2. Causes of Infidelity - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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2. Causes of Infidelity

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > SorryNotEnough- Infidelity-Cpl

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

Winck and Craven (2003, page 251) list, in addition to systemic perspectives about what can cause infidelity cite a list from Glass and Wright (1992):
sexual attraction,

gratification of unmet sexual needs,

gratification of unmet psychological needs (need to be mothered, fathered, nurtured),

gratification of unmet social needs (mating with someone of a higher social status),

as a bridge to escape an unsatisfactory marriage (dependent person with or without children),

to fulfill a need to conquer or to dominate the opposite sex,

for power or control issues,

to fulfill a need for love or to culminate an already loving relationship,

to fulfill extraordinary sexual drive or sexual compulsion

for purposes of revenge,

as a result of alcohol, drug related, or other impulse control problems or disorders,

as a result of liberal sexual values, and

as a result of opportunity (e.g., job-related travel, physical separation from a spouse, or frequent contact with potential partners).

These and other potential causes need to be examined from different perspectives for every couple.  Cathy wanted to know why Aidan had the affair.  And Aidan was hard pressed to explain why he strayed from his monogamous marital vows and his personal moral standards.  These explanations for infidelity can be seen as excuses or reasons.  As excuses, they serve to absolve the unfaithful partner of responsibility.  If the unfaithful partner’s excuses are accepted or tolerated by the offended partner, the couple may continue in a strained and dysfunctional manner.  Or, if the offended partner is not satisfied, that is not soothed or reassured to be able to trust, risk, and invest again, the relationship ends.  Aidan had no excuse for his affair, and Cathy despite her compulsion to understand how he could betray her, the children, and himself would brook no excuse anyway.  On the other hand, if the potential causes are seen as reasons that precipitated greater vulnerability towards progression to infidelity, they can help the partners gain the understanding they need to recover and heal.  As opposed to excuses, which indicate being stuck or powerless with no course of action, reasons can be targeted to be problem solved.  For any unfaithful partner such as Aidan, some combination of these and other reasons influenced his or her choice to betray the committed monogamous relationship.  Understanding the causes is a key major step for recovery and healing.  Working through and working on the issues is essential so that vulnerability to infidelity does not continue, reassert, and develop again.  Rather than simple answers or a choice or selection of causes or reasons influencing infidelity, therapy and the recovery and healing process can be extremely complicated as layers of individual and couple’s dynamics are revealed.  Aidan’s violation was simple enough, but his and Cathy’s individual and partner dynamics had many strata of contributions.

In addition to identifying causes, the therapy and recovery and healing process must deal with another intrinsic violation of the relationship.  Fundamental rules of the committed monogamous relationship include truth, honesty, transparency, or no withholding secrets from each other.  The unfaithful partner has not only broken the commitment of emotional and/or sexual fidelity, but has also misled, lied, and deceived the offended partner- perhaps, for years.  Cathy had been deceived for a minimum of at least two years- the duration of the affair.  But she was not sure if deception had been a part of their relationship much longer.  Thus, infidelity is at least a dual violation of the couple’s covenant.  An affair in fact, involves multiple transgressions by the unfaithful partner of the relationship rules (as will be discussed later).  Dealing with any type of deception is a challenge for both the deceiver and the deceived partner.  The deception is both hiding secret feelings and thoughts, while also hiding a secretive behavior or a set of behaviors.  What had Aidan been feeling all along that Cathy had not been aware of?  The unfaithful partner must explain how and why he or she deceived the unsuspecting partner in addition to the decision to cheat and what led up to or caused it.

When deception has been discovered by the partner, the deceiving partner typically uses one or more of “12 general strategies to manage the discovery of deception, including

(a) telling the truth;

(b) providing an excuse (denying responsibility);

(c) providing a justification (denying the pejorative nature of the information or the deception);

(d) refusing to explain when asked (denying the event occurred);

(e) evading the issue during conversation;

(f) apologizing;

(g) soothing the partner;

(h) using impression management techniques (strategic presentation of saddened, repentant, or guilty image);

(i) invoking the relationship as a reason to forgive and forget;

(j) making efforts to reaffirm or strengthen relational bonds;

(k) using relational rituals (e.g., giving gifts, flowers, or cards); and

(l) talking explicitly about the deception and its impact on the relationship” (Aune et al., 1998. page 678).

These strategies to repair the relationship are implicitly and explicitly attempted after infidelity is revealed within the couple’s relationship and possibly facilitated in couple therapy.  Making excuses, justifying infidelity, refusing to explain, or denying the affair may “work” to maintain a relationship, but unlikely to enable the couple to recover and heal.  The relationship may continue in some dysfunctional mutually unfulfilling manner.  A couple such as Aidan and Cathy may remain together for months, years, or to the end of natural life with enduring or volatile pain simmering shallowly or deep below the surface.  Or, some complicit agreement to stay together or ignore the affair may only delay inevitable degeneration and collapse of the relationship.  The other nine strategies, despite greater positive potential however are also no guarantee that the couple can recover and heal from the profound deception of infidelity in a monogamous committed relationship.

How an affair or the infidelity of a partner or spouse in a committed monogamous relationship or marriage is perceived affects how it will be approached and treated, including in couple therapy.  The unfaithful partner may try to explain the infidelity as an occurrence or an incident.  A mistake- that is, an unprecedented mistake and therefore, a mistake not to reoccur with appropriate care and vigilance.  If on the other hand, it is seen as the unfaithful partner having an individual moral or character flaw or being a moral failure, then the offended partner needs to determine if the flaw is intractable or can be mitigated.  In therapy, treatment strategies looking at characterological origins will focus on uncovering the unfaithful partner’s issues and dealing with his or her behaviors.  As a moral failure on the part of the unfaithful partner, recovery and healing can take on a moralistic quasi-religious orientation.  The “sin” or transgression of the committed relationship or marital vows therefore requires acts of contrition, confession of wrongdoing, and atonement or amends.  The unfaithful individual asks for (begs for) forgiveness.  The offended partner is required essentially to either accept or reject the unfaithful partner’s request for forgiveness.  Regarding the viability of the relationship, as a result the offended partner more or less holds the whip hand in the relationship.

From a slightly different and related causation perspective, infidelity can be seen as the consequence of the unfaithful partner’s problematic personality, addiction problems, and/or developmental issues such as attachment anxiety.  On the other hand, the couple rather than just one partner may be perceived as having infidelity and the affair seen as a systemic issue in the relationship.  The affair often makes a mockery of the offended partner’s assumptions about the relationship: trust, love, loyalty, commitment, truth, and more.  He or she does not and did not know what was real or false from the beginning to the explosive revelation of infidelity.  Therefore, the dynamics of the partners in the relationship become the target of clinical intervention.  Often critical to the dynamics between the partners are the various societal and cultural influences that they had internalized along with family models of individual and relationship interactions.  Infidelity thus may be seen also as a systemic manifestation of cultural values about sexual behavior in the larger society.

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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