When a Married Client Is Having an Affair
As bearers of secrets and arbiters of behavior, social workers commonly struggle along with clients to resolve their clients’ dilemmas; their doubts, fantasies, and misgivings often become our doubts, fantasies, and misgivings. Nowhere is this truer than when we are treating a client who is married or in a committed relationship and is engaging in a secret affair. If you have ever been in this thorny situation—individual therapy in which you are seeing one client, not the couple—you know that grappling with the moral and clinical implications of adultery is no easy task. Having been in this clinical predicament, I cannot offer any clear-cut answers on how best to proceed therapeutically, but I do have advice on what to do and what not to do, which has served me and my clients well.
We must be aware of our reaction when we are told of the affair—surprise, wariness, uncertainty, shock, helplessness, relief, disgust, envy, anger—and determine whether it is a moral response (How dare he violate the sanctity of marriage?) or a clinical one (Ah, maybe now she’ll leave her husband!). Of course, we may have both a moral and a clinical response. The point is that we cannot help our clients without having a clear understanding of what we have to work out for ourselves and how our reactions may benefit or hinder the therapy.
In general, injecting morality into clinical practice must be done sparingly, on an as needed basis. Although we are pledged to do no harm, we are not enforcers of the moral code except in specific cases of abuse, self-harm, or criminality. Whether we believe that it is acceptable or unacceptable to cheat on a spouse or partner is irrelevant to a client resolving his or her relational dilemma. However, because a violation of the marriage vows may upset us, it is especially crucial when a client is stepping out to check in with our moral underpinnings to ensure that we are not fooling ourselves into believing that the client’s actions are fine with us when they really are anything but. We also must be aware that wishing to be unbiased will not necessarily make our feelings line up and follow a neutral course.
Another possible reaction to client infidelity is to feel pressured to fix the situation because we know that the spouse, client, paramour, and maybe the entire family will likely suffer because of the client’s betrayal. If we are uncomfortable with (or unaware of) this internal pressure, we may try to dissuade clients from having the affair or urge them to come clean with their partner. If we are out of touch with our own anxiety, anger, impatience, or helplessness, we may encourage clients to fix the situation quickly so that we can regain our clinical equilibrium. These are all natural responses but, ultimately, they do not benefit clients.
If we have ever been cuckolded or have gone sexually or romantically astray, infidelity may stir up strong internal reverberations within us that make it difficult to remain in the present and stay focused on the client. We can be fairly certain that our emotions—shame or sadness, longing or relief, envy or anxiety—will be intense, intrusive, and perhaps overwhelming. We may attempt to prevent the client from making the mistakes we made or, alternately, induce them to enjoy guilty pleasures we enjoyed or wish we had enjoyed. We may want to rush in and save the client or the marriage or feel so powerless that we fail to take appropriate steps to untangle the situation. Also, if we have unresolved feelings about the impact a parental affair had on our lives, we may need to resolve them before we can help our client.
The situation is made more difficult when the client is in an abusive relationship or marriage. It has been said that there are different kinds of extramarital affairs and that the ones that lead an individual out of abuse and into love and caring stand apart from those which are mere dalliances, sexual attractions, or unconscious distractions from unaddressed marital difficulties or intrapsychic problems. Certainly, an argument can be made that a client who chooses being treated well over being treated poorly is moving toward health. Often, this happens when clients start to feel better about themselves, more deserving, and angry about being emotionally, sexually, or physically harmed or exploited. In this case, therapists may find themselves in a quandary—while the client’s infidelity is actually a step in a positive direction, mental health also means being honest (except when faced with potential physical or sexual abuse), living with consequences, facing the possibility of hurting a spouse or partner (or children), and seriously thinking about moving on—often alone.
First and foremost, we must recognize that an affair is a form of triangulation, that something is not right (or sometimes nothing is right) within a marriage or partnership and that adultery is a reaction to dysfunction at worst and unhappiness at best. An affair is an attempt to fix the person, not the marriage, and we must focus on what it means to the client, perhaps even what it may mean to the spouse if the truth were known. All of our clinical energies must be channeled back to the original dyad and whatever is ailing in that relationship.
Second, our goal for clients needs to be resolution by ending one relationship or the other. Although stating this aloud may create anxiety for clients, it is important for them to hear that there is an end to their confusion and uncertainty and that the therapist will help guide them to it. Resolution may or may not include telling a spouse or partner about the affair, but it does mean making a choice.
When treating unfaithful clients, along with keeping tabs on emotions arising from our own personal histories, it is vital to be open to myriad and fluctuating feelings about the affair. At first, we may view it as impulsive and self-destructive and then begin to recognize it as a cry for help or an attempt at raising self-esteem. Or we may initially regard the affair as a declaration of separation and individuation only to realize that it is really about a client’s fear of deeper marital intimacy or commitment. It is important to stay fluid with and present to our feelings and not to get stuck in any one perspective—the affair is healthy or unhealthy, an escape, a self-punishment—until we have a crystal clear sense of what is really going on in both relationships.
We must recognize and deal with our own conflicting feelings about a client’s behavior: She is finally standing up for herself but degrades herself by sneaking around; he deserves better than his spouse but has made no effort to improve his marriage through counseling, in spite of our frequent invitations. The biggest mistake we can make is allowing clients’ intrapsychic feelings to be played out interpersonally between them and us. This happens when the therapist connects to only one aspect of a client’s struggle: fear of being alone, concern about breaking up a family with young children, excitement, hope that the affair will blossom into something more lasting, helplessness or sadness about ending the affair, anxiety about disclosing it to a spouse. It is too easy to get caught up with one facet of a client’s internal conflict rather than reflect ambivalence back to the client in order to resolve it.
The best stance for therapists to take is encouraging clients to explore all of their feelings about the affair and their marriage or partnership and to help them hold all of these intense emotions, though not necessarily at once. The better the therapist is at identifying and tolerating varying and contradictory feelings, the easier it is for clients to manage their own. Naturally, during the difficult process of moving toward ending either the marriage or the affair, the client is likely to get stuck or overwhelmed. That is when our objectivity, patience (the process can take months or years), neutrality, gentle exploration, compassion, and empathy are our most valuable assets. Clients must know that we are there with them and for them through whatever changes they choose and beyond.
— Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd, is an international author and national expert on the psychology of eating. Her books include The Rules of ‘Normal’ Eating and What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Treating Eating and Weight Issues.