Infidelity in marriages 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 feelings 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 ever have to go through. To add insult to injury, the problems that are painfully unique in dealing with infidelity are often beyond the comfortable level of most couples counselors; most simply 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 all couples entering couples 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 have to discuss infidelity at all! It is therefore critical that a couple finds a therapist equipped to handle and understand the raw and messy dynamics that come with stepping outside the marriage. At that moment that the affair has been exposed and the couple has decided to get therapy, a tremendous amount of emotion, truth, and work can be processed through, and sometimes very quickly. The therapist does, however, have to have the experience to take advantage of these critical moments in treatment.
Where Therapists Go Wrong When Treating Infidelity in Marriages
As previously stated, infidelity in marriages is the subject therapists feel least equipped to handle. One layer to this discomfort is the incredibly intense, emotionally charged feelings that predominate the sessions, which often include intense rage, pain, love, lust, and jealousy. From a psychodynamic perspective, the reason that the damage is often so long-lasting and devastating is that infidelity creates an “attachment injury” to the relationship, 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 they are living in a waking nightmare, feeling that everything reminds them of the affair and that they will never emotionally recover. The intensity of these emotions often overwhelms 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 in marriages takes place, the therapist’s feelings sometimes get in the way. Sometimes, the therapist is insufficiently self-aware and struggling with issues of countertransference. The term countertransference refers to a feeling, whether negative or positive, that the therapist experiences toward the client during the therapeutic relationship. If the counselor is aware of these feelings they can be helpful to the process, but 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 clients, becoming overly reactive or defensive.
Unrecognized countertransference can be deleterious to the therapeutic process and therapist decision-making.
Not All Affairs Are the Same
Although it might be a strange concept, 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. Much of the time, infidelity in marriages has 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.
Examples of Therapeutic Errors or Inexperience
The following are the most common mistakes made by couples counselors in working with couples dealing with infidelity in marriages:
- Colluding with one partner
- Being Judgmental/ Intolerant of the Unfaithful Client
- Avoiding Uncomfortable/Intense/Painful feelings in Session
- Allowing therapist’s own feelings (countertransference) about trust, cheating, and attachment to affect the treatment
- Provide quick simple solutions without really understanding the complexity of the couple’s unique situation
- Talking only about the affair rather than looking at underlying dynamics
Couples Counseling Can Help Couples Heal from Infidelity in Marriages
Despite how serious an issue infidelity in marriages is, with the help of a skilled practitioner, couples can heal from infidelity. When both partners are engaged in treatment and open to the therapeutic process after an affair, the process is generally successful, helping couples overcome the tragedy of infidelity.
If you are dealing with 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 or schedule an appointment on her website.