Male therapists are just as likely as female therapists to encourage patients to admit infidelities to their spouses, a new University of Florida study finds.
“Contrary to the perception that male counselors are less likely to reveal infidelity, because men in our society have more liberal attitudes about affairs and are more likely to have had them, that did not turn out to be the case in our study,” said Rosaria Carlone Upchurch, who did the research for her doctoral dissertation in counselor education.
Although male therapists who have had affairs themselves were less likely than their female counterparts with such experience to encourage a straying partner to confess, men in the profession with no episodes of infidelity were more likely to promote disclosure than women in the same position, she said.
Second only to physical abuse as the most devastating problem affecting families, infidelity is estimated to be present in as many as 90 percent of divorces, Upchurch said. Between 25 percent and 30 percent of married couples enter therapy with infidelity as their primary concern, while another 30 percent to 35 percent disclose it during therapy, she said.
“Infidelity creates such deep scars that when an affair is discovered, the betrayed partner experiences post-traumatic-like stress symptoms that if left untreated can escalate into major problems, including suicidal tendencies,” she said. “A helpful approach in therapy can result in a more favorable outcome for the couple, their children and society in general, as well as possibly reduce the number of suicides.”
Despite infidelity being a major issue, a recent survey found that only 11 percent of therapists had read a book or article on the subject, Upchurch said. “We’ve focused more on domestic violence and substance abuse, only recently beginning to pay attention to the impact infidelity has on families,” she said.
Upchurch, who owns and operates a marriage counseling practice in Daytona Beach, said one of her clients lamented that while his wife could find 25 to 30 books to cope with his affair, he could not find any to help him as the one who had done the betraying.
“At the end of the affair, the person actually grieves the loss of that relationship,” she said. “We need to teach people how to cope with the aftermath of infidelity and to heal from it. And if there are children from the affair or sexually transmitted diseases that are acquired, the affair may follow the couple for the rest of their lives.”
For her study, Upchurch randomly surveyed 227 of the 16,000 members of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, using ZIP codes, to determine what they would do if they learned or suspected that a secret affair existed in the lives of the couples they were treating.
The therapists reported they favored exploring suspicions about affairs when both partners were present, Upchurch said. “Many clinicians adhere to a strict ‘no secrets’ policy that is shared at the beginning of couples therapy,” she said. “They can’t collude with the betrayer against the other partner because that person is their client also.”
Some therapists may even decide not to encourage disclosure under certain circumstances, such as if the affair happened years ago, one of the marriage partners suffers from a terminal illness or the relationship has a history of domestic violence, she said.
If disclosure does take place, all the bad news should be shared up front whenever possible, Upchurch said. If someone has had more than one affair, coming clean all at once might be important in re-establishing trust, she said.
“Often, the betrayed partner may appear like an interrogating prosecutor in a trial,” she said. “Initially, the couple is usually instructed not to talk about the affair at home, reserving discussion for therapy sessions.”
An unplanned affair often occurs when one partner is alone, perhaps because pregnancy or a medical problem makes the other one unavailable, Upchurch said. In contrast, men who make a career of engaging in affairs – philanderers – may fear intimacy with women and have flings to distance themselves from their partners, she said.
Affairs also occur in response to a couple’s frustration at being unable to resolve conflict in their marriage, or when the betrayer, unwilling to take responsibility for ending the relationship, cheats to prompt the other person to call it quits, she said.
Richard Michalski, a psychology professor at Hollins University, said Upchurch’s study is important because so few therapists are up-to-date on the latest research on infidelity. “This research should be a wake-up call to therapists to place more effort on understanding the causes and consequences of infidelity on relationship partners,” he said.