14. Old Patterns of Behavior - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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14. Old Patterns of Behavior

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > SorryNotEnough- Infidelity-Cpl

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

The therapist manages the partners’ exchanges to focus them on important developmental experiences that predicted current choices.  The partners may not recognize how their functioning may reflect old family-of-origin models in some dysfunctional pattern.  The unfaithful partner may find that his or her sexual betrayal is not dissimilar to how his or her father emotionally betrayed his wife for example.  The offended partner may recognize for the first time that his or her father’s apparent deference to the mother’s leadership was accompanied by passive-aggressive belittling of her to the children.  Such insights challenges their humiliation that there were no prior models of relationship problems and that the current dysfunctional circumstance is unprecedented in their families.  This type of analyzing their backgrounds may be entirely unfamiliar to them.

Therapy may need to constantly help the partners communicate more clearly.  Verbal and non-verbal communication may be out of sync.  One or both partners may have difficulty communicating their emotions and their needs.  Communication styles may have strong family-of-origin and/or cultural models that habitually withhold true feelings, censor negative communication to the point of the recipient being mystified as to the intentions of the person expressing.  Habitually defensive or aggressive communication patterns may divert attention to anger rather than the content of a message.  Indirect communication styles may need to be translated and/or restructured to some common communication style that both partners can recognize.  Therapy may devote a lot of time to communication skills building as discussed earlier.  The partners may need significant help so that the intention of communication is conveyed clearly and that the listening partner accurate perceives the message as it was intended.  What one or the other partner “really means” is critical to counter and eliminate toxic assumptions.

During couple therapy, the therapist may focus on one partner to help him or her express as clearly as possible.  Since a partner may have limited or poor skills to express inner turmoil, the therapist helps him or her find emotional language to describe such experiences as pain, loss, betrayal, and despair.  This becomes similar to individual therapy where the individual struggles and comes to find and develop ways to articulate his or her experiences.  By finding the words to “tell the story,” the individual comes to understand and accept him or herself… and also to have compassion for him or herself for having lived the story.  Conveying the emotional meanings or story can be particularly difficult for high functioning professionals who are more comfortable with “logical” discourse.  Aidan and Cathy could intellectually dissect just about any set of circumstances or rationally explain themselves.  However, they often did so with language bereft of emotional affect.  On the other end of a communication spectrum, Peter and Winona’s communication was full of intense emotions to the degree that they often were irrational.  Their words seized upon illogical and random content in their attempts to convey intense anger and pain.  Bart tried rationalizing with Helen, but continually was frustrated as her “illogical” but emotionally despairing persona (a communicative device) waylaid him.  Helen expressed pain, despair, and loss but did not connect them logically with her deep attachment insecurity and the functional incompatibility of their marriage.

The therapist often needs to work with one partner at a time to help him or her find words to communicate both logic and emotions in sync.  That often involves deeper meanings from formative developmental experiences that make otherwise nonsensical emotional reactions logical.  When the other partner watches the therapist work with the individual, he or she also can come to understand, accept, and hopefully to have compassion.  The other partner may be prompted to convey his or her experience of the individual finding and expressing the personal story.  With or without the therapist’s guidance, the other partner may find similarities in his or her own story.  Or, the other partner can see how he or she played a familiar role in the individual’s story, relationships, or experiences.  For example, Peter talked about how he was both so devoted to his mother but intimidated that he would displease her.  Winona said she realized that he acts in a similar fashion with her.  He can be so loving and attentive, and then become so scared if she does not effusively appreciate something he has done.  These observations and insights came after the therapist noted that Peter sometimes retreated into a scolded little boy persona when Winona complained about his behavior.  Winona agreed with the therapist’s observation.  She said she did not like Peter responding that way, since she did not want to be the scold and needed Peter to respond as an equal partner.  While discussing how Aidan’s needs seemed to take priority in their dynamics, the therapist noted how much Cathy supported Aidan’s work at the foundation.  This led to investigating early precedents for such behavior by Cathy.  Cathy realized that her devotion and deference to Aidan’s career demands reflected how she stepped up to support her father’s business demands during her childhood.  She was the oldest available sibling to help him, since her brother was to stay focused on his role of getting educated.  Aidan confirmed that Cathy still took leadership among her siblings in caring for her parents now that they were elderly. Throughout their relationship, Cathy stepped up to support him. Cathy expected Aidan’s appreciation, as she had wanted her father’s appreciation.  His affair flipped that need on its ear, by seemingly invalidating her.  This devastated her.  His betrayal tweaked an ancient longing for her for appreciation for her sacrifice.

The therapist should look at stress factors in the relationship.  “…the strongest and most consistent effects were found on relationship (stress) variables, particularly observed communication.  Generally, our findings suggest that couples who go on to experience infidelity show more problematic communication premaritally, such as lower levels of positive interaction and higher levels of negative and invalidating interaction… female invalidation continued to be a risk factor for later male infidelity even after controlling for male invalidation.  Because of the high overlap between partners’ communication behaviors, it may be best to conceptualize risk at a couple level for communication behaviors.  For example, rather than conclude that men who communicate less positively premaritally are more likely to go on to engage in infidelity, it may be better to focus on the notion that couples who have lower levels of positive communication are more at risk for later infidelity.  Similarly, rather than one partner ‘driving’ another to be unfaithful, a context of problematic couple communication may leave an individual more receptive to extramarital relationships” (Allen et al., 2008, page 253).

Allen et al (2008, page 255) have findings that “suggest that positives need to far outweigh negatives.  For example, couples without infidelity evidenced an average of an approximate 4:1 ratio of validating to invalidating behaviors, whereas couples who went on to experience male or female infidelity evidenced a ratio of around 2.4:1.  Based on our data and other research, it also seems prudent to give couples the message that, while there are some personal vulnerabilities that may also increase risk for infidelity, infidelity does occur for those who are relatively well adjusted and who hold belief systems incompatible with infidelity.  In fact, data presented by Atkins et al. (2001) suggest that individual factors such as religiosity may only be protective in the context of a good marital system.  Thus, it is beneficial, and perhaps even protective against infidelity, for all couples to work on maintaining positive and supportive communication with one another.”  Teaching validating behaviors and communications becomes a clear goal of therapy.  However in addition to such instruction, the therapist may need to direct the partners to how they often are replicating family-of-origin communication patterns.  These patterns were hurtful, disrespectful, and dismissive in the family-of-origin and in the couple.  The dynamics are a cause and predictor of stress and infidelity, and simultaneously areas targeted for improvement in the process for recovery and healing from stress and infidelity.  Poor communication skills may both cause and predict emotional distress, psychological disruption, and relationship problems as well reciprocally being negatively impacted by emotional distress, psychological disruption, and relationship problems.  Concurrent anxiety and/or depression may similarly have reciprocal relationships with propensity or vulnerability to infidelity… or partnering with someone with some combination of these issues.

“Huston and Houts (1998) provide evidence for some of the processes underlying deterioration of marital quality over the early years of marriage, including a ‘perpetual problems model’ in which dissatisfactions with the relationship or partner that are evident premaritally continue to operate at later stages of the relationship, and a ‘disillusionment model’ in which early shortcomings are overlooked during courtship but negatively impact the early years of marriage” (Allen et al., 2008, page 254).  Male partners may be more characteristic of the perpetual problems model that evolves eventually into infidelity.  Therapy would need to look at how and why partners dealt with or avoided dealing with long existent annoyances or grievances.  Winona and Peter fit a perpetual problems model with Winona’s issues against and Peter’s resentments being denied female friends from early in their relationship.  They both cited long lists of old resentments and grievances from old and reoccurring issues.  They had always moved on without ever resolving the problems.  As a result, they were highly volatile emotionally and became insulted and enraged easily.  When things got ugly enough, they took tentative steps to deal with crises.  However, as life interrupted and the crises receded in intensity and urgency, they characteristically sucked it up and went on.  Rather than progressing over time, they deteriorated with each succeeding challenge.

Progression in a recovery and healing process would require habitual, determined, and skillful confrontation of existing problems.  The partners need to maintain ongoing vigilance to minimize future negative effects and to prevent them from becoming perpetual stresses that break down intimacy again.  Due to cultural gender values, female partners may be more prone to fit a disillusionment model.  This is when high hopes despite early indications of problems were minimized and increasing dissatisfaction wore down commitment to fidelity making them more vulnerable to outside relationships.  Of course, disillusionment may occur for either partner or any gender.  Bart and Helen’s relationship could fit the disillusionment model.  Bart and the marriage was not what Helen had expected.  However, her helpless persona did not act out the disillusionment with infidelity.  In this couple, Bart acted out disillusionment with infidelity.  Not only was Bart disillusioned with his career path after giving up his aspirations to be in government service, but being the good Catholic boy had also been un-rewarded.  He had married his pregnant girlfriend- doing the right thing; and supported his children financially and provided a nice community, house, and lifestyle- also doing the right thing.  He joined the right country club, donated to the right charities, and made friendships with the movers and shakers at work and in their suburb.

Bart had tried to involve Helen in his interests and cultivate a joint community and cultural life together.  He tried to get excited about Helen’s interests.  Bart tried exotic trips, candlelight dinners, vacations at destination resorts, and romantic presents.  He even broached added some spice to their sexual intimacies, which Helen shot down with passive but clear moral disgust.  For all his trying to be the good Catholic boy, Bart got nothing spiritually rewarding from the marriage.  What a rip off!  He felt deprived, which lead to his sense of entitlement to seek reward in affairs.  Therapy would help the partners identify unrealistic expectations and where they came from.  Bart identified his Catholic moral values despite minimal Catholic religious faith as key to how he became disillusioned.  Prior to therapy, Bart never thought his Catholic background had much impact on his choices and relationship.  Bart’s sudden sarcastic self-reference as “the good Catholic boy” was a revelation to him.  It gave him the awareness necessary to realize how much he circumcised his options throughout his life.  He had assumed the values and the goals, including marriage, family, and children from his Catholic family without examining them for fit with his needs and personality.

The partner needs to identify problematic goals, especially from the past and develop new attainable relationship goals.  “Understanding how past needs and wishes influence an individual’s choices in the present is a critical element to understanding why the individual chose to have an affair or how the injured partner has responded to this event.  Often, the decision to choose an affair as a possible solution to present problems is influenced by strategies that have worked in the past or by developmental needs that were not met in the past.  For example, a woman who was repeatedly rejected sexually in early adolescence and young adulthood, and consequently sees herself as unlovable and undesirable, may be particularly vulnerable to choosing a sexual affair to solve her feelings of rejection and abandonment in her marriage.  Directing both members of the couple to explore these influences helps them gain a deeper understanding of each other's vulnerabilities and may help promote a greater level of empathy and compassion between them” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 382).  In many ways, Peter fit that example.  Peter was socially inept with females throughout his childhood and through high school.  He felt “unlovable and undesirable.”  As a result, he was shocked and delightfully overwhelmed to find himself attractive and a desired sexual partner in his young adulthood.  He admitted that he felt like a kid in a candy store sexually… a candy store that he had never been allowed to enter previously.  Peter admitted that in indulged in sexual encounters promiscuously without much regard to the quality of the relationship or of the sexual partner.  Winona put it more bluntly that he had hooked up all the time with “sluts.”  Therapy helped Peter and Winona connect his attachment anxiety with his emotionally chaotic parents, his sexual shyness, and his young adult sexual hedonism.  All these issues or experiences influenced his vulnerability to emotional seduction and emotional infidelity, especially if he felt rejected by Winona.

A multitude of information and experiences are examined for their relevance influencing the context of the affair.  The partners may come to their own realization, but often the therapist may need to offer his or her interpretation of how everything fits together.  There needs to be a coherent narrative about how the developmental origins of each partner meshed with life demands, cultural influences, and other factors to create the vulnerability of the couple to infidelity.  Revelation of infidelity was often initially met with incongruity because of the clear potential problems associated with affairs: health risks from unprotected anonymous sexual partners and multiple partners, vocational, financial, and social risks, legal complications raging from soliciting prostitutes to divorce and custody proceedings, as well as emotional, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual harm.  The craziness or illogic of infidelity has to be addressed for recovery and healing.  The sequence of experiences that led up to the unfaithful partner transgressing is matched by the offended partner’s life trail of circumstances causing them to be drawn to each other.  And for them to have chosen each other, stay with each other, and collude with each other creating the context of the affair.  In addition, the match or mismatch often persists or compelling elements continue between them that drive them to remain together or to consider remaining together.

As the affair and their relationship however tumultuous is held in a logical albeit unfortunate light, how they came to their situation makes sense.  If their relationship and the affair do not make sense, then there is no direction for creating recovery and healing either.  The therapist emphatically asserts that sadly for the partners, that their affair made sense.  As a result, therapist further proposes there are subsequently logical paths or processes to recover, heal, and build a more functional relationship with fidelity.  As the narrative of how they came to be a couple and how the affair came about makes sense, they are enabled to create the next chapters of their individual and couple’s story.  Hopefully, with work and guidance it will be a happily-ever-after story.  Or perhaps a couples story without infidelity will suffice.

Figuring out the affair incorporates relationship issues, environmental elements, personal dynamics lending to infidelity vulnerability in the unfaithful partner, and personal dynamics in the offended partner that contributed to the context of the affair.  While the therapist gives the partners his or her summary of the affair’s etiology and development, each partner should also describe how he or she understands the various factors and how they interplay to cause the affair.  The therapist should not be surprised- that is, should anticipate that there will often still be anger, hurt, and confusion in the partners’ renditions of the affair’s course.  Any such unresolved issues direct further therapeutic work.  They should not be considered problems per se, but be noted as incompletely resolved issues indicative of the frailty of recovery and healing.  These issues need to be problem-solved to prevent a repetition of infidelity in the future.  This process starts transitioning the partners from a past focus to looking at and dealing with current dynamics and the relationship of the future.  

With less focus on the past, the orientation of therapy and the relationship may shift subtly and gradually from the uncertainty whether there can be a continued relationship, to determining the quality of the assumed continued relationship together.  The partners may find that they no longer question whether the relationship can persevere, but ponder and work at how it will function fruitfully.  This will not be a sudden and total shift.  Doubt will return periodically to one or both partners as to the viability of the relationship.  Doubt had been the dominant focus, with hope of staying together becoming confidence of a future together as a more transitory experience.  That may flip over time with confidence dominating thoughts and feelings, with doubt becoming the transitory experience.  Therapy changes significantly with a foundation of hope and confidence that had been previously non-existent, difficult to consider, or at best, highly tentative.  Various therapeutic interventions for problem-solving personal and interpersonal issues now become appropriate and logical for the relationship in future.  Working on long-term health together has become beneficial, rather than illogical or premature.  Previously neither partner knew if they would not be going their separate ways in a week or month.

After working through all the various aspects of the affair, the context, individual issues, and couples dynamics, the partners will have a clearer picture of what happened, who they each were and are, and have a sense of what they can be.  Each partner carefully considers the quality of their relationship, what each puts into it, and what each gets out of it.  They look at what each partner needs to do and how able and willing he or she may be to make important changes necessary to stabilize the relationship and make it mutually fulfilling.  They consider if they can make the partnership effective for everyone involved, including any children and the family unit as a whole.  This would involve negotiating and dealing with influences and stresses from outside the household in the work world, extended family, and greater community that had affected or contributed to the context of the affair.  They may need to design and erect significant boundaries and mechanisms to protect the relationship from becoming vulnerable to infidelity again.  “…the couple begins to examine the future of their relationship in terms of either pursuing the relationship and changing old patterns and expectations or starting a separation process.  In addition, helping the couple explore future goals of the relationship, re-examine what has worked and not worked in the relationship, and discussing future treatment options helps provide closure and future direction for further treatment or termination.  When a couple decides to pursue the relationship, treatment direction shifts to a relationship enhancement process while reinforcing the forgiveness process.  If the couple decides to separate, dealing with the forgiveness process may need to happen within the context of individual therapy” (Dupree et al., 2007, page 336).

The offended partner may accept or forgive the unfaithful partner, which changes the relationship fundamentally.  However despite acceptance or forgiveness and relationship change, either partner might still decide that the relationship no longer will work for him or her.  The existing relationship does not work and either the prospects of what the new relationship can be or the work involved to make it happen is not worth it to him or her.  Despite understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness, they may decide issues cannot be worked through sufficiently or successfully and it is in one individual’s or their mutual best interests to separate. Forgiveness or acceptance has changed the relationship but not in a way to make it viable to remain together.  With forgiveness or acceptance without reconciliation, the separation may remain painful and there may be deep remorse.  Hopefully, with forgiveness or acceptance the partners may be more likely to leave without residual rage and resentment.  This would be highly desirable if there are important remaining and ongoing common interests- in particular, children to co-parent.  Couple therapy may be finished as far as coming to a decision to be together or move on, but may shift to a new critically important goal of reasonable if not amicable separation.  A further goal may be to help partners negotiate co-parenting issues, which is one version of the relationship after infidelity.  The last two goals may be worked through outside of couple therapy or with other professionals.

When the couple is able to trust enough to have confidence in keeping a committed relationship, they need to negotiate an adjusted relationship.  Return to the old relationship is not viable.  The old relationship spawned infidelity.  Some couples may have already returned to the old relationship several times only to have infidelity also return several times.  The post-infidelity relationship has to have some fundamental changes for sustainability and fulfillment.  The partners need to develop boundaries and roles in the relationship that allow for healthy functional communication.  The inadequacies and flaws in their prior structure, roles, and communication need to be problem-solved to prevent their degenerating again and renewing vulnerabilities to acting out, including infidelity.  The therapist needs to foster a “second order change mentality as a means to prevent relapse.  Thus, rather than simple behavior change in which structural measures are made to prevent relapse, processes are changed through cognitive reframes, emotional attachment healing, and systemic restructuring.  Relapse prevention seems to rest on whether the couple is able to examine the patterns of the relationship, heal broken bonds, and form new processes of expressing feelings and thoughts as well as new ways of behaving within a systemic framework” (Dupree et al., 2007, page 336).

Infidelity may be considered both the cause and the result of the relationship degenerating.  There are important identifiable factors that predict or influence infidelity including emotional disengagement, reluctance to spend time with partner, sexual disinterest, and argumentativeness.  Predictors of infidelity include parental divorce, past divorce, remarriage, attachment style, bipolar disorder, depression, personality disorders, and addictions.  The partners need to deal with these issues through examining attachment style behaviors, previous relationship patterns, family-of-origin influences, and emotional and psychological including diagnosable mental disorders.  Intrinsic to addressing these issues would be helping the partners develop empathy, humility, commitment, understanding, healthy communication, and hope.  Growth or development in these areas promote forgiveness or acceptance and help preclude relapse of further infidelity.  Working on personal growth and relationship issues may be more productive that working on fidelity or infidelity per se.

This new relationship may be based on affection, love, and respect.  It may also be based on financial considerations, cultural and family expectations, and child-rearing needs.  If based on affection, love, and hopefully respect, practical considerations need to be considered rather than only romantic delusions that love conquers all.  Critical emotional, psychological, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and social issues that influence choices and functioning need to be realistically incorporated into the relationship.  Love and affection should not be assumed to be sufficient for either partner to transcend his or her potential foibles, compulsivity, and neurotic instincts.  Understanding and acceptance of both strong traits and vulnerable challenges enables the couple to anticipate, plan for, and better address personal and couple’s dynamics.  The process of restructuring the relationship comes from working through blame and letting go of resentments.  The partners’ compassion comes from mutual acceptance of all aspects of the other’s humanity, including what created vulnerability to breaking monogamous commitments.

A social constructionist perspective or story telling and creating process require the partners create a new reality of the relationship that incorporates new understandings of vulnerabilities.  The partner entered and existed in the relationship with a sense of how life and relationship worked.  As a couple, they created a joint identity.  The relationship story had an assumed coherence including monogamy that was destroyed by infidelity.  The story now has to incorporate new experiences and understandings about each partner and the joint relationship.  “Individuals thus establish coherent connections in life events and have a set of schema by which they attempt to understand life events as meaningful and systematically related.  In this way, events are rendered understandable and intelligible because they are located in a sequence or as a part of an unfolding process.  This process enables individuals to make ‘sense out of nonsense’ and to interpret events in a coherent, consistent manner” (Atwood and Seifer, 1997, page 61).  Couple therapy and the therapist help the partners see if they can makes sense of the infidelity amidst their relationship script.  They need to see if they can create the coherent story that will be their future relationship together or separate lives as former partners.  Once the partners can envision their future relationship, they plan their process and relationship purposefully.  “Intentionality has been introduced into their meaning systems, and they have learned that they can write and rewrite their future story” (Atwood and Seifer, 1997, page 72).

Harano states that recovery and healing happens if the couple can create a joint understanding about the affair by “combining their stories and their perceptions.  A couple builds trust by rewriting their history and including the story of the affair.  Some couples do a beautiful job in trying to understand the affair together, and they co­create the story of what they've been through together… they finally have some comfort with it.  One of the signs that they are working in a much more united way is that their perception of the affair partner becomes   more integrated-not all evil or all angel, but a human being who perhaps did manipulate but also was caring” (Glass, 1998, page 76).  Therapy helps them find and perhaps, to create the story where they can be together in a healthier functional manner.

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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