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Advances in Couples Therapy Tackle Trauma of Infidelity
By Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 12, 2008
For couples troubled by infidelity, going for counseling has long been a gamble.
While cheating is the biggest reason couples seek counseling – and the most commonly cited reason for breaking up – it is also the issue that therapists say they feel least-equipped to treat.
Now, therapists and counselors are developing new techniques that increase couples' chances of arriving at the best possible outcome after an affair. In a special issue last month of The Family Journal, a scholarly journal, and a volume of 14 studies published last year, researchers are laying out proven methods to help couples troubled by infidelity, from easing individual spouses' depression and despair, to enabling distressed couples to make peace and move on together.
One novel twist: Therapists are treating injured spouses like war casualties or hurricane victims, providing post-traumatic stress debriefings. They've also begun classifying affairs based on the underlying motive of the partner who strays – a factor in a marriage's odds of survival.
"Infidelity is an incredibly hot topic" among couples and researchers alike, says Paul Peluso, editor of the recent research volumes and a program coordinator at Florida Atlantic University. As more therapists learn how to handle it, "really good improvements in the treatment" of troubled couples should ensue. Some 22% to 25% of men and 11% to 15% of women report to researchers that they've had extramarital sex – likely an underestimate, researchers say.
No therapist can help save a marriage if one partner refuses to work at it. But in many cases, wronged spouses fault therapists for failing to address cheating head-on. In a 2002 online survey of 1,083 spouses whose partners had cheated, a large majority of those who had sought counseling said their therapists failed to focus clearly enough on the affair, says Peggy Vaughan, an author and researcher who conducted the survey on her Web site, DearPeggy.com.
Suzy Brown, Kansas City, Mo., who runs divorce recovery workshops, says many couples emerge from therapy without having thoroughly discussed infidelity problems. Instead, some partners spend time "dancing around the surface stuff without getting down to why this was happening," says Ms. Brown, who has started a Web site, midlifedivorcerecovery.com. Such problems are so complex that nearly half of couples who seek therapy see three or more therapists for help, Ms. Vaughan says.
Counseling techniques for post-traumatic stress disorder include discussing facts about the trauma, the feelings and symptoms it caused and what it means to the victim. This process helps victims understand how to identify and control the emotional effects of the trauma in their day-to-day lives and decision-making.
The techniques can work well in marital therapy, says a study by Gerald Juhnke, a professor of counseling at the University of Texas, and others, because jilted spouses have some of the same symptoms as disaster or war victims. For example, they may have flashbacks to the moment the affair was discovered, or think a spouse is cheating again every time they're home a little late from work.
In another insight, Emily M. Brown, an Arlington, Va., divorce mediator and therapist, has identified motives for affairs. Some types offer dim prospects for healing; the "exit affair," for example, occurs when a partner has already decided to quit the marriage. Another kind of affair is called a "split-self" affair, which tends to happen when a spouse has over-emphasized the rational, responsible side of his or her personality for too long, at the expense of a more emotional, needy side. These affairs sometimes bring to light entrenched emotional problems in the betraying spouse that can't be resolved in the marriage.
Other kinds of affairs offer more hope. Some partners have "conflict-avoidance" affairs as a way of forcing unspoken tensions and disputes out in the open. Others use an "intimacy-avoidance" affair to keep a loving spouse at a distance, Ms. Brown says. People with sexual addictions are another category.
An oft-missed truth, Ms. Vaughan says, is that a high proportion of marriages survive affairs – but it takes effort, time and talking it over.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at firstname.lastname@example.org