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.

12 Techniques for Giving Criticism and Feedback so that People Can Hear It without Getting Defensive

I was recently asked a very interesting question by one of my clients. He asked, “What percentage of people can listen to feedback and criticism without getting defensive?” I responded, not really in jest, “Only the people that have taken my non-defensiveness training!”

The reality is that most people instantly get defensive when criticized or even given mildly negative feedback. Regular readers will recall that I’ve written extensively about how to respond non-defensively: see “Radical Non-Defensiveness: The Most Important Communication Skill.”

But I also wanted to write about the other side of the equation – some techniques for giving feedback and criticism that lower the probability of the other person feeling hurt or getting defensive.

Here are 12 great concepts in giving feedback and criticism.

1. Focus on behavior and not on the person. Never label the person with a pejorative label. Avoid words like “inconsiderate”, “jerk”, “slob”, “lazy”, and all other negative label words especially four letter words.

2. Be specific and concrete when you focus on behavior. Use the journalistic technique of who, what, when, where, and if appropriate, why when you describe a behavior. For instance, consider this feedback from a wife to her husband: “An hour ago, when we were talking to Herb and Lucille, in their garden, you told them about my getting fired from my job. This upset me because I have a lot of shame right now about getting fired.” Notice that this feedback includes all of the specific descriptors.

3. Whenever possible, tell the person what you want instead of what you don’t want. So instead of criticizing your partner for sitting on the couch while you clean the kitchen, instead ask them to help you clean the kitchen. If there is a specific behavior that you would like the person to stop, it’s okay to ask them to stop but usually better to also specify something else that you would prefer. Example: “I’d really like it if you wouldn’t scream at the children. Could you instead talk firmly to them? I’d really appreciate that.”

4. Recognize what people can change and cannot change, and how difficult a specific behavior will be for them to change. This is a difficult lesson, and one that most of us resist. But it’s terribly important.

I’m reminded of the famous parable of the frog and the scorpion. In the story, a scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I’ll drown, and I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the sting, knows he is dying, and has just enough time to gasp “Why did you sting me, now we both will die?” Replies the scorpion: “Because I am a scorpion, it’s my nature…”

Another similar saying is, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it will frustrate you and annoy the pig.”

Some things people can change and others are more linked to their basic character and nature, and are extremely difficult if not impossible to change. There is also the issue of what people are willing to invest energy in changing.

Here are some criteria for determining whether a particular criticism even make sense.

  • Has the person had a specific behavior for most of their life? If so, what makes you think it will suddenly change?
  • Is the person genuinely interested in making the desired change? Is it within their value system to change? People can change the things that they strongly wish to change, but if they’re only changing because you asked them to, they will most likely fail.
  • How much energy would it take for the person to change the behavior? Something that takes very little energy is more likely to happen than a request which will take herculean amounts of energy.
  • Is changing this particular behavior the most important thing for you or might there be a different behavior that would yield more satisfaction for you?
  • Does the person have shame attached to the behavior you are criticizing? If so, you should carefully consider whether the criticism is worth the pain you will most likely cause.

The idea here is to avoid asking the scorpion not to sting. If someone’s been messy and disorganized for their whole life, it’s probably not reasonable to ask them to become neat and organized. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t make any requests, but a more reasonable request might be to ask the messy person to keep their mess within a specific room or rooms, and then close the door.

Always evaluate if it’s even worth giving criticism. Remember, criticism is fairly toxic to relationships. Women sometimes criticize men in the hopes that the men will change. Nobody really changes. If you feel a need to criticize your partner constantly than the problem is probably with you and your lack of tolerance and acceptance. Or maybe you need to re-evaluate whether the relationship makes sense to continue.

5. Avoid giving feedback or criticism when you are particularly angry. Very few of us have the skills to give gentle and reasonable criticism when we are really frustrated and angry. If you give criticism when you are pissed off, you will blow it. You won’t be able to follow any of the rules in this article. Your primary goal will be to hurt the other person, which never works out well.

6. Pick your time and place carefully. This should include assessing your partner’s state of mind. If they are hungry, angry, stressed out, or tired then defer your criticism for later. It will never go well if you’re not attentive to time and place and state of mind. And remember, sometimes the right time and place is never and nowhere.

7. Ask for change, don’t demand change. Most of us get really stubborn when someone demands that we change. Besides, who made you the boss?

8. Avoid spending any significant time discussing the past. Mistakes made in the past are over and done with unless you own a time machine. Giving multiple examples of past mistakes will only overwhelm the person and make them defensive. Give only one example at most. Better yet, use an example from the current time. Assume your partner isn’t stupid and can understand the specific behavior you’re asking them to change.

9. Once you’ve asked for a change don’t micromanage that change. Let the person figure out how to do it, and don’t stand over them or constantly monitor them.

10. Be very specific about your feedback and the desired outcome. Your requested outcome should be so clear to the other person that anyone would be able to determine whether the outcome had occurred or not. Use the journalistic model of who, what, when, where, and why. Use accurate language, and avoid extremes of “never” or “always”. Don’t ask your partner to never again throw their clothing on the floor. Instead, specify that you would like it to happen less frequently.

11. Use a soft start up. Give a compliment first and be gentle in the feedback you give. Point out (if true) how the criticized behavior is a departure from the person’s usual terrific behavior. This is a way of giving a compliment while giving criticism. Example: “You are usually so helpful in the kitchen. But last night you left all of the dirty dishes. I’d really appreciate if you’d clean them up this morning.”

12. Never threaten your partner or deliver ultimatums. Even if you are at the end of your rope never threaten the termination of the relationship. When people hear an ultimatum they shut off. Also it triggers resistance since none of us like to be blackmailed into action.

Also, you can only make an ultimatum once. If you make it more than once you lose all credibility. So just avoid them entirely. (Notice this applies to parenting children as well.)

So there you have 12 great techniques for giving feedback and criticism in a healthy way. Remember that it’s essential to balance criticism with lots and lots of compliments and showing appreciation. Good relationships typically have at least a 5 to 1 ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback. If your relationship has a lower ratio than this then it’s time to change. Catch your partner doing things that you like and appreciate, and let them know in a warm and genuine way. This is perhaps the most important secret of giving criticism – let it be in the context of lots of praise.

Now I have to go tell my sweetie that she is awesome!

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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.