Infidelity, Affairs, and Broken Hearts

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I presented a training webinar to therapists across cyberspace last Friday (my birthday, if you keep track of such things). The title was Infidelity: After An Affair, Who Owns the Relationship?

I offered some ideas that are contrary to much conventional wisdom in the therapy field. Here are some notes from the presentation.

~ Common clinical assumptions about infidelity

Many therapists believe that monogamy is the gold standard of relationships. They see it as a reasonable, “normal” goal for adults; and consider people who dislike it, don’t want it, or have trouble with it immature. This is terribly unfair to the tens of millions of adults we pathologize in the face of overwhelming evidence of monogamy’s difficulty.

Many therapists also believe that healthy sexual desire is driven by love—despite the extremely common experience that in long-term relationships, as love deepens, desire declines. We perpetuate the myth that lack or loss of desire is a “problem” that can be explained and fixed—despite our extremely low success rate with this issue.

Thus, the therapy field takes human dilemmas, problematizes them, and then claims they can be fixed with the right amount of therapy and patient sincerity.

~ Remember, monogamy is a radical new idea

Most Americans know and care little for history, and therapists are no exception. When we assume that monogamy is “normal” for healthy people, we ignore the fact that long-term monogamy is a radical experiment—which has never been tried on the mass level that American culture takes for granted.

Sexual exclusivity is a tremendously complex undertaking in a society where both partners live and work in mixed gender worlds; where sexual satisfaction is promoted as crucial to happiness, and supposedly available to everyone; where virtually everyone is taught to feel ashamed of their bodies and sexual impulses; and where “long-term” relationships now last fifty years rather than the 10 or 20 of a century ago.

For this daunting project, almost no American is sufficiently prepared.

~ After infidelity, the Betrayed doesn’t own the relationship

Neither patients nor therapists like to hear this, but even while people are in pain, they are responsible for how they express themselves (which, by the way, is what we tell our kids on the playground).

So, for example, even if your spouse has broken your heart, you don’t suddenly acquire the right to destroy their reputation with their family, friends, boss—and most importantly, with their (that is, your) children.

Similarly, the Betrayed doesn’t suddenly get to tell the Betrayer where he or she can sleep, or when/if he or she can see the children. The Betrayed doesn’t suddenly get the right to sleep with their spouse’s best friend (or worst enemy), buy a Mercedes, or harass the person their spouse had an affair with.

In short, while the Betrayed has absolutely no responsibility for the Betrayer’s behavior, the Betrayed has full responsibility for how he or she responds to it—and trashing one’s dignified adult values to gratify feelings of anguish or rage will almost always have consequences that the Betrayed doesn’t want.

~ How do I know you won’t do it again?

Everyone considering reconciling with a mate who has had an affair eventually asks the same question: Why should I trust you—how do I know you won’t do it again?

Here’s a very common answer that should be unacceptable: I’ll try harder.

First, a person who has promised sexual exclusivity should have been “trying” to maintain their agreement all along. Second, people need emotional skills in order to say no to themselves—whether about food, shopping, sex, wasting time, or anything else. And third, the next “temptation” may look quite different than the last one.

The best answer to why the Betrayed might want to eventually trust the Betrayer is if the Betrayer does the internal work to (1) understand why they were willing to break their commitment, (2) outlines the process by which they intend to acquire new emotional skills to help them through complicated situations; and (3) enthusiastically create and maintain open communication with their mate.

Yes, that’s a high standard to meet.

Attention to the couple’s sex life is usually a good idea, too. If a couple is going to reconcile, do they want to resume the exact sex life they had before the infidelity was disclosed/discovered, or do they want something different?

~ Monitoring the Betrayer may feel good, but it prevents development of trust

Many Betrayed people demand the Betrayer’s digital keys: e-mail passwords, GPS settings, texting records, etc.. Most therapists support such demands, and many Betrayers are eager to cooperate.

I generally discourage this. While the Betrayed typically says this information will help them regain trust, I think it prevents the development of trust. After all, trust is belief without data. When the Betrayed can collect data whenever they want, they have no reason to develop the admittedly difficult skills of trust.

Both supplying and collecting this information undermines the dignity of both partners, which just adds more emotional churn to an already overheated situation.

~ Don’t acquiesce to another contract of monogamy

For all its well-documented difficulties, monogamy is still the default setting in committed heterosexual relationships. As a result, there is usually little or no conversation after infidelity about the exact sexual configuration a couple will endorse moving forward. Particularly when the Betrayer is desperate to keep the relationship together, he or she will agree to practically anything, whether explicitly said or just assumed.

This includes acquiescing to a contract of sexual exclusivity. I’m not against such agreements, of course, as long as they are done thoughtfully. For many couples, the future sexual arrangement is the most radioactive topic of the entire infidelity experience.

We should discourage our patients from assuming future monogamy too soon. But when couples appear to be reconciling, no one—least of all the therapist—wants to throw a wrench into the works. At that point, everyone wants to wrap up the case in a neat package.

We therapists should be willing to be the grownup in the room, gently encouraging the couple to look at exactly what they’d rather avoid. That’s why the existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom good-naturedly calls himself Love’s Executioner.

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