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.

Bad Science, Reported Badly, and Then Corrected Thanks to Your Intrepid Blogger!

I read a lot. One of my favorite online magazines is Slate.com. It is a wide-ranging online mag that covers politics, news, the arts, business, and science. I was reading the other night and noticed an article by the writer Will Saletan that was looking at some scientific research on “Gaydar”. Gaydar is the supposed ability to discern whether a person is homosexual simply by looking at them.

In the original article, Saletan quoted research by Nicholas Rule, Nalini Ambady, Reginald Adams Jr., and Neil Macrae at Tufts University. The researchers took personal ad photos from gay and straight men, and then had college students look at them to rate whether they were straight or gay. For some reason the researchers chose to use correlation coefficients or R scores to report their data. The highest R scores were 0.31, which in the original version of the article Saletan incorrectly stated was the equivalent of an accuracy rate of 65%. I’m not sure where he got the 65% number, but I immediately recognized that this was a mistake. An R score, when squared, represents the percentage of the variance being explained. So squaring an R score of 0.31 means that roughly 9% of the variance has been explained. That means that 91% of the variance in the dependent variable is still unexplained.

In the original article Saletan had called these experiments “impressive”. Given the tiny bit of variance explained by even the strongest of the experiments, I would call them less than impressive. And given the subject of the experiment, I would actually call them “oppressive”. This is a great example of taking extremely weak scientific findings and spinning them into something approaching meaningfulness. There are so many alternate explanations for why tiny findings could have happened that do not require any assumption of accurate “gaydar”.

I wrote a comment on the article explaining the mistake.   To the credit of Saletan (and Slate magazine), they noticed and read my comment on the inaccurate reporting of statistical findings, and after an e-mail correspondence with me regarding the accurate interpretation of the statistics, posted a revised version of the article. That’s honest and impressive. It also shows that it’s worth writing comments on online articles, and that writers read the comments.

I still think the original research doesn’t merit even the corrected coverage that Slate gave it, but at least the science is accurately reported. Of course, the biggest flaw in the research was that they were only looking at photos of gay men who were openly gay, and the article really is about can you tell if a man is secretly gay. So the bottom line is that even if the researchers had done better research, it still wouldn’t answer the original question of the article.

I should add that I question the use of science to pursue questions that tread dangerously close to prejudice and stereotyping. But we live in a free country, and scientists have every right to do research on any topic they choose. I’m just not sure that the National Science Foundation should be funding such research. In any case, I was glad to be able to correct misinterpretations of the statistical results of the study.

Notes:

The original version of the article is in Google’s cache,  here, at least for now. (Google updated the page, so now it’s the same as the corrected page.)

The corrected version of the article is here.

The research that the article is based on is here.

 

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /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.

“Not Tonight Dear” Why Couples Stop Having Sex (and what you can do about it)

When I do couples therapy a very common complaint is that the sex is infrequent or nonexistent. Over a period of time this tends to erode a couple’s sense of connection. It also tends to breed resentment and anger.

Why do couples stop having sex, and what can you do to prevent this?

There are a number of reasons that can cause couples to stop having sex.

1. Anger and resentment in the relationship

A big reason is unresolved anger or resentment in the relationship itself. Most couples don’t want to have sex when they’re angry. (Angry sex or makeup sex seems to be relatively rare amongst most couples.) Often the anger or resentment issues are long-standing, and feel unresolvable. The couple feels distant from one another, and as a result stops being affectionate or sexual.

The solution to this problem is talking. Talking calmly and non-defensively in order to resolve problems and eliminate resentments. Clearing the air on a regular basis is essential for couples happiness. If you can’t do it yourself, get some couples counseling and learn the skills for resolving conflict.

2. Mediocre or boring sex

Another reason couples stop having sex might seem very obvious — the sex isn’t very good. Perhaps there are sexual problems such as erectile difficulties or difficulties having orgasms. Or perhaps the sex is just mediocre and routine. Perhaps sex is too much work.

The antidote to this problem is to work on improving the quality of sex and touching. There are a number of exercises that couples can do to improve their ability to please one another. One such exercise is called sensate focus. In this exercise couples take turns touching one another all over the body, while the recipient of touching give us feedback about what feels good. The purpose of this exercise is to learn where and how to touch your partner in order to give them the most pleasure.

Verbal communication is also essential for improving the quality of sex. Most couples talk about everything other than sex. It’s difficult for couples to communicate what they like and don’t like sexually. But without this communication the couple is driving blind, and the most likely outcome is going off the cliff.

If couples cannot achieve this on their own, then a few sessions of focused sex therapy can be very helpful. During these sessions the couple learns how to talk about sex comfortably, and troubleshoots issues that are preventing them from having good sex. Typically sex therapy is brief therapy — less than 10 sessions. Unless you have a fabulous sex life, a few sessions of sex therapy, learning how to communicate sexual desires, fantasies, turn-on’s, and turn-offs, is highly recommended.

3. Issues with initiating sex

Another reason couples stop having sex is issues with initiation. Initiating sex is a very delicate balance. When one person approaches the other, there is tremendous potential for hurt and rejection. If one person suggests sex, and the other turns it down, this often leads to resentment and finally avoidance.

Other initiation issues include one person doing all of the initiating, with the other partner never initiating. Or perhaps neither person is initiating sex, instead waiting for the other to initiate. If neither person initiates obviously there will be no sex.

Initiation issues are complex. One general rule of thumb is that as much as possible, partners should never reject a sexual initiation. If absolutely necessary, then the rejection should be as kind and gentle as possible, and include a rain check suggestion. Something like, “I’d really love to honey, but my stomach is killing me. Can we make love tomorrow night instead?”

The reason for this guideline is that very few people will persist after multiple sexual rejections. Couples who have a healthy sex life typically will almost always say yes to sex, even if they are tired or stressed. They may negotiate different sexual activities, or even suggest having sex the next morning or night, but they rarely say no. Saying no often usually leads an eternal no.

4. Failure to make sex a priority

Sex is a very important component of relationships, yet many couples fail to make it a priority. Couples allow work, children, exercise, socializing, television, Internet, and housework to dominate their priorities so completely that they don’t have time for sex. This is a huge mistake. Sex is one of the basic glues that hold couples together. A failure to make the romantic and sexual relationship a priority often leads to divorce.

Couples should figure out a way that they can consistently have private time in order to have sex. Perhaps this might mean even scheduling sex, which most couples resist as being unromantic, but is often essential when people are very busy. Perhaps Wednesday night is date night, and the prime focus is to connect and to make love. Sunday morning might be another time to schedule. If couples work close each other, perhaps a noontime meeting at a hotel or at home might be fun.

Turn off the TV or computer and talk, cuddle, and get close. Make having sex a priority even if it means scheduling sex. Yes scheduled sex is a little bit less romantic, but it reminds me of a famous comedian’s line, “Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it’s pretty good.” Paraphrasing this a bit, we get “Scheduled sex is a less romantic experience, but as less romantic experiences go it’s pretty good!”

5. Excessive masturbation to pornography

This is primarily a problem with men. Some men turn to Internet pornography and masturbation when they are not having consistent sex in their relationship. There’s nothing wrong with masturbation, but there are some serious issues that can develop. One issue is that middle aged men do not have infinite sexual potential, so if they are masturbating frequently, they will have very little left over for their wife or partner. Their libido for their partner will be low. Or when their partner wants to have sex, they will be unable to because they have just masturbated that afternoon. (Obviously this is less of an issue for young men.)

The other issue with Internet pornography is that typically the women that are depicted are young, slender, and extremely beautiful. They may be of a different race or color than the man’s actual partner. For a man with a middle-aged partner, the contrast between the perfect bodies he sees in pornography in his own partner’s less than perfect body will be jarring. This may cause loss of desire.

A similar issue is that in porn women do many sexual activities that most women have little interest in such as anal sex, threesomes, orgies, or sex in public. A man whose sexual norm calibration is based on pornagraphy will will greatly out of sync with his actual partner.

The solution to this problem is to first impose a temporary moratorium on masturbation and Internet porn. Stop for 30 days. This will allow your libido for your partner to recover. During that 30 days focus on any of the other problems with sex and address them. Schedule sex at a frequency that is comfortable for both of you. Once you are reliably and consistently having sex again, there will be less need to masturbate. Also you can schedule your masturbation sessions so that they do not interfere with scheduled partner sex.

6. Failure to attend to personal hygiene or appearance

Once couples have been together for a while they often get lazy about their hygiene or appearance. They may not brush their teeth before kissing, or showering before being close. Both partners may walk around the house wearing sweat pants and sweatshirt. Lingerie disappears out of the relationship. People put on weight and don’t maintain their fitness.

All of these things can cause problems in the bedroom. I often hear from men or women that when they married their partner they were very attractive, but they’ve let themselves go, and they are no longer so attractive. Men complain that their wives come to bed in sweats and gym socks instead of naked or in lingerie.

These are difficult issues to discuss with a partner. There is potential for very hurt feelings when one person tells the other that their weight gain has made them less attractive. Or that their breath in the morning is deadly. Or that when they walk around in their granny nighty, it’s not in the least sexy. Obviously approaching these issues with tact and sensitivity is essential. Some are obviously easier than others. It’s easy to change one’s sleep apparel. It’s fairly easy to brush one’s teeth. As all of us who are middle aged know, weight loss is more difficult.

7. Failure to address sexual dysfunction

Another issue that can get in the way of having sex is a failure to address sexual problems. Many men suffer at least intermittent erectile difficulties. Many women have difficulty having orgasms, or difficulty lubricating adequately. Shame and embarrassment about these issues often leads people to avoid having sex with their partner.

Depending on the problem, there are good solutions available. Men with erectile difficulties can often benefit from either sex therapy to address issues of anxiety and performance, or erectile disorder medications such as Cialis, Viagra, or Levitra. Of these drugs I usually recommend Cialis, as it is long-lasting (lasts up to three days), and relatively side effect free. Often a low dose of Cialis such as 5 or 10 mg can greatly improve a man’s ability to get and maintain an erection. This restores confidence, and also makes sex relatively worry free.

On the female side, difficulties in orgasm can because by issues of anxiety or inhibition, or simply issues of sexual technique and stimulation. Unfortunately there is no medication that improves female sexual functioning, but sex therapy can be very helpful. Lubrication is often an issue, and few people realize that lubrication is the female equivalent of an erection. With aging comes less lubrication, and this can often make sex painful or difficult. The solution to this problem is incredibly simple — use artificial lubrication. There are a variety of lubrication products on the market, some are water-based, and some are silicon-based. Both are good. Use lubrication liberally, and sex will feel better and be more fun.

8. Forgetting that foreplay starts long before the bedroom.

Oprah has a wonderful saying that foreplay starts early in the morning when a man unloads the dishwasher. The well-known marriage researcher John Gottman has found that men who do more housework typically get more sex. Many couples forget that foreplay starts first thing in the morning. And never stops and healthy happy sexual marriages. Showing kindness, concern, consideration, affection, respect, admiration — all are forms of foreplay. Specifically, compliments that focus on someone looking sexy or handsome or beautiful or hot get the motor running. With modern technology we can flirt even more effectively. Sending a sexy text during the workday can lead to a much more pleasant and fun evening. (Just be sure that text has some subtlety so your work phone doesn’t create problems for you with your boss.)

In similar ways, physical touching and affection can turn up the heat later in the bedroom. A quick but passionate kiss in passing. A squeeze of the bottom. Caressing and sexual touch can be normal parts of your affectionate repertoire even outside the bedroom. (Try not to scare the children or the dog!) Remember, everything can be foreplay.

So there it is — why couples stop having sex and what you can do about it. Don’t settle for a lack of sex or mediocre sex. Follow these guidelines and you can start having consistent and pleasurable lovemaking. If you need help, seek out a skilled psychologist who has specialty experience in doing sex therapy. Generalized couples therapy, although useful for other types of problems, does not usually help with sexual difficulties. Questions to ask a potential sex therapist are:

  1. What is your training in sex therapy?
  2. What is your approach to sex therapy? Can you give me an idea of the typical session?
  3. How long does sex therapy with you typically take? (If the person says a year or two then you should probably find someone else. Most sex therapy is brief therapy.)
  4. Finally, when you meet with the sex therapist, do they seem comfortable and direct talking about sex? Do they use direct language for sexual activities and sexual parts, or do they beat around the bush? If the sex therapist is not more comfortable than you are talking about sex, it is unlikely that they can be of much help.

Now I’ve got to go meet my sweetie for some crazy hot……never mind!  🙂

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /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.