Should Clients Ask Their Partners about Cheating?
By Tony Davis, LMFT
Infidelity is one of the most painful betrayals that can happen in a relationship. In fact, “affair repair” is one of the most frequently sought out services for couples in my practice. But sexual infidelity is only one of the ways that couples can “cheat” on each other. Partners betray each other in many ways, whether hiding behind a newspaper to avoid a confrontation, or flirting online with someone, or lying about staying late at work to spend time with friends. It helps to understand what betrayal means if we are going to address it with them in whatever form it appears.
I define betrayal as “any act or statement that goes against the conscious or unconscious agreements between partners.” Of course, this happens all the time in relationships, and it usually involves deception, but most times the damage is minimal if noticed at all. So why is sexual/emotional betrayal such a knife in the heart? Because this type of betrayal challenges the attachment bond that makes us feel safe, secure, and cared for.
If a client suspects that their partner is cheating, most likely they are. That is the bad news, but the good news is that for many couples, infidelity and affairs can be worked through with the help of a good couples therapist, and they can end up with a closer, stronger relationship than before. What do you do when they think there is betrayal? Well, in my practice I do not think it is important to “know” right off the bat, because this only serves to drive couples further apart. I would rather “pretend” that the infidelity never happened (sometimes I know, sometimes I don’t), attend to the betrayed partner’s feelings, and deal with the issues that may have motivated the behavior in the first place (if it is admitted to). I do insist that the affair end if it is ongoing, because otherwise the betrayal is less an indication of problems and more a first step out of the relationship (if they refuse to end the affair, I can continue to work with them, but I let them both know what they are up against). Since my work in the room is about connection, I am interested in client’s agreeing to stop disconnecting actions. Here are some tips on how you can address clients’ suspicions in session without causing an Armageddon:
- HAVE THEM TALK ABOUT WHAT THEY ARE FEELING. This approach is meant to avoid a fight. If one accuses the other of what they suspect, the other is likely to defend or accuse back; as clinicians we might be tempted to become detectives! If instead you guide them to say that they have concerns that are bothering them that they would like to talk about, you have a chance of getting the other to co-operate. How do we do this? Rather than the client saying, “I feel like you are seeing someone else,” which is NOT talking about feelings, but is instead a judgement that may or may not be true, you can coach them to say something like, “I feel insecure in this relationship as a result of you working late so many nights.” Why does this work? Because cheating can be an effect of lack of connection and communication between partners, and this approach can invite the other to be empathetic rather than defensive. Empathy strengthens connection, defensiveness weakens it! Whether or not you find out about an affair, you are then working toward them meeting on common ground, where the one with suspicions has a better chance of being attended to.
- PROBLEM SOLVE. If talking about how they are feeling is too difficult, then don’t have them do this initially. Have a discussion with them about “problems” in the relationship. If they are spending less and less time together, you could assist them with problem-solving by asking a question like this: “You rarely go out to dinner anymore because you are both working late so often. That used to be something you both enjoyed. What can you do to make that happen again?” The reason why this may work well is that if you have a female client who suspects her male partner is cheating, it will give the man a chance to do what men love to do: fix things. Men, in general, love receiving invitations to come up with solutions—certainly more than they like getting criticized or accused of something! Problem solving, if done early enough, has the chance of bringing couples together in a way that can nullify the effect of any past betrayals, if it is guided by the therapist to avoid unresolved feelings (you can help them with these once there is more of a connection!). Even if one has “hard evidence” of an infidelity, you can still try the problem solving approach with them first in order to “work into” the feelings conversation: “Your wife found flirtatious texts from your assistant on your phone and she is not sure how to deal with that. What do you suggest she do to manage her suspicions?” (You have to be ready to jump in and help!)
- DON’T HAVE THEM ASK. By now you may have noticed that I am not suggesting you encourage partners to ask if the other is cheating. Why? Well, because it rarely accomplishes anything other than driving them further apart. As I said, if one suspects that there is cheating, there probably is. Before addressing this, the challenge is to ask the suspicious partner, with genuine curiosity: “What is the purpose of what you want to do/say regarding this suspicion? What do you hope to accomplish?” Do they want to let the other know how scared, hurt, and angry they are? Then have them talk about THAT, help one to understand what is going on with the other so that they can respond in a way that hits the connection/empathy mark. Do they want to punish the other and let them know that there is evidence proving that they are right about their suspicion? Then guide them to talk about the anger, because if they accuse and attack, the other will likely criticize back, tell them they are crazy, or get up and leave the session. Asking about cheating is a back-door criticism, and it is less effective in getting information than talking about what is going on in their inner emotional world. So don’t encourage them to ask. If you want to help the relationship heal and improve, help them to talk about their feelings instead.
Infidelity is a couples issue, but it does not need to be a deal breaker—rather than signaling the loss of love and interest, I have found that more often it is the acting out of unspoken hurts and unmet needs. We can keep couples from breaking up unnecessarily with our work. The approaches above are difficult, but they will build connection for the couple over time. Accusations NEVER work; they only result in disconnection and withdrawal or counterattack. If there are deceptive behaviors going on in a relationship then there are problems in the shared dynamic that need to be looked at. This is not to let the betrayer off the hook, but to instead keep the relationship from imploding and ending, which in many cases is unnecessary and tragic. Infidelities can be worked through if you can help them to place more importance on being loved than being right.
Tony Davis, LMFT, is a Couples and Sex Therapist in private practice in Hollywood. He trained at UCLA with Walter Brakelmanns to work with couples and individuals on relationship, dating, and sex issues. He has weekday, weeknight, and Saturday hours available for clients’ convenience. Find out more at CouplesTherapistLA.com.