How Couples Counselling Deals With Affairs
As part of the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) requirements for Continuous Professional Development, I recently attended a training course on Affairs and their impact on the couple relationship. It was a fascinating course with therapists from different cultures, training and moral values. Affairs are always a controversial subject, often touching both therapists and clients deeply and on a personal level.
A quarter of couples coming for relationship counselling present an extramarital affair as their reason for seeking counselling. A further 30 per cent of couples disclose the existence of affairs in the course of therapy. These numbers only reflect the prevalence of affairs for couples seeking counselling but there are obviously many more couples not seeking counselling who have been, are or will be, impacted by them.
So how do therapists work with couples affected by the disclosure of infidelity, be it with a real person, virtual or through the use of pornography? First it is essential to understand that such disclosures are often experienced as cataclysmic for the unsuspecting partner. The symptoms experienced by the 'betrayed' partner are often likened to the ones experienced by people affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
While working with trauma is an essential part of the work that needs to be done when dealing with affairs, based on my clinical experience, I don't believe that it should constitute the only focus of therapy. The couple and therapist should take this opportunity to develop a full picture of the reasons for the affair taking into account the contextual and cultural factors. I generally find it helpful to 'normalise' the situation and all the intense thoughts and feelings experienced by the couple, and so reassure them. We then do a lot of work exploring the motives and the circumstances leading up to the affair.
Controversially, monogamy is often assumed to be the ideal but in fact it may not be essential in certain cultures nor for certain individuals. I guess this has been recently illustrated in the differences in the French/British press coverage of the adventures of Mr Hollande and his various partners…
Therapists also have to be careful about not taking sides, even through the language used to explore what has happened. Indeed, words such as 'immoral' and 'abnormal' can do more harm than good to a couple trying to save their relationship. I strongly subscribe to the idea that therapists need to present a balanced view of each partner's difficulties and perspectives and not only focus on the basic 'Victim' and 'Perpetrator' concept. However, for this approach to be successful a pre-requisite should be for the affair partner to take full responsibility for his/her actions.
There is always a lot of debate about the need to request from the straying partner absolute transparency and truth-telling as these can further increase the trauma that therapy is aiming to address. My clinical experience is that the cheated-on partner often is desperate for the full truth. Hours are being spent picturing every minute detail of what might have happened. Cheated-on partners often believe they are still being lied to and until they 'know' they have been told everything, they cannot move on. This often results in periods where the couple feel they are reconnecting and making progress, followed by a 'relapse' from the cheated-on partner despairing and doubting once again their partner. This 'back and forth' is exhausting and takes time and commitment to work through.
Couples need to say goodbye to what they thought their relationship was about and embrace their new reality, sometimes improved but always different. Ultimately the affair needs to 'make some kind of sense' to the cheated-on partner to allow him or her to move on.
Click here to access the welldoing therapists and counsellors