Unravelling the Complexity Behind Affairs in the Counselling Room

Dr Philip Harris-Worthington

Welcome to this month’s blog spot where Couples Therapist Philip Harris-Worthington shares a piece of research which has aided his therapeutic practice and reflects on the complexity of infidelity in romantic relationships.

I wanted to share an example of a piece of research which has aided my own therapeutic practice. The focus here is on couple therapy and in particular working with an affair and it comes from a research paper entitled Treating Couples Recovering from Infidelity:  An Integrative Approach. It shows how couples can be helped by looking at the cognitive, behavioural and emotional aspects of an affair (a three-stage model).  Infidelity is a difficult issue to work with initially (particularly when it’s still raw) because it arises from the trauma involved and the ‘emotional turmoil’ and ‘cognitive upheaval’ surrounding beliefs held about the primary relationship: issues of trust and security, predictability and self-protection all of which seriously impact upon a couples’ interactions and interrelationship. But it is possible to work through this over time and an integrative approach can help couples recover.

Stage one of the process might be dubbed the ‘impact stage’ where the injured partner is trying to comprehend the event whilst at the same time dealing with an ‘overwhelming array of emotions’ including feelings of loss. The second stage concentrates on trying to explain the traumatic event experienced by the couple and begins to locate contributory factors and connections in order to gain a greater understanding of the way each individual comes to function or respond in their different ways. The third stage concerns moving beyond the affair and it is only during this stage that the couple can benefit from a more ‘direct discussion of forgiveness’ although this should not be confused with either full reconciliation or a disappearance of anger.

Let’s consider Nancy and Nick (a fictitious couple) as a case illustration. Nancy’s affair and the consequent couple therapy conducted can help us appreciate how the stages work in practice. Nancy and Nick’s marriage was ‘vulnerable to an affair’ with stressors in their relationship. Equally, their differing coping strategies and communication styles could be said to have ‘created distance and resentment, instead of increased intimacy’. In addition Nick has a tendency to deal with difficulties by retreating or withdrawing from them and this sense of abandonment exacerbated Nancy’s ‘self-view as unattractive and inadequate’ which made her vulnerable to others’ flirtatious attentions, a pattern of behaviour which had been strongly reinforced in her past.

Stage one, then, explores the current ‘explosive interactions’ based around the fear of ‘opening up painful information’. The early couple or conjoint sessions focus on treatment phases, assessment and help with boundary setting and conflict containment as well as working on emotional expressiveness skills. This is then followed by individual sessions as preparation for later phases of therapy as these one-to-one sessions provide a ‘safe place’ for each person to talk about their concerns, anxieties and feelings with a

view to sharing these in the conjoint sessions. For instance, in subsequent couple sessions, Nick’s suppression of emotion and Nancy’s ‘longstanding anger’ was able to surface and be explored. Here, Nick was encouraged to reveal his feelings of isolation and inadequacy, stemming initially from his adolescence, feelings flooding back in response to Nancy’s affair. Although Nancy found this difficult to hear it initiated a new compassion for Nick and her relationship in readiness for the next stage.

The second stage concentrates on factors which contributed to the infidelity in the first place with the difficulty at this stage concerning the ‘assignment of responsibility for the affair’. This is almost always a problem for the injured partner, who feels ‘wronged by the participating partner and thus sometimes has [understandable] difficulty seeing his or her own role in the context of the affair without feeling blamed for its occurrence’.

So this stage involves more active processes such as utilizing ‘choice points’, an exploration of individual responses (in the couple context) to stressors to highlight where certain choices exacerbated the problem rather than minimized the stress factor. Learning to choose reflectively as well as making connections between these choices together with why we do what we do and act as we do (often influenced by our family experiences) adds to a greater understanding of ourselves and how we come to function as a couple. This heightened awareness enabled Nancy to understand the ‘connection between her mother’s affairs and her own pattern of turning to other men for validation and reinforcement when she felt insecure and unloved. She realized that her tendency to withdraw from conflict rather than express her feelings directly came from watching her parents’ conflicts’ which subsequently came to play a role in her own marital difficulties. At the same time this provided Nick with an explanation of why Nancy did not tell him of her unhappiness choosing to have an affair instead. Equally, Nancy could better appreciate Nick’s actions by gaining an understanding of the context of his family-of-origin and his sense of alienation as an adolescent. All this aided the couple to begin to work out different relationship patterns by putting new skills and behaviours into action as well as documenting a ‘thorough narrative of their relationship’ which included the lead-up to the affair.

Stage three is then able to focus on areas where the couple can talk more openly with one another (as a way of being), make improvements to prevent a reoccurrence by scrutinizing, and working on, their own behavioural patterns and reaching joint ways of working and understanding including the possibility of mapping out future goals.

Successful therapy of this type is dependent on a number of factors. The clients have to start with a strong emotional bond (rather than what we might call a split agenda) and the therapist needs to gain trust from each individual early on and develop a robust therapeutic alliance. Of major importance is the ‘therapist’s careful stance of nonjudgment and acceptance of both partners’. Here,  the therapist is not ‘excusing’ the participating partner but rather working through the difficult balance of understanding and blame which needs to be addressed directly in the work. With these stages played out over the sessions, a couple is much more likely to function very differently towards the end of therapy armed with renewed insight.

If your relationship has been affected by an affair and you would both like to meet with Philip or another of our couple’s therapists please contact us for further information.

Article by Philip Harris-Worthington, Associate Therapist working with couples and individuals at RHCP

With acknowledgement to: Gordon, K. C., Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., (2005), ‘Treating Couples Recovering from Infidelity: An Integrative Approach’, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61, 11, 1393-1405.

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