, Infidelities of Loneliness usually don’t occur for a number of years after the beginning of the LTLR, usually at least five to seven years into the relationship.
In the role of therapist, we are in the position to note when a client is on the “slippery slope of infidelity.” It then becomes our responsibility to point this out to him. Fortunately, such loneliness is reversible. By making a partner aware of his low Self-Intimacy and limited Conflict Intimacy, we can help the client to reverse the losses that have accrued in the relationship. By speaking up and talking honestly and clearly, the couple has an opportunity to heal their LTLR before an infidelity occurs or progresses.
It is our experience that individuals who have an Infidelity of Loneliness do not seek out an infidelity. In fact, they are often largely unaware of the depth of their loneliness. This is an example of low Self-Intimacy in action. Out of touch with their feelings, individuals in this situation are surprised by their mounting attraction for another.
While partners who eventually have Infidelities of Loneliness do not seek them, they find themselves over time and circumstance attracted to another person. When she first finds herself drawn to the attention of another, it is often chalked up to immediate circumstances and the attraction is minimized. However, the attraction is very seductive as she finds herself wanting to see the other person as she finds herself feeling more alive and awakened to life. She can no longer effectively minimize the attraction, chalk it up to being married for so long, or to long work hours, or label it as just a temporary, passing feeling. The attraction stands in vivid contrast to how emotionally shut down he has felt in his primary relationship.
When you add this new sense of aliveness to the betraying partner’s low Self-Intimacy and his LTLR’s low Conflict Intimacy, you can see how an Infidelity of Loneliness is a great threat to his LTLR. The betraying partner believes he is in love, a new kind of love he has never experienced before or a love that is long gone between him and his LTLR partner.
However, this is a mirage. His Infidelity of Loneliness is a relationship built on Need Love. It is based on the feelings evoked by the new relationship that temporarily mask his loneliness, a loneliness that very likely resembles his insecure attachment experience – not being able to rely on being soothed, comforted, and valued by the love object. In the affair, his love is fueled and fed by his infidelity partner meeting his need to not feel lonely. The love is not based on who she is (though he experiences it that way) but on what she does for him. This is a Stage 1, Sweet Symbiosis love, or “love is blind love,” which hasn’t yet met the challenges of Soured Symbiosis, when the rose-colored glasses come off. Built upon the shaky foundation of Need Love, these relationships rarely last.
As with any of the three types of infidelities, the first step in making an LTLR invulnerable to an Infidelity of Loneliness reoccurring in the future is truly healing from the betrayal. Such healing involves working through the terrible pain, anger, and fear as well as the betraying partner earning back trust through his trustworthy behavior over time.
In order for the couple to feel safe knowing there is no longer a danger of another Infidelity in the future, the therapist has to help both partners address head-on each one’s struggles with Self-Intimacy and Conflict Intimacy.
The betraying partner’s personal work is to become exceedingly and reliably Self-intimate since it was his weak Self-Intimacy that allowed his loneliness to grow unchecked to the point that it came to overtake and control him, leading to the infidelity. So, this partner must fully commit to work on building up his SI, not only so that he becomes highly aware of what emotions he is feeling, but also so that he is then able to, and does, talk with his partner about those emotions, whether good or bad. If he does not do this, he is setting himself up for another Infidelity of Loneliness in the future.
Concurrently, the betrayed partner must work on herself to become a partner who serves to create a sense of safety in the LTLR so that her partner can reliably share his feelings. She must expand her expectations of a love relationship to include separateness and disappointment. She must come to be able to accept and respect the range of emotions his Self-Intimacy enables him to share with her, and of course, he must be able to do the same for her.
This then leads to the therapist having to address the low Conflict Intimacy that led to the growth of distance between the couple. This is what gave birth to the loneliness that enabled the infidelity. The therapist assists the couple in closing the gap between the two primarily by focusing on dealing with their differences and their fears of these.
As the therapist, you will help the couple work on developing growing resilience with Conflict Intimacy so they can scale the mountain of hurt, disappointment, and resentments that have piled up between them before, during, and since the infidelity.
These negative feelings from the past have to be dealt with. Like poison infecting a wound, in order to heal the cut the couple has to clean out the dirt, pain, and fears, face each and then the healing cam begin. With such healing, the relationship can become close again as the couple experiences safety in the healing process and begins to experience the relationship as secure and resilient.
The real antidote to loneliness for the betraying partner and the couple is the rediscovery that the person each fell in love with is still there and still loves the other. Through the attainment of strong Self-Intimacy and Conflict Intimacy, Infidelity of Loneliness couples can recapture their connection and deepen it by becoming truly intimate.
Anger may very well be the most misunderstood emotion. It is thought of as a “bad” emotion that causes people to do mean things when actually, anger is as natural and healthy and normal as any other emotion. There is nothing inherently bad about it. In fact, anger can be a very positive force in a person’s life, causing her to stand up against injustice or to fight to protect what is dear to her.
If there is one thing that everyone would agree on regarding anger, it is that, like fear, anger is a very primal and powerful emotion. In the blink of an eye, it can sweep us away, taking over our mind and our body, causing us to “see red.” In most cases when that happens, bad things result.
That’s why anger gets a bad rap. Most of us allow our anger to control us at times, resulting in us doing things we later regret. And so, we blame our anger. However, our anger isn’t the problem. Our inability to control it – our lack of control over one’s self – is the problem.
Individuals who lash out in anger a lot are people who have a great deal of anger built up inside – anger they haven’t dealt with and anger caused by past situations and people with which they haven’t made peace. Therefore, when something triggers their anger, they lose control of it and overreact. Their anger causes them to want to hurt the person who is hurting them.
In Long-term Love Relationships, handling anger like this makes for an unhealthy relationship. When one partner has a history of not being able to deal with her anger well, and then on top of that she builds up hurt and anger either from toxic conflict with her partner or by being conflict avoidant, her anger will start to control her. She starts wanting to hurt the one she loves. There is no more hurtfully effective way to do this than by having an infidelity.
That is what leads to the third of the three types of infidelities, Infidelities of Anger. Partners who have an Infidelity of Anger are driven to betray by the great amount of anger that they have built up inside themselves because they haven’t dealt with it. And so, the anger “deals” with them, causing them to try to hurt their partners in return for the hurt they are feeling. They have an Infidelity of Anger out of a desire for revenge.
The following characteristics define an Infidelity of Anger:
Low Self-Intimacy and low Conflict Intimacy are equal partners in creating the conditions that lead to an Infidelity of Anger. The inability of a partner to deal in a healthy way with anger, both on the individual level within herself and on the interpersonal level in the relationship, is the key here.
In almost all cases of partners who engage in an Infidelity of Anger, the seeds of the betrayal predate the LTLR. Partners who had an Infidelity of Anger most likely came into the relationship with a history of not dealing with conflict well. We are talking here about real conflict – conflict with real emotional undertones and conflict causing real hurt, disappointment, and anger.
This person never learned the skills necessary to work through conflict well, and so she builds up an unresolved history of failed conflicts and the accumulated negative feelings that come from that.
With such a history, this individual is primed to protect herself once a relationship becomes “real” and now includes disappointments and challenges. These individuals often had insecure or avoidant early attachments that are reenacted eventually through the angry action of retaliation. While the individual entered the relationship with great hopes, she also entered with an expectation of disappointment and anticipating being hurt. This combination of intimacy, vulnerability, and self-protection is a volatile and potent mix of conflicting feelings. Such a relationship is founded on very strong positive feelings, but the vulnerability inherent in such a relationship inevitably creates strong negative feelings. This partner is not equipped to deal with these negative feelings well, either within herself or with her partner.
Thus, once Sweet Symbiosis is threatened by the imposing reality of each partner’s separateness (Soured Symbiosis), this partner’s attachment defenses are activated to protect her from the hurt and disappointment they begin to experience and which then reactivates the built-up hurt and disappointment that she has not resolved from her past. Those defenses consist primarily of seemingly self-protective anger expression – acting out a desire for revenge. Too often, this causes her to engage in infidelity. Frequently, the partner who engages in Infidelities of Anger will even believe that her infidelity is justified by her partner’s mistreatment.
Everyone feels anger and everyone has lashed out in anger at some points. However, not everyone has trouble controlling anger and how it is expressed. Clearly, there is a great difference between being angry situationally and being an angry person.
People who have trouble controlling their anger have this problem because they do not pay attention to their anger, and particularly because they deny or repress the hurt and disappointment that always underlies anger. Hurt and disappointment are the emotions that fuel anger. Unless you feel hurt and/or disappointment in any given situation, you will not feel anger.
The key to dealing with the client who has engaged in Infidelities of Anger is to assist her in overcoming her primitive anger reflex by increasing her Self-Intimacy. She needs to learn to utilize the Emotional Self Awareness Exercise so she is able to become aware in the moment when she experiences hurt or disappointment in her LTLR. This enables her to then learn and use the tools of Conflict Intimacy so that she can work through those painful feelings with her partner in a constructive way, rather than engaging her old hostile, acting out defenses.
These clients need specific assistance identifying and acknowledging the early sources of their hurt and disappointment. They grew up believing that they would never get their needs met unless they fought back. Thus, being Self-intimate is foreign to them and not immediately fighting back makes them feel vulnerable. They need great assistance in learning to self-comfort so that they can then share their feelings with their partners.
So, by definition, partners who have Infidelities of Anger never developed these abilities. This is especially common in men because men are trained by our culture that acknowledging, to themselves or to others, that they are feeling hurt emotionally is weak, not manly. The opposite is actually true; to acknowledge one’s hurt is an act of strength. It takes courage to admit such vulnerability. Denying it is an act of fear, done out of weakness. But that is not what our culture teaches, particularly to our men.
The work for the therapist with the betrayed partner is to educate him about the partner’s early background and her self-protective reflexes. The therapist has to work hard to push for the differentiation of the betrayed partner to assist him in giving voice to their pain without blaming. It is also important to help the betrayed partner understand how his partner’s Infidelity of Anger had its roots before this relationship began.
A history of low Self-Intimacy, especially in regards to hurt, disappointment and anger, which then leads to a buildup of those feelings within the betraying partner, is a necessary condition for creating the possibility of engaging in an Infidelity of Anger. However, by itself this is usually not sufficient to cause an Infidelity of Anger.
The other necessary factor, the trigger for an Infidelity of Anger, is usually low LTLR Conflict Intimacy leading to additional deep hurt, disappointment, and anger in the betraying partner. This is what puts this partner “over the edge.” The hurts and anger from throughout her history of relationships are added to anger from the present relationship to the point where this negative affective energy becomes so great that it starts to control her behavior. It starts to create a survival response to react, and to strike back at the person she perceives to be harming the self. This partner then retaliates with a “justified” infidelity.
With Infidelities of Anger, low Conflict Intimacy can take one of two toxic forms: Conflict Avoidant or Hostile Dependent. In the case of a Hostile Dependent couple, the conflict process is defined by the toxic, hurtful fights and arguments that don’t resolve anything, but instead end up with both partners feeling more hurt than before. While the conflicts escalate, one or both partners cannot stop themselves from retaliating with mean words. This may be the only way the couple can connect anymore, and some connection, albeit a hostile one, may be more reassuring than no connection. At least until one of them finds a third person to run to.
In the Conflict Avoidant couple, their differences are minimized and avoided. In addition, over time while each initially feels relieved to avoid the discomfort of the differences, eventually each feels separate and alone. Resentment builds as does anger, and this will eventually be revealed by overt or covert actions and words. This can result in a number of different things including acting coldly, making little digs, ignoring the partner, acting passive-aggressively, doing annoying little things, or having an infidelity.
Unlike the other two types of infidelities, an Infidelity of Anger is just as likely to occur early in a Long-term Love Relationship as late in it. It all depends on how much built-up hurt, disappointment, and anger the partner brings into the LTLR. Some partners come into a LTLR with so much of this pent-up pain, anger, and unrealistic LTLR expectations that it takes very little in the way of negative feelings caused in the relationship to trigger their anger to take over and drive them to an infidelity to get revenge. This is most often the case when they have a history of unresolved rage toward a previous love partner or partners that then is taken out on their present partner.
Other times, the built-up pain and anger isn’t as great. It is repeated hurts and disappointments in the LTLR that creates a great build up of anger that fuels an Infidelity of Anger. When this is the case, the infidelity happens after a number of years in the LTLR, sometimes more than five or ten years.
One commonality to Infidelities of Anger is that most often the betraying partner wants to be found out. Usually she won’t consciously be aware of this and she won’t knowingly leave clues to the betrayal, but leave clues she will. For it’s only when she is found out that his revenge is taken; it’s only when the partner discovers her infidelity that she is able to get back at him for the pain for which she blames him.
As always, the betrayed partner is not responsible for the partner’s betrayal while he did have a role in creating the weakness inherent in their relationship. The low Conflict Intimacy in the relationship is the original weakness; however, the betraying partner chose on her own to externalize her negative and painful feelings and retaliated toward the other. Of course, the betrayed partner is not to blame for her pain; her feelings are her responsibility.
Much like with an Infidelity of Loneliness, after doing the difficult work to heal from the pain and trauma of the betrayal, the keys to making sure this never happens again center on the betraying partner overcoming her low Self-Intimacy and both of the partners developing greater Conflict Intimacy.
The betraying partner must commit to work on growing her Self-Intimacy, in this case especially in regard to how she handles the emotions of hurt and disappointment, as well as anger. She has to develop her in-the-moment awareness of these emotions (ESA Exercise) and then practice talking with the partner constructively, in a non-blaming way about them (I-to-I Exercise).
In addition, she must do the hard work necessary to identify and work through the pain and anger she has built up from her past. She has to be willing to change her reflexes from those of individual survival to those of relationship survival. Only after she does these things will she be safe from being hijacked by her anger in the future. Only then, will the danger of her anger controlling her, and causing her to act out for revenge, be eliminated.
The therapist also must work with the couple to develop Conflict Intimacy around past and present issues in the relationship. It is essential that the therapist challenge the couple to change its toxic communication style whether it is Hostile Dependent or the Conflict Avoidant style. This task is especially challenging for the betraying partner, who will reflexively see, interpret, or experience the betrayed partner’s words as attacking. She has to learn to overrule her individual survival reflexes. The angry betraying partner will need the therapist’s close help to pull her back from withdrawing or attacking. The therapist is teaching this individual a new behavior – one of observing, suspending one’s views, and being empathetic while having separate though unrepresented or unvoiced thoughts and feelings in the moment. This is a challenging emotional and psychological task for this partner as well as for the betrayed partner. The therapist needs to be strong and clear in his thinking to be able to effectively understand what each partner needs in order to differentiate, self define, and be present.
You, as the therapist, are teaching the partners how to deal with their differences as a team, not in an attacking, defensive way and not in an avoidant, minimizing or “brush it under the rug” way, but openly and constructively, with each taking responsibility for his or her part in the problems and each expressing caring and regret for the pain caused to the partner.
When the couple has achieved these things, anger will no longer have the power to hijack its Long-term Love Relationship by causing an Infidelity of Anger.
Before we explore infidelity treatment issues in more detail, we would like to say a few words about why many partners can be filled with feelings of fear, loneliness, or anger and not ever be unfaithful. In these cases, we see such partners present with some or all of the following factors in their psyche and/or history:
Partners who do not engage in infidelity deserve to be proud of their adherence to the commitment they made to their partner, especially in today’s social environment where opportunities and seeming excuses to “have a fling” are so prevalent, and where commitments seem to be blithely made as well as broken.
Therefore, infidelity certainly is not inevitable in troubled LTLRs. Neither does its absence mean that a couple has a good Long-term Love Relationship. However, the absence of infidelity in a couple coming in for therapy does remove the necessity of working through the profound level of emotional devastation and loss of trust that results from this type of betrayal. This enables the couple and its therapist to begin the work on the partners’ underlying structural relationship difficulties directly.
Conversely, we have had numerous couples, particularly the betrayed partners, report to us that the infidelity that shattered their relationship ended up being a blessing in disguise. These partners assert that, without the betrayal, they believe they would have continued to tolerate the pain and the unhappiness with which the two of them had grown accustomed to living. They doubt they ever would have done the hard work of “fixing” their LTLR without the huge shock of infidelity. For these couples, something profoundly good came out of something profoundly bad. Now, let us get into a more detailed analysis of how we as therapists can help make that happen.
Working with couples that have initiated therapy in response to the discovery or revelation of infidelity is very delicate. It is therapy done within an extremely highly charged emotional environment. As such, it is especially important for the therapist to be well grounded in four basic precepts of couples therapy.
First, as always in couples therapy, it is absolutely essential that the therapist work to avoid any experience of favoritism for either partner. Few things will cause a couple to drop out of therapy more quickly.
Infidelity couples present with a built-in heightened danger of bias for the therapist; one partner, after all, is the betrayed and the other is the betrayer. One partner is the victim and the other is the perpetrator. Once partner is the good guy and the other is the bad guy. If the therapist gives any hint that this is the way she sees it, the therapy is over before it begins.
On the other hand, it is essential that the therapist clearly establishes at the outset in the therapy that the partner who engaged in infidelity is alone responsible for it and its damaging effects.
It is a very fine line that the therapist must walk in these cases. We find that treating both partners with respect, separating what they have each done from who they each are, and looking for opportunities to give each of them honest positive and negative feedback enables us to align effectively with both partners.
Also very important for the therapist to remember is that, just as with any other couple, it is essential with infidelity couples to focus more on helping them with conflict process than with conflict resolution. Infidelity couples, like all couples, most need our help in learning how to do conflict well – how to fight well. They are more than intelligent enough to come up with good solutions to their differences.
Though it is seductive for the couples therapist to provide couples with “ingenuous” answers to their problems, doing so does not serve them well in the long-term. Doing so does not equip them to be able to handle their next big issue. If we help them learn to wield the tools of healthy conflict process, they will be able to resolve issues on their own going forward.
At the outset of infidelity couples therapy the couple, especially the betrayed partner, may need the therapist’s more direct involvement and guidance in order to help stabilize themselves and the situation. However, this does not last long before the couple is best served by the therapist bringing the focus on to conflict process.
A related pitfall to be avoided is prematurely focusing on rekindling the feeling and expression of love and affection between partners. This is a common mistake but one that is especially counterproductive in infidelity couples therapy.
As discussed in the sections on the Three Intimacies, for true long-term growth and change in LTLRs, it is necessary to make significant headway in working through the underlying causes of relationship distress first before addressing directly and fully how they feel and express their loving feelings. Date nights and roses are not the first order of business. Focusing at the outset on “loving well” with couples in trouble is like slapping a bandage on a gaping, infected wound. It might feel like help in the short-term but in reality it is just covering over deeper problems that will only get worse.
This is especially true in traumatized couples like infidelity couples. These couples especially need to be focused by their therapist on the work of building up their Self-Intimacy and their Conflict Intimacy or they will have no chance of their Affection Intimacy returning to life.
The final basic couples therapy issue to address is the issue of the therapist’s own level of Long-term Love Relationship maturity. As with any type of guide, it is difficult for anyone to lead others where he or she has never been.
The most effective couples therapists are those who, through their own personal work and LTLR experiences, have at times achieved at least Stage 3 in a LTLR. The intimacy maturity gained from this enables these therapists to truly show their clients the way to achieve this same personal and LTLR growth. It enables these therapists to be able to create a calm and safe environment to which couples bring their toxic conflicts. Without this, the therapist’s discomfort with a couple’s anger or rage will fatally hinder the work the couple needs to do.
The therapist’s intimacy maturity and the extent to which he has worked through his own past LTLR wounds is especially called into play when working with infidelity couples. Since the primal emotions triggered by this most basic of betrayals are so strong and deep, and since most of us at one time or another during the course of our own romantic relationship history have experienced being unfaithful or a partner being unfaithful to us, transferential reactions can easily be produced. These, of course, are major impediments to the therapist’s ability to give the infidelity couple the help they so desperately need.
Therefore, it is vital that therapists working with infidelity couples not only have journeyed to and actually reached at least Stage 3 at some time(s) in their LTLRs past or present, but that they have also worked through whatever infidelity experiences they have had. Otherwise, the therapist is setting up himself, and the couple, to fall victim to the first basic couples therapy misstep we mentioned above – aligning himself with one partner and against the other.
There are three major infidelity couples therapy tasks facing the therapist as he or she begins working with a new infidelity couple. They are:
Aside from basic history-taking and information-gathering on the part of the therapist, the first order of business in working with a couple coming in for therapy shortly after the discovery or revelation of infidelity is crisis management work. Before healing can take place, the therapist has to stop the bleeding, usually especially that of the betrayed partner. We call this “dealing with the devastation.”
From the first minutes of the first session, the therapist intervenes in a number of ways to stop further deterioration in the LTLR and to establish a foundation of safety and healing for the therapy. There are a few distinct components of this initial work.
Most immediate of these is the need to assist the partners, particularly the betrayed partner, deal with the devastating and often overwhelming emotions that they are feeling in response to the infidelity. Principle among these, of course, is profound hurt, sorrow, fear, and rage on the part of the betrayed partner. The betraying partner’s emotions, such as guilt and fear – though real – are not the focus of this initial crisis management work since it is the betrayed partner whose reality and heart have been shattered. From the initial session and for some time afterward, he or she is in dire need of assistance from the therapist is dealing with and managing the maelstrom of painful and hostile feelings and impulses swirling within them.
Simply having the therapist hear their pain, disorientation, and devastation helps the betrayed partner. Validating all of the emotions that she is feeling is very important, as is normalizing her reaction. Assuring the betrayed partner that the breadth and strength of the emotions and thoughts that she is having are absolutely normal for someone going through what she is experiencing helps her bind her anxiety. It also enables her to begin to feel an inkling of normalcy after finding herself flailing wildly about, adrift in what they used to “know” was their world, now turned upside down.
Simultaneously, the therapist needs to assess the ego strength of the betrayed partner, particularly evaluating her ability to self soothe. Helping her to heighten her ability to self soothe during this agonizing time can be vital not only for her subjective experience but also in enabling her to have the strength to manage her pain and anger so that she can productively work in the couples therapy.
It is also important to note that while empathizing with the devastation is important, it is also imperative that the therapist emphasize, with both partners, that each must express his/her feelings responsibly. Even though the betrayed partner’s deep hurt and rage are completely understandable and justified, that does not mean that he or she has any justification to express those strong emotions in destructive, hurtful ways. Threatening, punishing, shaming, and demeaning only serve to add to the damage and trauma, and will later result in guilt and regret. They are forms of seeking revenge and retaliation. We push clients to “lead with their best selves” as they share their pain, fear, anger and anguish in a way that is both respectful to self and the other.
Doing early didactic work with the couple about infidelity in specific and about Long-term Love Relationships in general helps the partners begin to feel like they have a grasp on a situation that previously felt totally out of control and overwhelming. Teaching them about the Three Types of Infidelity helps them understand what happened and to see that they are not alone.
It also helps the couple start to see a ray of hope, which is always one of the therapist’s most vital tasks to accomplish at the outset of therapy. Here the hope is first and foremost about each partner, especially the betrayed partner, believing that he or she will be able to heal and overcome this trauma. Coupled with this is each partner’s hope for his or her relationship’s healing and survival.
So, very early in their therapy, usually beginning in the first session, one of the primary means by which the therapist begins to provide hope is by sharing with the couple his or her understanding of its situation within the context of the Three Types of Infidelity and the TRI Model of Long-term Love Relationships. For infidelity couples, in great pain, at war with each other, and filled with confusion, this demonstration of understanding, expertise, and clarity begins building hope that the couple can get past this. Of course, that hope is vital to both partners staying in and doing the difficult work of their infidelity couples therapy.
That sort of therapy takes time, so it is also important for the therapist to let the couple know that typically infidelity couples therapy takes between six and 18 months to complete. The structure that this timeframe provides helps the couple accept that there are no quick fixes and that the commitment the partners are making is both a significant one but also one with a definite endpoint.
Another task for the therapist during this initial crisis management stage is to inhibit destructive anger expression. Validating the betrayed partner’s rage is vital, but so is defining a clear line over which neither partner is allowed to go in expressing their anger.
Teaching the couple the difference between standing up for oneself in expressing anger versus expressing anger in such a way so as to inflict pain on the other is one of the important early lessons of infidelity couples therapy, especially since such destructive anger expression reaches its excruciating worst in Infidelities of Anger.
It is also important here that the therapist assess for suicidal and/or homicidal ideation; a large percentage of crimes of passion are the result of infidelity. Infidelity is such a profound betrayal and causes such deep hurt that the desire for retribution can become overpowering. The therapist must help the betrayed partner know that it is normal to feel this impulse for revenge; in helping them to verbally express and examine this desire, the therapist assists the client not to act on it. This is of particular consequence when children are involved. Impulsively using one’s children to get back at the betraying partner makes these innocents victims of betrayal as well.
In fact, one of the other key aspects of the initial crisis management work of infidelity couples therapy is helping the partners resist the lure of making any impulsive decisions. The often-desperate desire to escape from the pain and anguish they are experiencing predisposes infidelity couple partners to want to take quick action. Their judgment is impaired by the powerful negative emotions that are clouding their minds.
This is especially true of the betrayed partner. Helping her to see that she has time to make important decisions before acting calms her, as does helping her to acknowledge that her judgment isn’t as sound as it normally is. Therefore, we encourage these clients not to make hasty decisions or radical changes to their lives. Such changes may eventually need to be made, but they usually do not need to be made right away.
These are some of the most common issues that arise in initially helping the infidelity couple – particularly the betrayed partner – deal with the shattering emotional effects of infidelity. Unless the therapist focuses right away on stabilizing the emotional turmoil that the betrayed partner is enduring, it is likely their hope for personal and relationship recovery will dim and that those negative emotions will come to control them, resulting in destructive acting out behavior. On the other hand, by working to stop the emotional bleeding, the therapist will enable the betrayed partner and the couple to gain the hope and strength necessary to do the work of healing the relationship.
Another major issue that needs to be attended to very early in infidelity couples therapy is the threshold issue of earnestness. This is an issue that pertains particularly to the betraying partner. After being unfaithful, is he sincerely committed to their Long-term Love Relationship? Determining the answer to this question is one of the primary tasks of the couples therapist in the first few therapy sessions. It is a question that is understandably uppermost in the betrayed partner’s mind. In order to be able to take good care of herself, she needs have it answered as soon as possible, even though she may not like the answer she gets.
Obviously, if the answer to this question is “no,” the therapist needs to change the focus of the therapy away from working to heal and rebuild the LTLR. Sometimes this situation arises when the betraying partner agrees to come in for couples therapy out of the guilt he is feeling for the terrible pain he has caused his partner and/or due to having betrayed not only his partner but his own moral code as well. Other times, the betraying partner agrees to couples therapy not out of a desire to repair their LTLR but as a delaying tactic to keep his options open and his partner’s wrath mollified while he figures out how best to get out of the relationship.
However, we find that a majority of betraying partners who present with their spouses for infidelity couples therapy are in fact earnest in their desire to heal the LTLR. This, however, does not eliminate the need for the therapist to address this issue explicitly at the outset of therapy. Betrayed partners need this reassurance, and the therapist needs to clearly establish the motivations of the partners in determining how best to work with them.
An earnest betraying partner is sad for the pain he has caused his partner, and angry and disappointed with himself for causing such pain. He wants to understand why he ended up betraying both the partner and themselves. He is motivated to rebuild the relationship to be stronger and to take an active role with his partner in making genuine forgiveness possible.
How is this earnestness determined? In two main ways. First, the therapist needs to start assessing up front, beginning in the first session, if the betraying partner is able to explicitly, unequivocally and sincerely state both his total commitment to his partner and their LTLR, and state his interest in doing whatever he can to heal and rebuild that relationship.
It is understood that this includes the assurance that his infidelity relationship or relationships are over. If the betraying partner has not ended those relationships, no real work to heal and rebuild the LTLR can take place, and the therapist runs the risk of the therapy becoming complicit in a continuing betrayal. If the betraying partner does not provide his partner with convincing statements and evidence that the infidelity is over, then it is probably best to suspend the couples therapy until such time as he does so.
If the betraying partner does make clear his sincere commitment to the LTLR through verbal statements, the therapist needs to assess the earnestness of that commitment in the betraying partner’s actions. This is the second means of earnestness assessment. As mentioned above, the first test of this is whether the infidelity relationships have ended. Beyond that, however, the therapist needs to use the extent to which the betraying partner engages in the work of the therapy – the work of healing the LTLR – to determine if his earnestness is real or not.
This work can be divided into three main areas of betraying partner behavior:
One sign of real commitment to the LTLR in the betraying partner is his willingness and desire to express regret and remorse for the betrayal and for how it has devastated his partner. If the willingness – to say nothing of the desire – to express these sincere emotions is not present or is minimally present, this is a clear sign that the betraying partner’s commitment to the relationship is tenuous at best. In order for real healing from the wound of infidelity to occur, such expressions of regret and remorse need to occur repeatedly and frequently over time. If true, deep regret and remorse are in fact felt by the betraying partner; such expression is not a problem and becomes clear early on in the therapy.
Of course, many, if not most, betraying partners at some point in the healing process find themselves feeling frustrated and impatient with their partner’s inability to “get over it already.” However, if the motivation to rebuild the LTLR is true, his is able to continue to accompany the wounded partner on their shared path to healing. Early signs of an unwillingness to repeatedly be the object of the partner’s expressions of hurt and rage, and to hesitate to respond to such episodes with repetitions of expressions of regret and remorse are a clear indication of a weak or insincere commitment to the LTLR. This is especially true when it occurs even after the therapist has attempted to assist the betraying partner to recognize the necessity of these behaviors yet he still fails to engage in them or only does so intermittently and resentfully.
Likewise, early signs of an unwillingness to “bend over backwards” to do things to earn back trust is also an indicator of an insincere commitment to the LTLR on the part of the betraying partner. The betraying partner’s acts have shattered the trust of his partner. The way to rebuild that trust is also through his actions. He has to be willing to be completely transparent and disclosive of his day-to-day actions.
Also, the betraying partner needs to be willing to be proactive in behaving in ways that are reassuring and trust inducing for his partner. Such trust-building actions are outlined in Janis Spring’s book, After the Affair (1996), and include both low-cost and high-cost behaviors. We often use Spring’s list with clients, and have also added to it. We have clients look over the list and use it to determine which types of behaviors to which the betrayed partner wants her partner to agree. This list changes over time for the couple. From the outset of therapy, employing it can help the betrayed partner begin to feel there are demonstrable boundaries that help her begin to build trust and confidence in both self and partner.
Examples of Trust building behaviors:
The unwillingness of the betraying partner to engage in any such trust building behaviors calls into serious question his commitment to the LTLR.
Finally, the failure of the betraying partner to fully engage in the work of infidelity couples therapy is the other indicator of the lack of a commitment to the LTLR.
Infidelity couples therapy is demanding for both partners. The therapist challenges each of them to grow, to be honest and open, to own their own weaknesses and mistakes, and to work on their relationship both in and outside the office. Often the therapist’s first sign that the betraying partner’s expressed commitment to the LTLR is not sincere or as strong as he espoused is when he repeatedly fails to really work in the therapy. This can manifest as a failure to open up emotionally, a failure to self-disclose sincerely, a failure to do assigned work between sessions, or to take other actions he committed to take. The therapist must be watchful for such behavior and determine if it does indeed indicate a lack of earnest LTLR commitment or is a manifestation of resistance deriving from some other cause.
If, as a result of any of these types of behavior taking place, the therapist comes to question the earnestness of the betraying partner’s commitment to the LTLR, he or she needs to bring this issue up in the therapy to be discussed and, if necessary, acted upon. Such action includes one or both partners deciding to end the LTLR when it becomes clear that the betraying partner’s earnest commitment does not exist. Or the indicated action may be the betraying partner bringing his actions into alignment or congruence with his actual, heartfelt commitment to the relationship. Either way, this issue of the betraying partner’s earnestness needs to be dealt with explicitly.
It is also important to mention here that sometimes the result of this explicit examination of betraying partner earnestness is the revelation that he is not certain whether they want to stay in the relationship. He expresses that he is not ready right then to end it, but he also is not ready to commit to it long-term.
In this case, the betrayed partner needs support hearing this from her partner and dealing with what it means for her. For example, besides assisting the betrayed partner in handling and expressing the deep disappointment, hurt, fear and anger she experiences in learning of her partner’s lack of commitment to her, it is important for the couple to know that hearing such motivational confusion on the betraying partner’s part is not necessarily a bad sign for the LTLR. Nor is it that unusual in couples that eventually do heal their relationships.
We also stress to the betrayed partner that she needs to determine and act upon what is best for herself in response to hearing this uncertainty from her partner. For example, should she ask her partner to move out of the home, stay in the home but sleep in a separate bedroom, or ask for some other living arrangement? While the betraying partner may not be willing or able to agree with all the terms requested, the act of asking for and responding to what the betrayed partner needs in order to stand up for herself is an impactful beginning to the process of mutual self-defining and empowering that is so important in infidelity couples therapy. This is especially true for the betrayed partner who heretofore had been feeling so powerless as the victim of infidelity.
Often in these cases of betraying partner commitment uncertainty, the betrayed partner will vacillate between being desperate to maintain the relationship (often at any cost), wanting to end the relationship as a means to escape from her intense pain, and wanting to stay immersed in her hurt and anger as a form of self-protection. It is the clinician’s job here to assist the betrayed partner to not act impulsively and to not allow the deficiency motivations (Maslow, 1968) of her fear or anger to control her decisions and actions.
There is one last point we would like to make regarding this issue of ascertaining the betraying partner’s sincere motivations. Reflective of the heuristic power of the TRI theoretical Model of LTLRs, the TRI way to look at the important infidelity couples therapy issue of the betraying partner’s earnestness in his or her commitment to the LTLR is to see it as a question of whether any of the Three Deal Breakers applies to him or her. If any of the Three Deal Breakers does apply to the betraying partner, he or she will not be able to make or maintain an earnest commitment to the LTLR.
Most often, the Deal Breakers involved here within the betraying partner are either the Second (“Love has died”) or the Third (“Won’t take responsibility”). The therapist must be very careful in concluding that the Second Deal applies. Quite often, infidelity couples partners, especially betraying partners, come into therapy no longer able to feel their love for their partner and they thereby conclude that their love is dead. Nevertheless, we have learned from these couples that frequently their love is not dead. It is just covered over, buried under a mountain of pain and resentment. If the couple is able to move that mountain, work through the negative feelings in therapy, it often finds the love coming back to life.
Just as frequent when the betraying partner is unable to make an earnest commitment are the cases in which the Third Deal Breaker is the cause of this failure. If the betraying partner is unwilling to own his or her part in the LTLR problems, to take responsibility for the infidelity and to do the work necessary on him or herself to become what Winnicott might have called a “good enough” partner, he or she will soon run from the LTLR rather than make an earnest commitment to it. With these infidelity couples, working on having a good divorce, rather than working on having a good marriage, is indicated.
However, the pain, guilt, and actuality of coming face-to-face with the very real possibility that the betrayed partner is going to bring their Long-term Love Relationship to an end causes such a Third Deal Breaker betraying partner to change his stance – he truly owns and sincerely works on his weaknesses and mistakes. For some betraying partners, this is a transformative event; for the first time in their lives, they genuinely take responsibility for their choices and actions. In these instances, the frightening and painful prospect of his partner ending their LTLR is great enough to cause him to stop running and face his demons. Of course, only then does he have a chance to defeat those demons. Only then will he have a chance of fashioning a healthy, enduring Long-term Love Relationship with his partner.
The last major task for the TRI therapist in the early phase of infidelity couples therapy is the assessment of both the Long-term Love Relationship and the infidelity. As in any type of psychotherapy, incisive initial evaluation is vital to effective treatment.
In addressing the betraying partner’s earnestness and the betrayed partner’s devastation, we have already dealt with certain initial evaluative issues. One of the strengths of the TRI approach is that it provides a strong heuristic framework that the therapist can use to get a clear picture of the couple’s relationship and of the infidelity. This enables the therapist to see where the couple is stuck in the LTLR developmental process, what the couple’s intimacy strengths and weaknesses are as defined by the Three Intimacies, and what kind of infidelity has occurred. All this information gives the therapist the data he or she needs to have a clear understanding of why the infidelity occurred and what work the couple needs to do in order to heal their LTLR in the short-term and rebuild it so it will flourish for the long-term.
In assessing the couple’s Long-term Love Relationship, the TRI therapist uses the two main TRI LTLR constructs: the Developmental Model of Long-term Love Relationships and the Three Intimacies.
Determining where an infidelity couple is developmentally is usually quite simple since the vast majority of infidelity couples are stuck at the same point in the developmental process: Soured Symbiosis. Though couples take varying routes to get there, almost all couples presenting for infidelity couples therapy have become arrested in Soured Symbiosis, unable to grow into the Differentiation Stage. Some have regressed from Differentiation to Soured Symbiosis due to a failure to deal well with major stressors, but most infidelity couples have never been able to mature past Soured Symbiosis.
The couple has never been able to navigate through the Scylla and Charybdis of Conflict Avoidance and Hostile Dependence to reach Conflict Intimacy. The key question, then, for the TRI therapist is to determine which of the two maladaptive conflict styles the couple uses when dealing with differences. Further, the therapist needs to look at each partner’s conflict process tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses.
This leads to the other major area of initial infidelity couple diagnostic assessment, the Three Intimacies. Determining where the couple and where each partner is in each of the Three Intimacies provides the TRI therapist with a clear picture of the structure of the LTLR and its weaknesses and strengths. This powerful information gives the TRI therapist the lion’s share of what he or she needs to know in order to fashion a treatment plan for the couple.
First in this process is the assessment of each partner’s level of Self-Intimacy. A useful way to approach this assessment process is to use the three questions of the Emotional Self Awareness Exercise to identify three relevant SI variables. That is, how strong is each partner’s ability to be consciously aware of and identify his or her emotions (Question #1), how much insight does each have into the causes of his or her emotions (Question #2), and how strong he or she is in taking constructive action to stand up for his or her feelings, rights or needs (Question #3)? Since we know that Self-Intimacy forms the most basic foundational layer upon which LTLR intimacy rests, identifying each partner’s SI strengths and weaknesses is essential in enabling the therapist to determine what therapy work needs to be done later on by each partner.
Ascertaining which conflict process style the couple engages in – Conflict Avoidance, Hostile Dependence or cycling between the two hybrid styles – has a major impact on TRI infidelity couples therapy work. As referenced earlier, a great deal of the actual therapy work session after session with these couples is work in the I-to-I format developing Conflict Intimacy. In order to be effective in helping the couple with this work, it is essential that the therapist have a clear understanding of their conflict process style and each partner’s conflict process strengths and weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses become quite clear to the TRI therapist once each partner has been placed in both the Initiator and the Inquirer roles of the I-to-I Exercise within the first few sessions of their infidelity couples therapy.
Lastly, assessing the couple’s Affection Intimacy is important in completing the picture of its LTLR’s structure. Though Affection Intimacy work is not focused on early in infidelity couples therapy, determining the strengths and weaknesses of an infidelity couple’s AI often speaks volumes about how the partners got into the painful straits in which they find themselves.
Here the key for the therapist is to assess each partner’s ability and tendency within the LTLR to both give and receive the four types of Affection Intimacy: Verbal, Actions, Non-Sexual Physical, and Sexual Affection Intimacy. Getting a clear view from the couple of how its AI progressed over time in the LTLR is useful, because the TRI therapist isn’t only looking at post-infidelity revelation AI functioning but also at past AI functioning. Early LTLR AI functioning gives the therapist an idea of AI capabilities. This can be used to eventually help the couple build upon after the partners have done a good deal of healing work and Conflict Intimacy work.
Concurrent to the assessment of the couple’s Long-term Love Relationship, it is essential that the therapist determine the type of infidelity that has occurred. Knowing which type of infidelity took place gives invaluable information to the therapist.
As discussed earlier, determining whether the betraying partner’s infidelity was one of Fear, of Loneliness, or of Anger is essential to the identification of the main weaknesses in the LTLR. This then informs the therapist’s insight into what therapy work the couple needs to focus on in order to restructure and rebuild its LTLR so that the fertile ground upon which infidelity grows is never again present within the couple’s relationship.
Once the early infidelity couples therapy work of attending to the betrayed partner’s devastation has begun, the betraying partner’s earnest commitment to the LTLR has been established and hopefully affirmed, and the initial assessment of the LTLR and of the type of infidelity has been accomplished, the work of rebuilding the LTLR’s intimacy structure needs to commence. This work is defined by two major, related goals: significantly increasing Three Intimacies functioning, and reestablishing trust as a given in the LTLR. The accomplishment of these two therapy goals results in the creation of a Long-term Love Relationship that is so strong in its intimacy that it is affair-proof.
The paths to achieving these two longer-term infidelity therapy goals are intertwined. Reestablishing a high level of trust in the LTLR is enabled by a combination of growth in the Three Intimacies in the relationship over time as well as by the consistent integrity and trustworthy behavior of the betraying partner over time.
Besides reinforcing the importance of the betraying partner’s transparency in all his or her actions, the central role of the couples therapist in the mid-phase of therapy with infidelity couples is to keep the focus of the work on increasing the Three Intimacies functioning, both as individual partners and as a couple.
Every partner and every couple is different, but all partners and couples in this type therapy need to be challenged to increase their Self-Intimacy and their Conflict Intimacy early in therapy. The ESA Exercise and the I-to-I Exercise are the main tools that we use for this. Most therapy sessions at least partially consist of I-to-I Exercise time. Once the couple attains a fair degree of facility at the I-to-I Exercise, it is important to have them practice it at home between sessions. That is the point when we often see couples really start to progress rapidly in rebuilding the LTLR. Taking the I-to-I home and bringing it into their day-to-day lives is transformative both in creating greater intimacy and in catalyzing growth in trust.
Along with keeping them focused on the I-to-I and on ESA work, a major focus of the SI work we do with these infidelity couples is on increasing their ability to self-comfort. Self-comfort is defined as the individual’s capacity to bring ease to oneself when experiencing tension, fear, or perceived emotional threats to one’s sense of self. Self-comfort skills ease the individual’s sense of threat. They help the person ease their emotional reactivity so that they can continue to think, decide, and respond rather than reflexively react. In this regard, self-comforting increases the chance that at least one of the partners is able to manage his or her reactivity so that the easing of relationship pain may occur.
Self Comforting skills include self talk; using the Emotional Self Awareness exercise; sharing one’s experience with the partner; reminding oneself, “It’s not about me;” and allowing one’s partner his or her separate experiences and pain. Self-Comfort can also include taking a time out. The therapist needs to encourage clients to practice self-comfort because in the face of pain – especially the devastating pain of betrayal – emotional regression occurs and limits the individual’s ability to help him or herself.
For the betraying partner, self-comfort is needed when he wants his partner to stop talking about the pain he caused. Self-comfort is needed when he thinks the partner should be over the infidelity by now. Self-comfort is needed when he wants to believe that she mostly brings up the infidelity to shame him. Wanting the pain to stop and not wanting to experience your part in causing it is normal, but in order for the couple to really heal, the partners must each allow the other to express feelings as needed. This does not mean bringing up feelings to control the partner but talking about him or her earnestly and stating what the person needs while recognizing the partner may not be able to give them that. Part of the betraying partner’s work is to hear the pain he has caused and respect his partner’s feelings. Self comforting in that situation might be to assure oneself that what is happening is healthy and necessary, even though it is very uncomfortable.
At the beginning of infidelity couples therapy, the therapist helps the couple in their struggle to speak constructively to each other about the infidelity. This is about catharsis, trust, and insight. As the therapy progresses, the focus needs to move from the infidelity relationship to the Long-term Love Relationship. The weaknesses of the LTLR are exposed and the tools to shore up those weaknesses need to be placed in the couple’s hands, session after session. Only when the partners’ facility at wielding the tools of Self-Intimacy and Conflict Intimacy is greatly enhanced does their LTLR have a chance of flourishing.
A sure sign that this is happening is when affectional feelings begin to reemerge. As discussed earlier, when the dark side of a couple’s passion (CI) begins to be openly wrestled with and worked through, the light side of their passion (AI) will begin to thrive. When the infidelity couple has made substantial progress in growing their SI and CI, the therapist considers starting to work with them on their Affection Intimacy.
Helping the partners to assess the AI structure of their relationship is useful here. The therapist can have each partner rate both themselves and the other partner in the four types of AI. Having them share their ratings with each other and talk about them can be very powerful. Often partners are completely unaware of which of the four types of AI is most meaningful to the partner and which most makes them feel loved and important. So helping them to draw this type of AI map of their LTLR can be very impactful, helping them learn where they need to make extra AI efforts. Assigning AI homework can be useful in this process.
It is important to note that, as in therapy with other trauma cases, anniversary dates and holidays can be particularly difficult for infidelity couples. The anniversary of when the betrayed partner learned of the infidelity is particularly painful for him or her and causes regression, as do anniversaries of other dates associated in his or her mind with the betrayal. We talk with the couples about the likelihood of reemergence of pain and conflict around these dates so that both partners can be prepared and not read too much into the regression, and so they can assist each other through these tough times.
Another therapeutic finding is that some betrayed partners will have a harder time putting the infidelity in a different perspective with time. We have found that this often occurs with clients who have had insecure or avoidant attachments. In these cases, it is helpful to discuss with both clients how the individual’s history hampers the ability to trust again. Working with the couple and focusing in the session with the betrayed partner on discussing his or her fears and history is helpful. Sometimes some individual sessions can be useful as well.
Infidelity couples therapy ends either when one or both partners precipitously drops out of the therapy due to one of the Three Deal Breakers, or when due to the hard work they have done with their therapist’s guidance, both partners feel safe with each other, happy together, and renewed in their commitment to their Long-term Love Relationship. Those latter couples succeed through a healing process of putting the infidelity and its shattering, devastating effects securely in the past.
Of course, that does not mean that fears, hurts, disappointments, and regressions won’t still happen at times, but the partners who have truly rebuilt their LTLR in infidelity couples therapy will have the tools and the strength to weather those storms. Never again will they allow those cloud banks to build into a devastating tempest that can lead to infidelity.
When a couple heals and rebuilds their Long-term Love Relationship in this way, it is truly wonderful for the couple that came in to therapy so anguished but leave it so intimate and loving. And it is profoundly satisfying for the therapist.
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