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Treating Affair Couples: An Integrative Approach Kristina Coop Gordon University of Tennessee In collaboration with: Donald H. Baucom University of North Carolina Douglas K. Snyder Texas A&M University. Why Study Affairs?.

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Treating Affair Couples: An Integrative ApproachKristina Coop GordonUniversity of TennesseeIn collaboration with:Donald H. BaucomUniversity of North CarolinaDouglas K. SnyderTexas A&M University

Why study affairs
Why Study Affairs?

  • Lifetime occurrence in oldest cohort: 37% men; 19% women (Laumann et al., 1994)

  • 40% of divorced men/44% of divorced women report extramarital sexual contact during marriage

  • 2nd leading cause of divorce for women and 3rd leading cause for men (Janus & Janus, 1993)

  • Therapists report as 3rd most difficult issue to treat (Whisman, Dixon, & Johnson, 1997)

What is an affair
What Is An Affair?

  • Physical non-monogamy: Occurs along a continuum of physical involvement

  • Emotional non-monogamy: Characterized by emotional intimacy, secrecy, or sexual chemistry

  • Betrayal: Violation of relational standard (implicit or explicit) regarding physical or emotional exclusivity

Infidelity a trauma perspective
Infidelity: A Trauma Perspective

  • Violation of important standards or assumptions about the world or relationship (safety, commitment, trust, well-being of the individual) (Janoff-Bulman, 1992)

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

    • Recurrent, intrusive, and distressing thoughts

    • Avoidance of activities, places, or persons associated with the trauma

    • Increased arousal (disturbances in sleep and concentration; hypervigilance)

Characteristics of successful process
Characteristics of Successful Process

  • Gaining a fuller and balanced understanding of event

  • Not remaining preoccupied with the traumatic events

  • Giving up the right to continuously punish the person who has “wronged” you

  • Deciding whether to maintain or terminate the relationship

Overview of stage i absorbing the blow
Overview of Stage I: Absorbing the Blow

  • Thoughts

    • Assumptions about partner/self/relationship disrupted

    • Extreme, negative attributions

    • Perceptions of loss of control in the relationship

  • Emotions

    • Strong, overwhelming emotions such as anger, depression, and anxiety

    • May change daily or hourly

  • Behaviors

    • Strong need to question partner about his/her behavior - e.g., Why did he/she do it? What was he/she thinking?

    • Refuge -- or acts of revenge

Overview of stage ii giving meaning
Overview of Stage II: Giving Meaning

  • Thoughts

    • Gain a deeper understanding of what contributed to the affair and subsequent reactions

    • Explanations for the affair may change

  • Emotions

    • Intensity decreases

    • Control increases

    • Affected by changing explanations of the affair and response

  • Behaviors

    • Retributions by injured partner diminish

    • Restitution by participating partner may continue

    • Vacillations between retreat vs. engagement

Overview of stage iii moving forward
Overview of Stage III: Moving Forward

  • Thoughts

    • More realistic perceptions of partner/self/relationship

    • More realistic expectations for the future

  • Emotions

    • May experience compassion for partner and ability to wish her/him well

    • Regain a sense of emotional safety which allows you to give up some of the anger and anxiety

  • Behaviors

    • Relinquish the right to punish partner further

    • Decision about future of the relationship

    • Enacting the actions needed to improve the relationship or to terminate it

Preliminary outcome findings
Preliminary Outcome Findings

  • How does this intervention impact:

    • Symptoms of trauma and related individual distress?

    • Empathy and assumptions about one’s partner?

    • Relationship distress and commitment?

Study method
Study Method

Participants: Six married couples having had sexual affair in past year; not ongoing

  • Excluded based on psychoticism, alcohol abuse, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder

  • Recruited based on television stories, radio interviews, newspaper ads

Treatment success
Treatment Success

  • Injured partners’ forgiveness levels increased overall; their global marital distress and symptoms of individual distress decreased.

  • Across the four treatment periods, injured partners reported decreases in negative assumptions about their partners, consistent with predictions based on a forgiveness model.

  • Over time, injured partners reported less withdrawal from their partners.

Initial assessment process
Initial Assessment Process

  • Interview both partners together

  • Interview each partner separately

    • Injured partner

    • Participating partner

  • Provide initial tentative formulation to both partners together

Goals of the initial interview
Goals of the Initial Interview

  • Establish an atmosphere of safety

  • Establish an atmosphere of trust

  • Establish an atmosphere of competence

    • Expertise regarding affairs and recovery process

  • Prepare for subsequent sessions

Domains of the initial interview
Domains of the Initial Interview

  • Brief marital history

  • Current marital functioning

  • Individual functioning (screening only)

  • Immediate decisions and subjective timeline

  • Crisis containment

Domains of the initial interview1
Domains of the Initial Interview

Current marital functioning

  • Content and regulation of marital affect

  • Conflict engagement and level of containment

  • Intramarital boundaries

  • Extramarital boundaries

Domains of the initial interview2
Domains of the Initial Interview

Immediate decisions and subjective timeline

  • Whose decision to pursue couple therapy

  • Initial goals of couple therapy

    • Containment of negative exchanges

    • Evaluate potential for restoration

    • Work toward reconciliation

  • Beliefs about recovery process

    • How recoverable? How long? By what process?

Domains of the initial interview3
Domains of the Initial Interview

Contain immediate crises

  • Verbal or physical aggression

  • Immediate decisions regarding boundaries

  • Immediate self-care needs

Goals of individual interviews
Goals of Individual Interviews

  • Strengthen therapeutic alliances

  • Provide opportunity for self-disclosures

  • Obtain additional information:

    • Individual and marital histories

    • Current understanding of affair and recovery

    • Current individual functioning and needs

  • Individual crisis intervention and support

Domains of individual interviews
Domains of Individual Interviews

Understanding of affair and recovery process

  • Beliefs about why the affair occurred

  • Expectancies regarding a recurrence

  • Attributions regarding affair:

    • Own behavior prior to and following disclosure

    • Partner’s behavior prior to and following disclosure

  • Expectancies regarding potential for recovery

    • Partners’ responsibilities in recovery process

Domains of individual interviews1
Domains of Individual Interviews

Follow-up on individual functioning

  • Affect: Content, intensity, lability

  • Cognitions: Content, intensity, consistency

  • Coping strategies:

    • Intrapersonal

    • Interpersonal

  • Additional attention to flashbacks

  • Individual crisis intervention and support

Goals of follow up interview
Goals of Follow-Up Interview

Provide tentative formulation based on:

  • Marital history: Attachment and conflict

  • Situational stressors

  • Individual histories:

    • Potential vulnerabilities prior to the affair

    • Individual challenges following disclosure of affair

    • Resources for coping and recovering from affair

  • Summary of immediate challenges

  • Summary of overall strategy and next phase

Treatment goals for stage i
Treatment Goals for Stage I

  • Re-establish some form of “equilibrium” for the couple and individuals

    • Minimize emotional upset and dysregulation

    • Establish behavioral routines

  • Minimize additional damage to either individual or the couple– “damage control”

    • Minimize hurtful behaviors between the partners

    • Minimize either partner creating problems with the outside world

Treatment strategies for stage i
Treatment Strategies for Stage I

Re-establishing equilibrium

  • Couple

    • Set boundaries regarding 3rd person

    • Decide on new behavioral patterns (e.g., who sleeps where)

    • Discuss impact of affair

  • Individual

    • Deal with flashback-type phenomena

    • Use self-care strategies (e.g., exercise, diet, prayer, minimizing sexually-transmitted diseases)

Flashback guidelines
Flashback Guidelines

  • Clarify whether emotional upset is due to something currently upsetting or re-experiencing feelings from past

  • Let your partner know what is happening (e.g., driving by the hotel triggered old feelings)

  • Let your partner know what you need at present (e.g., being held; being left alone; talking about it)

  • Balance how much you talk with partner about flashbacks with other ways to handle on your own

Treatment strategies for stage i1
Treatment Strategies for Stage I

Minimizing additional damage

  • Between partners

    • Problem-solve on issues such as physical violence or saying hurtful things

    • Discuss limits of what to discuss about affair (e.g., details of sexual behavior)

  • Between couple and outside world

    • Discuss limits of what to tell other people

Discussing impact of the affair
Discussing Impact of the Affair

  • What assumptions have been violated about who your partner is and what to expect from your relationship?

  • What standards for your marriage (how partners should behave) have been violated?

  • What does the affair mean about your partner, the relationship, and you?

  • What emotions are you experiencing, and what ideas go with those feelings?

  • Given these thoughts and feelings, what behaviors have changed or have been disrupted?

Brian and angela summary
Brian and Angela – Summary

  • Brian 29, injured partner; Angela 26, participating partner

  • Married 6 years; sons ages 3 and 1

  • Affair – two months’ duration.

  • Marital history and shared work history.

  • Individual histories:

    • Angela: Adopted, mother died age 18

    • Brian: Oldest of 3 siblings; college drop-out

Treatment goals for stage ii
Treatment Goals for Stage II

  • Identify factors that potentially contributed to “vulnerability” or “risk” of affair

  • For injured partner: Restore predictability and soften view of participating partner

  • For participating partner: Expand explanatory context while promoting responsibility for decision

  • Prepare groundwork for additional change

Treatment strategies for stage ii
Treatment Strategies for Stage II

  • Present rationale

    • Potential benefits and risks of doing this

  • Examine potential factors successively

    • Relationship factors

    • Stressors from outside the marriage

    • Individual susceptibilities or contributions

      • Participating partner

      • Injured partner

  • Develop shared, comprehensive formulation

Rationale for exploring context
Rationale for Exploring Context

  • For injured partner

    • Restores predictability

    • Potentially “softens” view of participating partner

    • Contributes to appropriate self-view

  • For participating partner

    • Broadens explanations for hurtful behavior

    • Contributes to appropriate self-view

  • For couple

    • May facilitate collaborative efforts at addressing marital and outside factors

Challenges to stage ii
Challenges to Stage II

  • Confusing “understanding” with “excusing”

  • Reactivity of injured partner

    • Reluctance to examine marital or own factors

    • Preoccupation with “why”

  • Reactivity of participating partner

    • Reluctance to hurt injured partner further

    • Intolerance for sustained distress

  • Differences in subjective time-lines

Preparing a formulation
Preparing a Formulation

  • Emphasize multiple contributing factors

    • Vulnerabilities or risks from multiple domains

    • Both historical (developmental) and recent

  • Different factors at different stages of affair

  • Cite reductions in risk already achieved

  • Propose additional steps to be pursued

Treatment goals for stage iii
Treatment Goals for Stage III

  • Consolidating work done in Stage II

  • Discussing forgiveness and blocks to forgiving or “moving on”

  • Deciding whether or not to continue the relationship

  • Either making the necessary changes to rebuild the relationship or working on an amicable termination

Treatment strategies for stage iii
Treatment Strategies for Stage III

Consolidating work from Stage II

  • Each partner writes a “narrative” of the affair

  • Discuss the narrative in session

  • Discuss how their understanding has changed since they began treatment

  • Couple identifies what needs to change in the relationship, based on what they have learned

  • Therapist summarizes and gives feedback

Treatment strategies for stage iii1
Treatment Strategies for Stage III

Discussing “forgiveness,” “letting go,”

or “moving on”

  • Assess/discuss couple’s beliefs about forgiveness

  • Discuss how forgiveness fits with work done in previous sessions

  • Discuss whether they feel ready to move on and to forgive and what that means to them

  • If not ready, discuss “blocks” to forgiveness

  • Address pro/cons of forgiving/not forgiving

Common beliefs about forgiveness
Common Beliefs about Forgiveness

  • Forgiveness means reconciliation

  • Forgiveness means excusing the partner or saying what happened does not matter

  • Forgiveness means forgetting or no longer feeling any anger about what has happened

  • Forgiveness is weak or condoning what happened

  • Forgiveness must be granted immediately, particularly if person has apologized

  • One should not/must not forgive one’s partner for certain types of betrayals: affairs, violence, lies ...

Our model of forgiveness
Our Model of Forgiveness

  • Forgiveness is not:

    • Excusing or forgetting the affair

    • Reconciling

    • An immediate or one-time event

  • Forgiveness is:

    • A process

    • An opportunity to gain in understanding about your partner, your relationship, and yourself

    • A release from being dominated by negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors

Treatment strategies for stage iii2
Treatment Strategies for Stage III

Deciding whether to continue relationship

  • Again discuss changes that would need to occur for relationship to continue

  • Discuss evidence supporting their ability to make the desired changes

  • Discuss partner’s motivation and willingness to make the changes

  • Help them think through what they wish to do

Preparing a formulation1
Preparing a Formulation

  • Emphasize multiple contributing factors

    • Vulnerabilities or risks from multiple domains

    • Both historical (developmental) and recent

  • Different factors at different stages of affair

  • Cite reductions in risk already achieved

  • Propose additional steps to be pursued

Formulation for brian and angela
Formulation for Brian and Angela

  • Relationship strengths

  • Basis of attraction, initial maintenance

  • Initial stressors and responses to these

  • Escalation of tensions, relationship erosion

  • Additional contributing factors

  • Implications for reducing vulnerability

    • Communication changes

    • Balance of relational roles

Questions for evaluating the relationship
Questions for Evaluating the Relationship

  • Is the affair isolated event or ongoing pattern?

  • Has participating partner been able to make difficult changes in the past?

  • Has the injured partner been able to make similar changes?

  • Has participating partner accepted appropriate responsibility for actions?

  • Are both partners willing to make the necessary changes? In themselves? In the relationship?


  • Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., & Gordon, K. C. (in press). Treating couples recovering from affairs. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

  • Snyder, D. K., Baucom, D. H., & Gordon, K. C. (2007). Getting past the affair: A program to help you cope, heal, and move on – together or apart. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

  • Gordon, K.C., Baucom. D.H., Snyder, D. K., & Dixon, L. J. (2008). Treating affair couples. A. Gurman (Ed.), Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy (pp. 429-458). New York: Guilford Press.

  • Gordon, K. C., Baucom, D. H., & Snyder, D. K. (2004). An integrative intervention for promoting recovery from extramarital affairs. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 30, 213-231.

  • Allen, E. S., Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., Gordon, K. C., & Glass, S. (2005). Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and contextual factors in engaging in and responding to infidelity. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 12, 101-130.

Contact information
Contact Information

Kristina Coop Gordon

University of Tennessee

[email protected]

Douglas Snyder

Texas A&M University

[email protected]

Donald H. Baucom

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

[email protected]