Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Infidelity and Marital Therapy

(This article ran in the Winter, 2010, Cappstone, the newsletter of the Chicago Assn. for Psychoanalytic Psychology.)

Keith Richards is the co-founder and lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones. Early in his rollicking autobiography, "Life," he tells a story of music, marriage and infidelity from the life of his grandparents, Gus and Emma, during World War II, when they had several children and London was under air attack.

“Why was my grandmother long-suffering? Apart from being in various states of pregnancy for twenty-three years? Gus’s great delight was to play violin while Emma played piano. But during the war she caught him bonking an ARP warden in a blackout, caught him up to the usual. On the piano too. Even worse. And she never played piano for him again. That was the price...” (p.44).

This anecdote--which I found laugh-out-loud funny when I first read it--though a female colleague to whom I read it was not at all amused, for some reason--gives us a lot of psychological meaning to unpack. Gus and Emma are married, and Gus is sexually unfaithful, not for the first or last time. Gus’ infidelities are somehow external to his commitment to his marriage, in his own mind. Emma remains with him--accepting, at some level, that Gus’s view of commitment is different from hers--but she expresses her own hurt, anger, and integrity, by refusing to play piano with Gus, ever again. The ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden is somehow less than a complete person in this narrative, identified only by her gender and job title.

Marriage and infidelity are among the most ubiquitous human behaviors, expressing the powerful conflicting evolutionary drives of monogamous and multiple mating. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports a 2009 marriage rate of 6.8 per 1000 population, and a divorce rate exactly half that, at 3.4 per 1000 population ( Reliable metrics on infidelity seem impossible to find, but it’s a good guess that many of the marriages that end in divorce, and some that don’t, experience infidelity. Certainly, many couples in marital therapy present infidelity among their critical issues.

Typically, the infidelity will have different meanings for each partner, and working through those meanings for the “unfaithful” partner and the “hurt” partner--as Janis Abrahms Spring labels them, in After The Affair--is a big part of marital therapy. Infidelity often reflects problems in the marital relationship, as well as issues that each spouse brings to it. Spouses often enter into marriage with some reservations, usually not expressed and often at least partly unconscious. The romantic power of early intimacy will, sooner or later, need to be supplemented by conscious work on intimacy, including communication, values, and conflict resolution. But that often doesn’t happen, and intimacy can become complacency without anyone realizing it. Then unexpressed and/or unconscious needs and drives can make themselves known; living as we do in a Darwinian world in which there are interesting and attractive people in our various networks, with whom “one thing can lead to another.”

I’ve often been impressed by how lightly and unthinkingly unfaithful spouses allowed themselves to live their way into adulterous relationships, as if infidelity were somehow not likely to have a huge and potentially life-changing impact on everyone involved. Perhaps our society’s lack of appreciation of the deeper levels of commitment and relationship in marriage, together with its preoccupation with the superficialities of sexuality and mating, partly acculturates and partly hypnotizes us into expecting that casual sexual intimacy can be indulged with little consequence. By the time I hear about it, of course, the couple is in marriage therapy, things are desperate, and the future of their marriage--and often, their family--is in the balance. Or it may be one of the three parties--the unfaithful spouse, the hurt spouse, or the extramarital sexual partner--in individual therapy with a broken, or at least very badly bruised, heart.

The term “bonking,” which Keith Richards uses to describe his grandfather Gus’ relationship with the ARP warden, indicates a view of sexual intimacy as more or less impersonal and inconsequential. From a certain purely logical perspective, as long as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases were prevented, there would be no reason for anyone not to “bonk” away. The catch, of course--which entirely disqualifies such mechanistic logic--is that the natural human instinct and need for attachment often gets involved in sexual intimacy. The yearning for attachment is often an unconscious factor in unfaithful spouses living their way into infidelities, and it is always a risk, even when a sexual pair gets together for “just a good time.”

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher has researched three phases in loving attachment, each mediated through a different primary neurochemical. The first phase is primarily sexual, mediated primarily through testosterone, in both men and women. This leads to a romantic phase, mediated primarily through dopamine, which in turn leads to a bonding phase, mediated primarily through oxytocin. Oxytocin is stimulated by orgasm, and orgasm, as Desmond Morris tells us in Intimate Behavior, is stimulated by loving sexual intimacy. So one thing can certainly lead to another, even if that’s not what the unfaithful spouse, or even the extramarital partner, intended.

Morris is aware of the deep attachment in a genuine love relationship: “To say that ‘marriage is a partnership,‘ as is so often done, is to insult it, and to completely misunderstand the true nature of a bond of love...” Morris‘ human ethological review of the “typical sequence” of steps of intimacy is illuminating: “eye to body...eye to eye...voice to voice...hand to hand...arm to shoulder...arm to waist...mouth to mouth...hand to head... hand to body...mouth to breast...hand to genitals...genitals to genitals...twelve typical stages in the pair-formation process...Each stage will have served to have tightened the bond of attachment a little more...” (p 72-78). Of course, there are personal and cultural variations on this typical pattern, but the work of Morris and Fisher can help us to see how “one thing can lead to another.”

So “bonking” can lead to potentially life-changing consequences, pretty quickly and quite unexpectedly, because of the potential of sexual intimacy to create powerful attachment, even if unintended.

Sometimes these attachments persist unconsciously long after the relationship is over. I’ve treated clients whose unconscious attachment to lovers long since out of their lives has interfered with their ability to form successful new attachments ever since. These clients were still, unconsciously, holding their former lovers close, even though they consciously had relinquished them entirely. Sometimes new partners were unconsciously selected in part because they did not threaten the special place in the client’s heart of the closely held former (and still, unconsciously, current) beloved.

Every marriage is unique, and so is every infidelity, although patterns do tend to emerge. Like Gus, the unfaithful partner may commit infidelity with no intent to harm the marriage, and like Emma, the hurt partner may remain in the marriage even while deeply, and perhaps permanently, hurt. Sometimes the extramarital partner hardly seems to exist at all--like the ARP warden in grandpa Gus’ story--while at other times the extramarital partner is a very real person. Infidelity can be a reaching out for love and erotic connection that has been too long missing from the marriage, or an avoidance of issues in the relationship that the unfaithful and/or hurt partner have been needing to step up to. It can express self-efficacy, a determination to be true to oneself and not allow oneself be mistreated or neglected beyond a certain point, while not intending to end the marriage, or it can instantiate some sort of deficiency in self-awareness, integrity, and capacity for relationship. If unfaithful partners can’t find the intimacy they need in their marriages, it might be because they aren’t looking in the right way--perhaps because they lack the self-awareness and/or a skill set to know how to reach out to the other person around certain issues. There is an anthropological piece to some of the work of marital therapy, because American society and typical family life leave a lot out in cultivating self-knowledge and relational skills. Conflicts of values, which may derive from religion or personal philosophy, may need to be unpacked and explored. Some marriages were created with major issues left unaddressed--sort of like the way slavery was ignored when the United States of America was founded--which can emerge later on, turbulently. Perhaps either or both spouses have stopped paying attention, are taking the marriage for granted, or are distracted by issues of career, self, other family members, or health. Often, a partner’s infidelity can be a wake-up call to both spouses, and a springboard to the revitalization of the marriage. Sometimes it’s a symptom of a marriage whose romance, whatever it may have been, has run its course; a marriage whose love has expired and is essentially dead on arrival in the therapist’s office. Sometimes unfaithful spouses meet their “true” partners through infidelity. Infidelity can be self-fulfilling, self-defeating, or both; like marriage. A marriage reflects the dynamics of the individual spouses and their relationship, and some of those dynamics have more potential for regeneration and longevity than others. Whatever the background, infidelity raises the question of whether a couple can rise to the occasion and regenerate their relationship together. That is where the marital therapist meets them.

Marital therapy takes place within a network of relationships; like individual therapy does, but exponentially multiplied. There is the relationship between the therapist and the couple, the relationship between the therapist and the hurt spouse, the relationship between the therapist and the unfaithful spouse, and the relationship between the spouses; all of which are going on simultaneously in the therapeutic process. If the couple has children, there is the relationship of each spouse with each child, the relationship with each spouse and the children as a sibship, the relationship of the couple as a couple with each child, and the relationship of the couple with the children as a sibship. And, in addition to the relationship between each spouse and her or his immediate family, there is the relationship of each spouse with their in-laws, individually and collectively, and the relationship of the couple, as a couple, with both sets of parents, and perhaps grandparents. Often there are also relationships between each spouse and the other spouse’s friends and/or professional colleagues. Sometimes either or both spouses are in individual therapy, in which case I recommend that the therapists consult, occasionally or as needed, which means that the clients have to authorize that. The web of networks gets pretty complex.

And, of course, each member of the couple brings her and his own complexity to the therapy. Tendencies or habits of perception and interpretation of oneself and the intimate other that spouses bring to their marriages may need to be identified and “unpacked” in order for fresh perceptions and new possibilities of understanding, perception and relationship to occur. Sometimes the therapist has to work “bottom up,” connecting directly with the emotion in one or both spouses and “thin-slicing” it, as Sue Johnson says, to make it more accessible for therapeutic work. Sometimes the therapist works in a more “top down” way, teaching the couple about their communications and interactions, as John Gottman does, or making psychodynamic interpretations, which can be about the individuals and about the couple. Of course, there is a good deal of overlap among these various approaches, which are not, in practice, as separate as they are described here.

“Life,” Harold Balikov used to say, “is not user-friendly,” and co-creating a healthy marriage isn’t easy. A cartoon by Steve Kelly, originally in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, reprinted in The New York Times, shows a middle aged couple seated on their living room couch. The husband is reading a large document entitled: “Study: MARRIAGE OBSOLETE?” and says, “Well, I, for one, enjoy being in a committed, monotonous relationship.” “Monogamous,” his wife says. (11/28/10, Week in Review, p 2)

As I write this, I’m looking forward to doing two presentations on infidelity in marital therapy. The first will be a consideration of psychodynamic aspects of working with infidelity in marital therapy for CAPP, planned for Friday, March 11th, 2011, from 2:30--4:00 PM, in Evanston. For further information, visit the CAPP website at, or contact me at or 847.212.3259. The second presentation will be part of the Clinical Treatment of Couples series presented by the Illinois Psychological Association. That entire program takes place over six daylong workshops at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, 325 N. Wells, Chicago, and my presentation will be one of four workshops on April 8th. For further information, visit the IPA website at

Jay Einhorn is Chair of Peer Study Groups for CAPP and a Council member of the Illinois Psychological Assn. ©Jay Einhorn, 2010

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