Archive for the ‘Affair’ Category

“In the end, it is always character that moves history, for good or ill.” John McCain

Our nation is experiencing a spiritual divide, the likes of which it has not seen in decades. Some journalists have called the 2020 election the most important contest since 1865! In death, McCain has emerged as a giant of character. Perhaps the contrast between Trump’s partisanship and lack of loyalty to anyone who doesn’t serve his purposes was the perfect foil for McCain’s star to sparkle ever brighter in death.

At Affordable Relationship Counseling, Dr. Barbara Cunningham emphasizes the notion that all good therapy, no matter what the presenting issue, results in a more robust sense of acting in line with one’s highest principles. When one emerges from therapy with a more polished character, one’s posture in the face of relational challenge is always more effective. I am convinced of that fact. Let’s use the example of Senator McCain to consider what that looks like.

It can be tricky to define “character.” McCain’s behavior personified it:

  • He remained loyal to his peers, even though it meant torture for several more years when he was a POW.
  • He had the capacity and humanness to reach across the aisle to understand another viewpoint.
  • He could disagree without becoming disagreeable.
  • He could be an “I” when his whole group screamed to be a “We.” (Thumbs down on critical Healthcare vote)
  • He knew where he stopped and his party began.
  • He conducted himself with honesty and dignity.

How does your own character stack up against a statesman like McCain? How would your loved ones and closest friends describe your temperament, behaviors when under pressure, and capacity for empathy? Do you have a bottom line? Are you clear on what you will and will not do in important relationship dynamics? Do you know where you stop and the other person begins? Is your word your bond or do you act in “bad faith?”

Therapy can help you write your own story in a way that sparkles with actions made in “good faith.” Call Dr. Barbara Cunningham, licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego, at 619 9906203 for a complimentary consultation. You wont’t regret it. Namaste.

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Sex addiction is on the rise in India“Families with multiple generations of addiction often tell ‘war stories’ about the previous generation. Frequently, stories are told as jokes because they are so improbable. If grandpa was so drunk he missed the garage and drove into the living room, the family laughs as a defense against the tragedy and chaos of the event. For a child listening , such pandemonium can be concerning, but the child’s reality is everyone is laughing. The incongruity may make it hard for the child to ask questions. After all, if the situation is scary to you, but funny to everyone else, then there must be something wrong with your perceptions.”

-Dr. Patrick Carnes, Recovery Zone, Vol 1. (Pg 137)

Since San Diego’s Mayor Bob Filner has been a heated subject of controversy, the topic of sex addiction has dominated the air waves in our town. I have often depicted sex addiction as a disease of intimacy. Like all forms of addiction, I consider it an escape from uncomfortable emotions associated with close relationships with significant others. Addictive patterns that trigger compulsive behaviors often result in surges of neurochemical highs, whether from behaviors such as sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, eating, etc., and such behavioral habits can rarely be addressed in short term behavioral therapy. It took a long time for people to be wired by their formative experiences and it will take a long time to rewire their brains to react differently.

Make no mistake, I am a great believer in the transformative power of psychotherapy. I just do not believe in tips, tricks, tools and techniques…psychotherapy should not be “showtime.” It is process. I ask my clients to trust in the process. I ask them to be patient with the process. Developing insight takes time. Hard work. Asking the right questions should generate more questions. Sex addiction, like other addictions, is an ineffective coping mechanism used to self soothe and to escape from the discomfort of intimacy.  Those who would have sex without considering longterm, potential consequences to their behavior have an opportunity to look for ways to heal the wound within, so they can, over time and with a lot of hard work,  increase their capacity for intimacy. To learn more about Dr. Barbara Cunningham, MFT, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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Relationship counseling offers couples an opportunity to address their challenges or to enrich an already harmonious union. In the heart of San Diego, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, licensed marriage and family therapist, offers expert relationship counseling at affordable prices. Evening hours are also offered Tuesdays through Thursdays to accommodate working couples.

Dr. Cunningham’s approach to couples counseling is strength-based. The overarching concept is that couples and individuals can bounce forward (instead of merely bouncing back),  actually increasing their level of functioning, not in spite of, but because of the adversity with which they have been faced. Whether faced with the challenges following an affair, conflicts over parenting style, money, chronic illness, or myriad other stressors, relationship counseling can help people move to a better place in their marriage or partnership.

The idea of “posttraumatic growth” was coined by Dr. Richard Tedeschi, coauthor of THE HANDBOOK OF POSTTRAUMATIC GROWTH and a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  His research implies that people can actually transform in positive ways as the result of a severe trauma. Such growth can successfully inoculate against subsequent trauma, making people more able to adapt and grow.

Growth from trauma may be the result of increased pride as a result of emerging intact from trauma, not only for individuals, but for systems. In THE RESILIENT SELF by Steve and Sybil Wolin, the term “Survivor’s Pride” is used to illustrate the concept of an individual emerging stronger from a successful navigation of hardship.

George Vaillant, in AGING WELL, discusses the Grant Study, a longitudinal study on adult development spanning over 70 years. In the book, Vaillant is interested in placing emphasis upon and discussing people who are actually healthy instead of a search for pathology. It becomes clear in reading the results of the study that one is not necessarily doomed by one’s past, including coming from an intense family system full of trauma. In fact, individuals and families facing various types of adversity may come out of their troubles stronger and more resilient.

Indeed, it is in the actual struggle with life’s greatest challenges that people may change and evolve in a positive manner. David Schnarch, for example, views the challenges in intimate relationships as an interlocking crucible. The deepest life meaning may emerge from the successful struggle to overcome challenge as individuals and as a couple.

At Dr. Cunningham’s counseling practice, relationship therapy of all kinds is available at an affordable price. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of relationship counseling, visit http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com and get some free tips just for stopping by or call 619 990-6203 for a complimentary consultation.

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Infidelity and Relationship Resource Books

“People change and forget to tell each other.” Lillian Hellman

At her office in San Diego, California, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, specializes in relationship counseling for individuals and for couples. Dr. Cunningham often treats people suffering from the sense of betrayal that results from infidelity. Listed below are some good reads to help people as they struggle to come to terms with this profoundly difficult relationship challenge.

“The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart” by Constance Ahrons
If you determine that your relationship is unsalvageable, this is a fine resource for making the best of a very sad choice. It is an especially important book if you have children.

“Tell Me No Lies: How to Face the Truth and Build a Loving Marriage” by Ellyn Bader and Peter T. Pearson
Written by two psychologists who specialize in marriages and relationships, the book focuses on how we inadvertently or deliberately lie to our partners to avoid conflict. The authors bring their own marriage to the text as well as sample couples who illustrate the choices couples make that result in strengthening or weakening relationships and intimacy.

“Straight talk About Betrayal: A Self-Help Guide for Couples” by Donna R. Bellafiore
This small book is a powerhouse of information about the stages of emotional responses that couples go through with any significant betrayal. The author provides the reader with simple, clear and powerful information and a guide for how to work their way out of the haze that a betrayal brings to a relationship. The reader is empowered with steps to help them maintain stability and how to determine if the partners want to recover and rebuild the relationship.

“My Husband’s Affair became the BEST thing that ever happened to me” by Anne Bercht
This book is written for the reader who is in the throes of a partner’s betrayal and needs encouragement to know she’s not crazy nor alone in her agony AND that she will survive the pain and devastation. The author is frank and open about her own odyssey through the betrayal and provides the reader with exacting details about how the awfulness of the discovery later became the opening for a new and better relationship with her husband.

“Around the House and in the Garden: A Memoir of Heartbreak, Healing, and Home Improvement” by Dominique Browning
A good book to read as you’re recovering from an infidelity alone or when you’re choosing a divorce. Browning provides hope that you will recover and rediscover yourself.

“Back from Betrayal: Saving a Marriage, A Family, A Life” by Suzy Farbman; Afterword by Burton Farbman
This book is written by a woman who discovered her husband’s infidelity after twenty-five years of marriage. She does an excellent job of communicating her devastation and sense of disorientation. The book includes the details of her recovery from the hurt and her personal work to heal in therapy. A wonderful addition to the book is the afterword by her husband, who writes honestly and frankly about his infidelities, his reasoning and his reckoning with his choices, and their effects on his wife, himself, and their marriage. This is an excellent book to read once you have gotten past the initial shock of the discovery.

“If the Buddha Married: Creating Enduring Relationships on a Spiritual Path” by Charlotte Kasl
This book offers practical and sound guidance to remind the reader of what contributes to a strong, loving, and growing partnership. It’s a great primer on marriage.

“Letting Go of Anger: The 10 Most Common Anger Styles and What to Do About Them” by Ron Potter-Efron and Pat Potter-Efron
Both authors are family therapists and offer a simple and elegant description of the ways most of us express anger immaturely. The book also provides a clear description of what mature and responsible anger looks and sounds like. This is an excellent book that I recommend to many of my clients.

After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful” by Janis Abrahms Spring
Janis Spring is a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping couples overcome infidelities. Her book is a salve for those who are suffering from the discovery of betrayal and is equally as profound for the unfaithful partner. She does a fine job of describing what each partner is going through. She also presents the reader with checklists and practical ways to negotiate rebuilding trust.

“Surviving Infidelity: Making Decisions, Recovering from Pain” by Rona Subotnik and Gloria Harris
This is a nuts-and-bolts approach to making the decision to stay or go. It offers a range of considerations and helps the reader with specific ways to deal with obsessive thoughts and many fears and feelings.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice in relationship counseling, visit her website at http://www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary phone consultation.

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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, I specialize in counseling couples for many problems, including infidelity. Recently, I had cause to reflect on the growing effects of social media on relationship functioning in today’s technologically-dominated world. In the May, 2012 issue of ATLANTIC, Stephen Marche states that “We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment…Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. ..We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”

In my practice, I often treat couples who complain of the ruptured bond between them. Some people look to escape their grief and loss instead of facing it head on. In fact, research has found that a couple waits an average of six years before seeking marriage counseling.

One of the many ways that people escape their growing sense of alienation with one another is by becoming more active on sites such as Facebook. or chatting late into the nite in internet chat rooms. Marche observes that “What Facebook has revealed about human nature…is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world.” On the internet, one can be social while still being free of the challenges inherent in relationship functioning between truly bonded people. It can be a way to feel as if one has developed an intimate relationship with someone else and yet this is a delusion. There is no need to do more than preen one’s presentation feathers and one rarely has to deal with the stuff of real relationship challenges. It is as if one is creating a flattering mirror through which to see oneself in the eyes of others who also occupy the ethernet.

Years ago, I saw a couple who came in to therapy because one of the spouses finally relinquished a “connection” which had developed over two years on the internet. The spouse involved in the internet, emotional affair had been communicating with her for years and had, in fact, never met the object of his affection. This was a key focus of the sessions. He had finally freed himself of this escape from his grief about the fracture in his primary relationship and was now ready to work on restoring a connection to his marriage. In early therapy, the wife wanted to talk about the affair and would obsess on the who, the what, and they why of how it happened and whether she could trust him ever again. This was encouraged and allowed in order to rebuild trust as the wife could observe the husband’s (encouraged) efforts at increasing his transparency, even about a subject as difficult as disclosing the details of his affair. The husband wanted to “move on” and put the affair into the past where he said “it belonged.” Such polarized efforts to deal with an affair are common. Therapy helped the husband understand the nature of healing as a process, and the import of increasing his capacity for vulnerability in front of other instead of a focus upon covering content. I allowed the couple sufficient time to process their respective thoughts, feelings, fears, and regrets.

Eventually, I suggested that a proper focus of treatment would be to get at the factors in their marriage which contributed to the affair. It was important to key in on the affair as a trauma that required healing and that each person played a part in how the marriage become susceptible to such traumatic symptomology. Questions are asked which should generate more questions. Increasing the capacity to be transparent in front of one another and to decrease defensiveness is central. A safe holding environment is created by having each partner talk through the therapist. I asked each partner to discuss what they think contributed to the affair. I wondered aloud how long there had been unspoken (and spoken) marital tension and was this a contributing factor to each person running away from facing their part in the tension as well as the reality of the broken primary bond? In what ways did the wife look to criticize and blame her spouse, in a last ditch effort to get him to connect to her? How did the other spouse accommodate and give in when it was merely to avoid “ruffling her feathers?” Could these behaviors be fertile breeding grounds for growing resentment and alienation between them? How did the cheating spouse decide to stop the affair? How long had the other spouse ignored her part in the procrastination of dealing with the growing problem of a hardened distance and rift in the marriage? How could the couple join hands to provide future immunity from affairs? What does having an affair/ignoring one’s part in criticalness, emotional distancing or blame say about the emotional maturity of each partner’s former capacity to face their relationship challenges head on? Might not coming to therapy be an opportunity to congratulate one another on their increased emotional maturity and newfound capacity to address existing problems in the maintenance and nurture of their bond? Each partner was called upon to monitor their own “automatic” tendencies to withdraw, pursue, and/or become critical and blaming. The reciprocity of accommodation and pursuit were considered as cul-de-sacs leading to growing resentment and alientation. Over time, this couple began to grow in their confidence to at once regulate themselves as individuals while at the same time maintaining connection and safety within their relationship. The work emphasized regulating self to insure the viability of the relationship connection rather than using the relationship to insure that the individual would feel like a valid human being. The rewards of therapy led them to become increasingly confident that they could continue to insure the integrity of their relationship connection .

Social media offers an ineffective and dangerous avenue of escape to people feeling the grief and loss borne of a growing disconnect from their most significant other. People who are disconnected from their primary significant other may at one time or another look to meet their connectedness needs on the internet. The avenue leads to a deadend. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary phone consultation.

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  In my private practice in San Diego, I work to provide quality services for marriage counseIing, relationship counseling, and individual psychotherapy. Oftentimes, I listen to young girls and women of all ages obsess about their weight, their appearance and their disappearing youth. I try to provide a safe holding environment as they work to relieve themselves of the overwhelming social pressures to be the prettiest, the skinniest, and the sexiest version of themselves they can create. I coach them to practice self care and take pride in themselves. However, I also coach them to make their life purpose revolve around what they can accomplish rather than merely upon a superficial and dangerous emphasis upon appearance and youth.

After talking at lunch with a close friend and colleague about the troubles of Demi Moore, I had a moment to reflect upon society’s demands to value appearance over substance. Magazines, movies, tv shows, and internet blogs seem to scream that “youth” trumps wisdom-that what we wear matters more than what we think. Some young women and many older women buy into this message so passionately that they kill themselves trying to meet these youthful, botoxed, skinny standards.

This week,  ABC News reported on Demi Moore’s downward spiral as reflecting her obsession with losing weight and battling against the clock as she approaches the big 5-0.  After public humiliation in the face of her estranged younger husband, Ashton Kutcher, betraying her with gorgeous, younger women, she seemingly dropped off her own psychological cliff. Demi appeared so emaciated in this week’s photos that she could have been mistaken for a cancer patient. Sad. Really sad. As she moves into a new decade, her refusal to eat seemed to say symbolically that she just could not swallow it. That she simply wants to disappear. 

Moore’s reported erratic behavior and alleged drug abuse sends a loud message to her daughters that adulthood is not fun and that aging gracefully must be for fools. She makes it appear that it is devastating to cross from youth to middle age. This woman’s daughters are learning deep lessons by watching their mother. Partying with their mother. Suffering as they watch their mother suffer. Wondering if growing older is really as devastating as Mom would have them believe. Moore reportedly gave an interview to Harper’s Bazaar and said, “What scares me is that I am ultimately going to find out at the end of my life that I am not really loveable, that I’m not worthy of being loved…that there is something fundamentally wrong with me.”

When daughters watch their mothers obsess about weight, worry about their changing appearances, be more ambitious about choosing their wardrobes than they are about the enduring consequences of their life choices and try to “hang” with and/or marry much younger men in an effort to cling to their own youth, they are receiving a devastating message. As mothers, we must realize that we are always modeling something–but what? In fact, the deepest lessons our daughters learn is by watching what we do, not what we say. So what are the lessons that we teach our daughters by our own actions?

Little girls learn at an early age if Mom is more concerned with style over substance. Sadly, Rumor, Scout and Talullah may have learned that their mother believes that her greatest value is in her appearance–that her validity as a human being is wrapped up in what she weighs, how she looks, and whether she is still “hot.” In a mad effort to deny her own mortality, she hangs with young people and seemingly tries to deny she is turning fifty with erratic behavior and recreational drugs. If Demi’s daughters are fortunate, they will look at life and their own intrinsic value differently than their mother. They will try to make meaning out of their life in a way that honors experience and wisdom over youth and appearance. Instead of survival of the prettiest, they will see their survival as being rooted in resilience-in the lessons they can discover that are present, but must be uncovered, in each of their life challenges.  Hopefully, Ms. Moore will benefit from professional help so that she can turn her life around. As a woman and as a mother who is facing myriad challenges, she now has an opportunity to teach her children more about the meaning of life by giving new meaning to her own. She has the opportunity to show that there is no shame in stumbling if one picks themselves up from the fall. She can model the joy of recovery from all of the Sturm and Drang so publically displayed. She has the opportunity to review and perhaps modify her values that have privileged vanity over inner substance gained from a life well lived. She has the opportunity to bounce forward, not just back-because of, not in spite of, her recent adversities.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham‘s strength-based practice, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call her at 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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See full size image Relationship counseling and marriage counseling are offered with both daytime and evening hours in the heart of San Diego by Dr. Barbara Cunningham, a licensed marriage and family therapist with her doctorate in marriage and family therapy. In her practice with couples and individuals, she offers people the opportunity to maximize their potential in the context of their relationships. Following is a list of ten tips to improve your relationship functioning:

1. See if you can identify a repetitive cycle that is not useful in your relationship. For example, you may be a pursuer while your partner distances. Of you may overfunction while your partner underfunctions.

2. Try to see if you can identify your part in how this stuck dynamic continues and change it up!

3. Keep your eye on what IS working in the relationship and notice it, both internally and in vocalizing it to your partner.

4. Go on regular and, at least, weekly date nights. Take turns planning and executing the date night–making “surprise” a key element for your partner.

5. In the words of Ghandi, be the change you wish to see.

6. Choose your words carefully, taking special care to avoid blame, criticalness, contemptuousness, or stonewalling (Thanks, John Gottman).

7. Practice self care. The more you model that you love yourself, the more loveable you become!

8. Be a self. Know where you stop and he/she begins. Be willing to risk disapproval in the service of keeping connected and engaged. Just choose your words in a way that will minimize a defensive reaction in your partner. Make your statements from an “I” perspective instead of “You should/shouldn’t” perspective.

9. Play with your partner!

10. Work WITH your partner. Be more interested in being connected rather than in being right!

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice and how relationship counseling can be useful, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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 As a clinician, I have observed that the pain and betrayal one feels when one’s husband or wife has an affair is enormous. The betrayed may exhibit hypervigilance and a need to keep hearing even graphic details of the story. This pattern of the betrayed needing to question and question may persist for a long time, and therapy discussion needs to continue for however long it takes for the trust to begin to grow again. The partner who had the affair will need to exibit earnest effort and maintain patience in the face of his/her partner’s continuing and valid needs to understand what, where, and how-is-it? that it all transpired.

 I think of “trust” as lying somewhere on a continuum. From what I have seen in my practice, trust shrinks and grows according to one’s observation that the other person is able to be transparent, even to the point of thinking aloud about difficult material, in front of the other.

Affairs signal the likely fact that there has been longstanding tension and/or a disrupted connection between a husband and a wife. Yielding to the temptation of having an affair can signify impulsive behavior and even emotional immaturity (the decreased ability to manage one’s impulses in the face of chronic levels of anxiety). The person having the affair is likely looking to “borrow” self from another love interest, because he/she believes she is not valued, appreciated, or loved as much as earlier in the primary relationship. Or perhaps the betrayer’s behavior is rooted in family-of-origin issues that can be addressed and treated in therapy.  In any case, there is a wish to escape chronic anxiety and inner pain about the fact that the primary relationship does not seem to be working, at least not as well as it did earlier in the relationship. The other spouse likely suffers and struggles with similar levels of grief and loss about the marriage and also looks to escape the  pain. He or she may instead busy themselves with other forms of escape to distract themselves from and/or compensate for the same emptiness. An anxious focus upon a child is another common pattern of escape from marital difficulties.  Salient is the notion that affairs, child focus, and myriad other dysfunctional behaviors  are escapes from facing inner pain of grief and loss within the context of the relationship.

It may be possible that, like the partner who engaged in infidelity, the betrayed has also long felt an increasing distance from his or her partner. In reaction to perceiving the distancing, the betrayed partner may increase their pursuing by becoming more blaming and critical. Anything to create a connection-any connection! Then the other person  immaturely and perhaps desperately looks to use another person to shore up self.

When two people become increasingly conflictual and distant, there is a risk that others will be triangled in to compensate (ineffectually) for the pain of loss. This triangling will occur at the expense of healing the primary relationship. The third who is triangled in may make the person in pain just comfortable enough that they now feel even more complacent about implementing change in themself or in the relationship. The pain of the problems in the primary relationship remains unaddressed.

The affair is a classic example of the triangle. Additionally and pervasively, children are vulnerable to being used to breech a marital divide. Multigenerational scripts and models for what people do in marriage and/or when they become anxious in other highly interdependent relationships (like parenting relationships) are relevant. Addressing the fusion between two people (when they don’t know where they stop and the other begins) and helping them carve a bit more individuality out of all the togetherness will be a therapeutic way that a couple can increase their capacity for longterm intimacy. To help couples realize that it is key to family resiliency to make their marriage the priority rather than using their children as a distraction from their own intimacy issues is central to treatment.

The therapy room can be a safe(er) place to practice transparency on touchy subjects. Transparency is a quality that increases in difficulty as one becomes increasingly interdependent with an important other. It is also more difficult to be transparent about a past behavior about which one is ashamed. Obviously, one of the most challenging exercises in increasing transparency in couples therapy is dialogue about an affair. 

Working on increasing transparency in therapy is a little bit like a workout for your heart. Every time that you practice increasing your openness with a partner, you are doing your part in creating and maintaining a connection, and/or repairing a ruptured connection in a love relationship. Transparency means you are willing to risk the disapproval of the important other in order to be genuine and accurate in your represention of “self.” You are willing to expose parts of yourself that have previously remained hidden from either self and/or partner.

Oftentimes, when people are not transparent with another, they even hide their feelings from themselves. When there has been a longstanding pattern of avoiding and not being aware of difficult feelings within oneself (for example,  pushing aside one’s propensity to distance, often in reaction to the fusion or fear of being “swallowed up” by another”), these cutoff conditions make it ripe for symptomology to develop. When there is a pattern of blame/defend in reaction to a partner distancing, the conditions are similarly ripe for marital problems to develop.

For each partner to increase their capacity to become more transparent with one another takes a great deal of work and practice. It is difficult to expose oneself and it is also difficult to risk an important other’s disapproval. Therapy questions are aimed at an opening up in order to assist in this effort. There is, early on, an effort to understand multigenerational patterns of what one does when anxious in close relationships in each partner’s respective family of origin. Partners can consider whether they emulate family of origin patterns or “automatically”  react in a way to do the opposite of what they learned as children. They can consider whether their romantic behavior as adults has an “automatic” quality to it and is now an obsolescent connection to the past. The question becomes whether old coping skills are still useful in one’s adult life. The effort is to increase one’s capacity to become more reflective or thoughtful about one’s responses with and in front of one’s partner, even during reactive moments. Taking a look at multigenerational patterns and sibling birth order are only a few of the additional cognitive exercises that can help couples struggling with healing after an affair to become less reactive in session. Such efforts result in a more proactive posture in seeing their own part as well as a more earnest posture about being “seen” by the other.

One’s “automatic” response may be multigenerationally programmed.  A common “automatic” response to relational distress is to emotionally “cut off” in response to anxiety about an important other. One can cut off one’s own awareness of inner feelings as well as cutting off from exposing one’s inner feelings to one’s partner. Taking an anxious focus off the affair and a heightened emphasis upon increasing one’s awareness of one’s own multigenerational identity can result in a huge payoff. When each partner makes efforts in front of the other to learn more about his or her own self, this re-search (on one’s own familial, shaping influences) cannot help but increase compassion and understanding for what each partner is up against in being intimately connected with the other. Such an earnest effort to build upon facts of family functioning and how one fits into the multigenerational picture builds trust.

In my view, affairs do not have to be the death knell for a relationship. It has been observed that however deep the pain is the potential to achieve similarly deep levels of joy. Embedded in trauma can be new opportunity.  For such an outcome to occur, both people must develop the capacity to see their part in how their love relationship became disconnected enough to become vulnerable to symptoms such as infidelity. The nature of systemic couples therapy is such that relationship dynamics are viewed as co-created, similar to an action/reaction kind of interplay.

The discovery of an affair by a betrayed partner is an ache like no other. The betrayed partner may question what was ever real and genuine about the marriage. Hope springs from the notion that the pain, crisis and regret can be used as an opportunity to grow as individuals and reconnect as a couple.  Hope also springs from the notion that each partner played a part in the disconnect leading up to the affair. If each partner can maintain a focus on deepening understanding of self rather than anxiously focusing on what’s wrong with the other, new and hopeful possibilities may emerge.

People are less likely to be motivated to grow or look at themselves realistically if they are chronically, but not profoundly, uncomfortable. It is in acute moments of marital crisis that couples can create radical and healing change. Clearly, the telling and retelling of the infidelity story needs to be one piece of healing. Another important piece is for each person to look at their own part as to how their relationship became so disconnected over time. Each person needs to consider how he/she can contribute to the healing, including the practice of working on one’s capacity to become more direct and transparent in one’s communication, in the ability to risk the other’s disapproval in order to be a “self.”  A safer, more secure bond results when one increases their capacity to look into and “see” themselves as well as being able to trust that their partner will open the door enough to allow themselves to be seen as well.

Systems therapy does not assume blame; instead it assumes that interactional sequences and patterns are co-created. As such, even the betrayed can assume some responsibility for creating a context for conditions leading up to the infidelity. This is not to place “blame” upon the betrayed. It is simply an observation that when there is heightened tension and/or distance between two closely connected people, a third person may be triangled in. The reported symptom of infidelity that emerged in the case of long-married couples like John and Elizabeth Edwards or Maria  Shriver and Arnold Swarzenegger, reflects the possiblity that their marriages may have been offtrack for many years.  Perhaps both partners procrastinated addressing the escalating problems in the relationship. Instead the growing, emotional disconnect was ignored or, at the least, pushed aside and each person used mechanisms to bind their anxiety about the divide. The procrastination and/or avoidance of addressing a growing marital disconnect exacted a huge cost.

A dyad may be the least stable unit. When the inevitable tension that develops between two people becomes too high for one of them to tolerate, predictably a third will be triangled in to ease the anxiety between the original two (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). In a troubled marriage, a child is often used as a third. One person makes up for the loss associated with the original partner by becoming overly involved with the child. The anxious position in a triangle is the one who has been shoved to the outside-that person may be vulnerable to symptoms like infidelity.

People who decide to engage in an affair need to recognize in themselves an immature effort to “borrow self” from another. Dr. Murray Bowen, a pioneer in the development of marriage and family therapy, referred to such behavior as exhibiting qualities of being a pseudoself (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). A person with a high degree of pseudoself exhibits significant discrepencies between their private, inner worlds and their actions in the outer world. They are not able to live their lives according to their principles, because they are looking to gain approval from others in an attempt to validate themselves.

 To live a genuine, principled life as an individual, as a partner, and as part of a family is a lifelong effort. In my view, therapy that aims to help couples heal after infidelity looks to teach people -not in learning WHAT to think–but in learning HOW to think–about the affair and all the conditions that fed into the pain and opportunity present in this moment. It is about being responsible for one’s responses. It is about becoming increasingly familiar with what one’s own part was in the dynamics of the marriage, about learning the nature of family systems and then studying how its principles can fit into each couple’s particular healing story. In this way, both husband and wife can become a systems expert on themselves , a systems expert on their own family-of-origin system, and become more present and accountable for the duration of their marriage. Stepping up to the plate to work toward the healing of a marriage challenged by the pain and trauma of an affair is a far-reaching decision with a multigenerational legacy. If the couple decide to embark upon such an effort, the outcome will be determined by the ability of each person to keep their eye on themselves rather than anxiously focusing on “fixing” their partner. In couples therapy from a family systems perspective, two strong “I’s” make the most stable “we,” and working toward increasing each partner’s sense of self is central to increasing the couple’s capacity for longterm intimacy.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham”s model of practice, visit http://www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 990-6203 for a complimenary telephone consultation.

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