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Section 12
Behavioral Couple Therapy for Infidelity

Question 12 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed beginning the process of low cost behavioral change in order to restore trust between partners who have chosen to work toward reconciliation following an infidelity crisis. We discussed constructing wish lists for low-cost behavioral change, and 7 guidelines for increasing the effectiveness of the wish list technique.

These seven guidelines for increasing the effectiveness of the wish list technique are be as positive and specific as possible, respect your partner’s requests as being important, respond to different requests on different days, put your lists in a visible place, record the date on the chart when your partner responds to a request, do what your partner requests whether or not you feel hopeful about the future, and revise your list as you learn more about yourself and your relationship.

In this section, we will discuss guiding couples through high cost behavioral change to help a relationship survive an infidelity crisis.

As we discussed in Section 2, the hurt partner shoulders a disproportionate share of the burden of recovery once an affair is revealed. While both partners may struggle to make sense of what happened, the hurt partner in many cases has a harder burden to bear. In my experience, hurt partners generally struggle with controlling their obsessions, calming the rage triggered by the sense of rejection, restoring a lost sense of self, risking being vulnerable and intimate again, and working toward forgiveness.

In contrast, I find that the unfaithful partner typically wants the whole business to be done with. Remember Ellen from Section 7? Ellen stated, "I’ve confessed, apologized, and promised fidelity! Why can’t Kevin trust me already? I feel cleansed, relieved, stronger. Why can’t this be done with?!"

Clearly, a good starting place for most couples who have committed to overcoming an infidelity crisis is the low-cost behavior Trust Enhancing Chart, as we discussed in the last section. But some couples may find that these low-cost behavioral changes alone are not sufficient to help the hurt partner regain trust. In these cases the unfaithful partner may need to commit to higher-cost behavioral change in order to demonstrate their commitment to the relationship.

Joel and Patricia had been married for nearly thirty years. Joel had a long history of one-night stands. Joel and Patricia sought counseling after Patricia returned early one night to find Joel in bed with his latest lover. When Patricia had shared her humiliation with her closest friend, she found that everyone in her community already knew about Joel’s continuing infidelity.

Joel seemed committed to controlling his behavior, and entered couples therapy as a way to prove it. Both partners wanted to keep their relationship, and both Joel and Patricia worked diligently on their Trust Enhancing Chart. However, Patricia remained nervous. Patricia was nearing retirement, and felt incapable of creating enough financial security to maintain her current lifestyle if the marriage ended.

Patricia also remained upset over what she felt to be a loss of face in her community. Patricia stated, "I feel like everyone is looking at me when I leave the house. I feel shamed, embarrassed! I really love Joel, but I’ve considered cutting my losses and going after the best settlement I could get. Even that’s not really what I want, but what choice do I have?"

Joel was distressed by his lack of success in allaying Patricia’s worries. I explained to Joel that while both he and Patricia needed to share in making low cost behavioral change, he may have to make some high-cost behavioral changes.

I stated, "High cost behavioral changes are usually the responsibility of the unfaithful partner alone. These are not arbitrary or punitive gestures. Rather, these are the sacrificial gifts, or penances, that you may want to consider to redress the injury you have caused and rebalance the scale. I describe these changes as ‘high cost’ behavioral changes because they tend to be ‘expensive’ emotionally. High cost behavioral changes often require real sacrifice on the part of the unfaithful partner, and may make him or her feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. An example of a high cost behavioral change might be for the unfaithful partner to register the house in the hurt partner’s name."

High-Cost Behavioral Change
To begin the structured discussion of high cost behavioral change, I asked Patricia to list the high cost behavioral changes she would request of Joel. I asked Patricia to bring this list to our next session. Patricia listed three high cost behaviors that would directly address her anxieties. These changes were

  1. For Joel to continue couples therapy.
  2. For Joel to transfer 75 percent of his assets to her name. Patricia included this on the list as it would be a display of commitment. Patricia felt this would allay her financial concerns and convince her of Joel’s commitment to staying.
  3. For Joel to seek a new job in another community, and resettle there with her. Patricia felt shamed and exposed in their current community.

Joel listened openly to Patricia’s requests. He agreed readily to both of the first two high cost behavioral changes. Soon after the session in which we discussed Patricia’s needs, Joel and Patricia went to an attorney and worked out an agreement to transfer most of his assets to Patricia. Joel stated, "It seemed like a lot at first, but I was happy to have something tangible that I could do to show Patricia just how committed I am to fixing things between us."

The third high cost behavioral change Patricia requested proved to be a sticking point for Joel. Joel’s business was well established in the community, and moving would mean a loss of both status and income. Initially, Joel found Patricia’s request outrageous, and even manipulative. As you have probably experienced, such stalemates can be common when negotiating high cost behavioral changes. When a couple has reached a stalemate I revisit many of the themes about essential growth experiences, as discussed in Section 9.

Joel eventually realized that he risked losing Patricia if he gave too little too late. Joel stated, "At first I thought Patricia was asking this to punish me. Then I realized what she wanted was a fresh start with me. She really wanted me to help her believe in me again, and a chance to overcome the shame she was feeling. I guess, in the end, it’s really something I have to bite the bullet on, because she deserves the security. I can make that sacrifice, even though I won’t like it."

When Joel agreed to Patricia’s request to relocate, Patricia anxiety lessened a great deal. Patricia stated that if Joel would agree to pursue a transfer, she would agree to give him as much time as he needed to find a good opportunity in an area they could both agree on. Joel worked diligently, and took steps to provide Patricia with evidence of his efforts to make this high cost change. Fortunately for both partners, by the time Joel found another position, Patricia felt reintegrated into the community and did not want to leave. The couple continued to make steady progress in couple's therapy.

Are you treating a Joel in couple's therapy who needs to consider making some high cost behavior changes? Would playing this section in your next session be helpful to your Joel?

In this section, we have discussed guiding couples through high cost behavioral change to help a relationship survive an infidelity crisis.

In the next section, we will discuss overcoming the resistance to behavior change in cognitive behavioral therapy. We will specifically discuss 7 cognitive blocks that can create resistance to making behavioral changes.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Atkins, D. C., Marín, R. A., Lo, T. T. Y., Klann, N., & Hahlweg, K. (2010). Outcomes of couples with infidelity in a community-based sample of couple therapy. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(2), 212–216. 

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.

Negash, S., Carlson, S. H., & Linder, J. N. (2018). Emotionally focused therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: An integrated treatment to heal the trauma of infidelity. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 7(3-4), 143–157.

Walsh, M., Millar, M., & Westfall, R. S. (2019). Sex differences in responses to emotional and sexual infidelity in dating relationships. Journal of Individual Differences, 40(2), 63–70.

What is a key difference between low cost and high cost behavioral changes? To select and enter your answer go to Test

Section 13
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