Infidelity in Marital Counseling

Elaine Cook

January 28, 2002

In this paper, I will describe a case study involving marital infidelity and then look at several approaches to this issue as I explore how I would work with infidelity in relationship counseling. This examination is particularly important since my attitudes towards monogamy are at odds with the cultural norm, and I would like to be effective at helping people who choose monogamy as well as those who do not.

Case Study

In "Turning Down the Temperature," Leo Fay describes the case of Ed and Linda Green, who came to Fay as the "last hope" for their marriage after Ed has terminated a 9 month affair. (Fay, 1999, p. 18) Fay starts by taking a genogram. This helps to relax the couple and calm down the system by taking the focus off the crisis. When they do talk about the affair, Ed's explanation for his action is his wife's unwillingness to have sex as often as he wants, while Linda believes that "the criticism Ed received from his parents made him look to others to build him up. 'I got tired of doing that, and Nadine picked up the slack,' she said." (Fay, 1999 p. 19)

Fay makes it clear that he thinks marital therapy is a waste of time and money while an affair is continuing. He also states that "Another goal of the early stage of treatment in these cases is to encourage the nonaffair spouse to state clearly his or her conditions for continuing the relationship, and once this is stated, to pull back to a nonreactive position (Fay, 1999, p. 20)

Fay tries to help Ed express the impact on him of the loss of the affair, since otherwise it is likely to show up in an indirect way, such as depression, self-pity, or resentment. He helps both Ed and Linda identify their patterns of interactions, note the parallels with their families of origin, and coaches them how to shift their patterns.

Fay encourages Ed to stop pressuring or manipulating Linda for sex. She is to take responsibility for their sex life, and to initiate sex when she feels like it.

Fay mentions that Ed's remorse borders on self-hatred, and points out that excessive remorse can keep an affair alive by taking too much attention and helping the couple avoid the issues that they still need to deal with. In addition, Linda's tendency to express hatred for Nadine keeps her in their lives emotionally and mentally. (Fay, 1999, p. 23)

Ed and Linda terminate therapy after 13 months. They have weathered the crisis, but have not completed what Fay considers the "whole program." He respects their decision to terminate, since they are exhausted from dealing with the trauma of the affair, but he would not be surprised if they come back later. (Fay, 1999, p. 24)

In a commentary on this case, Frank Pittman states that "Less sensitive therapists often believe certain myths about infidelity that can cripple therapy and destroy the marriage." (Fay, 1999, p. 24) This includes believing that affairs are caused by imperfect marriages and the cuckold must share responsibility. Pittman clearly disagrees with therapists who don't take a strong stand against affairs. In contrast to Fay, however, Pittman suggests that the emphasis needs to be placed on intimacy, on knowing each other. A maneuver that might solve the problem of Ed's lack of real feelings for Linda would be for Ed to reveal all the emotional and physical details of the affair to Linda. This would encourage him to think about the experience and let Linda understand him better.

Pittman sees affairs as often being an act of desperation, where the person who has the affair can't continue life as s/he has been living it, but isn't ready to commit suicide. Therapy therefore needs to address the desperation.

In another commentary on the case, Thelma Jean Goodrich points out that the area of sex needs more discussion. She states, "Even in therapy, the wife's deviation from her husband's [sex] drive is typically seen as the problem to solve." (Fay, 1999, p. 28) She therefore suggests that, "If Linda is to work on intensifying her sex drive, a fair-minded compromise would require Ed to work simultaneously on moderating his, not just on refraining from initiation."

Goodrich also comments on the need to assess the distribution of power between wife and husband. Are they equals: do they have "equal money, equal ability to know and state their desires, an equal stake in the marriage?" (Fay, 1999, p. 27) She mentions that a woman often has a greater stake in the marriage because divorce imposes a greater burden on her.

Other Approaches: David Schnarch

It's clear in this case study that one of the major issues is a discrepancy in sexual desire. Fay asks the husband to refrain from requesting sex. Goodrich goes even further and suggests that Ed should work on moderating his sex drive. Neither of them considers the question that David Schnarch would ask - is the sex they are having worth having? (Schnarch, 1994) Ed is presented as a man who is needy and who is focussed on his own sexual satisfaction. At some point in the therapy, Schnarch would certainly ask them about the details of their sex life. (Schnarch, 1998, p. 70) He would help them explore what was happening and what reasons Linda might have for being less interested in sex. He would also encourage each of them to stand up for what they want. To tell Linda she should try to increase her interest in sex, or Ed to decrease his, makes that person feel like the therapist is selling out his/her interests. As Schnarch says, "I never sell out one spouse's options to the other ... I take both people's sides." (Schnarch, 1998, p. 292)

Schnarch's approach is in contrast to the case study, where Ed is told to stop asking for sex. I suspect that this is going to leave Ed feeling very frustrated and also disempowered. His needs are not being considered, and he misses the growth opportunity of learning to validate his own desires at the same time that he respects his wife's desire. Even more important, they both miss out on the opportunity to increase their intimacy by exploring their sexual issues and learning how to have a sex life that is more fulfilling for both of them. How can I, as a therapist, help people increase their intimacy? This is an area I want to explore further. I plan to learn more about how to help partners in a relationship explore their sexual potential, since I believe this will help me be a more effective relationship counselor.

Fay acknowledges that Linda had difficulty refraining from pursuing Ed with questions and recriminations. I suspect that Schnarch would confront Linda and forcefully point out that this is not helping her. For example, in a case where a woman was crying in response to being hit by her husband, he says he would tell her, "I don't understand what you're doing. You're telling me you hate him and are angry at him. Why are you stroking his ego? What you're showing him is how he can control you and the effect he can have on you by your tears." (Bader, 1995) I think that in the same way, Schnarch would point out that the recriminations are an ego boost to Ed. Schnarch claims this type of intervention typically results in the woman drawing herself together and scaring the husband.

I don't want to be as confrontive as Schnarch. However, I do see the power in helping people hold on to themselves and be clear in what they want and what they will or will not accept. In particular, it takes the nonaffair partner out of the victim mode. However, there are other alternatives that I'll explore below.

An interesting aspect of Schnarch's philosophy is that while he advocates monogamy, he does so as a commitment to oneself rather than a commitment to one's partner. When you have made this type of commitment voluntarily, he believes that it will help you achieve a deeper intimacy with your partner. An important aspect of this is that it reduces the sense that your partner owes it to you to have sex with you, thereby reducing the resentment between partners with differing sexual desires. (Schnarch, 1998, p. 312)

Wilhelm Reich

The issue of the disparity in sexual desire needs to be addressed. Wilhelm Reich is convinced that the core of happiness in life is sexual happiness, (Reich, 1974, p. xxvi) that sexual repression causes disease, perversions or lasciviousness (p. 66) and that abstinence is dangerous and deleterious to the health (p. 108). He says that the cure for an unhappy marriage may be infidelity (Reich, 1974, p. 148) and that sexual misery springs from the contradiction between people's needs and the ideology of monogamy. These are strong words, and certainly contrary to the prevailing ideology in our society. For me, one of the key points that he makes is that moralism can lead to a constricting of life's options and to neurosis. When our sexual desires are acknowledged, appreciated and fulfilled, we are much healthier, happier human beings. Therefore I disagree with the approach taken in the case study, where the emphasis is on asking Ed to suppress his sexual desire and put Linda in charge of their sex life. This does not address Ed's needs and desires. It's asking him to ignore his desires rather than looking for a creative way to fulfill them. This leads me back to Schnarch's approach of talking about their sex life and supporting each in expressing their desire until they can find a creative resolution.

Harville Hendrix

Harville Hendrix considers affairs to be catastrophic exits to marriage which must be closed immediately (Hendrix, 1993, p. 82) While I don't agree with this view, I do think that some of the exercises he suggests for couples can be very useful. In particular, I think the mirroring (or repeat back) exercise can be helpful. In this exercise, one partner talks about a feeling then the other indicates his/her understanding of it by summarizing what was said in his/her own words, followed by clarification if necessary. (Hendrix, 1990, p. 256) This could be used to talk about feelings about sex in a calm manner, giving each partner a better understanding of what the other was experiencing. I would like to encourage partners to listen to each other in this way, followed by a chance to respond with their own feelings. I believe that careful listening to the other can be a step towards intimacy and the resolution of problems.

Albert Ellis

Another approach I'd like to examine is Albert Ellis's Rational Emotive Therapy (RET). I have not yet read any of his works specifically pertaining to marital therapy, but will extrapolate from the two books of his that I have read (Ellis, 1972; Ellis and Harper, 1973) It's clear that Ellis is not an advocate of monogamy. He states that adultery is "virtually ubiquitous," (Ellis, 1972, p. 7) and spends a chapter in The Civilized Couple's Guide to Extramarital Adventure quoting a number of prominent authorities on the problems of monogamy and the commonness of extramarital relations. This book is essentially a handbook for people contemplating an extramarital liaison. It includes both healthy and disturbed reasons for not observing monogamy, as well as ground rules, etiquette and techniques. Therefore I am confident that he would not support Linda in what appears to be a sense of victimhood. He would help her discover the self-talk she is engaging in that leads to her continuing recriminations of Ed. Ellis believes that it is not necessary to be unhappy for more than a very short while. (Ellis and Harper, 1973, p. 70) Why is Linda continuing to make herself unhappy? The Activating event (A) is Ed's affair (or more specifically, her discovery of it). Her irrational Belief (B) is that he has done her a terrible injustice, that his action is horrible and awful and intolerable. This could be explored in more detail. The Consequence (C) is that their marriage is on the rocks. Therefore Ellis would help her Dispute (D) her belief, with questions such as "Why is it awful that he had an affair?", "How has it really harmed me?" and "How am I any less attractive, valuable, etc because he did this?" The Effect (E) may be that she learns to live with the fact of his infidelity (see Ellis, 1972, p. 117ff for a description of the ABCs of rational-emotive psychology). Ellis would probably also work with Ed to help him undo any shame and guilt he has about the affair. (Ellis, 1972, p. 117)

Nonviolent Communication

The Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model would start with empathy for both Linda and Ed. Marshall Rosenberg describes the way that empathy (listening without judgement) helps the speaker open up and express more. (Rosenberg, 2000, p. 120) Using empathy, Rosenberg would help each of them make concrete observations, describe their feelings, get in touch with the need behind the feeling, and then make a specific request to address that need. (Rosenberg, 2000, p. 6) I think this type of approach could help Ed get in touch with his feelings, since he can do so without being blamed. In the case study he clams up. The affair is over, and he denies any sense of loss. This does not surprise me, since he's clearly viewed as being at fault, and furthermore, his need for sexual expression is being minimized when Fay makes Linda responsible for their sex life. I think it would also help Linda. First she would feel heard. Her pain would be acknowledged. At the same time, Rosenberg would encourage her to take responsibility for her own feelings. What Ed did was a stimulus for her feelings, but not the cause. (Rosenberg, 2000, p. 51) Once she gets in touch with her needs and Ed gets in touch with his, they can look at ways to meet both their needs. Rosenberg states that "Over and over again, it has been my experience that, from the moment people begin to talk about what they're needing rather than what's wrong with one another, the possibility of finding ways to meet everyone's needs is greatly increased." (Rosenberg, 2000, p. 57)

My approach

Now that I've looked at several approaches to therapy with Ed and Linda, it's time to consider how I would want to handle this situation.

I would start with the NVC approach, giving lots of empathy to both Linda and Ed. I would help them express their feelings as feelings, rather than as an attack on the other. I would help each hear the other. When Linda has expressed her pain, I would ask Ed to repeat back what he understood. If he is not yet ready to do that, I would do it, and then give him empathy, until he is ready to talk about what he heard without being defensive or angry. I would do the same for Ed, with Linda mirroring his feelings. The point is to help calm down the emotions enough that they can listen to each other and to let them both feel acknowledged as acceptable human beings.

I would then work with some of the following options. Exactly which ones and the order would depend on what seemed appropriate at the time:

  • I would help them take responsibility for their own feelings by helping them see that there are different ways to react to the same stimulus.
  • I would encourage Linda to question her self-talk, and come out of her stance of being a victim.
  • When it seemed appropriate, I would model and teach them communications techniques, such as mirroring and using "I" statements.
  • I would encourage self-validated intimacy and differentiation, helping them learn to stand up for what they each want even when the other is not supportive.
  • At the same time, I would help them learn to be empathic to the other, even when they have different desires.
  • I might help them explore the meaning of this infidelity. What emotions does it bring up? What does it remind them of?
  • I might help them explore what marriage means to them. What do they want? How can they support each other in getting what they want?
  • I would ask them about their sex life and check whether there is something that is unsatisfying that could be changed.
  • I would encourage them to do further sexual explorations with each other and find ways to increase their intimacy and their joy together.
  • I would talk with them about the power balance in their relationship. Is it harder for Linda to stand up for herself because she is financially or otherwise dependent on Ed?
  • I would try Depth Oriented Brief Therapy type questions, that help them each feel what it might be like to behave differently. Perhaps this would help Ed get in touch with his feelings about his affair.
  • I would encourage Ed to look at his feelings of self-worth. How does he react when he is criticized? Does he need to have someone else pump up his ego? Perhaps different self-talk would help him feel better about himself (if that does appear to be an issue, as Linda thinks it is).


Now that I have explored different approaches to infidelity, I feel that I could work with a couple on this issue. I might encourage them to question monogamy and its benefits and problems, but in a context that would let them see monogamy a positive choice. I would not directly challenge monogamy, though I would encourage them to explore what it means to them and why they think it is important. I feel I could be supportive of both partners.

More learning to do

There is more studying that I wish to do on this topic. The case study "Briefer and Deeper" (Ecker and Hulley, 1999) inspires me to learn more about Depth Orient Brief Therapy (DOBT). I would like to read some of Ellis's works that are specifically about marital counseling. I plan to reread Carl Rogers' Becoming Partners. I would like to learn more from David Schnarch about helping couples explore their sexual potential. I want to find other sources for more ideas on this as well.

© 2002 by Elaine Cook



Bader, E., Schnarch, D., and Hendrix, H. (1995) The Role of Empathy and Differentiation in Couples Therapy. (Cassette Recording CC95-TP13a and b) Milton Erickson Foundation. Panel discussion at the 1995 Integrating Sex and Intimacy Conference of the Milton Erickson Foundation.

Ecker, B. and Hulley, L (1999) Briefer and Deeper. In Simon, R. et al (Eds.) The Art of Psychotherapy: Case Studies from the Family Therapy Networker (pp. 32-41). New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Ellis, A. (1972) The Civilized Couple's Guide to Extramarital Adventure. New York City: Pinnacle Books.

Ellis, A. and Harper, R. A. (1973) A Guide to Rational Living. No. Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Book Company.

Fay, L. (1999) Turning Down the Temperature. In Simon, R. et al (Eds.) The Art of Psychotherapy: Case Studies from the Family Therapy Networker (pp. 18-31). New York: John Wiley and Sons

Hendrix, H. (1990) Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. New York: Harper Collins.

Hendrix, H. (1993) Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples - Home Video Workshop. Winter Park, FL: Institute for Image Relationship Therapy (book that accompanies the video).

Reich, W. (1974) The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Regulating Character Structure, translated by T. Pol. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Rosenberg, M. B. (2000) Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1994A) Integrating Marital and Sex Therapy. Evergreen, CO: Marriage & Family Health Center. [Audiotape] Recorded at Menninger Foundation's 1994 Sexuality Conference.

Schnarch, D. (1998) Passionate Marriage. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

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