12. Context for Infidelity - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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12. Context for Infidelity

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > SorryNotEnough- Infidelity-Cpl

Sorry is not Enough, Infidelity and Betrayal in Couples and Couple Therapy
by Ronald Mah

When the partner’s behavior seems relatively positive, expected, and not particularly about or directed at the individual, the individual tends to quickly unconsciously or semi-consciously benignly interpret it.  That is, up until the shock of uncovering infidelity, the offended partner thought the unfaithful partner’s behavior pretty much just fine or no real problem.  “However, when the spouse’s behavior does not meet these criteria, as in the case of infidelity, the partner will engage in controlled or conscious cognitive processing by making a mindful attribution for this behavior and will then respond accordingly.  Applying this framework to infidelity, the victim will likely make attributions for his or her partner’s unfaithful behavior, and the nature of these attributions will influence his or her behavioral response to the infidelity” (Hall and Fincham, 2006, page 509).  If the offended partner “makes internal, global, and stable attributions for the infidelity” such as the unfaithful partner did it out of deception and cruelty, is congenitally untrustworthy, and unable to change, then he or she is more likely to respond negatively.  This could mean ending the relationship and/or taking some aggressive or purposely vindictive hurtful action.  “In contrast, external, specific, and unstable attributions… might be more likely to lead to reconciliation” (page 510).  If the offended partner attributes the infidelity to the unfaithful partner having been in an unusual untenable situation unlikely to be duplicated- for example, intoxicated alone with a sexually aggressive person, the unfaithful partner is held in a different light.  “In summary, the former, conflict–promoting attributions for infidelity seem more conducive to relationship-destructive behaviors such as breakup, whereas the latter more benign attributions might lead to relationship-constructive behaviors such as reconciliation.”

The offended partner may ponder different attributions about the unfaithful partner and his or her infidelity.  One way this happens is when the offended partner obsesses about the details of the affair.  He or she needs to know why the unfaithful partner transgressed.  The unfaithful partner may resist trying to explain why and claim that the affair was a mistake that would not be repeated.  The therapist should remind the unfaithful partner that before committing infidelity that he or she already knew it would be a mistake and it did not stop him or her.  That explanation is often insufficient for the offended partner to simply accept, forgive, and move forward.  The offended partner who accepts such a non-answer or non-explanation would do so probably because he or she is desperate to keep the partners together at almost any cost.  If the partners do not figure out why the unfaithful partner had an affair, then they cannot possibly problem-solve any vulnerability or issues that may precipitate more infidelity.  The unfaithful partner can commit to try harder which essentially means doing again with greater intensity and frequency what has already failed previously to maintain fidelity.  Forgiveness or acceptance comes out of understanding- that is, a change in the understanding of the relationship and the reasons for choices and behavior including for the infidelity.  Reconceptualizing why the unfaithful partner betrayed the monogamous agreement and what infidelity is all about is necessary for forgiveness or acceptance. “…most theories of forgiveness are fairly consistent in their definitions of the end state of forgiveness, indicating three common elements: (1) gaining a more balanced view of the offender and the event; (2) decreasing negative affect toward the offender, potentially along with increased compassion; and (3) giving up the right to punish the offender further” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 377).

Common beliefs that are also common excuses/reasons given for infidelity often fail to satisfy the offended partner’s question of why the affair happened.  The unfaithful partner may claim that sex outside the relationship is for the excitement, novelty, and out of curiosity.  Besides the belief that outside sex helps the quality of the relationship, infidelity may be rationalized that it “can revive a dull marriage, are a normal part of marriage, mean that the love is gone from the marriage and that divorce is imminent, or indicate that the lover is sexier or better looking than the marital partner” (Atwood and Seifer, 1997, page 59).  Sexually based explanations for infidelity include: “disagreements over the frequency of intercourse, over nudity, over techniques and coital positions, or over sexual fatigue due to career and failure to engage in sex because of household and child care responsibilities.”  The cup-of-coffee syndrome proposes that affairs “often result from attractions that are initially quite innocent and asexual.  They may begin with the cup of coffee: Two persons, each married to someone else, begin to relax over a cup of coffee, whether at work or someplace else, and soon develop the ‘habit’ of meeting regularly and sharing more and more details of their lives and feelings, and they develop a dependence on these coffee talks.  Finally, ‘magical sex’ enters as the next level of involvement” (Atwood and Seifer, 1997, page 59).  The final claim is that the sexual affair occurred as a result of a natural, unexpected, and unplanned progress between two otherwise faithful people. “It just happened.”

Such explanations seldom satisfy the offended partner’s need to understand how monogamous commitment came to being betrayed.  These explanations also do not hold up to therapeutic scrutiny when examined from various theoretical orientations.  If the affair had significant emotional intimacy, an honest explanation although necessary to serve transparency needed for recovery and healing is also likely to trigger intense rage and pain.  Emotional intimacy with another constitutes a most fundamental relationship betrayal of emotional exclusivity between the partners.  The unfaithful partner may claim experiencing an emotional vacuum with the other partner that contributed to or lead him or her to seek or find emotional nurturance outside the committed relationship.  “There is an attraction in the affair, and I try to understand what it is.  Part of it is the romantic projection:  I like the way I look when I see myself in the other person’s eyes.  There is positive mirroring.  An affair holds up a vanity mirror, the kind with all the little bulbs around it; it gives a rosy glow to the way you see yourself.  By contrast, the marriage offers a makeup mirror; it magnifies every little flaw” (Glass, 1998, page 42).  The need for and practice of validation from each other requires examination.  Knowing each other, including the flaws and still staying attached and committed is and was a key challenge to the relationship.  The partners need to consider how they knew and experienced each other as initial attraction and fantasy encountered reality over the course of their interactions.  Therapy must examine the history and dynamics of the relationship from early times to the current time, but especially the period prior to and leading up to infidelity to understand how intimacy evolved and deteriorated.  Intimacy changes and shifts in the relationship may have exacerbated individual issues that led to greater vulnerability to emotional offers elsewhere.

Partners often need to gain insight about how the affair, current, and past relationship issues may be related to each person’s developmental experiences.  Their previous relationships, in particular attachment relationships with intimate person starting with their parents often have significant impact on their affective components and how they deal with gratifying or dealing with feeling needs such as anxiety, hurt, loss, depression, and other emotions.  Specifically, the therapist helps the partners look for patterns for how each person deals with confrontation or conflict with important intimates.  Successful and problematic coping styles from the family-of-origin and social or cultural models, including those determined by gender are considered for their impact on the couple’s relationship and connection.  “Hence, insight-oriented strategies in couple therapy offer the potential of helping partners gain a better understanding of both their own and each other's developmental histories, the role that their respective pasts have played throughout their marriage, and how individual and relationship dynamics influenced by their pasts may have served as potential risk factors contributing to the participating partner's extramarital affair” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 377).

If the partners see how each person developed his or her respective fears, anxieties, loss, neediness, and so forth, they are more likely to feel empathy for the other’s internal vulnerabilities rather than rejecting them along with the problematic behavior.  Cathy knew that Aidan was deeply invested in the foundation.  However, Aidan’s emotional and psychological depth and intertwined self-definition and identity with the foundation, was greater than even what he was aware of.  Aidan had been involved with his foundation long enough to go through a generational shift from his mother’s time, been the mover of his generation, and now was facing stress from the “young lions and lionesses” of the latest generation.  Aidan had bided his time and paid his dues even though he was the “hereditary” designate from early on.  There was not anyone in the family that wanted to take over the foundation.  Aidan saw himself being steeped in the culture of the foundation and its origins.  There was not anyone who understood the foundation the way he did, but several managers were pushing for modernizing against his direction.  A couple of them were quite outspoken in a negative fashion, but did not offer any affirmative leadership or vision.  They told him and everyone else what was wrong, but did not offer any solutions.  One manager in particular had a problematic sense of entitlement with his inflated sense of self, Ivy League pedigree, and because his aunt was on the board of directors.

Aidan was actually ready to move on.  There were other career goals that he wished to explore.  He had done his time for the foundation.  However he felt could not leave the foundation without a visionary successor who also would maintain its original mission.  Not unlike many leaders, the community identified Aidan and the foundation as one and the same. Aidan consciously resisted this, but still could not see leaving so many years of his life to be potentially undone by an undeserving successor.  Aidan felt he really could not resign since the individual most likely to aggressively seek the CEO role was the problematic manager.  Aidan feared the potential successor would use the foundation for his own egotistical ambitions and destroy all that had been accomplished over the decades of work by Aidan and Aidan’s family.  Therapy revealed to Aidan and Cathy, his fears and anxieties about having his legacy corrupted.  Cathy knew of his devotion to the foundation, but also was aware of his desire to move on.  He had presented moving forward with his typical compartmentalization as a logical career progression without the emotional turmoil he felt.  Cathy had understood his logic about moving on and of finding a successor, but had not known of the challenges to his identity and potential loss.

Aidan having an affair was never acceptable for Cathy.  However, Cathy resonated emotionally with the revelation of Aidan’s psychic turmoil from uncertainties around the foundation.  Intellectually, she could accept the foundation’s relationship to increasing his vulnerability to infidelity.  Compassion for emotional and psychological turmoil that contributed to his committing infidelity may be able to co-exist with continued intolerance for unfaithful behavior.  “Furthermore, …as this increased understanding and insight occur, it is placed within a cognitive-behavioral framework of developing a well-balanced set of attributions and resulting narrative for the event, along with a focus on what changes are needed in the relationship for the future.  Thus, an effective couple intervention for extramarital affairs might draw upon cognitive-behavioral interventions integrated with insight-oriented approaches to provide a treatment strategy that balances the past, present, and future with an increased emphasis on affect and developmental factors” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 378).

Couple therapy or “treatment focuses on helping the couple explore and understand the context of the affair; that is, developing a realistic, well formulated set of attributions for the infidelity.  This is a crucial part of the therapy and typically occupies the greatest amount of time” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 381).  Understanding the factors and influences that created the environment and circumstances for infidelity helps the partners decide whether the relationship is worth sustaining, what changes are necessary, or if they need to move on by terminating the relationship.  Daines (2006, page 51) suggested some conceptual formulations of infidelity related to the original couple in terms of three of the main therapy perspectives used to treat sexual and relationship problems – cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic and systems.


Deficient communication or cognitive distortions about what is acceptable to the partner (Epstein & Schlesinger, 1991)

Influence of parental style and repeating learned patterns from peers (Trower & Dryden, 1991)

Lack of role models and opportunities to learn alternatives


Expression of anger, or underlying hostility to partner

Reaction to early betrayal (Mattinson, 1993)

Reaction to partner reminding person of over intrusive and controlling parent from whom it became necessary to develop a secret rebellious life

Need to recreate the excitement of the oedipal situation by creating an oedipal constellation in their sexual relationships (Fisher, 1993)

Expression of narcissistic needs not met in current relationship (Colman, 1993)


Regulation of intimacy needs (Byng-Hall, 1980)

Means of dealing with inequalities of power (Rampage, 1994)

Co-option of third party to bring stability to partnership

A lever to review commitment to each other (Crowe & Ridley, 1990)

Based on his or her theoretical orientation, the therapist may approach couple therapy based on one of these or another conceptualization of infidelity.  The therapist should take care not to impose his or her perception on the couple, but consider the infidelity based on a careful assessment of the partners’ feelings, thoughts, and experiences.  The affair may reflect substantially to marginally a formulation based on some theory or the therapist’s prejudgment.  The partners would have a default interpretation of their behavior, including especially of the affair.  An essential part of therapy is to identify their interpretation and determine its relevance to the infidelity and subsequently, to the therapeutic process and process for recovery and healing.  Infidelity is assumed to mean among other things that the unfaithful partner no longer loves the other partner, is morally deficient, has always been a cheater but had hidden it, has suddenly and illogically changed for no apparent reason, or the offended partner is no longer lovable, or attractive or worthy, has failed to attend to or please the unfaithful partner emotionally and/or sexually, or is disinterested or disconnected.  Rather than being stuck with the destructive conclusions based on these assumed attributions, therapy prompts alternative explanations.

“Once the couple accepts that there are several different ways of looking at and observing ‘reality,’ and that their meaning systems are socially constructed through interactions with others, it becomes possible to de­construct them” (Atwood and Seifer, 1997, page 69).  Deconstruction often finds false assumptions and nuanced interpretations that change both partners’ ‘reality’ in ways that each can have more power and control over.  When “couple's meaning systems are uncovered, competing meaning systems become obvious.  It is not apparent to most people that there are alternative ways of behaving at each stage of the life cycle.  Our meaning systems make areas outside the dominant ones appear invisible.  This invisibility serves to maintain and foster adherence to the dominant definitions.  In fact, the function of socialization and of the sanctions against moving outside the dominant scripts is to keep individuals within it.”  The therapist suggests realistic behavior rather than illusionary choices, which facilitates more functional alternative meanings that lead to interactions that better express and meet mutual needs.

Therapy explores various aspects of the relationship including how they communicate with each other and the quantity and quality of time the partners spend together.  The partners work on understanding how stresses or influences from outside the household such as work, money problems, extended family or in-law demands, or social considerations have affected their dynamics.  These issues may have further complicated each partner’s expectations about the ideal relationship, as well as trigger attachment anxieties or trauma wounds from the developmental past.  Infidelity or the affair can be seen from the perspective of relationship problems.  It may be from emotional distance between the partners from being polarized, desire for more attention from a preoccupied partner, or a way to rekindle or find passion where sexual quality has deteriorated.  Not to be seen as excuses, these rather are problems that the partners can work on.  Identifying ineffective dynamics and negative behaviors can mitigate shame and counter blaming instincts.  The choices however problematic and unacceptable per their committed relationship make emotional and psychological sense.  “This viewpoint is more likely to lead to increased understanding, closeness, and ultimately change, than simply condemning the affair and its perpetrator” (Martel and Prince, 2005, page 1432).

“It is probable that individuals who developed hypersexual behavior had preexisting conditions predisposing them to such behavior, possibly long before the initiation of their couple relationship.  It is conceivable that couples impacted by hypersexual behavior may have been affected from the onset of the relationship.  If individuals had preexisting issues with hypersexual behavior or were predisposed to such activities, they may have sought insecure or ambivalent attachments because of comorbid issues (e.g., anxiety, loneliness, maladaptive shame, depression) related to their own mental health.  In some cases, these traits may have influenced the hypersexual individuals to select partners who would interact with them in ways that would not require them to engage in emotionally threatening ways (e.g., being emotionally vulnerable).  Subsequently, a relational dynamic might have been created that fostered a climate in which the trajectory of hypersexual behavior was easily perpetuated” (Reid and Woolley, 2006, page 224).  Therapy challenges the idea that the offended partner coupled with the unfaithful partner based entirely on characteristics unrelated to the infidelity.   The offended partner therefore was not unexpectedly ambushed.  This may run counter to being seen as the innocent victim.  The ying and the yang of the pairing may have been ordained and infidelity or some other dysfunctional behaviors was at least somewhat predictable if not inevitable.

The most sensational and difficult issues to uncover are those from the offended partner’s formative experiences that may have affected interpersonal skills and relationship dynamics.  “Therapists may be inclined to marginalize the pain of the individual who has engaged in hypersexual behavior and privilege the issues and concerns of the non-offending partner.  However, this ignores the underlying issues that might have precipitated the sexual activities.  Addressing the trauma of both partners is a delicate balancing act for the therapist that will need to be well orchestrated if the couple’s relationship is to heal” (Reid and Woolley, 2006, page 221).  The offended partner may construe this line of inquiry as blaming him or her for the other partner’s infidelity.  The unfaithful partner may think that such issues may absolve him or her of responsibility for the affair.  The offended partner must not be blamed for the affair.  The therapist needs to make the partners understand a key distinction between how one or both partners contribute to the “context of the affair versus responsibility for engaging in the affair.  In this treatment, participating partners are always held responsible for their choices to have the affair, but it is important to understand the context within which they made that decision” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 282).  Working through both partners’ contributions to the affair can be extremely difficult and take considerable therapy time.  Out of the difficulty and negative outcomes or lack of sufficient positive results, the partners will decide to continue to work on recovery and healing the relationship or to give it up.

“The moral impact of infidelity or an affair on the partner will also be a function of the degree of violation of the moral integrity of other aspects of the relationship.  Examples of this might be the degree to which the partner has been overtly lied to as part of the process of concealing an affair, the amount of time given to the other person at the partner’s expense, or the amount of money spent on the other person.  Another dimension is to be found in the identity of the third person.  If an affair has been with the best friend or sibling of the partner, especially if they have lied and deceived, then the moral outrage is likely to be greater than if it is with a work colleague that the partner has never met”(Daines, 2006, page 51).  When the affair partner is someone within the family or social community of the couple, the experience of betrayal is often amplified exponentially.  Breaching their monogamous agreement is the first betrayal, but having an affair with someone they know and already have a personal relationship with betrays another rule.  Infidelity involving a stranger outside the realm of home and community is bad enough, but the shame and humiliation of involving someone close is worse.  Certain cultural standards are more forgiving and even accepting of affairs with someone else as long as there is some compartmentalization: with a stranger to the offended partner, in another city, while traveling, paid sex, and so forth.

The affair partner (for example, Tina) who knows the offended partner (Cathy) in some intimate friendship or family role knowingly betrays the relationship.  As much as the committed partner knows better, the friend or family member also knows the affair is morally illicit a second time over.  Aidan and Tina both knew how convoluted their affair made the relationships among the four individuals that made up the two couples.  Despite knowing both partners, the affair partner gets involved with a married person or person in a committed monogamous relationship.  She becomes the “other woman” or he becomes the “other man.”  Why?  Daines (2006, page 51) offers from cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic and systems perspectives, theoretical formulations of infidelity related for the affair partner.  As stated earlier, examination of what were Tina’s motivations was critical to Aidan and Cathy’s understanding of the affair.  Examining the motivations from the three theoretical orientations mentioned may be useful:


Opportunity for emotional and sexual needs to be met

Avoidance of anxieties about commitment

Influence of parental style and repeating learned patterns from peers (Trower & Dryden, 1991)

Lack of role models and opportunities to learn alternatives


Early experiences lead to the expectation that people always have to be shared with others

Expression of anger, or underlying hostility to consort’s partner

Displaced attack on parent’s relationship, on couple in the oedipal constellation (Fisher, 1993)

Expression of narcissistic destructiveness


Regulation of intimacy needs (Byng-Hall, 1980)

Meeting of sexual and emotional needs without having to offer commitment

Sex with a mutual friend or family member betrays the relationship between the couple and the person who has become the affair partner.  The individual is not simply “our friend” or “your brother who is my brother-in-law” anymore.  Where the partners as a couple had the friend or familial relationship with the other person, now the other person pairs separately as the affair partner with the unfaithful partner against the unsuspecting offended fool of a partner.  From friend or family, the individual has become the sneaky deceptive hiding-in-plain-sight traitor home-wrecker.  In addition, the offended partner and the affair partner shared a friendship or familial relationship that created its own set of expectations, morality, and rules.  Not only does the offended partner often anguish about how his or her partner “could do this to me!?” but also simultaneously anguishes about how the friend or family member also “could do this to me!?”  What is more, there is a third layer of anguish over betrayal about how together “they could do this to me!?”  In addition, since the affair partner may be married or have a committed relationship with someone that everyone knows and considers a friend, the added questions are, “How could they do this to him or her (Tina’s husband, for example)?” and “How could they do this to us (the two unsuspecting spouses: Cathy and Tina’s husband, for example)?”

The offended partner in this situation may demand explanations to these questions.  The therapist can prompt the unfaithful partner to identify and express his or her motivations and reasons for infidelity, including specifically with a close friend or family member.  This can be difficult for the unfaithful partner to process, but is often essential for the offended partner to hear for recovery and healing.  The unfaithful partner can answer for him or herself and his or her participation in the joint betrayal.  He or she can try to explain why “they” could have an affair “at” or “to” the offended partner.  In addition, the unfaithful partner will be challenged to speculate as to why and how the affair partner could betray the friendship or family expectations of the offended partner.   The offended partner may be completely dumbfounded or have superficial and stereotyped attributions to the affair partner’s morality, personality, and choices.  The therapist may need to assist in this speculation about the affair partner’s motivations.  While the speculative therapeutic process may bear some logical conclusions, but almost inevitably will not be completely satisfying to the offended partner.  While validating the offended partner’s need to understand, the therapist may need to assert the limitations of this line of inquiry.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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