4. Potential Cross-Cultural Issues - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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4. Potential Cross-Cultural Issues

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > SorryNotEnough- Infidelity-Cpl

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

The cultural norms and values that define the rules of relationship fidelity can vary by society and community.  Harano states, “Social context is a predictor.  If you're in an occupational or social group where many people have affairs, and there's a sexually permissive attitude you're more likely.  Also if you come from a family where there's a history of affairs-the most notorious are the Kennedys, where the men have a certain entitlement” (Glass, 1998, page 68).  Behavior and moral standards and models vary within different contexts from the family to larger social, national, and ethnic groups.  A person or couple may have significant cultural influences on their relationship expectations.  The “therapist would be unwise to work with an ethnic minority couple without addressing their unique cultural meanings concerning infidelity” (Penn et al., 1997, page 170).  The therapist needs to be wary that his or her expectations about relationships, monogamy, and infidelity may coincide or differ significantly due to cultural values from those of either partner or the couple.

While monogamy is often the cultural, moral, and religious norm in many societies, infidelity in general and male infidelity specifically is common in many if not most societies throughout recorded history.  In modern American society as may have been the case with other societies past and present, monogamous relationships with one intimate romantic partner is presented as the ideal.  Yet numerous other messages embedded in society and culture also promote infidelity.  In popular culture as represented by the media and technological communication, there is constant presentation of sex and sexualized relationships.  Advertising from beer to cars to computers often emphasizes sexual connections and liaisons with attractive role models as motivation for purchasing materials or services.  There is ongoing scrutiny and reporting of well-known actors/actresses, sports figures, politicians, or businesspersons and their romantic and sexual escapades with multiple partners.  Infidelity is a common drama or comic ploy in movies and television shows.  In many cases, infidelity or otherwise betraying monogamous commitments is glorified or inevitable as necessary to personal fulfillment.  Maintaining fidelity becomes a challenge while dealing with the many messages to indulge in sexual adventures with a smorgasbord of enticing partners.

The internet adds a huge degree of access and connectivity that can further promote infidelity.  There are sites that arguably or blatantly promote “hooking up.”  Unrequited crushes are given a second chance through individuals finding one another after years or the briefest contact on social media sites.  An internet search using the key words “looking for affairs” finds 332,000,000 results.  The sites include:





www.affairs4u.com, and


which promises “If you're married, but looking, Married Secrets can help.  Married Secrets is an online dating web site that caters to married people looking to recapture that feeling.  We can connect you with other married couples or individuals in your area also seeking fun flirting, romantic married affairs, passionate encounters, or just a little affectionate companionship” (viewed 2013).  This site as well as others promises discretion- that is secrecy to enable infidelity supposedly without consequences.

Religious perspectives about marital or relationship fidelity can be very influential.  Catholicism for example, values chastity prior to marriage and fidelity is expected after marriage.  In previous times, individuals who breached marital fidelity were excommunicated from the church.  “The union of marriage is important in order to produce ‘legitimate offspring’ and to encourage chastity.  The Catholic Church does not sanction divorce, nor are contraceptives allowed (although U.S. Catholics use contraception at the same rate as the general population).  According to the church, infidelity leads to the breakdown of the union of marriage because it often encourages divorce. In addition, illegitimate offspring may be produced” (Penn et al., 1997, page 170).  Protestantism also bans infidelity.  Included in the Ten Commandments, other references in the Bible prescribe sexual relationships only between married partners.  Neither Aidan nor Cathy had strong religious values.  However, both held strong mainstream American values about monogamy that are reflective of Judeo-Christian influences and heritage.  Another set of partners, for example Bart and Helen were both Catholic whose values not only prohibited infidelity but also banned divorce.  Being morally and religious bound to a marriage relationship that had proved unfulfilling was a core influence that led Bart to seek partnership satisfaction with women outside it.  Ironically and to his deep shame, in his struggle to honor one value- that is, to stay married without the option to divorce despite unfulfilled feelings and needs for intimacy, Bart violated the value of monogamy.

In Eastern or Asian culture, harmony and filial piety are considered fundamental values.  Filial piety is strongly emphasized and considered respectful of the family.  Out of filial piety, the marriage relationship is based.  “Filial piety serves to ensure the continuation of the bloodline.  The family is the source of the continuation of the ancestors because one's life is handed down by one's ancestors.  As a necessary tribute to one's forefathers, filial piety requires one to perpetuate the bloodline by producing offspring through wedlock (Yu-Wei, 1967).  The primary purpose of marriage is to perpetuate the family line” (Penn et al., 1997, page 171).  In previous times, failure to bear a son entitled the husband to divorce his wife or to take one or more concubines to bear children.  “Although this is infidelity by U.S. standards, in Eastern culture this was viewed as practicing filial piety.”  Chastity in Muslim society is strictly enforced and women are expected to be virgins prior to marriage.  Although infidelity by men or women is “equally punishable according to Islamic law, punishment is not equally enforced.  For adult male Muslim eyewitnesses are required to convict anyone of adultery, and the testimony of women is excluded.  Women who become pregnant as a result of marital infidelity are open to punishment for adultery, while the men often go unpunished from lack of evidence (Ahmed, 1992).  Punishment for infidelity may take the form of flogging or stoning.  A number of the faithful should be present as witnesses to this punishment (Walther, 1993).  Consequently, stonings are traditionally public, to further humiliate the accused and to serve as a deterrent” (Penn et al., 1997, page 171).  In traditional non-secular Islamic countries following Islam’s teachings, men may have more than one wife.  This is not considered infidelity since the marriages are recognized as legally.  The degree of religious fidelity may affect adherence to the individual’s its teachings.  Although the individual may function or had grown up in a religious family or community, the degree of secularism may also influence perception of instruction as requirements versus guidelines.  Within the family-of-origin and in other formative and current communities, the individual may have additional models and influences on compelled or volitional compliance.

“The expectation of marriage (Boyd-Franklin, 1989) and fidelity (C. Moore, personal communication, October 5-7, 1995) in African-American culture differs from that of the dominant American majority culture.  The relational and financial stresses placed on couples by the structures of the economic system  (with its last-hired, first-fired policy) and the welfare system make it difficult for some African Americans to marry or to stay committed to their partners” (Penn et al., 1997, page 173).  The African-American experience of slavery following by racist and discriminatory political, social, and economic forces can affect fidelity and infidelity.  Slave owners purposely disrupted family bonds as part of maintaining the institution of slavery.  Slaves were also sexually abused and exploited.  Women and men were both treated as breeders often without the ability or option to form long lasting committed relationships.  Inequities in economic opportunities favoring black women versus men added to a corrupted foundation of bonded relationships further complicate relationship processes comparable to mainstream standards.  Any couple’s relationship can be negatively affected by outside factors.  For African-American couples, chronic minority stress dealing with multiple societal factors adversely affects the stability of relationships.

An additional factor with infidelity is whether the other partner is of the same race or ethnicity or not.  “As among whites, intraracial infidelity is more likely to be tolerated than interracial infidelity.  Among the middle and upper classes, there is an increased tendency to go outside race for an extramarital affair (C. Moore, personal communication, October 5-7, 1995).  Infidelity becomes a social, economic, and political act when it is done interracially.  Among the poor and working classes, infidelity is usually within the African-American race, owing to availability and proximity (C. Moore, personal communication, October 5-7, 1995)” (Penn et al., 1997, page 175).  The African-American individual can have diverse experiences with partners having outside relationships depending on the family, community, and history.  If the individual had experienced his or her parents or other family or community members with multiple sequential or simultaneous partners, what would otherwise be considered infidelity may be familiar and less absolutely defined or discomforting.  The couple as a result may not enter therapy with infidelity as a presenting issue.  African-American individuals may be reluctant in general, and as a group less receptive to using therapy.  Other people especially professionals may have recommended or compelled trying therapy.  The therapist may ultimately discover that although relationships outside the committed couple may be supposedly tolerable, they are important if not critical issues for the couple.  This may come through targeted intake questions, use of a genogram, or a less structured but comprehensive clinical investigation.   The therapist should be aware that individuals from non-mainstream groups might be less “therapy-wise” or proficient in the therapeutic process.  In particular, they may not identify certain information and realize the importance of introducing it into therapy.  Such an individual may not volunteer highly vital information, but respond candidly if asked directly.  Open-ended questions may be less effective than direct questions about specific behaviors, circumstances, events, relationships, or history.

In addition to Catholic influences, individuals from Latino families may have strong traditions about familism.  “Familism is a value that stresses family loyalty by emphasizing interdependence over independence, affiliation over confrontation, and cooperation over competition (Ramos-McKay & Riveram, 1988).  Emphasis is placed on the family rather than the individual, and there is a deep sense of family loyalty, commitment, obligation, and responsibility (Garcia-Preto, 1982)” (Penn et al., 1997, page 177).  Dealing with issues within the family is emphasized, so entry into couple therapy with the therapist who is an outsider would be stretching if not violating that value.  Embedded in familism are gender expectations including female dedication as a good wife to the partner and a good mother to the children.  The individual sense of self is subservient to who she is to others in the family.  The wife is not necessarily seen as needing to be attractive, passionate, or romantic to the husband, but more needing to perform various wife and mother role duties.

When considering cultural influences, the therapist should be aware of embedded hidden or unacknowledged values from prior generations or other experiences that may be relevant.  Cathy was for all appearances a typical educated upper class European-American woman.  Her maternal grandmother however was Mexican-American- also meaning that one set of her maternal great-grandparents were Mexican.  As an ethnically one-quarter Mexican-American (or one-eighth Mexican (which does not even consider the potential mix of ethnicities: Spanish, other European, American indigenous, black, or other within individuals with Mexican ancestry), Cathy may have unknowingly or subconsciously “inherited” significant familism or other values and roles through cross-generational family transmission.

Since the Latino wife’s primary role is not of passionate object of the husband’s sexual attention, the husband can become more prone to seek sexual or romantic satisfaction outside of the marriage.  The outside relationship is not so much accepted by the wife, but possibly purposely denied or tolerated if the wife does not try to romance her husband back from the competitor.   Despite anger and resentment, the wife and community may excuse the affair because of the husband otherwise fulfilling other duties to the family in terms of housing, finances, and so forth.  The same tolerance however is not held for a woman having another sexual or romantic relationship outside of the marriage.  There would greater outrage and condemnation.  The husband, family, and community would label her a prostitute for example.  Children may be fairly aware of a father’s other family and may internalize the model affecting their adult relationships.  These generalizations tend to have more relevance when the Latino individuals are less acculturated to mainstream American, and less relevance as individuals have adapted to or adopted mainstream values or are of generations subsequent to immigration.

“Although the custom of arranged marriages is fading, the mate selection process is still heavily influenced by the families of both the husband and the wife.  Once the marriage has taken place, the wife is thought to have left her family of origin and joined her husband's”(Penn et al., 1997, page 177-80).  Asian-American cultures share similarities with Latino culture emphasizing the family as central and marriage primarily for propagating the husband’s lineage.  Likewise, failure to produce children especially a male heir is seen quite negatively.  It can be reasons for divorce.  Patriarchal values similar to other cultures, put the wife in a low status position with her main responsibility being the care of the family rather than any balancing of individual needs.  The traditional patriarchal system and accompanying ·gender roles of Asian-American cultures affect how infidelity is perceived.

“Because of the high status of Asian-American men, they are in a ‘no­ fault’ position when it comes to infidelity (C. Ho, personal communication, October 6, 1995).  For example, if a man is thought to have had an extramarital affair, two possible conclusions would be drawn, neither of which includes blaming the man.  Either the wife would be accused of not ‘being there’ for her husband, or the other woman would be accused of taking the husband away from his family.  Furthermore, adultery on the part of the wife is not tolerated among Asian Americans and brings extreme shame to the family.  Colin Ho (personal communication, October 6, 1995), a first-generation Taiwanese, explains that the status of males and females is not equal within the family and that this directly influences the attributions of infidelity.  Overall, the low status of women and the dominant role of men within the family and Asian-American society play a role in the perceptions of infidelity in Asian-American cultures” (Penn et al., 1997, page 180).  Shame may further limit using couple therapy to deal with infidelity and other relationship issues.

The therapist found through the intake history process that despite ethnic European-American physical appearances, that not only Latino influence may be relevant to Cathy, but also that Aidan potentially had been affected by Asian perspectives.  Aidan who was of mixed European-American ancestry (English, Scottish, and German) from the New England area lived in Japan for three years as a pre-adolescent when his father had extended business projects there.  He later also spent several years in his twenties during his early corporate career stationed in Japan, where Japanese, Chinese, and Indian companies and colleagues influenced his cultural values, philosophy, and models.  Aidan waxed enviously of how women deferred “naturally” to their husbands in Asia.  At the very least, Asian standards may have reinforced many of Aidan’s male American patriarchal expectations and behaviors.

There are other demographic considerations when investigating for infidelity.  “Bell, Turner, and Rosen (1975) found that political orientation and geographic location were significantly related to women's EMS (extra-marital sex).  Conservative women living in mountain and prairie regions of the United States were less likely to engage in EMS.  Edwards and Booth (1976) found age to be negatively related to EMS for husbands but not for wives.  Kinsey et al. (1948, 1953), Tavris and Sadd (1977), and Wolfe (1982) found EMS to be infrequent and sporadic, that married individual were more likely to engage in EMS, and to be highest among younger men and older women.  Those with higher education and lower levels of church attendance were more likely to be engaged in EMS and erotic behavior. Edwards and Booth (1976), Humphrey (1985b), and Thompson (1983) found that the lower persons rated qualitative and sexual aspects of their marriage, the more likely they were to engage in EMS” (Atwood and Seifer, 1997, page 58).  Conversely, extramarital sex affects relationship satisfaction and quality.  Wives versus husbands may be more willing to have a sexual relationship with a friend.  Sexual relationship with a co-worker is common for both men and women (39% and 36%).  Educational levels, church attendance, conservative versus liberal social attitudes, and other demographic issues may reflect or influence cultural standards and values about sexual fidelity or infidelity in committed or married relationships.”

Harano states, “we suspect the liberals, conservative men are actually more likely to be having extramarital affairs—because they split sex and affection.  There are the nice girls you marry and the wild girls you have sex with.  Men who score high on traits of authoritarianism are more likely to separate sex and affection than men who are low in authoritarianism.  Military officers fall into this category.  People in high-drama professions—among doctors, those in the ER, trauma surgeons, cardiologists—engage in a certain amount of living on the edge that is associated with affairs.  Certainly, being in the entertainment business is a risk; there's a lot of glamor, and people are away from home a lot.  Often you're in a make-believe world with another person” (Glass, 1998, page 78-79).  The vulnerability of creating an illusionary romantic or sexual world and relationship seems to be further accentuated when the vocational or social circumstances encourages a fantasy parallel context.  Such environmental situations would accentuate any already influential gender-role or cultural tendencies to compartmentalize emotions, thoughts, and behavior.  Aidan despite his egalitarian liberal values functioned as the head of his organization in a traditional patriarchal role.  He received- deservingly for the most part, a lot of admiration and praise for his leadership from the community in general.  Cathy observed that certain women fawned over him and flirted with him.  Adam claimed to be oblivious to the flirtations- neither noticing the flirtations nor being enticed by the women.  Stepping into the role of a soldier, of an important professional, or of any other position of authority that promotes grandiosity, omnipotence, and entitlement combined with a perceived lack of scrutiny and accountability may increase vulnerability to infidelity.

It becomes important that “therapists should realize that culture must be taken into account in work on issues of infidelity with clients who are ethnically diverse.  Culture in and of itself may define how a couple view infidelity” (Penn et al., 1997, page 180).  On the other hand, while culture must be taken into account, the therapist should not also assume that culture must be relevant.  Relevance comes in part from the degree of mainstream American acculturation.  Mainstream acculturation of an Asian-American individual has a similar influence on various values and behavior as it does for Latino and individuals from other groups.  Caution about relative relevance also is important when considering a European-American individual who may have absorbed and hold mainstream American values in some idiosyncratic but not global manner.  A man or woman may also not believe, feel, or think as a stereotypical male or female as defined by mainstream society.  Examination of religious and ethnic cultural values and behaviors reveal that all presented stereotypes are potentially relevant to individuals from different religious and ethnic cultural groups.

The therapist should be cognizant of this important qualifier to cultural patterns when considering stereotypical perspectives of second and later generation individuals.  In other words, for example, with a Latino-American, Asian-American, Ethiopian-American, or German-American individual, the therapist should be aware of balance and conflict between potential Latino, Asian, Ethiopian, or German cultural values and American cultural values.  In general but not specifically, immigrants would tend to hold country of origin values more strongly than their American-born and raised children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Any presented stereotypes may not be relevant to an individual despite his or her membership in a specific religious or ethnic cultural group.  The therapist should be aware of potential generalities that may be useful in working with a partner or a couple and consider using them for therapeutic investigation and strategies.  Patriarchal or male dominant tolerance of infidelity from an ethnic model, for example can be explored for relevance. However, the therapist should be careful not to be blinded by such stereotypes and miss the unique and specific individual values and behaviors that may not fit cultural generalizations.  The unfaithful partner and the offended partner may have various degrees of traditional versus acculturated mainstream American values, or may function in some complex multi-cultural or cross-cultural fashion that is relevant.  Multi-cultural possibilities are not unlike any other theoretical knowledge or background.  As psychodynamic perspectives, attachment theory, or trauma knowledge may be useful for assessment and treatment, so may cultural orientations.  Or, they may not and other viewpoints prove more revealing and useful.

An affair brings out any cultural expectations or values about the relationship, loyalty, or monogamy.  Cultural conflict between traditional values and mainstream values come up.  Male and female standards of conduct and behavior are brought up.  These often require resolution for healing and processing of the infidelity.  Moreover, infidelity is so profound that ignites any weakness, vulnerability, or instability.  Bluntly, infidelity triggers everything.  Everything!  Every issue underlying emotional or psychological well-being or dysfunction is ignited by the partner’s affair.  Any vulnerability or insecurity is amplified by betrayal.  Latent or overt psychic weaknesses worsen when a committed partner violates the relationship contract.  Every long-held foundation within the individual is shaken when the relational foundation is corrupted.  “Taken as a whole, many of these emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses parallel the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder” (Baucom et al, 2006, page 376).  To recover from or heal the psychic devastation of having been cheated on and being a cheater, both partners need to draw upon and build any embedded emotional, psychological, cognitive, and spiritual strengths.  Strengths however, that were assumed to be vibrant and unassailable are often exposed as flimsy structures when subjected to the pressure of emotional and sexual duplicity.  As any vulnerability may be self-medicated by substance or behavioral addiction, any vulnerability will be exposed and historical distress and despair will become explosive as it mixes and exponentially intensifies pain from intimacy treachery.

Couple therapy when the couple’s committed monogamy has been violated by infidelity often faces a toxic cornucopia of issues that arise from both partners and the couple.  The intimacy breach thus brings up any of a multitude of old and new emotional and psychological monsters.  “Hypersexual behavior almost always results in a threat to secure attachment, both by the individual engaging in hypersexual behavior (because of the fear, guilt, shame) and especially by the injured partner (because of the sense of betrayal, violation, abandonment, and injury). Hypersexual behavior often creates relational traumas that redefine the relationship and the other partner” (Reid and Woolley, 2006,, page 227).  The adultery also can arise from any of a multitude of ancient and current demons.  The therapist cannot simply apply a generic relationship model or affair recovery model or program since underlying issues and manifestations of infidelity vary as much as variation in partners and couples.  While the couple may start therapy because of an affair, there may soon explode upon the therapist innumerable other compelling but previously submerged issues.

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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