It’s said that infidelity is America’s favorite spectator sport. “But [for] a participant in the sport, it’s a train wreck for everyone involved,” said Steven Kadin, PhD, of Antioch University Santa Barbara. He was speaking at a session Saturday on engaging men in couples therapy along with David S. Shepard, PhD, and Matt Englar-Carlson, PhD, both of California State University-Fullerton; Gary Brooks, PhD, an independent practitioner in Temple, Texas; and John Thoburn, PhD, of Seattle Pacific University.
Kadin focused on heterosexual male infidelity because — even though women are “catching up” — “it’s primarily still men who are the instigators of infidelity,” he said. It’s also common: Up to 40 percent of all couples report infidelity and it’s a presenting concern for about 25 percent of couples who come into therapy, he said.
Treating them isn’t easy. For one, men and women typically have very different ideas of how best to address the problem. A woman who’s been cheated on, for example, commonly shows symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder at first — rage, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance and even flashbacks, Kadin said. In therapy, the hurt woman typically wants her partner to apologize, explain, show remorse, empathy and compassion, stop cheating — and prove it.
Men, on the other hand, just want to forget about it and move on.
“This puts the couples therapist in a tremendous bind,” Kadin said. “Even the most skilled therapist is going to have difficulty reconciling those two fields.”
But it’s possible. First, Kadin said it’s important to assess what kind of infidelity has occurred. Did the man cheat because there was a void in the relationship or was it a pursuant affair? “The latter is a repeated behavior that has little to do with relationship issues,” he said. Knowing this can inform treatment.
Kadin also recommended seeing unfaithful men first in individual therapy. In this setting, psychologists can help prepare them for couples therapy by speaking to their “strength and courage for coming in,” preparing them for hard questions and setting up a plan. “They feel more comfortable if they know there’s a plan and structure,” Kadin said.
He also suggested using metaphors and humor, and encouraging men to say what they mean rather than withdrawing to protect their partners. “Having them speak those hard truths is the way of preventing the distance that helped create the space for infidelity to begin with,” Kadin said.