How are things going for you?
1. Do routine discussions often erupt into destructive arguments?
2. Do you or your partner often withdraw or refuse to talk about important issues?
3. Do you or your partner often disregard what the other says, or do you often useput-downs?
4. Are the things you say to your partner often heard more negatively than youintended?
5. Do you feel that there has to be a winner and a loser when you disagree?
6. Does your relationship often take a back seat to other interests?
7. Do you often think about what it would be like to be with someone else?
Everyone may occasionally answer "yes" to some of these questions, but a persistent pattern of yes questions over time can be a warning signal that a relationship needs help. An excellent predictor of marital success is the way a couple handles conflicts and disagreements.
After the devastating disclosure of infidelity, intense emotions and recurrent crises are the norm. The good news, however, is that the majority of marriages not only survive infidelity, but therapists have observed that many marriages can become stronger and more intimate after couples therapy. An extramarital involvement is the catalyst for approximately 50 percent of the couples who initiate treatment. A striking paradox is that while polls indicate 90 percent disapproved of extramarital relationships, a national survey reported that approximately 25 percent of wives and 35 percent of husbands had experienced extramarital emotional or sexual intimacy.
Causes and Types of Extramarital Relationships
The causes of infidelity are complex and varied. Affairs can occur in happy marriages as well as in troubled ones. Although the involved spouse may not be getting enough from the marriage, sometimes the involved spouse is not giving enough. Reasons for extra marital affairs include low self-esteem, relationship deficits (e.g., lack of affection), or a social context in which infidelity is condoned.
Vulnerabilities for extra marital affairs can be linked to marital problems (e.g., avoidance of conflict, fear of intimacy) or life cycle changes (e.g., transition to parenthood, empty-nest). Some dissatisfied spouses begin an extramarital relationship as a way of exiting from an unhappy marriage. More frequently, however, the marital history is re-written to justify an ongoing affair. It is unreasonable to compare a forbidden love affair that is maintained by romantic idealization with the routine familiarity of a long-term marriage.
The Impact of Discovery
It is common for both spouses to experience depression (including suicidal thoughts), anxiety, and/or a profound sense of loss following the initial disclosure. The reactions of the betrayed spouse resemble the post-traumatic stress symptoms of the victims of catastrophic events. Common reactions to the loss of innocence and shattered assumptions include obsessively pondering details of the affair; continuously watching for further signs of betrayal; and physiological hyperarousal, flashbacks and intrusive images. The most severely traumatized are those who had the greatest trust and were the most unsuspecting. The involved spouse may fear that they will be punished forever for the betrayal while they grieve for the lost dreams associated with the affair.
Treatment and Recovery
The first issue to be addressed in therapy is clarifying whether the purpose of treatment is rebuilding the marriage, resolving ambivalence about whether to remain married, or separating in a constructive way. One spouse may want to reconcile while the other spouse is still ambivalent or has decided to leave. Most family therapists work with the couple together as the primary approach. However, an ambivalent spouse or a severely agitated spouse may also need some individual therapy sessions. One way to help couples rebuild marriages after the disclosure of infidelity is based on an interpersonal trauma model -- a process of recovery and healing leading to forgiveness. The first stage of recovery after the impact of the disclosure establishes safety and addresses the painful emotions and traumatic symptoms. Understanding the vulnerabilities for the extra marital affair and telling the story of the affair comprise the middle stage.
Integrating the meaning of the affair into the present and moving on into the future is the final stage of healing and forgiveness.
Signs of Healing & Recovery
The marriage is stronger and couple-centered rather than child-centered.
The vulnerabilities for infidelity are understood and addressed as they occur.
The couple has developed trust, commitment, empathy and shared responsibility for change.
The couple problem solves effectively and has ground rules for handling conflict.