6 Types of Marital Affairs and How to Heal From Them

Affairs in marriage and relationships are very common. Data suggests that between 30% to 60% of married individuals will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage. Other studies suggest that roughly 3 to 4% of currently married people have a sex partner on the side in any given year, and that about 15% to 18% of married couples have had an affair. So we can conclude that somewhere between two in 10 and six in 10 married people will have an affair at some point. It’s hard to get accurate data since obviously people have shame and embarrassment about having affairs and may not always give accurate data even to anonymous researchers. My sense is that if you include emotional infidelity, meaning flirting and getting close to another person of the other sex, at least half of all married people have had an affair.Broken heart from affairs or infidelity

I frequently see couples in my practice where an affair has recently been disclosed or discovered. This creates a crisis in most marriages. Affairs obviously create enormous amounts of emotional pain. There is the actual affair and its impact on the marriage, but there is also the betrayal of trust, which may have even a more lasting impact.

Before I can help a couple who is dealing with a recently discovered affair, it’s important to understand what type of affair has occurred. The different types of affairs have different implications for the future of the couple’s marriage, as well as for treatment. Let me discuss each. These six affair types are listed in order of prognosis, from worst to best.

  1. Sociopathic affairs. These spouses have many affairs with multiple partners. They are often men who travel a lot for business, and cheat on their spouses when traveling. These affairs often are with sex workers. This type of affair is often a lifestyle choice. The men want a wife and family but also want to be able to have sex with many different women. These men (and occasionally women) have little or no remorse about their behavior, often are talented deceivers, and rarely are willing to stop this behavior even upon discovery.
  2. Affairs designed to break up the marriage. These are affairs where the affair perpetrator is ridiculously indiscreet in a way that suggests that they want to get caught. For instance, they will repeatedly send and receive intimate texts from their affair partner on a smart phone that displays texts on the lock-screen. They can’t even be bothered to change the settings so that texts are hidden. These types of affairs are usually committed by someone who wants out of their marriage, but is not willing to take the responsibility of saying to their partner “I am unhappy and I want to end this marriage.” Instead, they have an indiscreet affair, get caught, show little or no remorse, and then their partner terminates the marriage. Later they get to describe the narrative as “My partner left me just because I had an affair.”
  3. Impulse control affairs are usually associated with drug or alcohol use, often occur repeatedly in combination with substance use, and are initially casual sex. Controlling the substance abuse often will prevent this type of acting out.
  4. True love type of affairs. These are usually very idealized and unrealistic, often a cry for help because the person feels desperate and needs the drug of the idealized romantic affair. The person thinks that the “true love” of their affair will solve all their problems and make them happy.
  5. Marriage stabilizing affairs. These typically long-term affairs serve to stabilize a marriage. Sometimes the primary function of these types of affairs is sexual. A person likes their spouse, gets along well with them, thinks they are a good parent, but for a variety of reasons the couple rarely or never has sex. So in a sexless marriage, one person may find a sex partner who is also in a similar situation, married without sex, and they can fulfill each other’s sexual needs and stabilize their mutually sexless marriages. These affairs are typically very long-term, discrete, and typically end only because of discovery or because one person decides they want to leave their marriage and be with their affair partner.
  6. Friendship affairs. These affairs typically begin at work. These are affairs where the primary purpose of the affair is connection and friendship. These types of affairs usually occur in the context of a fairly cold and disconnected marriage. The difference is that the cold and disconnected marriage may still be a sexual relationship but it is no longer a good friendship. Often in these affairs, people talk about their relationships and marriage. The affair serves as a support structure for the person. These affairs sometimes lead to true love affairs but rarely as they are not at their core romantic affairs. They are really best thought of as emotional affairs, which may or may not include sex.

Treatment of affairs

Before one can offer treatment to a couple in which there has been an affair it’s important to diagnose what type of affair you are dealing with. In terms of prognosis, the most positive prognosis is with marriage stabilizing affairs or with friendship affairs. In both of these cases if the therapist can help the couple to either to improve their sex life or become better friends, there is a good likelihood that their marriage can endure and even become better.

The worst prognosis is with affairs designed to break up a marriage and with sociopathic affairs. In the first case, the person has already made up their mind to leave the marriage and the only thing a therapist can do is to help the couple gracefully negotiate their mutual exits. A common therapist mistake is to assume that there is actually desire to fix and rebuild the marriage. In sociopathic affairs you are dealing with an underlying personality disorder, and as such, it is virtually impossible to resolve. The only possible resolution is for the betrayed partner to come to sort some sort of peace with their partner’s sexual behavior. Sometimes establishing ground rules like only in faraway towns can help. But the prognosis is not good.

In impulse control affairs particularly those associated with substance abuse, treating the underlying substance abuse is the best way to lower the probability of future affairs. But the treatment of substance abuse has its own difficulties, and relapse is common.

What about true love types of affairs? These can go either way. Sometimes the best approach is not couples therapy, but rather to counsel the betrayed partner alone. This counseling usually has the goal of having them encourage their spouse to fully pursue the other relationship and to move in with the affair partner. Often these true love affairs only can maintain themselves in a rarefied and separate universe where there are no responsibilities and no stresses. By encouraging the spouse to create a real-life relationship with their affair partner which includes school pickups, sharing expenses, cleaning the bathrooms, it sometimes takes most of the magic away. Then the spouse may seek to return and couples therapy can then begin to address what the issues were that led to the spouse straying in the first place.

A key perspective on treating affairs is how do you address the betrayal of trust? Trust is asymmetrical. All it takes is one betrayal to completely destroy trust, but rebuilding trust requires many pieces of evidence of non-betrayal and non-lying.

What I often suggest in order to rebuild trust is that the affair perpetrator adopts a position of radical transparency with all aspects of their life. This means turning over passwords for email accounts, phones, iPads, and all other electronic devices. It means allowing your partner to access your airline online accounts so that they can track your travel, and it even means installing GPS tracking software on your phone so that your spouse knows where you are at all times. The idea of this radical transparency is to gradually rebuild trust by displaying that you have nothing to hide, and that you are doing nothing that would trigger distrust in your partner.

Many people resist this radical transparency idea, often saying that their partner should just trust them. But why should they trust when that trust has been betrayed? Without this intervention, it takes a very long time before trust is rebuilt, and I often wonder if those who resist it want to maintain their ability to hide things from their spouse.

It is important to establish ground rules for the other partner. If they use the data to relentlessly question even the most innocuous events, then this will generate more friction and more conflict in the couple.

Beyond the rebuilding of trust, the treatment of affairs primarily focuses on improving the underlying quality of the relationship. Most affairs occur because people feel disconnected emotionally from their partner’s, and they can’t talk about it. Sometimes affairs occur because couples are sexually disconnected as well.

So couples therapy for affairs often looks a lot like couples therapy in general. Teach the couple to communicate emotionally. Teach them how to be more nurturing and loving towards each other. Work on teaching them communication skills to resolve conflicts. Help them to discuss and improve their sex life. I have written about this topic here and here.

Affairs have meaning and have impact. My very first family therapy trainer, Sheldon Starr, said, “An affair is like tossing a hand grenade into the middle of the marriage. It always creates change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.”

In counseling couples where there has been an affair my goal is to help them to survive and even grow through this painful experience.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Is There an Equation for Happiness?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a mathematical equation that could predict and explain happiness? We could tweak the numbers and get happy! Sounds pretty far-fetched, right?

Actually this equation exists. It looks like this:

Happiness-equation

 

 

A researcher named Robb Rutledge, at the Max Planck University College London Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Aging Research, developed this equation. It figures that such an equation would be developed at an institution whose name is 12 words long! Rutledge developed this equation based on outcomes from a smart phone app called The Great Brain Experiment. The data was derived from 25,189 players of the app, a pretty good sample size!

Let me explain this equation to you. I will leave out the weird Sigma symbols and the small w constants, and just explain the letters.

Basically, happiness depends on CR which stands for Certain Rewards or safe choices plus expectations associated with risky choices (EV, expected value), and the difference between the experienced outcome and the expectation which is called a reward prediction error (RPE).

So the key idea is that happiness doesn’t so much depend on how things are going, but how they are going compared to your expectations. Let’s use an example. You make plans to go to a new restaurant with your sweetie. You looked up the restaurant on various restaurant review sites, and it gets very positive reviews. You go to the restaurant and the meal is very good, but not quite as good as the reviews suggest. Your happiness decreases. Or you go to a restaurant that has mediocre reviews, and it’s actually pretty good. Your happiness goes up.

This may be why online dating is so difficult. People build up very high expectations of their potential date, based on photoshopped or out-of-date photographs, as well as email or chat communications that may represent an unrealistically positive view of the other person. When they meet the person their expectations are higher than reality, and they experience disappointment and unhappiness.

So the way to be happier is to have low expectations? Some researchers have suggested this is why Danish people are so happy. The Danes have a pretty good life, but they have lower expectations than people in many other countries, thus a higher level of happiness.

The only problem with this idea is that many choices in our life take a long time to reveal how they will work out, such as marriage and taking a new job or moving to a new city. Having higher expectations for these slow-to-reveal choices probably increases happiness, at least allows the person to hang in with the decision long enough to find out how it will work out.

In general, accurate expectations may be best. Of course the challenge is how to have accurate expectations.  Reading both negative and positive reviews of a restaurant or a product may help with this. But there’s no site that reviews your marriage or your current job so those kind of choices may be more of a challenge.

The same researchers also looked at brain scans and figured out that it appeared that dopamine levels reflect happiness changes, higher dopamine comes from increased happiness and lower dopamine comes from disappointment.

There are some practical implications from this research.

  1. For choices that have immediate feedback such as a restaurant or a movie, temper your expectations. Maybe read more negative reviews so that your expectations are lower for the event. Then you can be pleasantly surprised when the restaurant or the movie is better than expected. This also applies to online dating.
  1. For choices that you don’t get quick feedback about such as long-term decisions like marriage or a job, have reasonably high expectations., Or at least try to have realistic expectations.
  1. Lower other people’s expectations of shared choices rather than hyping the choices. For example, let’s imagine you have recently seen a movie that you loved. Don’t tell your friends it was the best movie you’ve ever seen and that it will change their lives, instead tell them it was a pretty good movie and leave out all details. Same with restaurants, cars, and other choices that we make. Downplay rather than overhype.

Now I have to go because I have reservations at that new five-star restaurant after which I’m going to that wonderful new film, and then I’m moving to Denmark! Wish me luck.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Dealing with Conflict Over Typical Home Neatness/Cleanliness Issues: The Houzz Interview and Some Other Thoughts

I was recently interviewed for the site Houzz, which is a web site and online community about architecture, interior design and decorating, landscape design and home improvement. In an article, A Therapist’s Guide to Dealing With Conflict at HomeI was interviewed by Mitchell Parker, a writer for Houzz.

He asked me to comment on that age-old problem when people live together of neatness/sloppiness and cleanliness/messiness. How can people get along?

I suggest you read his article which really quite nicely captures my thinking about these issues. In a nutshell, it’s all about communication. It’s not the dirty dishes that create conflict, it’s the failure to communicate about the dirty dishes in ways that resolve the problem.

Most importantly, I discussed the fallacy of the moral high ground in neatness and cleanliness. I admit I might be a bit biased on this issue, living closer to the moral low ground, but the argument is that there is no moral high ground in terms of these issues. Because our culture often values neatness and cleanliness, in arguments the neat person always takes the moral high ground, “I am the one who’s right therefore you should change.” Needless to say this doesn’t usually result in any positive progress on the issue.

I prefer to think of these issues as aesthetic preferences. Just as one person might prefer abstract art on the wall, while another person might prefer realistic paintings, messiness versus neatness is really an aesthetic preference. Handling it this way usually leads to better outcomes in conflicts over these issues. If two people come at the neat/messy conflict from a position of having differing preferences as opposed to “shoulds”, it is more likely that they can come to some sort of negotiated compromise which will be workable.

And treating these differences as preferences has another advantage as well. It usually leads to much more respectful communication about these issues. If a neat person recognizes that their need for neatness is simply a preference, they will not demonize their partner who is messy, calling them a “slob” or a “pig”. In a similar way, if the messy person recognizes that their disorder is a preference, they won’t label their partner as obsessive or a “neat freak.” This makes it much easier to discuss the differences.

The key issue is to apply a sort of flowchart to these issues. The flowchart looks like this:

1.Identify what each of you wants in terms of your home environment. Recognize that these are aesthetic preferences, and not moral shoulds.

2.Identify the ideal state that you would prefer, and also identify a less than ideal but okay state. It’s the latter that you will most likely end up with.

3. Discuss the differences, and see if there is a workable compromise. Sometimes the compromise will not be a simple meeting in the middle, but will instead involve a trade-off. For instance, if one person prefers an impeccably clean house, but the other person is not willing to spend the time and effort to do this, the couple could agree that they will hire someone to come in weekly to clean the house. Or the neater person might clean the house, but the other person agrees to do other life maintenance tasks such as paying the bills, parenting tasks, gardening tasks, or house maintenance tasks. Things don’t have to be perfectly split down the middle, it’s just important that they feel fair.

4. In looking at these differences it’s also useful to see what people are able to do, and what they are willing to do. Willingness and being able to do something are completely different things. As hard as it is to believe, (for the neat person), many messy people actually do not have the ability to be ordered and neat. This seems hard to believe. After all, can’t anybody fold their clothing and put it away? Can’t anybody put a dish in the dishwasher? And of course the answer is yes, technically, but in practice, especially over time, many people lack the skills.

Think of it this way. Technically anybody should be able to exercise every single day of their life and also eat healthy. We all know how to eat healthy and how to exercise. But how many people actually succeed on a daily basis? Very few. We are willing but not very able.

5. Which brings me to my next issue that of willingness. Even if we are technically able to do something, we might not always be willing to spend the time and energy doing it. Time and energy are a zero-sum game. We only have 16 hours of conscious time each day, and actually most of us have far fewer free hours, with work, parenting, relaxation, and other priorities.

Cleaning and organizing takes time and energy, and while some people feel the time and energy is well rewarded others do not. In my interview, I suggested a market-based way of assessing willingness. Although I was speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I suggested that if one partner wants the other to do something they offer to pay them. If I want my partner to wash the dishes instead of leaving them in the sink, what am I willing to pay on a daily basis? And what price would they require to be willing to do this?

This is more of a mental exercise than an actual exchange of dollars. But I know for myself if my partner asked me what it would be worth for me to keep every surface in my home perfectly cleared every single day, I would set the price very high, something like $500 a day. That is because it would take a lot of conscious work in order to keep every surface clear. And it would take perhaps an hour or two every day. My price represents my perceived value for the change.

And then my partner could decide if that was worth it. After all, we make these kinds of evaluations all the time. If our not so new car gets scratched in a parking lot, most of us choose not to spend a lot of money to have it fixed. We accept the scratches and live with them.

6. What it comes down to is very simple. If you want your partner to change some house related behavior, first try to assess their ability and willingness to do so. If they are able and willing then you can try to get them to change their behavior. This will require ongoing discussions and work, and will not be easy.

Or you can outsource the problem. If you don’t like cleaning toilets and you can’t get your partner to do that, pay someone to clean your toilets. Most of us do this in other realms without any issues. We pay car mechanics to fix our cars, we pay gardeners to cut down our trees, and we often pay tutors to help our kids learn.

Finally, you can accept the difference. Acceptance is probably the most powerful tool in dealing with these conflicts. Acceptance frees you to stop wasting energy being angry or trying to change your partner. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it frustrates you and annoys the pig.”

I started this post thinking I would just point to the interview that I did on house, but discovered that I wanted to elaborate on some of the concepts that I discussed during that interview.

Good luck to all of you, these can be difficult issues, and the key thing is to remember to be gentle, loving, and respectful in your communications about these differences. Nobody gets divorced over dishes in the sink, they get divorced because of the way they interact around dishes in the sink.

I’m off to straighten up, or maybe not?

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.