5. Types and Function - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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5. Types and Function

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > SorryNotEnough- Infidelity-Cpl

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

Therapy for a couple altered based on the type and function of the infidelity.  The type and function of the affair often have differing underlying issues.  Aidan had not engaged in a one-night stand or a series of short-term sexual liaisons that were impulsive in nature.  Yet, there was an opportunistic quality to how his affair began.  “Brief sexual encounters such as one-night stands and short-term sexual relationships that last for several days or weeks have been termed ‘situationally specific affairs’ (p. 483) by Masters, Johnson, and Kolodny (1994).  An individual engages in such a relationship because the opportunity presents itself as convenient or alluring.  Such affairs, according to these researchers, are not a result of premeditation. These types of affairs usually have several factors in common, such as:

Personal inhibitions are lowered by the use of alcohol and/or other drugs.

They usually involve strangers.

Generally, they occur far from the participant’s home.

They have a very low probability of being discovered.

Both participants understand and agree explicitly or implicitly that their sexual encounter is a one time experience or of short duration” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 2).

In this type of liaison, each participant anticipates that the sexual contact is limited to the circumstances in the moment.  There is no expectation of subsequent contact or of any lasting interaction or relationship.  The individual may be hard pressed to explain the liaison.  “It just happened.”  He or she claims it was accidental from being in the wrong place at the wrong time as opportunity, curiosity, and perhaps mind-altering substances reinforced each other negatively.  Otherwise positive emotions such as compassion, feeling sorry for someone, pity, or being unable to disappoint the other person may lead to some one-night stands.  The participants may be motivated by a unique sexual experience or adventure; a different unfamiliar partner; and/or to block or reduce loneliness or emotional distress.  Sexual curiosity or exploration may underlie brief sexual liaisons.  Participants may describe the infidelity as accidental as if it were a stumble in an otherwise stable walk through life.

Sexually adventurous individuals have technology that makes infidelity more available. “Individuals are now able to access chat room and other sexually explicit web sites from their home and work computers, telephones, and other electronic devices.  These locations allow for both clandestine and convenient forms of communication.  Married men can meet potential sexual partners without having to share one’s name or marital status” (Dew et al., 2006, page 196).  While a case is made that such affairs if they are not uncovered or revealed to the partner ‘do no damage to one’s marriage so long as they remain hidden, they do not consider, as Pittman (1989) does, the possible psychological ramifications and intrapsychic turmoil that the unfaithful spouse may suffer as a result of his/her transgressions which may later have an effect upon the marriage’” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 2).  Chase for example, had similar socio-economic status and professional activities to Aidan.  He also had similar opportunities to meet other women in situations conducive to one-night stands.  Unlike Aidan, the casual sexual encounters were a clear pattern in his life.  He had such infidelities throughout his eighteen-year marriage.  For the most part, they were either casual hook ups or very short-term liaisons without complications.  Chase ended any relationship that threatened bringing any complexity to his life.  The one-night stands or hookups did not seem to overtly damage Chase’s marriage… as long as his wife Angie did not know about them.  However, closer examination found at the minimum, a concurrent deterioration of relationship quality between them from prior to and throughout the affairs.

Infidelity can harm healthy sexual intimacy by compromising emotional and physical connection between the partners.  Causal or anonymous sex- a series of one-night stands as much as a long-term affair can deteriorate the bonds that build between partners.  Non-emotional sex without spiritual value disconnects intimate feelings from the physical activity.  Chase and his wife Angie had a functional relationship around his providing financial support and social status based on his professional achievements.  For these benefits Angie managed children, household, and their activities in their social community.  Angie got the nice things and social status she wanted from the relationship.  While she may or may not have instinctively known of Chase’s philandering, Angie colluded with him to forgo a more intimate emotional spiritually fulfilling relationship.  Uncovering Chase’s infidelity did not shatter any illusions for Angie of mutually dedicated intimacy.  In contrast, Aidan’s affair had shocked Cathy.  When Cathy discovered Aidan’s affair with Tina, she relentlessly and suspiciously interrogated Aidan about emotional and spiritual quality of the affair.  Uncovering the affair had caused her to suddenly realize how her and Aidan’s relationship had deteriorated and lost vitality over the recent years.  She wanted to know how much Aidan cared about Tina.  She wanted to know if Aidan and Tina had the vitality that she and Aidan had lost.  Consistently upon discovery of the affair and throughout the course of couple therapy, Aidan swore that Tina meant nothing to him emotionally.  During the affair, Aidan as the unfaithful partner was similar to many others who saw little or no potential harm from sex without emotional intimacy or commitment.  He did not realize how he and Cathy had become less emotionally connected prior to the affair, and remained and became more disconnected during the affair.  Only afterwards with significant therapeutic work, did he see how wrong he had been.

Marano feels that the tendency or ability to compartmentalize sexual activity from committed relationship is “much more characteristic of men.  Most women believe that if you love your partner, you wouldn't even be interested in an affair; therefore, if someone has an affair, it means that they don't love their partner and they do love the person they had the affair with” (Glass, 1998, page 36).  If the partner has compartmentalized the affair, he or she can give up or leave the affair or one-night stands at any time without being hurt because of his or her insignificant emotional investment.  The casual or anonymous sexual liaisons do not risk or reveal any vulnerability.  However, the avoidance of vulnerability increases his or her susceptibility to emotional harm.  The illicit sexual behavior does not challenge and therefore fails to strengthen emotional/psychological weaknesses.  The possibility of becoming more intimately connected and gaining psychic skills by risking vulnerability is precluded with the partner in the committed relationship, while simultaneously also avoiding intimacy with the affair or one-night stand partner.  Chase avoided intimacy with his one-night stands, and simultaneously lacked intimacy with his wife Angie.  During Aidan’s long-term affair with Tina, he like Chase also purposely avoided intimacy with Tina- the affair partner.  While the unfaithful partner may be wary of and take precautions against sexually transmitted diseases, or work, social, and financial risks, he or she inevitably suffers other harm.  Damage accrues to his or her intimate relationship with the other partner whether cognizant of it or not.  The unfaithful partner has taken a significant portion if not most of his or her emotional energy out of the couple’s relationship.  Functionally, significant time occupies the unfaithful partner’s sexual liaisons taking time from the relationship. “Hypersexual behavior can become a type of competing attachment in which the person engages in hypersexual behavior to be soothed or feel safe or important rather than finding safety, soothing, and validation in the primary relationship” (Reid and Woolley, 2006, page 224).

Both partners’ reactions to one-night stand infidelity may differ significantly from an extended affair where there is both emotional and sexual involvement.  One-night stand types of infidelity tend to be less destructive to the monogamous relationship.  There is less relationship dissatisfaction than when the affair is long lasting and involves significant emotional intimacy.  The one-night stand also tends to take less time to work through various relevant issues.  When Chase and Angie came to couple therapy, there was relatively little focus spent on any particular affair partner being special and displacing Angie somehow.  Therapy tended to focus more on what it was all about for Chase and about the relationship, rather than about another person taking or having what was supposed to be Angie’s alone.  As with Chase when there are a series of affairs, the unfaithful partner’s apologies and promises of fidelity tend to lack credibility.  Therapy naturally and quickly went beyond Chase’s apologies and promises.  Aidan’s affair was more complex in comparison.  It had qualities of the one-night stand or a series of one-night stands even though it was all with Tina.  Aidan’s affair did not easily fit into one particular conceptualizations of one type of affair versus others.  As a result, understanding or deconstructing the affair became more complex.  Without such insight, Cathy as Aidan’s offended partner who trusted the original commitment to monogamy was highly reluctant to risk trusting the unfaithful partner only to be betrayed and devastated again.  “Indeed, it may be the therapist's task to help the injured partner realistically evaluate if she or he should even take those risks; that is, to facilitate realistic expectancies for the future.  Injured partners in such situations may still be able to go through the recovery process, but they may need to evaluate the potential risks and benefits of staying in a relationship with a partner who is vulnerable to engaging in extramarital affairs on a repeated basis” (Baucom et al, 2006, page 385).

Teich (2006, page 83) identifies telltale signs of emotional infidelity:

Have a special confidante at the office, someone receptive to feelings and fears you can't discuss with your partner or spouse.

Share personal information and negative feelings about your primary relationship with a "special friend."

Meet a friend of the opposite sex for dinner and go back to his or her place to discuss your primary relationship over a drink, never calling your partner and finally arriving home at 3 A.M.

Humiliate your partner in front of others, suggesting he or she is a loser or inadequate sexually.

Have the energy to tell your stories only once, and decide to save the juiciest for an office or internet friend of the opposite sex.

Hook up with an old boyfriend or girlfriend at a high school reunion and, feeling the old spark, decide to keep in contact by e-mail.

Keep secret, password-protected Internet accounts, "just in case," or become incensed if your partner inadvertently glances at your "private things." (Teich, 2006, page 81)

Aidan began having lunch meetings with Tina as a matter of work related issues.  Over time the lunches became more casual as friends getting together during a hectic week.  As opposed to typical one-night stand liaisons, Tina was not a stranger.  However she was not a romantic or sexual interest either.  The frequency of the lunch meetings gradually became more frequent and important to Aidan as his work pressures increased and Cathy’s carpal tunnel pain also increased.  Without Aidan being fully aware of it, Tina’s attention compensated for Cathy being less available due to her stresses.  When the emotional affair moved into sexual intercourse, the sex was not convenient or particularly alluring with Tina.  However, her ready and regular presence allowed her to insinuate herself into Aidan’s world.  Hypothetically, Aidan could have or would have sought out a sexual one-night stand, but he did not need to.  Tina for her own emotional and psychological reasons was ready when he was ready- that is, when he became vulnerable.  He described the affair beginning as if it were an unexpected misstep without any premeditation.  Tina on the other hand, had premeditated and orchestrated the crossing into infidelity over a long time.  She was ready for his misstep.  If so inclined Aidan could have purposely sought casual sexual partners is easier than ever with the internet or any number of other ways.  It was not sex per se that captivated him.  Despite his gradual crossing of boundaries, it never crossed his mind that it was a part of his overwrought persona or sense of self.

Harano states that there are three elements in infidelity (Glass, 1998, page 40).  Aidan and Tina’s casual lunches progression to a full-fledged sexual affair can be tied to the gradual development of the three elements.  Two of the elements are secrecy and sexual chemistry.  Open communication and sharing are implicit and explicit standards in a committed relationship.  The secrecy itself creates sexual chemistry, which can occur without any physical contact.  Sexual tension, which may be never spoken of or alluded to, may be fueled through flirtation or confiding attractions or fantasies.  These interactions are not supposed to be part of platonic friendship but confined to the monogamous committed relationship.  As Aidan became more needy (while unaware of it), Tina experimented with alterations to strictly practical scheduling interactions.  When he was not vulnerable previously, Aidan would not notice or be receptive to any flirtations. Tina began to subtly suggest slight deviations from their normal lunches that pushed secrecy.  She suggested “Let’s try a new place for lunch next time.”  “Let’s” includes the personal plural pronoun “us” and prompted a partnership of “we,” that would otherwise be arguably exclusive to monogamous partners.  An edge of specialness and shared experience was introduced.  Non-verbal cues of pleasure and disappointment slid the lunch “dates” towards shared secrecy.  Comments such as “We should do that” and “It’d be fun for us” furthered a suggestive naughty and eventual sexual tension.

The third element is emotional intimacy.  Aidan claimed that he did not discuss personal issues with Tina.  He never brought up family concerns or stresses.  However, upon reflection he realized that Tina often asked about Cathy and their children in addition to about the foundation.  Tina prompted personal revelations from him without his awareness.  Since there were overlapping professional concerns, sharing some concerns, issues, or problems in the foundation seemed appropriate.  Tina did not offer advice per se, but was a very interested listener.  Aidan was surprised that Cathy suspected he had talked with Tina about things that  he should have kept between Cathy and him.  Cathy had been his confidant all these years.  Aidan said he did not see or use Tina as a confidant and did not think he shared that much.  “People vary considerably concerning what they consider to be a betrayal of what they understand as the agreed boundaries of their relationship, whether these have been negotiated openly or assumed to be implicit.  This variations is encapsulated by the oversimplification that, on discovering an affair, a man’s first question is ‘Did you sleep with him?’ and a woman’s ‘Do you love her?’  The fundamental element in betrayal is that something is shared with another that is considered to belong exclusively to the public couple relationship.  Important accompaniments are the sense that the partner has had something vital taken away from them and that the relationship has been diminished in a fundamental way” (Daines, 2006, page 48).  In Cathy’s relationship view, Aidan had given away what was supposed to be theirs alone.  An objective or social/cultural definition of what the boundaries should be is less relevant than each partner’s subjective sense of the boundaries and whether they are honored.  When the partners are in sync about and honor the same boundaries for the same issues, emotional intimacy and exclusivity are maintained.

An emotional affair without sexual intercourse can be difficult for the partners to identify and take responsibility for.  If Cathy had challenged Aidan earlier in the lunch meeting progression, he would have been shocked at an accusation of being unfaithful.  These lunch meetings had occurred intermittently for several years, and regularly for at least a couple of years prior to the affair.  There had not been any sexual intercourse or even sexual flirtation during these earlier years.  Monogamy is seen as primarily sexual abstinence from anyone outside of the committed relationship.  However, emotional intercourse with another person that crosses boundaries that are implicit or explicit in the monogamous relationship can be highly destructive the committed relationship.  It has plausible deniability based on the absence of sex.  An emotional online affair for example is readily rationalized as maintaining fidelity because everything happens online rather than in person.  Initially, it may seem natural and justifiable to share some personal experiences or feelings with someone in a social or work circle such as the one Aidan and Tina participated in.  Online “friends” share with each other as well.  When the conversation becomes more personal or skirts the boundaries of what may be private between the committed partners, the relationship however changes.  Sometimes readily identifiable as a specific event or interaction, the switch over to an intimate more special relationship may be gradual and unconscious.  At some point, the friendly exchange enters a secretive sanctum for private intimate feelings and thoughts.

Aidan claimed to have shared little other than factual responses to Tina’s questions about Cathy and their children’s activities.  When queried about what Tina shared, Aidan realized that she had increasingly spoken of her issues in her marriage along with personal longings for change.  Tina eventually spoke disparaging of her husband, who both Aidan and Cathy knew.  Aidan may not have consciously crossed some emotional intimacy boundary sharing with Tina, but he passively accepted Tina crossing emotional intimacy boundaries.  Aidan failed to stop or set boundaries for Tina when she spoke of personal distress in her marriage and exhibiting vulnerabilities otherwise arguably to be kept in her committed monogamous relationship with her husband.  While some emotional affairs evolve from overt actions and decisions, in Aidan’s case his passivity gave permission for Tina to offer vulnerability to him and for her to gain emotional tolerance initially.  Gradually his overt allegiance and boundaries to the committed relationship with Cathy were fudged and become breached, as the friendly relations become an emotional affair.  Cathy was not as attentive to him, and she did not offer her emotional vulnerability to him as Tina was now doing.  The emotional affair moved into an unfettered and unrealistic world open to individual and mutual fantasies.  Aidan claimed that Tina might have had fantasies about a future together that he never had.  However, his lunchtime trysts with Tina before they became sexual infidelity were had gotten more disconnected from the stress world.  The committed relationship with the partner retains the functional challenges of chores, bills, children, and extended family obligations, while an emotional affair with someone else often remains free from real world demands.  The fantasyland of intimacy allows for imaginative projection of heartfelt desires without countering practicalities.  While Tina’s desires may have been more involved and passionate, Aidan found the emotional affair idyllic at the very least.

Aidan became more purposefully dismissive of Tina’s entreaties for more commitment later in the affair.  He tended to ignore any tensions or indications of Tina’s discomfort or her later desire to have a committed relationship in open society.  Cathy learned about Tina pressing eventually for greater commitment and identification of Tina and Aidan as a couple.  She found it hard to believe that Aidan’s disinterest in more than the affair did not antagonize Tina.  Aidan said it might have upset Tina, but he did not care.  The sexual affair became what he wanted and was all he wanted.  Apparently, Tina may have pushed and wanted more, but settled for what Aidan was willing to give.  She never pushed enough to create a crisis.  It was what it was.  Affairs in general have an advantage by default in not accruing long-term baggage characteristic of an extended committed relationship.  Issues or problems that arise are more likely to be set aside- perhaps, “not worth the trouble” to deal with in the overtly shallow relationship.  If such issues or problems intensify, the affair would be likely to be terminated.  Both partners in the affair often abide by an implicit rule to “let things go.”

An internet based emotional affair is especially without restrictions for having romantic illusions.  It provides for easy anonymity, convenience, access, and affordability to escape real world restrictions and consequences of in person infidelity (Young et al., 200, page 61).  The disconnected connection also provides for the blanks to be filled in without reality’s intrusions.  “In the first few moments of an initial meeting, hundreds of visual, auditory, and even olfactory cues are unconsciously absorbed and organized into a first impression.  These cues have been learned from birth and are, in fact, necessary to the formation of a relationship.  In situations when these cues are not available, such as in letters or telephone calls, the remaining aspects of the interaction are supplied from fantasy” (Gwinnell, 2001, page 47).  A sense of intimacy develops in days or weeks online that otherwise takes much longer to with in person relationships.  The perceived sense of trust, intimacy, and acceptance encourages the online partner to be the emotional companion (Young et al., 200, page 60).  The experience is comparable to “the phenomenon... of transference in psychotherapy—where patients, knowing little about their therapists, invest them with the qualities they want and need.  Similarly, the illicit partner is always partly a fantasy, inevitably seen as wittier, warmer and sexier than the spouse” (Teich, 2006, page 83).  Unbeknownst to him or her, the beginning or involvement in an emotional affair simultaneously shuts him or her off from the committed partner.  At some point, the emotionally unfaithful partner receiving emotional supportive, affection, and attention may fall into something he or she identifies as love.

One individual may push the boundaries of the friendship into romance.  Cultural gender roles and values may influence whom prompts shifting from friendly exchange to love or romance and also from a virtual to actual romance in the case of online relationships.  “It's the woman who gets so emotionally involved she sees the affair as a possible replacement for her marriage- even if her marriage is good- and wants to test that out.  American University professor of psychology and affair expert Barry McCarthy explains that for men, ‘most affairs are high opportunity and low involvement’” (Teich, 2006, page 84).  Relationships tend to be more emotionally based for women versus men who may be culturally trained to keep more emotional distance even in the bonded sexual relationship or marriage.  This appeared to be true for Tina pursuing Aidan beyond emotional intimacy and eventually, beyond a sexual affair.  Meanwhile, Aidan remained detached to some degree throughout the relationship despite greater intimacy and eventual sexual intercourse.  However, as men and women have evolved to more cross-gender values and practices, these changes may influence a progression from emotional infidelity to sexual affairs.

“Some men have begun following female patterns, placing more emphasis on emotion than in the past, while women are increasingly open to sex, especially as they achieve more financial independence and have less to fear from divorce” (page 85).  Despite these social/cultural changes, women and men may hold different attitudes towards the same emotional affairs.  Women may be more likely to relish the special friendship with their emotional affair partners as intrinsic to their lives, while men are more likely to consider it a nice extra to otherwise fulfilling lives.  Women may be more likely to enter outside relationships because of not being satisfied with the committed relationship.  They therefore may become put more emotional equity into the outside relationship.  Emotional infidelity may be a consequence of or a cause of relationship dissatisfaction.  Men are more likely to separate sex from emotional intimacy, love, or the committed relationship.  As such, they may not overtly experience outside sex as affecting the quality of the relationship or of the relationship quality influencing infidelity.  Aidan claimed that he never considered leaving Cathy or looked at Tina as a potential life partner or an alternative to staying married.  He had no conscious negative evaluation of his relationship with Cathy to justify infidelity.  He compartmentalized Cathy, his marriage, and family demands as completely separate from the affair with Tina.  It was not an overt conscious decision or denial of reality, but rather parallel worlds to Aidan that never interconnected.  Only Cathy’s discovery of the affair connected the two relationships.  As soon as Cathy made it clear her unconditional rejection of Aidan being involved with another woman and staying together, the marriage immediately took precedence for Aidan.

“Research also shows that men who do refrain from extradyadic sex do so not because of a lack of desire, but because of their attitudes and beliefs (Pestrak et al., 1985).  Therefore, it appears that level of marital satisfaction has little to do with whether or not men have an affair” (Boekhout et al., 1999, page 102).  Male attitudes towards breaching fidelity may reflect social norms or the male partner may feel obligated to such norms, but his intrapsychic experience about intimacy and betrayal may be essentially the same as it is for his partner- male or female.  The unfaithful male partner may be conflicted between male sexual models permissive of infidelity while also having profound unmet emotional needs in the relationship.  The offended male partner may be also conflicted as well about how to hold the infidelity.  The therapist may find exploring this possibility as vital to understanding the infidelity.  Aidan had clear personal, interpersonal, and moral values against infidelity.  His initial assertion in couple therapy was that he knew he did wrong and that he would never do it again.  Aidan admitted his profound moral transgression.  The therapist’s immediate response was that Aidan always believed and knew adulterous sex was wrong and that it was an utter violation of their marital relationship covenant.  And, despite always knowing and being morally clear, he had betrayed himself, Cathy, and the relationship.  Why did he have an affair anyway?  He knew and was committed before but that was not sufficient to stop him.  What infidelity was to him, what were the scope and limitations of knowledge, commitment, and morality, and what led him to cheat on Cathy needed to be explored and answered for any hope of recovery and healing.  How Cathy considered or held the same issues and questions and the commonalities and nuances of dissimilarity simultaneously need to be dissected.  Included in the consideration would be how bound each person was to the gender stereotypes of mainstream society.  Aidan and Cathy would self-define themselves as modern progressive individuals with egalitarian gender values and who personally and professionally fought against sexist values.  Despite such claims, the therapist should still examine whether conscious allegiance was subverted by unconscious values and unintended stereotypic behaviors.  Sorry was clearly not enough to explain the affair, Aidan, or their relationship.

There are various theories to explain gender differences.  An evolutionary theory suggests that, “the primary purpose of human mating is to pass on one's genes, and men and women will use different mating strategies owing to their biological reproductive characteristics (Buss, 1994).  Women do not risk parental uncertainty, but they do risk loss of resources for their offspring if their mates become invested in other women.  Accordingly, women will be more jealous of men's emotional infidelities, which are seen as implying greater potential loss than sexual infidelities.  In addition, when women are unfaithful, they will desire male emotional investment in order to attain valuable resources to ensure the reproductive success of their offspring and to evaluate the possibility of attracting and replacing mates.  Men, on the other hand, do not have parental certainty and risk the possibility of investing time and resources on offspring that are not theirs.  Thus, men are more jealous of, and guard against, women's sexual infidelities in order to ensure their paternity.  Men also desire sexual infidelities to increase their reproductive success by gaining access to more women (Buss, 1994)” (Boekhout et al., 1999, page 103).

Chase who had multiple gratuitous sexual encounters often with strangers had been duplicating at least two generations of male behavior.  His father and his paternal uncles and grandfather were infamous womanizers who had either multiple divorces and/or long-suffering wives who enduring their affairs.  Chase often met the mysterious female “friends,” “aunties,” and “cousins” of his father.  Occasionally, he was draw into the clandestine manipulations by his father to hide his sexual indiscretions.  His father never apologized for his affairs, but acted as if he was completely entitled to his sexual adventures.  Angie bitterly accused Chase, “Like cheating piece of crap father, like cheating piece of crap son.”  Chase’s social peers condoned and encouraged sexual conquests, especially those that preyed upon vulnerable and available women.  Wives and girlfriends were marginalized as far as monogamy.  Moreover, Angie’s biological father was pretty much just like Chase, who cheated on her mother regularly and later on his subsequent wife and girlfriends.  Angie’s mother moved onto a series of boyfriends who likewise cheated on her.  Dysfunctional models from childhood clearly existed for both of them.

Social learning theory points to socialization about gender roles and cultural models for relationships that emphasize female emotional primacy and male sexual permissiveness.  Cramer et al. (2005) postulates a set of logical associations or assumptions to explain gender differences.  A woman may be more upset by emotional infidelity since she may assume that her male partner is concurrently committing sexually betrayal.  Sexual infidelity is not as upsetting since the social and cultural expectation holds that men can have sex without emotional involvement.  He is still providing for the household and child caring expenses.  “He comes home to me still.”  In contrast, the idea or image of his female partner involved in sexual infidelity is more upsetting to a man because they assume that women who are sexually involved with another person is likely to be emotionally involved as well.  The man’s female partner however can have an emotional affair without being sexually involved (page 102).  He has not “lost” her sexual monogamy when she is emotionally elsewhere, while she has not “lost” his emotional monogamy when he is sexually astray.

Men and women involved in emotional dalliances often see the liaisons in different ways.  Women are more likely to be highly invested as a result in their “soul mates,” while men enjoy but do not have the same alliance for the additional passion and stimulation.  Men may have greater tendency to have multiple extra intimate emotional relationships as they are may have sexual affair partners.  “For women, the dangers are great.  When an emotional affair results in sex, the man's interest usually cools instantly, says Pittman.  Meanwhile, husbands are less forgiving than wives, making it more likely for a woman caught up in such an entanglement to be slammed with divorce” (Teich, 2006, page 85).  The emotional affair, which may be based on fantasy and projection encounters reality when it becomes sexual.  Sexual consummation may not match long anticipated excitement and fantasized passion.  Men are often more angered and feel betrayed by sexual betrayal than by emotional betrayal, while the opposite is often true of women.  Divorce or separation instigated by men from sexual infidelity of partners may result.  

“Periodic sexual encounters differ from brief and situationally determined affairs in that they are premeditated, persistent, and often chronic.  The person who engages in such encounters is usually not interested in developing deep, meaningful, or long-term emotionally bonded relationships.  The primary reason for engaging in these types of relationship encounters is to fulfill a particular sexual need or desire that cannot be met within the context of one’s marriage” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 2-3).  The individual may want sexual behavior that the partner is unwilling to engage in.  This behavior may be found in another relationship or with prostitutes.  In the case of a bisexual individual or someone with hidden homosexual desires, the heterosexual relationship may be fundamentally unfulfilling sexually.  The bisexual or closeted homosexual individual may seek out periodic homosexual partnering.  Individuals stay in couples for many reasons.  Periodic evaluation of the relationship finds inadequacies and dissatisfaction, but fear of starting anew, anxieties about finances, and other complexities may compel staying in the couple. Often, the balance of reasons keeps someone in the relationship but leaves him or her lacking fulfillment.

Mabel was in a long-term relationship with her girlfriend Simone.  They had been together from their late twenties for several years, broken up, and then reunited in their early forties.  Now in their late fifties, Mabel had always found the relationship, especially the most recent version to be marginal.  What there was of sexual chemistry had faded over the years.  Sex was unsatisfying as much as it was sporadic.  There was little romance.  But Simone had been fun and attentive to her.  Mabel wanted Simone to still want to be with her and do things with her.  They lived apart but hung out at each other places regularly.  Their finances were not co-mingled.  The worse part for Mabel was that she felt she had gotten older and was supposed to have the life partner.  This was not the happily-ever-after place she was supposed to be at.  An early marriage had not worked out and the children from it were all adults with families of their own.  Simone was not even particularly interested in doing anything for fun.  Going to a play, a concert, visiting a museum, or even going to a movie was too much work for her. Watching cable television was all she wanted to do.  It was fulfilling… enough for Mabel.  Having Simone was better than having no one at all.  Mabel did not want to be alone.  Mabel occasionally saw Alyson who she had dated during her separation from Simone.  Mabel and Alyson had chemistry and they had thought about committing to one another.  However, things did not quite work out and Alyson moved out of state to Michigan.  Whenever work took her back to the area however, Alyson- her “Michigan Honey” and Mabel hooked up for dinner, a quick overnight excursion, and sex.  Simone did not know about these rendezvous with another woman, and Mabel was not all that certain that she would have cared.  Mabel just knew that she needed them.

In some couples other than sexually, the relationship may be otherwise fulfilling and functional in most ways.  Arguably this was the case when Mabel and Simone first got back together.  Their current relationship had deteriorated, but it had worked much better for Mabel earlier. Yet, even in the initially more fulfilling stages of her relationship with Simone, Mabel maintained her liaisons with Alyson.  The partner may not be as sexually responsive, invested, or proficient to satisfy the sexual desires of an individual.  Extended sexual frustration or dissatisfaction could lead the individual to look for more an experienced, responsive, and satisfying sexual partner.  The individual may be motivated by ongoing disappointment in unfulfilling sex with the committed partner.  This should be distinguished from “affairs motivated by the need for new, different, or more exciting sexual partners and experiences where personality factors often play a central role.”  Sexual pleasure or satisfaction in the committed relationship is rarely or never sufficient.  The individual experiences and possibly justifies violating the monogamous boundaries because of sexual desire- specifically, sexual desperation because of unfulfilled needs.  In Mabel’s case, sexual desire and romantic desire would be hard to distinguish from one another.  Since romantic desire can be intrinsic to sexual desire and satisfaction, it may not be necessary to make separate the two conceptually.

The individual may have two committed relationships, where either relationship pair could make a case that theirs is not an affair in a traditional sense.  This can be the case where one individual has two partners and two families often in separate towns or communities (even countries) who do not know of each other.  Randle for example managed two wives and two families in two towns.  He was involved in organized crime, but kept up a false occupational story about being a sales representative for a region of several states.  Fairly traditional and very passive and unquestioning, both of his wives accepted his story.  Randle would be gone for one to three weeks regularly from first one and then another wife and family while on a “business trip.”  In actuality he was in the other town with the other family- or engaged in his financially lucrative criminal enterprises.  The two wives and families did not learn about each other until a traffic accident in one town sent him to the hospital emergency room.  The nurses pulled his other out-of-town identity documents from his wallet and called his other wife/family who came to the hospital.  At the same time, a colleague riding in the car informed the in-town wife/family of the accident and they descended upon the hospital as well.

Chuck (his American name) also had two wives and families: one in the United States and another in Singapore.  His American wife who was a Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant discovered the dual families in his e-mail messages.  “Business” took him back and forth for months at a time.  He financially supported both families.  Social, cultural, and historical patterns of Asian sojourner or economic needs to work abroad while leaving families behind were plausible to both wives.  Joaquin managed a similar parallel family life with a wife/family in California and a wife/family in Mexico.  Comparable economic history and spouses separating leaving one behind obscured Joaquin’s duplicity.  In both two-country situations, the American based wife was clueless and then devastated to discover the other wife and family.  Both wives in both situations were foreign-born, but had been in the United States since childhood and had incorporated mainstream American values about monogamy.  They had expected their husbands to maintain fidelity although they knew the husbands had old-world patriarchal tendencies.

On the other hand, the parallel relationships may be more or less known to everyone.  The individual can be in a long enduring committed relationship with another partner while simultaneously being also in a committed marriage for example.  Such an affair may not threaten the stability or viability of the original committed relationship or marriage.  As with some other types of infidelity, it can be argued that the second parallel relationship might even help sustain the first relationship by compensating for perceived inadequacies.   Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn had a long-term well known to others while he remained married to his wife.  Prince Charles of Great Britain while married to Princess Diana had a long-term extramarital and quite public affair with Camilla Parker Bowles.  Somehow such public infidelity was not only acceptable or tolerated by the married partner but also by the public at large.  The public at large may have in fact supported the extra-marital partners.

Another variation if sexual relationships that would have been considered affairs by the general public are extramarital sexual relationships conducted with permission from the other partner.  “It is important to note that sexual relationships outside of the primary relationship are not de facto affairs, and that the context of the couple’s agreement with one another about outside sexual activity is crucial in understanding what impact such activity will have on the couple” (Martell and Prince, 2005, page 1430).  Such arrangements may not be harmful to the primary committed relationship and relationship satisfaction may be comparable.  The therapist should ask the partners what their personal and cultural expectations and expressed norms are about sexual relationships outside the committed partnership.  The relationship may have overt permission for one or both partners to engage in extramarital relationships under some guidelines or rules.  The partners more or less agree on what or what is not acceptable, including disclosure requirements and limitations.  There are provisions for adjustments if one or both partners become uncomfortable.

In the Home Box Office (HBO) series, “The Sopranos” (Chase, 1999-2007), the wife Carmela accepts her husband Tony- the mob boss’ affair with a younger kept Russian woman Irina Peltsin as part of his cultural- that is, mob entitlement.  She does not like it, but as long as Tony provides her the extravagant lifestyle she likes, it is acceptable.  However, there is one additional requirement, which is that the no aspect of the affair can intrude upon their household and the psuedo-perfect family image projected.  At one point, Carmela is enraged at Tony, not because she had learned about the affair.  She already knew of it, while suspecting Tony’s other additional extramarital sexual escapades.  Carmela was furious that due to unexpected circumstances, Irina calls her at home, which put the infidelity directly her face.  This is a violation.  The rules for infidelity had been broken, rather than infidelity broke the rules.  A not monogamous relationship may arise from a heterosexual pairing in a relationship or marriage where both partners are aware of the homosexual orientation of one partner, while remaining committed to maintaining the relationship.  The gay partner has decided to engage in gay relationships with his heterosexual partner or spouse’s permission usually with certain rules.  Both heterosexual and lesbian couples can agree to not monogamous relationships, but it tends to be more prevalent in gay couples.  “For some gay men, nonmonogamy is viewed as a political statement, a rejection of dominant cultural norms that have been oppressive to them (Greenan & Tunnell, 2003), and such sexual activity is viewed as recreational rather than as a betrayal of the primary relationship” (Martell and Prince, 2005, page 1430).

On the other hand, there may be an open relationship or marriage where either partner has only to inform the other of sexual activity.  Both partners wish to keep the relationship intact.  There may be “swinging” with other couples that include allowances for individual sexual hookups.  Polyamory involves the practice of more than one committed sexual relationship.  One individual, for example a man has two girlfriends (or more) where neither woman is the primary relationship and the other is the mistress.  In these situations, the transparency of the multiple sexual and intimacy relationships negates the need for duplicity among participants.  While illegal in the United States, there continues practice of polygamy where multiple marital partners are accepted.  Jon Krakauer describes polygamy still practiced among fundamentalist Later Day Saints that have left the mainstream Mormon or LDS church in “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” (2004).  In another HBO series, “Big Love” depicts a functional fundamentalist Mormon family that still practices polygamy away from the scrutiny of government prohibitions.  The family is made up of the husband who has three wives.  Power struggles among the wives are a key element of the drama, despite every spouse swearing allegiance to the polygamous makeup of the family. The participants of polyamory or polygamy may assume that the openness of the sexual interactions will also preclude jealousy, issues of betrayal, abandonment, and rejection issues.  This may not prove to be true and the emotional experiences comparable or identical to having ones partner having an affair may nevertheless arise.

The individual can use a sexual relationship for instrumental and utilitarian goals.  The affair may be to serve some personal gain or achieve a particular goal or set of goals.  Sex is purposeful as opposed to sex being the object of behaviors or manipulations.  For example, there may be economic or monetary goals to engaging in a sexual relationship: job security, promotion or raises in salary.  “The goal may be professional in nature, for example: to further one’s career in a particular field, or to gain power and influence in professional organizations or political circles” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 3).  There may be academic purpose to have a sexual relationship with a professor or other educator with power or influence on scholarships or awards or access to desirable opportunities.  The starlet who “auditions” on the casting couch sexually with the producer is a common element of movie industry mythology.  The actor or actress who becomes the red carpet escort of a powerful media figure may feign love and affection or be calculatingly accepting of an affair.

On the other hand, the purpose of a sexual affair may be personal.  Retaliation sex outside the relationship can serve to get back at or hurt a transgressing partner.  The individual may want to get revenge upon the partner by having an affair.  This vengeful infidelity may not be for the sexual thrill or any attraction to some other person but be punishment for some financial disagreement, lack of attention or nurturing, or some other grievance against the partner.  The cheating individual recognizes that infidelity will strike at the partner’s greatest vulnerability.  Rosalyn had complained to Jeff for years about his obsessive involvement with fly-fishing, fishing clubs, tying fly-fishing lures, fishing trips, and a small business leading adventure fly fishing excursions.  She understood that it was his passion, but she and the children also needed attention.  There were some medical and academic challenges for the children that took a lot of time and energy.  In addition, both her parent and his parents needed a lot of physical support as they became older.  Rosalyn worked fulltime while Jeff took temporary jobs so that he could continue to pursue his dreams.  Rosalyn felt she carried the financial, childcare, and extended family responsibilities with little but unfulfilled promises from Jeff and repeated disappointment.  An earlier attempt at couple therapy ended when Jeff canceled to take a group out on a fishing trip, and they never rescheduled.  Rosalyn felt more and more overwhelmed and marginalized in Jeff’s priorities.  Rosalyn felt Jeff behaviorally responded to her requests with behavioral “screw you” inaction, and decided to respond with “screw you back.”  She began an affair with a neighbor in the apartments they lived in.  Rosalyn was not particularly secretive or careful about the sexual infidelity.  And she readily admitted that there was not anything special about the neighbor.  What the affair partner was good for was to get back at Jeff.  Despite her casual sexual encounters and even more casual planning and communications, Jeff did not notice the cues for a while, since he was so self-absorbed with his own needs.  Rosalyn wanted to get caught and actually started to become impatient.  Eventually, Jeff walked in on Rosalyn and the neighbor having sex in their apartment.  “Gotcha!”

Satisfaction in the partner’s anguish was more important than enjoyment of any sexual experience.  The individual may want to provoke jealousy because some of relationship disharmony.  He or she may not be getting the attention and care desired and hopes that a sexual competitor will motivate the partner to invest more in him or her.  For Rosalyn, Jeff’s obsession with his fly fishing business might as well have been Jeff preoccupied with a mistress.  She felt it was clearly more important to him than she or the children were.  It is possible that the individual wants out of the relationship much more than wanting the affair in any significant way.  The affair may to provoke the ending of the relationship- an unfulfilling or joyless relationship.  Rather than overtly ending the relationship, the individual has the affair to trigger the partner to terminate the relationship.  Rosalyn had been disillusioned with the marriage for several years.  The prior attempt at couple therapy that Jeff terminated with his unavailability had probably started Rosalyn becoming done with the relationship.  As she felt Jeff was already disconnected, she became more disconnected.  Since he was involved in his “affair” with fly fishing, she started seeing herself as foolish to maintain fidelity.  Punishing him while simultaneously giving Jeff the clear message of being done came through having the affair.  

The individual may go through some challenging developmental period, task, or crisis that influences susceptibility to infidelity.  The individual may for example have uncertainty about his or her identity.  It may be about sexual identity or sexual orientation, or instead may be about transitions in the or from the family-of-origin or life cycle issues.  Becoming independent of the ancestral home, establishing an independent household, becoming economically independent, and the new identity in the community and family can be confusing.  The issue may be some “mid-life crisis” that has little to do specifically with the other person or the committed relationship.  Getting older or children leaving the home creating an empty nest are among many issues that may cause depression or an accompanying unclear feeling of emptiness or of a void that can throw an individual’s personal equilibrium and trigger some new unprecedented behavior.  Job loss or demotions can affect identify as well.  Conversely, changes in the relationship that might be otherwise considered natural and positive can be triggering as well.  Being married or in a committed monogamous relationship, having children, and resetting or evolving prior friendships along with the spouse or committed partner can be disconcerting.  There may be loads of expectations that go along with the individual’s new status and obligations.

As these developmental challenges may become uncomfortably challenging and onerous, an affair may be an oppositional defiant statement against new responsibilities and restrictions.  Forbidden sexual dalliance with a different person may relieve tension.  Later in life, middle aged men and women past menopause may feel less virile after years or decades off the sexual market.  Doubt about still being desirable, attractive, and being sexually adequate may cause some individuals to solicit proof of sexual vitality and desirability through sexual affairs.  “Sometimes an affair may represent a person’s failure to cope with a difficult life circumstance, for example: the chronic illness of one’s spouse, the death of a family member, the birth of a handicapped child, drastic changes in one’s income or financial status, or the loss of one’s job.  In such cases, an affair can serve as a temporary distraction from stressful life circumstances over which one has little or no control” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 4).  In the period of emotional, psychological, or spiritual insecurity, an illicit sexual relationship becomes a psychic oasis for ones otherwise depleted self-esteem.  Aidan had been going through significant professional challenges and changes after years of being the “star” of the foundation.  His sense of professional self, his acceptance by his staff, and his status within the foundation were in tumultuous transition.  Simultaneously, his partnership with Cathy was also going through changes with the children off to college and Cathy unable to be as attentive with her need to focus on her physical challenges.  He was also past fifty and his body was going through aging changes that affected his sense of activity and virility.   Aidan was conscious of going through a professional developmental progression, but was not aware of simultaneously going through an emotional, psychological, and spiritual- that is, a psychic transition.

The individual may have some form of paraphiliac sexual or hypersexual arousal to objects, situations, or individuals that are not part of normative stimulation.  Reid and Woolley (2006, page 220) define “hypersexual behavior as difficulty in regulating (e.g., diminishing or inhibiting) sexual thoughts, feelings, or behavior to the extent that negative consequences are experienced by the self or others.  The behavior causes significant levels of personal or interpersonal distress and may include activities that are incongruent with personal values, beliefs, or desired goals.  The behavior may function as a maladaptive coping mechanism (e.g., used to avoid emotional pain or used as a tension-reduction activity) and may coincide with other psychopathology or neurological impairments.”  The individual’s sexual behavior may be atypical or extreme and may not be satisfied within the committed relationship.  On the other hand, it may be typical sexual behavior or desires but would violate socially and personally accepted context of marriage or the committed monogamous relationship.  Hypersexual or paraphiliac sexual feelings and behaviors often co-exist and reciprocally influence other problematic issues such as substance abuse, anxiety or depression, emotional dysregulation, learning disabilities, attachment insecurities, and childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.  “This landscape of issues makes it difficult to determine which correlations related to attachment ruptures are due to hypersexuality and which are due to any attendant psychopathologies or other problems” Reid and Woolley, 2006, page 221).

The partner may not be willing to or even aware of the individual’s sexual compulsions.  The individual may feel too shameful to ask his or her partner to participate in some sexual fetish or other sexual paraphiliac behavior.  Hypothetically, if the partner were willing to join in the sexual acting out, the individual would not need to seek satisfaction in an affair.  However illicit secrecy, infidelity, or engaging a prostitute may be a core aspect of the paraphilia such that partner participation would not provide the gratification desired.  The individual who has some form of paraphilia may cultivate or seek out an affair where in he or she can engage in the sexual fantasies.  “Paraphilias are disorders of sexual behavior in which a compulsive element narrowly defines the focus of a person’s sexual repertoire so that arousal and satisfaction become dependent upon what most people would consider to be bizarre or abnormal sexual practices.  Some of the most common paraphilias include exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, sexual masochism, sexual sadism, transvetistic fetishism, frotteurism, and pedophilia” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 4).  The compulsive sexual behavior is conceptualized as a symbolic manifestation of an unconscious painful conflict.  Non-human or inanimate objects may be fetishes for sexual satisfaction.

When an active partner or possibly a coerced, manipulated, or forced participant is required for some symbolism, then an affair may become the process for sexual satisfaction.  The hypersexual partner may try to sexually manipulate the other partner.  This compromises the partner’s sense of mutual reciprocal participation and enjoyment.  It causes stress and discomfort about sexual and emotionally intimacy between the partners, and also the family.  In addition, to infidelity and all its associated lies and deceptions, the other partner may be fearful of the children being inappropriately exposed to sexual feelings and behaviors.  “It is important to remember that the paraphiliac’s compulsive behavior is primarily designed to alleviate intense psychic pain, anxiety and depression.  Achieving sexual gratification is only a secondary motive.”  The partner who has been cheated on may be primarily or entirely focused on the sexual infidelity.  The partner assumes that the adulterer is sexually driven to betray him or her with another partner.  The offended partner may be mostly or completely oblivious to the adulterer’s intense psychic pain while immersed in his or her own psychic pain.

Less bizarre are affairs that are also expressions of unconscious conflicts.  The affair serves as a form of acting out or resolution that has a cathartic effect.  The individual’s sexual compulsivity is not strange or unusual as with paraphilias, but still crosses the committed boundaries of committed monogamous relationships.  Sexual addiction involves inability to deal adequately with impulsive urges.  “On average, 70% of individuals who present with hypersexual behavior are ambivalent about their sexual activities (Reid, in press).  Like the cocaine addict toward cocaine, many hypersexual individuals develop a love-hate relationship with sex.  They become psychologically dependent upon the euphoria associated with neuro-chemical processes activated by sex while remaining aware that their self-destructive behavior is jeopardizing their relationships” (Reid and Woolley, 2006, page 221).  Sex, sexual acting out, or affairs can compulsively block intense psychological pain or obscure a profound inner void.  It serves to avoid difficult and distressing emotional challenges within the self and in the intimate relationship.  “The precipitating event that triggers these individuals to act out sexually is often related to times when they feel emotional pain or disregulation.  It is plausible that such individuals may never have developed the ability to process uncomfortable or difficult emotions.  For example, such individuals experience difficulty differentiating their emotions from their sense of self.  Such individuals may translate ‘I feel bad’ to ‘I’m worthless.’  Cognitive distortions like these are amplified when uncomfortable or awkward feelings such as frustration, disappointment, anger, rejection, or inadequacy surface.  In order to avoid or escape emotional discomfort, individuals may turn to sex as a way of self-medicating or soothing themselves” (page 222).

Throughout their relationship, Winona and Peter had arguments about his interactions with prior girlfriends and female friends.  Winona felt that Peter did not hold appropriate boundaries and there were at least some emotional intimacy boundaries that got crossed.  Peter had sex with one female friend that Winona considered a betrayal.  Peter however argued that they were on a “break” and thus, it was not technically infidelity.  Winona felt that they were taking a break but not broken up, which meant they were still a couple.  As such, Peter was not a free agent sexually.  What is more, having sex with the female friend the very next day after starting the “break” did not sit well with her.  She said she observed Peter becoming sexual or allowed sexualized interactions with women far too casually without any romantic qualities required.  Peter felt that she was preventing him from having friendships.  Being denied friendships turned out to be related to a profound sense of inadequacy socializing with girls from childhood through adolescence.  Peter had attachment insecurities due to his parents’ issues that harmed their ability to appropriately be attentive and nurturing.  In addition, he had vague memories that caused him to suspect that he was sexually molested when relatively young.  Peter claimed his interactions with ex-girlfriends who were former sexual partners remained appropriate for a married man.  Upon discussion in therapy, he admitted that he complained to them about his relationship with Winona, including commentary about the frequency and quality of their sex life.

For Winona, Peter discussing their personal sex life with other women was a clear violation of the covenant of their emotional intimacy.  When so confronted, Peter admitted his impropriety.  However, he felt compelled to breach the boundary frequently over the course of their relationship.  Even after acceding it as emotional infidelity that hurt Winona, he continued to breach emotional fidelity during the course of couple therapy.  While Peter asserted and Winona agreed that he had not been sexually unfaithful (aside from the “break” sex), Peter also obsessively viewed hardcore internet pornography.  Habitual pornography viewing tends to desensitize the individual from sex as an aspect of intimacy and love.  Through frequent masturbation, the visually and physically alluring porn stars offered sexual satisfaction and fantasy that a real-world lover cannot match.  Winona sensed Peter’s emotional disconnection.  She intuitively felt that Peter addictively viewing pornography was as if he were having an affair.  Rather than an affair, Peter engaged in sexualized communication with other women and masturbated to pornography compulsively to self-medicate or self-soothe his emotional and psychological distress.

The compulsive sexual energy of the individual can be matched with a complementary compulsive drive of the affair partner resulting in long-term affairs.  “Such unconscious collusion is not uncommon in these types of extramarital relationships” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 4).  The affair partner of the cheater or adulterer may know that formal intimacy such as marriage or monogamy is unlikely or off the table, but accept the partial relationship for some compelling reason of his or her own.  This appeared to have some relevance to Tina for accepting Aidan’s very limited availability and refusal to be pressed into a more committed relationship.  Tina had her own compulsive emotional and psychological needs to persist in the affair despite Aidan basically exploiting her in a non-reciprocal relationship.  Cathy recognized that Aidan exploited Tina without remorse in the affair.  She recognized that Aidan had a cruel component in him when he became detached, that she had seen other times. At the same time, this caused Cathy to contemplate why Tina tolerated such treatment and limited rewards.  In the situation with Peter, Winona had suspicions about the sexual predatory motivations of some of Peter’s old girlfriends and current female friends.  Winona knew of one of Peter’s current e-mail female friend promiscuous patterns of behavior with other married men in their extended circle in the community.  Prior to this woman’s marriage, during her marriage, and subsequent to her divorce, this woman had affairs with other men who were either married or supposedly in committed relationships.  She seemed to have some need to seduce men who were supposed to be off limits but vulnerable.

Two individuals may engage in a sexual relationship that is technically an affair to the unknowing partner, but part of a greater process or plan.  One of the most common types of extramarital relationships may be when one individual is anticipating or in divorce proceedings.  He or she has emotionally strayed from the relationship for a while, although the other partner may have no idea of the detachment.  The unfaithful individual is part of a pair of participants who are romantically invested in one another.  They intend to stay committed and/or get married once the machinations of divorce are finalized and the married individual legally freed.  The unfaithful individual may or may not abandon co-habitation or inform his or her spouse or partner of the new romantic relationship.  The affair may be a part of the individual’s exit strategy or process.  The offended partner may want to try couple therapy to save or heal the relationship, but the unfaithful partner is already done.  He or she probably has emotionally disconnected from the relationship months or years before.  The exit affair creates additional or final impetus to leave a degenerating relationship.  The exit affair distracts the unfaithful partner from the enduring distress in the relationship.  It may be somewhat intentionally explosively painful to compel breaking up without the possibility of reconciliation.  If the unfaithful partner who has had an exit affair is talked into trying couple therapy, it may be from guilt rather than any true desire to reconcile.  Or, the exiting unfaithful partner may agree to couple therapy so that he or she can leave relatively more guilt free after having tried “one last attempt” before final separation.  The integrity of couple therapy may be compromised before it even commences.  An affair may be a way to help him or her finishing disconnecting emotionally and/or sexually from the spouse or partner in preparation for divorce or final separation.

In this situation, couple therapy to maintain or rebuild the relationship is not in the interest of the unfaithful individual on the way out whether or not the other partner knows of the affair.   If ignorant of the affair but sensing relationship deterioration or major degeneration of intimacy, the other partner may pull the unfaithful partner into couple therapy.  The unfaithful partner may agree to couple therapy as part of his or her subterfuge or as a diversion to benefit eventual separation, possibly financially, emotionally, or in some other manner.  Such therapy normally lacks integrity and is doomed to fail reconciling the partners.  On the other hand, knowing of the infidelity the offended partner who has been cheated on may instigate couple therapy in a last ditch attempt to reverse the momentum of separation and re-establish the committed relationship.  The unfaithful partner may agree to it as a last concession to the offended partner.  Agreeing to basically pointless couple therapy gives the departing unfaithful partner ability to claim having tried everything before leaving.  This is an illegitimate claim since he or she had withdrawn all but physically and legally from the relationship well earlier, including through the act of engaging in the affair.

Leia terminated the couple therapy and the marriage simultaneously.  The couple therapy consisted of two sessions, while the relationship consisted of five years before marriage and twelve years marriage.  In the first session, Leia professed great excitement at the therapist’s directness and made a strong commitment to work out issues long persistent and disrupting in the marriage.  Herbert was pleased that Leia wanted to work on the relationship after years of conflict and disconnection.  At the beginning of the second and final session the next week, Leia declared that she had realized that she was done with the marriage.  There was nothing more to talk about or to work through, except the financial logistics and dealing with fallout for the children.  Herbert was shocked and devastated, but came around to accepting that there was nothing for him to try if Leia was done.  Leia found a place to stay, moved out, and removed her things from the house within a couple of days.  She had withdrawn money from their joint bank accounts.  She had divorce papers served to Herbert within the week as well.  The efficiency of Leia’s process to terminate and process divorce brought back Herbert’s suspicions that Leia had not suddenly just realized that the marriage was not going to work.  Herbert had previous unvoiced suspicions that Leia already had another romantic partner.  Within a couple of weeks, he heard confirmation from friends and family members that Leia indeed had a new beau that she had moved in with.  It was someone that she had met at her Alcoholic Anonymous meeting.  Couple therapy as well as the affair was apparently all a part of Leia’s grand plan.  Unknowingly, the therapist was merely a pawn in her end game.

The unfaithful individual may have a long-term affair or a series of shorter extramarital relationships because of being stuck in a non-voluntary or dissatisfying relationship or marriage.  The individual finds the committed relationship to be unsatisfying for a variety of reasons: a lack of intimacy, poor communication, insufficient support, as well as sexual unhappiness.  Bart and Helen began dating in college.  Both came from Catholic families from similar communities so there were a lot of shared commonalities.  Late in his senior year, Bart was contemplating a career in government service while Helen continued her studies to become a registered nurse.  There was a choice internship in the State Department in Washington, D.C. that he had been awarded.  This was an exciting first step for him.  Bart anticipated that government service would send him all over the country if not the world.  Bart had begun considering ending the relationship since he did not see Helen as a career diplomat’s wife.  He liked her fine, but the relationship had gotten a bit predictable.  Then Helen got pregnant.

Abortion was out of the question.  Abandoning her was out of the question.  Being a good Catholic boy and a good Catholic girl, they got married.  Three more kids came along while Helen stayed home as the housewife.  Bart opted instead for a MBA at University of Santa Clara, rather than the doctoral program at Georgetown he preferred.  He pursued a career in business taking advantage of some connections offered by one of his professors.  He chose the safe and responsible path, as a good Catholic boy should.  Helen was a completely dedicated mother, but quickly ceased to be an intellectual and emotional partner.  Bart tried to make it work, but Helen just was not… interesting.  Sensing his impatience with her, Helen’s attachment insecurities deepened and she became highly needy clinging to him emotionally.  She never did anything overtly destructive that could give him the barest justification for divorce, especially in light of their Catholic marriage and family values.

Business travel and meetings as he ascended the corporate hierarchy gave him opportunity for one-night stands and longer-term affairs to meet his emotional sense of vacuum.  Filled with shame and guilt while unfulfilled and emotionally needy as well, he could not nevertheless divorce Helen.  Married for close to thirty years, Bart had affairs of some sort for more than twenty years, including the current two-year affair with Mariko.  Ironically and shamefully to Bart, he got enough of what he did not get from Helen from the affairs to keep the marriage intact.  The individual may be unable to leave the relationship or marriage because of financial reasons, feeling bound by children, or social and/or cultural sanctions.  To tolerate being stuck in a completely unhappy and unfulfilling relationship or marriage, infidelity becomes the only means of grasping intimacy in any form- including sexually.  While not the case with Helen, often the partner who is being cheated upon may suspect or know but unconsciously or secretly collude to the necessity of the affair or affairs.  They “agree not to deal with the issue so as not to upset the couple’s homeostatic balance that the affair maintains and of which it is symptomatic” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 5).

The therapist may potentially inject personal values, judgment, or not manage counter-transference into the couple’s relationship.  He or she should not determine for either partner whether the relationship is appropriate.  The therapist should not take a position necessarily for the individual to quit the affair or to “encourage the clients to pursue or maintain their affairs.  The therapist” can “communicate…openness about alternative lifestyles and…” take “a position about affairs as ‘neutral’” (Linquist and Negy, 2005, page 1427).  While the therapist may not personally or professionally believe in open relationships or intimate emotional or sexual liaisons outside the committed relationship, or agree with or disagree with religious values, it is the partners’ decision as to what they tolerate or accept.  It was Bart and Helen’s as well as, Aidan and Cathy’s values that created distress about infidelity, rather than the therapist’s moral judgment.  Linquist and Negy “advocate the position that extrarelational affairs are inherently neither good nor evil, but a fact of life.  Consequently, clients would be better served when therapists strive to maintain a relatively objective, neutral stance toward their clients’ behaviors, rather than judging them…Clients’ motives for their involvement in extrarelational affairs vary and range from being relatively pathological to relatively healthy.  We also acknowledge that clients vary in their sexual values and behaviors, and that not everyone will engage in extrarelational affairs.  Nonetheless, once clients have made the decision to be involved in an affair, therapy may be more constructive when therapists help them maximize their experiences, including to act responsibly and be considerate of all parties affected by the affair, than when therapists burden them further with criticism and disapproval” (2005, page 1427-28).

The unfaithful partner, especially for example in Bart’s case may intuitively find the affair important and even necessary at various levels.  Bart initially came to therapy to reconcile his sense of marital obligation to Helen versus the emotional fulfillment he experienced with his affair with Mariko.  There is often benefit beyond the sexual excitement, fantasy, or stimulation.  Harano says, “Affairs are often a chance for people to try out new behaviors, to dress in a different costume, to stretch and grow and assume a different role. In a long-term relationship, we often get frozen in our roles.  When young couples begin at one level of success and go on to many achievements, the new person sees them as they've become, while the old person sees them as they were” (Glass, 1998, page 42).  Bart functioned fine as the income-providing husband-father in their version of a Catholic family.  He was a doting dad to his daughters and a sports enthusiast with his sons.  Partnering around household needs and childcare decisions was simple, especially since he deferred to Helen’s matriarchal dominance in such domains.  In his current long-term affair however, Bart explored and enjoyed emotional, spiritual, and intellectual stimulation and mutually rewarding challenges that Helen could not provide.  Despite the inherent role exclusions of being an affair partner, Bart often felt more in sync with Mariko than with his wife.  Helen deferred to him in most ways out of intuitive fear and anxiety of him finding her intellectually inadequate.  As such, she never really confronted or challenged him with her opinions.  She was more likely to cry and feign helplessness.  This infuriated him but also was successful in manipulating him.  He felt simultaneously an asshole and a wimp.  Bart often had a more equal reciprocal relationship with many of his affair partners and especially now with Mariko.  It made him feel more of a man.

Finding a healthy balance between being assertive without becoming dominating, being sensitive without becoming easily swayed permissive, and setting boundaries while avoiding rigidity with a partner was important to Bart individually and would have been beneficial for Bart and Helen as a couple.  His father’s models of being a man, husband, and father were problematic to say the least.  Bart wanted to find a new model, and needed a partner to work it out with.  Helen had been too insecure to tolerate such a process early in their relationship.  That was an important reason that Bart had begun considering breaking off the relationship late in college.  The problem with exploring these types of issues, different roles, and other models in an affair is that it is done without the permission or participation of the committed partner.  Expanding upon, taking new directions, and seeking depth in personal and relationship experiences may be beneficial and exciting to both partners.  However, going at it alone it through including an affair abandons the other partner.  It also violates the implicit contract to delve into such adventures or excursion jointly… and to work on the relationship.  “Usually, the person was giving more—more time, more attention, more compliments—in the affair than in the marriage.  If they can invest in the marriage what they were doing in the affair, they'll feel more” (Glass, 1998, page 78).  Bart had tried to go through these processes with Helen but found her unavailable or too meek to challenge him.  Rather than giving in to this, Bart hypothetically could have forced the issue and required Helen to participate.  This may have lead to earlier and healthier resolutions, while also possibly terminating the relationship or marriage decades ago.

The assertion of infidelity may be that the committed relationship is not fully satisfying or stimulating.  However, putting energy into gaining satisfaction in an affair rather than into improving the committed relationship to make it more satisfying, doubly violates the covenant of the relationship.  Harano feels that the unfaithful partner often has been working less on the relationship than the other partner.  Whether this is because he or she has given up or has some personal, character, or cultural difficulty investing in or confronting issues is not clear.  However, the entry into couple therapy honors the covenant by both partners committing to work on quality of the relationship.  Some individuals accept the status quo conditions in a personal compromise for the other benefits of stability, continuity, financial support, and so on.  They do not work on improving the relationship per se, but may find other fulfillment by focusing on the children for example.  Others work on challenging the status quo overtly by initiating communication or actions such as couple therapy, while still others choose not to work on the relationship by covertly re-directing themselves with affairs.

The offended partner may also gain some benefit from the partner having an affair.  It may “work” for both of them.  Both partners may consciously, semi-consciously, or unconsciously collude to maintain the homeostatic balance by avoiding dealing with or confronting secrets.  Secrets may include sexual incompatibility, loss of respect, anger, obsessions, debt, addictions, illness, or prior relationships before the affair.  When the affair is revealed or otherwise cannot be denied, they cannot maintain their deal to maintain secrets.  The partners may enter into couple therapy to rebalance the relationship.  Ironically, maintaining homeostasis may require either another affair or some other behaviors that would otherwise be considered dysfunctional in healthier systems.   The partners may essentially ask the therapist not so much to facilitate a healthy or healthier relationship between the partners, but to return them to the dysfunctional (for lacking intimacy) status quo.  The therapist needs to be open to other outcomes or resolutions acceptable to the partners besides reconciliation or termination of the relationship.  Periodic or long-term infidelity may be accepted and condoned by both partners as a way to maintain a voluntary relationship or marriage.  If the sexual desire of a partner has diminished to the degree that important sexual intimacy has become unavailable, the other partner may seek and satisfy his or her sexual passions with covert permission of the sexually disinterested partner.  This permission may be more overt resulting in some type of open relationship or may be another unconscious collusion between partners that maintains both the committed relationship and the affair.

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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