6. Characterological Issues - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

6. Characterological Issues

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > SorryNotEnough- Infidelity-Cpl

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

There can be a current expanse of potential influences that contribute to the individual’s decision to step outside the relationship.  There may be stress from the composition and roles within the relationship or marriage, problematic systemic interactions between the partners or among family members, demanding circumstances in the household, community, work, and the extended family.   The demands may be new and tied to transitions or developmental challenges from dealing with changes in family structure, boundaries, requirements, and evolving roles.  Hidden sexual orientation or identity issues, compulsions or addictive urges and behaviors, or other psycho-emotional instability may prompt blurring, stretching, or violations of relationship boundaries, including emotional and sexual intimate guidelines or restrictions.  “…a personality style marked by impulsivity, low dependability, and low reliability in general carries over into the sexual sphere.  Perhaps impulsive individuals are more likely to act on sexual opportunities when they arise, whereas less impulsive individuals show the forbearance to resist the sexual opportunities.  Alternatively, impulsive individuals may have a higher sex drive, and so seek out extramarital outlets more than less impulsive individuals.  A third possibility is that impulsive individuals exude more sexuality than less impulsive individuals, and so end up eliciting more frequent sexual advances from others” (Shackelford et al., 2008, page 22).  While many individuals have unresolved or are destabilized by developmental influences, there may not necessarily be any significant acting out that harms functioning or relationships.  These “normal neurotics” manage emotional and psychological turmoil arguably effectively when relating with spouses, partners, family members, colleagues, workers, and community members.

The same or similar stresses influence other individuals into making self-destructive dysfunctional choices.  Then, “infidelity may be attributed to certain ego weaknesses (e.g., low frustration tolerance, poor impulse control), superego deficiencies (e.g., poorly integrated, concrete, or primitive superego), and structural anomalies in the self system (e.g., split self)” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 6).  The unfaithful partner may have affairs because of “antisocial or narcissistic traits and believes he or she is above social norms and mores.  Such thinking communicates to the injured partner that the participating partner is at risk for additional affairs, particularly if she or he is not remorseful or is inordinately defensive about the current affair.  In this instance, a goal of treatment is to ensure that the injured partner becomes fully aware of this pattern of behavior and is able to make a good decision about whether to continue the relationship” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 384).  The offended partner who believes his or her partner is amenable to changing behavior because of shame or guilt would expect relatively simple interactions, confrontation, and interventions to prevent further infidelity.  The therapist who fails to recognize a significant personality disorder driving the attitudes, values, and behaviors of the unfaithful partner may help perpetuate the illusion to the detriment of therapy and the partners.

The therapist working with the individual who has had one or more affairs or extramarital sexual liaisons should prompt partners to exam the individual’s ego functioning, superego dimensions, and self-configurations.  The unfaithful partner and offended partner should both be examined for the quality of their ego strength.  Ego flexibility, depth, and breadth of resiliency to stress would have foretold his or her more affirmative and productive responses to relationship and life difficulties.  On the other hand, fragile ego strength or a lack of complexity manifested possibly in stereotypical and ineffective reactions, along with important ego deficits would have led the individual to dysfunctional choices.  The individual monitors him or herself based on the demands and guidelines of a superego- his or her internalized moral values.  The sophisticated quality of versus simplistic rigid demands of the individual’s idealized sense of self drives decision making when faced with real world demands.  Self-identification that includes perfectionism, demand to please others, to always avoid anger, to reign supreme, moral supremacy, and so forth can be beyond onerous requirements to become demands that create crushing psychic failure.

The individual’s idealized sense of self demands his or her real self certain capacities and specific performances.  If the ideal self is unsophisticated and emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually nuanced- that is, lacks compassion for human frailties and inconsistency, then the real self will be unable to adequately live up to expectations.  The integrity or viability of the self-system dynamics is compromised by unreasonable super-human demands.  Each person has defense mechanisms to manage anxiety from stresses on the self inherent to life’s demands.  The therapist needs to examine the individual’s defense mechanisms and defensive style for effectiveness and efficiency.  Unsuccessful ego defense may lead to accumulated stress that can break down boundaries that hypothetically would have precluded dysfunctional choices and behaviors, including infidelity.  Or, ego defenses or a defensive style that may be otherwise effective in managing one type of stress or a particular context unrelated to relationship fidelity may have collateral effects that increase vulnerability to violating relationship or sexual boundaries.

During examination of ego strength, idealized self-identity, and self-system integrity, the therapist may find that defensive mechanisms may be more than ineffective or slightly inadequate or excessive.  The therapist may find a defensive style that is horrifically ineffective or highly effective as the consequence and cost of a major characterological disorder.  Examination of the individual’s ego strengths and weaknesses, ego deficits, superego structure and quality, self-structure and dynamics, major defenses, and major symptoms may lead to an axis II diagnosis.  A series of affairs may be a way to deal with deep seated, including unconscious insecurities.  Labeled a philanderer, a narcissistic and impulsive person may need to make one sexual conquest after another to get validation of his or her worth.  The therapist can draw upon the offended partner to gain more information regarding the persistence and frequency of behaviors by the unfaithful partner.  The unfaithful partner often has a tremendous sense of relief upon discovery of infidelity.  He or she has lived a lie and been active in deceiving his or her partner often against personal moral standards.  The offended partner would know if deception and moral failings are part of his or her character and life performance.  The offended partner may recognize precedents in the unfaithful partner’s history.  On the other hand, the unfaithful partner may have no shame upon discovery.  “Some people thrive on the game.  For them, part of the passion and excitement of an affair is the lying and getting away with something forbidden.  There are some people who have characterological problems, and the affair may be a symptom of that.  Such people lie about their accomplishments…” (Glass, 1998, page 40).  The unfaithful partner may be liars and frauds in other areas of life and during other periods of the relationship.

Unproductive or negative behaviors may be isolated occurrences, or relatively consistent but not disruptive to the relationship beyond the immediate circumstances.  Or, they may be indicative of an embedded problematic personality style crossing over many if not most of the individual’s dynamics.  “If certain ego deficiencies, superego flaws, and self structural dynamics appear in conjunction with specific symptoms and defenses (e.g., projection, denial, splitting) and behavior patterns that persist over time and across a variety of situations and contexts, the therapist may suspect that the spouse does suffer from an axis II personality disorder.”  Infidelity may then be more a manifestation of the personality disorder as opposed to being the primary or sole issue for the individual.  As a result, the personality disorder may become the emphasis of therapy, with infidelity a secondary focus.  For example, the unfaithful partner may have become unconsciously numb to most feelings as a means to protect him or her emotional vulnerability.  It may be as extreme as in antisocial personality disorder or a defensive reflex activated by threats to the ego or being flooded with overwhelming anxiety over attachment fears. As a result, any potential empathy for the offended partners emotional devastation get automatically blocked.  At the very least, with dealing with such issues, couple therapy becomes significantly more complex.  

Francine’s characterological profile spanned the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.  Narcissistic personalities when threatened or triggered can behave antisocially.  Her narcissistic sense of omnipotence, entitlement, and grandiosity exhibited in all aspects of her life.  She was driven to be the best in all endeavors.  Francine was the head cheerleader, the class president, the valedictorian, and hot new star in her field- whatever field she chose at the time.  In high school, she dated the BMOC (big man on campus) until there was a new BMOC, who she then pursued and took from another girl.  Eventually, in college and career she decided that she could not truly commit to any one partner or lover… or one gender.  Commitment implied a mutual reciprocal and egalitarian relationship that she was not interested in.  She needed to be and have the best.  Any partner, no matter how outstanding was still unlikely to remain the top dog, best prize, or smartest, richest, or hottest partner.  Francine would need to replace him or her with the latest model like families used to replace their cars or other people replace last year’s technology with the latest tech toy.

Within her academic and professional arenas, she would relentlessly and remorselessly pursue her goals in a burnt earth passage oblivious to injuries to others.  Sexual partnerships served her functionally to gain opportunities and pave the way to success.  At the same time, Francine’s commitment to any one person was sustained only as her benefit was clear.  At best, it was transitory or serial monogamy until a better offer came up.  On the other hand, anyone in a romantic, business, and other relationship with Francine was held to rigid merciless standards of loyalty and would draw vicious punishment if violated.  What would be considered infidelity or affairs by Francine were actually another element of her narcissistic entitlement.  Couple therapy, with any presenting issue including infidelity with Francine and her partner inevitably have to deal with her narcissism.  There would be a strong possibility that maintaining her narcissist needs would dominate and circumvent any process to recover or heal from an affair.  Assessment for strong narcissistic traits becomes essential to potential success couple therapy, including specifically if the traits are transitory, deeply habitual, and easily and regularly triggered.

Aidan like many successful individuals in leadership positions had a strong ego that could border on narcissism.  All personality disorders are extreme and characterological versions of normal human feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.  Difficult and stressful situations, conditions, and triggers can push an individual into behavior consistent with a personality disorder.  However normally the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors would be transitory rather than a dysfunctional pattern for the individual.  Couple therapy needed to assess Aidan for tendencies or patterns and/or the particular circumstances that caused potential narcissistic entitlement, grandiosity, and omnipotence leading to infidelity.  Despite difficulty and inexperience being self-reflective and introspective, Aidan was engaged and candid examining his overall personality for narcissistic tendencies.  Cathy who knew and observed him intimately for decades reflected on past behaviors for narcissism.  While they agreed that Aidan had more than a sufficient ego and confidence, there had been occasional episodes of arrogance but no consistent pattern of entitlement, grandiosity, or omnipotence up until slightly prior to the beginning of the affair.

The offended partner may also have compelling emotional or psychological characteristics that are intrinsic to having partnered with the individual prone to infidelity.  These same characteristics can make couple therapy or the recovery and healing process more complex and difficult.  As discussed in the author’s book on couples with a narcissistic partner (“Scorpion in the Bed, The Narcissist in Couples and Couples Therapy,” 2013), there are characteristic personalities that form common pairings with narcissists.  Narcissists may partner with fellow narcissists who share and tolerate entitled behavior including infidelity to maintain a relationship for the sake of image, power, control, or status.  The four other personality disorders common among those who partner with narcissists are dependent personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, dependent, and histrionic disorder.  These individuals tolerate the narcissistic behavior, which can include infidelity out of emotional, attachment, or psychological neediness.  Another group of partners to the narcissist often had suffered abuse in childhood.  Their abusers had indoctrinated them to believe that their memories or experience with reality were incorrect.  They had been “corrected” to their abusers’ self-serving rationalizations- that is distortions of actual circumstances and actions.  They become relatively easy prey to be influenced by narcissists distorting the actions, feelings, and interactions around infidelity.  They tend to believe lies, minimizing and evasive words and actions, and denials that obscure otherwise obvious clues and indicators of infidelity.

The narcissist when confronted with infidelity may have a very difficult time dealing with his or her actions.  “For them, a broken sense of self is threatened by the possibility of accepting responsibility for one more thing ‘wrong’ with themselves, so they reject responsibility and accountability for their choices in order to preserve their fragile inner self” (Reid and Woolley, 2006, page 230).  Francine and her lover Nigel constituted a partner pair of narcissists.  They had retaliation affairs to hurt each other among a spectrum of vicious attempts to assert omnipotence.  As a pair of narcissists joined in their alliance of superior beings, they often unified to criticize therapy and the therapist together.  Couple therapy was particularly difficult with them since neither person was very tolerant of being held accountable.  Francine and Nigel experienced confrontation about toxic or hurtful behavior as being made wrong. Normal reaction was spiteful vitriol striking at each other’s most sensitive vulnerabilities.  Underlying the narcissistic defense mechanisms were highly fragile ego systems.  Francine and Nigel would have moments or periods of emotional self-awareness and desire for intimacy.  This is when one or the other would soften and venture vulnerability and attempt to connect.  However, their respective high fragile self-esteem was sensitized to criticism and attacks.  As a result, they would revert to narcissistic defenses (offense) to protect themselves.  Francine and Nigel were fundamentally challenged to practice the skills and communications needed for a healthy mutually fulfilling relationship.  Each person was much more comfortable as the superior in any relationship.  The emotional and psychology losses maintaining superiority and avoiding being hurt lead both of them to narcissism and also to frequent infidelity.  The relationship with each other and with the therapist constantly ignited narcissist defense against being made wrong.  They each experienced therapist feedback as criticism, which triggered attacks on the therapist as well.

Having found some narcissistic aspects to Aidan, the therapist needed to look at how and why Cathy may have partnered with him.  None of the four personalities disorders commonly paired with narcissists: fellow narcissist, borderline, dependent, or histrionic seemed sufficiently applicable to Cathy for a diagnosis.  While very competent and intelligent, she showed no narcissistic traits.  She did have some emotional reactivity that caused her to lash out verbally at Aidan, which could be considered borderline behavior if more extreme.  She was triggered by betrayal and rejection feelings from the affair, with less reaction to abandonment.  However, she was able with some success to modulate her intensity and largely refrain from vicious words or actions.  In addition, where borderline reactions are unpredictably triggered by idiosyncratic words or behaviors with projected negative symbolism, her emotional reactivity was prompted by specific pain caused by the infidelity.  Dependency and histrionics were clearly not characteristic of Cathy who had a strong ego and was a very substantial intellect, talented, and accomplished in her own right.  The one possibility that may have influenced her partnership with a mildly narcissist Aidan was an abuse experience in her childhood from coaches in sports.  Cathy had been involved in youth gymnastics.  One of her coaches was extremely critical and negative to all the children.  Cathy who had perfectionist and pleasing characteristics took her criticism with a great deal of pain.  Making her students wrong, withholding praise, and always pointing out what else should be done became abuse to Cathy.  Cathy rarely questioned the coach, and if she did the coach further berated her for being wrong all over again.  This may have made her accepting of negative behavior and doubting her sense of reality. Therapy in examining how Cathy influenced the dynamics of the couple needs to be sensitive to her vulnerability of being made wrong.  The context of infidelity needed to be uncovered to hold each partner responsible for past and future choices and behaviors, but without finding the offended partner Cathy- the victim to be at fault.

Individuals, especially those with borderline personality disorder may have major issues with high emotional reactivity.  They cannot readily manage or regulate strong affect in general and are even more disrupted and volatile with the betrayal, abandonment, and rejection emotions from uncovering infidelity.  The high emotionality can be so intense in therapy and of course, in the relationship that it draws most of everyone’s energy and attention.  Infidelity with its profound betrayal of fundamental relationship values and violation of safety and security is already highly provocative.  Couple therapy may require simultaneous treatment of the underlying issues causing and triggering high negative affect for the offended partner.  Successful therapy or positive resolution of infidelity such that the two partners can remain together may be impossible without also resolving such characterological issues in each partner.  This presents a tremendously complex and difficult challenge to therapy and to the couple.  Personality disorders are by definition characterologically deeply embedded and difficult to change.  While Aidan and Cathy as an example do not have strong personality disordered characteristics, some couples presenting to deal with infidelity may have personality disorders.

Personality disorders were prominent in another couple: Stephan and Ray.  Stephan had narcissistic personality disorder issues that lead him to feel entitled to engage in sexual affairs, while Ray had borderline personality disorder and was highly emotionally reactive.  When he lashed out, Stephan would step into his superior narcissist stance and dismiss Ray as irrational.  This further triggered Ray’s borderline anxieties about rejection and threw him into depths of despair.  Unable to soothe or talk Ray out of his desperation, Stephan’s high fragile self-esteem faced intolerable failure as a husband.  Interjection and guidance from the therapist triggered Stephan’s need to be superior and he rejected any input.  On the other hand, sometimes efforts by the therapist that were not specifically and overtly supportive of Ray triggered his betrayal fears and Ray then lashed out at the therapist.  The dysfunctional match between the characterological issues of the unfaithful partner and the offending partner may be too complex for the relationship to recover and heal, or for the therapist to manage.  However, disregarding significant characterological factors changes treatment from difficult and unlikely to impossible.  Mistakenly, treating the partners as “normal neurotics” who have made a mistake or strayed can eliminate any possibility of healthy resolution.  If present in the partners, both personality disorders have to be dealt with in the couple therapy.

“Integrating the individual and the systemic perspectives, Emily Brown (1991) organized a list in basic patterns of infidelity:

1) the conflict-avoidant affair,

2) the intimacy-avoidant affair,

3) the sexual addiction affair,

4) the split-self affair, and

5) the exit affair” (Winek and Craven, 2003, page 251).  

As discussed earlier, the unfaithful partner who has an exit affair tends not to use couple therapy since the affair serves the purpose to end the relationship.  Or, may use couple therapy as part of the exit strategy.  Sexual addictions, also discussed earlier that drive infidelity could be so compulsive that anything resembling normal couple therapy focusing on the relationship is ineffective.  “…we have found that the sexual addiction affair can be addressed in couple’s therapy only after significant progress has been made on the underlying sexual addiction” (Winek and Craven, 2003, page 251).  Exit and sexual addiction affairs as well as the other three patterns of infidelity may manifest as one-night stands to long-term parallel affairs.  The patterns may be seen from the perspective of underlying issues or motivations, while types of affairs are ways they may manifest behaviorally.

An individual may have emotional avoidance motivations for an affair as opposed to some functional benefit.  An affair can be a way to avoid conflicts with the partner.  One or both partners may not have the ability to assert themselves when issues come up between them.  The relationship may have already degenerated significantly over unsettled issues.  Conflicts may be so negatively charged or ignite such deep and historical despair that the partner holds back any confrontation or communication that could otherwise lead to resolution.  Fear of it leading to emotional pain blocks trying to work things out.  The build up of difficult emotional emotions that the individual finds fundamentally non-resolvable can lead to infidelity as a means to release the stress.  “Due to an inability to share with one’s partner, emotions can be suppressed. Individuals may feel angry or annoyed but avoid the issue to avert conflict.  The ‘intimacy avoiders’ are couples that are frightened of intimacy.  These couples often turn to anger and physical violence to avoid becoming vulnerable.  The affair acts as a barrier to intimacy, and reinforces the couple’s disdain for dependency.”  In the same way, another individual may have major aversion to the vulnerability intrinsic to intimacy.  If intimacy is highly uncomfortable, an affair ironically may be a way to maintain sufficient emotional distance to stay in the relationship.  Sexually addictive affairs may be comparable with sex or the affair used “compulsively to numb their inner pain and emptiness.  This partner uses sex as a form of selfmedication and needs constant reassurance and approval (Silverstein, 1998).  This partner has an obsessive-compulsive tendency to seek love, sex, or romance for validation and to fill emptiness” (Winek and Craven, 2003, page 252).

The “split-self affair” is seen as a midlife crisis or empty nest affair.  This style of affair is seen as being driven by a search for someone to take care of one’s needs after a lifetime of sacrifices and taking care of others.  There is some aspect of this with Aidan and his personal and professional crises after decades of dedication somehow arriving at a place where he becomes criticized.  The underlying tendency to self-sacrifice can go back to pressures in childhood to meet the needs of others and put aside one’s own needs.  When Aidan was very young, sister Hilary’s departure to college would have almost certainly caused him to become extremely distraught.  Hilary had been more his mother or parent than his actual mother or father.  While he has no conscious memory of this period of his childhood, the pattern of his parents somewhat distant emotional style may have left him without sufficient reassurance.  It would be predictable that their sense of duty and work ethic focused them on more “important” adult concerns.  His “childish” distress over losing his attachment figure Hilary could have been discounted.  Not only is there the likelihood of his parents modeling setting aside their own emotional needs, but of them also possibly requiring him to set aside his pain and loss of Hilary’s nurturance and soldier on.  Resentment and confusion can result from a lifetime of self-sacrifice being discounted.  Aidan may have been split from feeling denied his reward of appreciation and respect.  He may have sought and found some semblance of appreciation in the affair.  This style of affair during a midlife crisis forces a decision to stay in the marriage or divorce, which can result in an exit affair.  Bart unlike Aidan had affairs throughout his marriage to Helen.  He did not face a professional crisis per se, other than reaching fifty years of age vocationally and financially successful but without emotional or spiritual satisfaction.  As his last child was about to head off to college, his reconciling of his life’s dedication found him without the psychic rewards he though he deserved for having done the right thing.  The split-self and various other perspectives or conceptualizations of infidelity may cross-validate or one or more perspectives.  Such multi-theoretical diagnosis may be most useful in understanding the individual and couple’s dynamics.  This can potentially lead to more effective therapeutic strategies.

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
Back to content | Back to main menu