helps untangle conflicts and clarify issues between partners. It helps clear the field of problems that stem from unrealistic expectations and projections. We sometimes see our partner through a lens of a previous relationship or childhood experience that muddies the present reality. The therapy with couples improves communication. It aims to enhance the individual within the relationship and strengthen the couple.
An issue that sometimes comes up in couples' counseling pertains to extramarital affairs. Jaleh Weber asked me to write about this issue and the following is a brief example of how I might think with a couple about the situation.
An Interview With Dr. Janet K. Smith
Are you having an affair? Would you like to stop the affair and tell your spouse but don't know how to go about in doing it? To help learn how you can stop an affair and tell your spouse, I have interviewed Dr. Janet K. Smith.
What are some reasons a person would have an affair in the first person?
"People have affairs for reasons we are familiar with: poor communication between the partners, feelings of anger, longing, loss of attraction to the spouse and needs and wants that are not being met. The question of how an affair functions within the relationship is primary. Why does a person make an intimate connection with someone other than the spouse, yet stay connected to his or her spouse? Perhaps the affair provides enough outside satisfaction to keep the marriage together, and that is the function it serves. In cases where it is not practical to divorce yet painful to be in a relationship that is not fulfilling, an affair may seem like the answer. It is important that the person having the affair understands and faces his or her need for going outside of the relationship for intimacy. Many times it seems these things "happen" outside conscious awareness, so taking honest stock of the situation, usually with a neutral therapist, is the first step to the "why" question and the prelude to the next question, 'how to stop it.'"
How can someone stop an affair?
"What would happen if the affair were to end? Where would the needs be filled that are being filled extra-maritally? Can those needs be met within the marital relationship? These are big considerations, and involve re-investing in the marriage and assessing whether that is still possible. It also involves letting go of the other man or woman, easy to say, but a not-so-simple task of disconnecting from someone who has come to represent a powerful, exciting emotional connection. How and why the affair began are factors in whether or not the individual wishes to stop it. If my thesis has merit, that the affair exists to hold the marriage together, it must mean that there are reasons to save the marriage, yet not enough to oomph in it to exist on its own. If the affair is to stop, the partners will have to face up to the truths about their relationship, their values and themselves."
How can they tell their spouse that they had an affair?
"Telling the spouse that one has been intimate outside their relationship requires tact, empathy, and clarity of thought. There is no formula for such a disclosure, not as to timing, place or script. The situation demands that the feelings of the other be considered with care and are received openly. The spouse who's been left for the affair may certainly need some time to react, to express hurt, rage, and humiliation--perhaps feelings of failure. He or she may be vindictive and irrational at first and may need to express these feelings and be taken seriously. However the disclosure occurs, it will surely be an involved process, and could be the beginning of renewed communication and commitment...eventually."
What type of help is available for a couple that has been impacted by an affair?
"There is help and hope for the couple with an understanding therapist who can assist both parties in getting to their feelings and expressing them, and by facilitating the communication between the partners. It may require one or both people entering into individual therapy as well as therapy for the couple. Divorce is always a possibility, not a surprise with the divorce rate in this country around 50%, but many couples come through affairs and find their way to stronger marriages. Couples counseling can be used to pave the way to smoother dissolution of marriage as well as to a stronger relationship."
What last advice do you have for the person who had the affair and the one spouse who was cheated on?
"While it may be excruciating to be learning that a partner strayed, it may ultimately lead to change for the better. A process of self-examination leads to increased awareness of one's inner motivations, flaws and strengths. It can be a time of growth. I would advise people to keep this in mind and to stay open to their inner voices."
About me--I am a psychologist and psychoanalyst in Los Angeles, working with individuals, couples and families for 30 years. I am especially attuned to the dynamics between people and interested in the motivations that drive behavior. I believe that by understanding our family histories and becoming aware of feelings we often cover up or feel bad about, we can ease self-criticism and shame. I am thoroughly committed to the journey of self-discovery. My work has taken me to a sub-specialty in eating disorders and other addictions, with people who struggle with food, sexual addiction, and who have suffered abuse in childhood.