Understanding Infidelity

Why You Need a Couples Counselor Who Really Understands and Treats Infidelity

Infidelity is one of the most devastating events that can happen to a relationship, usually with serious and painful consequences for both partners. It brings up devastating feelings of betrayal that are often so overwhelming and intense, felt on both a physical and emotional level, that many describe it as the most difficult experience they have ever gone through.  The problems that are painfully unique in dealing with infidelity are often beyond the comfort level and experience of most couples counselors: Most therapists do not know how to avoid the obstacles and difficulties that come with such a volatile and emotionally raw clinical situation.

This is especially unfortunate considering that 25% of couples entering counseling state that infidelity is their primary presenting problem, and an additional 30% reveal that there has been cheating at some point in the relationship.   Worse still, counselors and therapists report that infidelity is the subject that they are the least prepared to encounter, with many stating that they would prefer not to discuss infidelity at all!  It is therefore absolutely critical that a couple finds a therapist equipped to handle and understand the raw dynamics that come with stepping outside the marriage.  At the moment the affair has been exposed and a couple has decided to seek therapy, a tremendous amount of emotion, truth, and work must be processed, and sometimes very quickly.  The therapist needs the experience to know how to take advantage of these critical moments in treatment.

Where Therapists Go Wrong

Infidelity is the area therapists feel least equipped to handle in session. One layer to this discomfort is the incredibly intense, emotionally charged feelings caused by infidelity, which often include intense rage, pain, love, lust, and jealousy.  From a psychodynamic perspective, the reason the damage is often so long lasting and devastating is the “attachment injury”, which threatens the relationship as well as each partner’s sense of self within that relationship.   The “injured” partner very often feels an intense, almost overwhelming menagerie of grief, anger, and fear that the attachment will end.  There are often PTSD-type feelings, in that the injured partner is living in a walking nightmare. Everything reminds them of the affair, and they feel like they will never emotionally recover.  The intensity of these emotions often overwhelm many therapists who either become flooded, or jump too easily to banal solutions that are not helpful.

Countertransference:
When The Therapist’s Feelings Get in the Way

When infidelity is involved, the therapist’s feelings can get in the way. The therapist is often insufficiently self-aware and struggles with issues of countertransference.  The term countertransference refers to a feeling, whether negative or positive, that the therapist experiences toward the patient during the therapeutic relationship.  If the counselor is aware of these feelings, they can be helpful to the process; however, if the therapist is unconscious of these feelings, then the countertransference can be destructive.  When it comes to infidelity, many therapists are vulnerable to the influence of their own unresolved feelings, and usually over-identify with the betrayed partner, and become overly reactive or defensive.  Unrecognized countertransference can be deleterious to the therapeutic process and therapist decision-making.

Not All Affairs Are the Same

Not all affairs are the same to all couples.  It might mean the end for some couples, yet the chance to begin to look at their relationship and begin communicating for others.  Sometimes someone begins an affair to avoid closeness with one’s spouse, sometimes one has an affair simply to end the relationship. Most affairs have little to do with sex; rather, the affair is acting out either a problem within the relationship or an internal conflict.  Many counselors treat the affair as the sole issue, and then conceptualize all affairs the same way.    Of course, the pain of the affair needs to be processed; but if the counselor only allows that single issue to be discussed, then it is difficult to understand the underlying dynamics of the relationship, and then grow from the therapeutic experience.

If the therapist is afraid of the emotional intensity that almost always goes along with infidelity and then treats all affairs the same, the treatment will reach an impasse; the therapist will not listening with sufficient empathic attunement and the therapy will be shallow and ineffective; the deeper interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics will go unexplored, there will not be the corrective experience that the couple needs.

The follow are a the most common mistakes made by couples counselors in working with couples dealing with infidelity:

  • Siding with one partner
  • Being Judgmental/ Intolerant of the Unfaithful Partner
  • Avoiding Uncomfortable/Intense/Painful feelings in Session
  • Allowing the therapist’s own feelings (countertransference) about trust, cheating, and attachment to affect the treatment
  • Trying to Provide quick, simple solutions without really understanding the complexity of the couple’s unique situation
  • Talking only about the affair rather than looking at the underlying dynamics

After the Affair - It Takes Time!

A skilled practitioner can help with the healing process after an affair.   When both partners are engaged in treatment and open to the therapeutic process, the process is most successful, and helps couples overcome the devastation of infidelity.

If you are dealing with cheating or infidelity in the Newport Beach, Irvine, or Orange County area, and are interested in couples counseling  using a psychodynamic perspective, please call Jennifer De Francisco, LCSW at (949) 251-8797.

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If you are interested in Premarital, Couples, or Individual Counseling in the Newport Beach, Irvine, or the Orange County area, please call Jennifer De Francisco at  (949) 251-8797.

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