Is Infidelity The Problem Or The Message?


As a couples' therapist, I deal with infidelity a lot.  It is painful and when a spouse feels betrayed, it is about as difficult as anything to go through.  I was asked to be on the Oprah Winfrey Network to be the therapist on the show "Unfaithful."  It was seen earlier this year. The couple I worked with both felt betrayed. They came to understand that the affairs they both had were symptoms of other problems and that is usually the case. They are distraught but it is easy to confuse the symptom with the core problem.

One couple I am seeing now is dealing with a husband who has had repeated affairs and "secrets."  I am not sure if this marriage will survive but whether they do or not, it is important to get clear what the problem truly is. Of course his infidelity is a problem, being that it is extremely painful for the betrayed spouse; there is no minimization of the pain involved, and since she found out about the most recent infidelity, this could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back regarding their marriage. The point is that the infidelity is not the problem. People do things for some benefit, even if it is painful.  The question I had to ask myself as well as ask him was — "what was the apparent benefit to having these affairs?"

A useful idea here is the idea of multiplicity. People do have multiple aspects of themselves. So while there is and was a part of this man that wanted to be faithful and who values his partner and family, there was another part that had a different agenda.  How do we figure out the agenda of this apparent self-destructive part that pushed him to have these affairs?  That is where we look for clues in his language.

We can also look to see what the center of his emotional pain has been about.  In his case, he often would tell his younger nephews — "Hold on to your freedom and don't get married." This may seem like an uncle giving helpful advice, but to me I saw that communication as him revealing a part of himself that looked upon marriage as a cage or a prison.  Also, I learned that he had a very controlling mother growing up.  Here is where you start to see the affair as a message from his deeper psyche. His deeper psyche was communicating that he felt trapped. He experienced the world and people (especially females) as prison wardens.  His secrets and sexual acting out was a way to experience freedom from restriction and constriction.

To be clear, this does not exonerate him nor excuse his behavior.  His choices have been very hurtful.  But until we discover the message, we will continue to see things too simplistically in terms of good and back; black and white.  His message was about the yearning for freedom. To be clear again, this is not meaning to say that his wife did something wrong.  As a matter of fact, in this particular case, I believe it was much more about how he interpreted situations and relationships around him. He projected his fear of enslavement onto his wife.  However, in other relationships where there is infidelity, both people need to utilize the message to creatively meet the needs of the sabotaging "part" of the unfaithful person.

If this particular marriage is ever to work, two things have to happen —

  1. she needs to be willing to give him another chance (which is always up to the betrayed spouse and nobody else) and
  2. he (possible with her partnership) needs to find ways to feel his freedom in the marriage.

Infidelity is often an immature solution to a problem.  People willing to grow and mature have a chance at finding more creative ways to solve their emotional issues. In my next article, I will discuss other common messages that clients’ infidelities have spoken to me. There are a variety of reasons people have secrets and affairs.

This is the first article in a series on infidelity.  The second article will talk about the Messages of Infidelity: What is really going on?

This article was originally published at toddcreager.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.