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By Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT

Woman covering her face

pixabay [girl-690327_1280 by Unsplash, March 29, 2015, CCO Public Domain]

Infidelity; a word that evokes a profusion of thoughts and feelings for anyone who hears it. It’s also a word that is not commonly found on a list of “things I want to do when I grow up” but sometimes ends up on a list of “things I have done”. So, how do therapists assist couples in dealing with infidelity when this disconcerting word pops up on their list?

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, “a national survey reported that 15 percent of wives and 25 percent of husbands had experienced extramarital intercourse. When emotional affairs or sexual intimacies without intercourse are included, the incidence increases by 20 percent.”  The results of this survey reveal that while infidelity is still a very taboo topic, it is something that occurs more frequently than people might assume. And, because of this, it is important for therapists to be prepared in working with couples who have experienced it.

Think about all of the possible reasons behind an affair. Sexual dissatisfaction, inability to have children, multiple deployments causing loneliness and despair, diminishment of communication in a relationship, work stress, sexual addiction, emotional distress, children with special needs.

If there is one thing that we all need to remember as therapists, it’s that no two people have the same experience in any given situation. So, to put all couples who have experienced infidelity in the same category would be doing our clients a great disservice. In this blog, you will not find answers on how to handle infidelity in therapy, but rather some suggestions to guide your work with couples who have experienced this scenario.

  • Provide a comfortable and safe space for each person to tell their story. Have an open conversation with the couple before you get started. Encourage them to allow each other the time and the space to tell their story. And, don’t forget to check yourself periodically to make sure that you are not doing anything as the therapist to make either one of the clients feel uncomfortable or hinder their ability to have a voice.
  • Assist each in listening to the other and hearing what they are saying. If you are noticing a lot of eye-rolling, arms-crossing, verbal interruptions and other meta-messages that may deter the other from being able to adequately get their story out, you may have to talk about this and encourage active listening.
  • No two couples are the same. Listen to their stories very carefully. This couple’s story is NOT the same as the last couple’s with whom you just worked.
  • Some relationships will mend, but others will not. Some couples may come in wanting to stay together. Some couples may come in wanting to end their relationship. And, some may come in not knowing what they want. And, this is all okay. You are not there to encourage or sway them in either direction. You are there to facilitate conversation, healing, and change… and that may look different with all couples.
  • Do not make assumptions. When you open the file and see any word synonymous with infidelity, make no assumptions. Wait until you hear their stories before you decide how you will work with them.
  • There is no instant fix or recipe. As with any other presenting issue or problem, there is not a single, simple solution. Infidelity occurs for many reasons. Take time to listen to their stories and assist them in coming up with the solution they most desire.

Next time you notice a couple on your schedule and you quickly look at their intake information before meeting them, challenge yourself to not allow their presenting problem listed guide you before you even hear their story. You may be surprised at how much you are doing to shape your session before they even set foot in your office.


This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, the social media and webinar coordination specialist for the OneOp Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families.  Find out more about OneOp Family Development team on our website, Facebook, and Twitter.