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 “Married Sex” an Oxymoron? (and Other Myths of Sexuality)

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about sex. (That sounds bad, doesn’t it?)

It’s not what you think. My own life in that respect is just fine, thank you! But in the couples counseling work I do, sex is a big deal. Most of the couples I work with are married, and most of them are not having much sex. Some are not having any sex. Is “married sex” an oxymoron? And why?

It is remarkable how easy it is for couples to get out of the habit of having sex. As part of my general screening/evaluation interview with new couples, I always ask, “When was the last time you two had sex?” I’m often stunned when they can’t remember, not because they are suffering memory impairment, but rather because it has been that long. It’s not uncommon that it has been more than a year, or even more than several years. I’ve written about some of the reasons that couples stop having sex in another article “Not Tonight Dear” Why Couples Stop Having Sex (and what you can do about it)

Not having sex

What’s surprising is that most of the couples I see are not coming to therapy for help with sexual issues. You could argue that I don’t see a representative sample of couples, and I would agree. But even amongst my friends who are married, sex is a relatively rare phenomenon.

Recently the New York Times had an interesting article called “Yes Dear. Tonight. Again” about two couples who faced a similar sexual drought in their marriages, and who had an unusual response. One couple, the Muller’s, decided to have sex 365 days in a row. The other couple, the Brown’s, went for the more reasonable 101 days (or nights). The Muller’s book is called “365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy”, and the Brown’s book title borrows from the famous Nike line; “Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off the TV and Turned On Their Sex Lives for 101 Days.” 

I haven’t read either book. What I found interesting was that both couples reported that their overall relationship improved by having more sex. It turns out that there is a high correlation between marital satisfaction and the frequency of sex. No one really knows if more sex makes people happier, or happier couples have more sex, or both.But the couples who wrote these books add a data point to the notion that more sex makes people happier.

How often do married people have sex anyway? From the Times article: “According to a 2004 study, “American Sexual Behavior,” by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, married couples have intercourse about 66 times a year. But that number is skewed by young marrieds, as young as 18, who couple, on average, 109 times a year.” So the youngest of couples are having sex about twice a week. And older couples are having sex quite a bit less, perhaps less than once a week. And some couples are having much less sex, such that they could count the number of times per year on two hands, without using toes!

So let’s assume that the causal relationship works in both directions—happy couples want to have more sex, and more sex makes couples happier. What can we do about this? Helping couples to be happier is outside the scope of this article, and is something that often takes couples therapy. But what about the other side of the equation, that of having more sex?

First of all, we need to consider some myths of sexuality. The first myth is that sex shouldn’t be planned and scheduled. I don’t know where people get this idea because we plan and schedule everything else good in our life. We buy concert tickets months in advance, we make reservations at good restaurants, we plan to attend our children’s school play. We plan to go to work each day.

Imagine if we applied the same model to daily life as we use for sex: “You know, honey, I just don’t feel like driving the kids to school today. I ate too much for breakfast, and I kinda feel fat, and getting behind the wheel will make me feel bad.” “Yeah, I don’t really feel like going to work today. I’m a little tired. I think I’ll just stay home in bed and sleep all day.”

This is what I call the Myth of Spontaneity. We wait for the sun and the stars and the moon to line up for both people in the couple, and then and only then can we consider sex. If anything else then gets in the way like kids or telephone or dogs, forget it. Waiting for everything to be ideal for two people greatly lowers the odds of having sex at all.

Instead, I suggest that couples make sex dates. (Or call them pleasure dates.) Sit down and talk about how much sex you would like to be having. What’s the optimal frequency for each of you? Compromise if you have different answers. Then pull out your calendars, and figure out times when you can plan to have sex. Consider other distractions like children, pets, jobs, etc. Every couple should be able to find at least one time a week where they have some time and some privacy to get intimate.

Then make it happen. As the Browns would say, Just Do it! No excuses. If you find there is always something getting in the way, consider what the issues are. Are there other resentments that are being expressed sexually? Are there sexual issues that need to be talked about and worked on? Are there issues of appearance or hygiene that can be addressed? Sit down and talk about what’s getting in the way, and if you can’t do it alone, then see a therapist to help talk it out.

Another myth is what I call One Size Fits All. This means that couples often think of having sex in terms of a standard sexual script; a little foreplay, maybe a little oral sex, a few minutes of intercourse, and off to sleep afterward. It is a full course meal or nothing at all. The antidote for this myth is to have a varied repertoire of sexual activities you both enjoy. Perhaps sometimes it is okay to have a quick snack, instead of the full meal, so to speak. If one person is tired, and one is feeling more amorous, maybe the tired person can be pleasured by the amorous one. Again, it helps to talk about these options. What does each of you like to do when you are not that sexually energetic? And sexy cuddling is okay too. Maybe you fool around a little, skin to skin, and no one orgasms, and that’s fine too.

Still another myth is what I call Not Tonight Dear. This is the idea that it’s fine to turn down sex whenever you don’t really feel like it since after all, you wouldn’t want to have sex if you don’t feel like it. The problems with this belief are multiple. First of all, most people are very sensitive about being rejected sexually. A “not tonight dear” crushes them. And then they are less likely to initiate the next time. Second, if both people say “no” often, it dramatically lowers the chances that the couple will ever have sex. And both people will decrease how often they initiate, further lowering the probability of successful sexual connecting.

What is the antidote? First of all, try to limit saying “no” to the extreme examples. If you are having a massive migraine headache, food poisoning, or something similar, I think it is fine to say no. The “no” response should be rare, less than once in ten times. In the Brown’s book “Just Do It” there is a story of one time that the husband was having a vertigo episode, but they still had sex!

Second, it is okay to say yes in a limited way. For instance, let’s imagine you don’t feel very turned on. I think it is okay to say something like, “You know, I’m not feeling very sexual right now, but I’m willing to play a little and see if that changes. Is that okay with you?”

Finally, if you really do need to say no, then offer a specific alternative time and place. For example, “I’m really tired tonight, honey, and I’d really rather make love tomorrow morning, is that okay?”And be affectionate and loving when you say it.

So let’s review. If you want to make sure that “married sex” is not an oxymoron in your life, then follow these guidelines:

1. Plan to have sex. Make dates to have sex, and keep the dates. Decide on your sexual goals, and then figure out the best times to schedule your “pleasure dates”.

2. Be flexible about the kinds of sexual encounters you can have. Sample from a varied menu of sexual options, and don’t be all or nothing about sex. Even sexy cuddling can be a type of sex and is better than nothing. Not all sex needs to result in orgasm for both or even one partner.

3. Avoid turning down sex more than infrequently. To paraphrase the Brown couple, Just Say Yes. This lowers the probability of hurt in the bedroom and keeps both partners willing to initiate because they know that rejection is infrequent.

4. Talk about your sex life, what works, and what doesn’t work. This is the only way you can improve things. And if you are too shy or inhibited to talk about it on your own, see a good couples therapist or sex therapist, who can facilitate this dialogue.

And having said all that, now I have to go, as I have a scheduled date with my sweetie!

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Copyright © 2008 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

 

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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.