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Therapy for Romantic Relationship Infidelity
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In the last section, we discussed three gender differences in the unfaithful partner’s emotional response to an affair. The three gender differences we focused on were what kind of partner is sought, what justifies an affair, and what internal tensions the affair causes.
In this section, we will discuss five keys aspects concerning exploring ideas about love and reasons for affairs with couples dealing with infidelity. The five key aspects concerning ideas about love are unrequited love, romantic love, confronting unrealistic expectations, the disenchantment process, and determining where ideas about love come from.
Abby, a hurt partner, had been married to her husband Randal for fourteen years when she entered counseling. Randal had recently confessed to Abby that he had had eighteen affairs over the course of their life together. Randal was more involved with his new lover, Tina, than he had been with any of his previous lovers. When I met Abby, she was in a state of shock and denial.
Abby stated, "We have a great marriage! Randal is perfect for me!" I encouraged Abby to explore her ideas concerning love with me during our sessions. As you will see in Abby’s case, there can be five key aspects in this exploration of a couple’s ideas concerning love.
5 Aspects of Love
♦ Key Aspect # 1 - Unrequited Love
Abby was soon able to admit that she had been hurt by Randal during their marriage. Abby stated, "There was one time I found a lump in my breast, and I had to have Randal take me in for a mammogram. He talked to his broker on his phone the whole time. Not once did he ask about how the test came out. And there were times he came home wanting sex while he was sweaty and smelled like someone else’s perfume. If I didn’t love Randal so much, I wouldn’t be able to stand how he treats me."
I felt that Abby was exhibiting signs of the first key aspect concerning ideas about love, unrequited or unreturned love. Abby was convinced that the pain and suffering she experienced were a logical part of loving her husband so deeply.
♦ Key Aspect # 2 - Romantic Love
A second key aspect concerning ideas about love involves romantic love. Randal stated, "Look, I love Tina. We never argue, she’s never boring, and there’s this amazing chemistry. Why should I turn away from something like that? Tina is everything that Abby isn’t!"
I stated to Randal, "When you first become involved with someone, the intense feelings create a kind of natural high that can distort your perceptions of others. You may idealize your new lover, while painting your partner as a negative foil for this new wonderful person. Part of this is due to some very real chemical changes that occur in the brain. Feelings of intense passion occur when the brain releases amphetamine-like chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and PEA. Over time, however, your body’s tolerance to these chemicals increases, and the intense feelings diminish. Randal does this make sense to you?"
Would your Randal who is in romantic love with his Tina, with whom he is having an affair, benefit from a description of the neurochemical aspects of romantic love that can distort perceptions?
♦ Key Aspect # 3 - Unrealistic Expectations
In addition to the concepts of unrequited or unreturned love and romantic love, a third key aspect concerning ideas about love and affairs involves confronting unrealistic expectations about love and marriage. Randal displayed several unrealistic expectations of love and marriage. See if this sounds familiar. Randal stated, "When passion dies, the relationship is over. And passion left between me and Abby years ago. Obviously, it’s time for me to explore my other options." Abby also exhibited unrealistic expectations. Abby believed that part of love and marriage involve uncomplainingly accepting her partner’s hurtful behavior.
Confronting my Expectations Exercise
Since both Randal and Abby exhibited unrealistic expectations regarding love and marriage, I encouraged them to work through the Confronting my Expectations cognitive-behavioral exercise with me. I asked Randal and Abby to listen to the following list of 7 expectations. I stated, "As you listen, consider honestly which ones you believe in. How realistic and useful are these 7 expectations for you?"
- I shouldn’t have to work for love.
- I shouldn’t have to work to be trusted.
- My partner should be emotionally available to me whenever I need him or her.
- A good marriage is free of conflict.
- If I’m not happy in my marriage, it must be my partner’s fault.
- My partner should want to do exactly what I want to do the moment I want to do it.
- My partner should forgive all of my limitations, even if I can’t forgive some of theirs.
Through discussion of these, both Randal and Abby were becoming increasingly aware of the unrealistic expectation each had.
♦ Key Aspect # 4 - Process of Disenchantment
A fourth key aspect concerning ideas about love and reasons for affairs involves the process of disenchantment. According to psychologists Barry Dyn and Michael Glenn, a love relationship occurs in three stages.
-- Stage # 1 - Romantic Love
The first is the stage of romantic love, as we discussed earlier.
-- Stage # 2 - Disenchantment
The second is the process of disenchantment. I stated to Randal and Abby, "During the disenchantment process, both partners become less compromising and less available for change. Often, partners retreat into rigid patterns which may predate the relationship. At this point, partners are likely to feel immensely let down with each other. During disenchantment, couples are also likely to find themselves caught up in a handful of well-defined interpersonal struggles.
-- Stage # 3 - Mature Love
If the couple can come to terms with each other’s limitations, and avoid being worn down by recurring arguments, they likely have a good chance at entering the third stage of a love relationship. It is at this point that infidelity usually occurs. This third stage of love relationships is one of compromise, accommodation, integration, and resolution. The third stage of love is commonly referred to as mature love."
Think of a couple you are currently treating for issues related to infidelity. Has the process of disenchantment been a factor in the unfaithful partner’s search for the feelings of romantic love outside of the marriage?
♦ Key Aspect # 5 - Where Ideas about Love Come From
In addition to the concepts of unrequited and romantic love, confronting unrealistic expectations, and disenchantment, a fifth key aspect concerning ideas about love and infidelity involves determining where ideas about love come from. According to John Money, a sexologist from Johns Hopkins, all of us carry in our minds a unique subliminal guide to our unique partner. This subliminal guide is imprinted on us by our life experience by the time we reach adolescence.
Abby stated, "My dad was pretty violent, and I know he slept with a lot of women. Then he’d come home and smack Mom around, swear at her. But Mom was always perfect. She did everything for him. She told me the key to a happy marriage was always being available for sex. And whatever she did seemed to work; Dad stayed with her no matter how mad he was."
Abby clearly chose to stay in her relationship with Randal because this pattern was all she had known as a child. She interpreted Randal’s behavior as the way love was supposed to work. Has your Abby’s subliminal map locked him or her into accepting an unfaithful partner’s hurtful behavior? Would playing this section in your next session be helpful for your clients dealing with infidelity?
In this section, we have discussed five keys aspects concerning exploring ideas about love with couples dealing with infidelity through marital counseling. The five key aspects concerning ideas about love are unrequited love, romantic love, confronting unrealistic expectations, the disenchantment process, and determining where ideas about love come from.
In the next section, we will discuss five indicators that can help the hurt partner assess whether the unfaithful partner is likely to follow through on their promise to not have another affair. These five indicators of the unfaithful partner’s trustworthiness are underlying attitudes, a history of deception, an ability to communicate openly, an ability to hear and empathize with pain, and a willingness to take an appropriate share of responsibility for the affair.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Cater, T., Zeigler-Hill, V., & Besser, A. (2016). Exposure to an infidelity threat manipulation: The role of adult attachment dimensions in anticipated relationship evaluation responses. Journal of Individual Differences, 37(2), 119–127.
Cornish, M. A., Hanks, M. A., & Gubash Black, S. M. (2020). Self-forgiving processes in therapy for romantic relationship infidelity: An evidence-based case study. Psychotherapy. Advance online publication.
Marín, R. A., Christensen, A., & Atkins, D. C. (2014). Infidelity and behavioral couple therapy: Relationship outcomes over 5 years following therapy. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 3(1), 1–12.
What are five keys aspects concerning exploring ideas about love with couples dealing with infidelity?
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