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Virtual Issue: Infidelity
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Comment from the Virtual Issues Editor
With keen interest I review and comment on this Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (JMFT) Virtual Issue (VI) focused on relational orientation (Blumer, Haym, Zimmerman, & Prouty, 2014), specifically non-consensual non-monogamy, or what is more commonly termed “infidelity.” We are fortunate to have this high quality overview of the literature on infidelity from Dr. Stephen Fife of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in this VI. As Dr. Fife so succinctly states in his guest editorial commentary, infidelity is one of the most difficult and complex problems that couples can face in their lives together, and by extension that clinicians may face in their clinical care of couples. Thus, a VI dedicated solely to the topic of infidelity is critical to have available to family therapy professionals.
In his in-depth review of the literature, Steve does a skilled job selecting from the many articles focused on infidelity in JMFT to attend to in this VI. Selected topics include, but are not limited to the following: treatment of infidelity, common couple reactions to infidelity, clinical guidance in working with infidelity issues, research on internet infidelity, and analysis of the sociocontextual state of infidelity. Of these areas, perhaps the topic that I am most excited he has selected for thematic inclusion is that of online non-consensual non-monogamy. Indeed, as new media and technology usage have increased and become ever more present in our lives, including the lives of our clients, the effect has been one of greater ambiguity in determining exactly what constitutes online infidelity, and by extension infidelity (Hertlein & Blumer, 2013). Not only can this be ambiguous for our clients, but for us as therapists too. Thus, the decision to highlight articles related to online infidelity is a critical one in providing family therapy professionals with at least an overview of a starting place to begin to address this form of infidelity in clinical practice.
In general, I am thankful to Dr. Fife for this contribution to a JMFT VI. Indeed, I believe he has meant and surpassed his intended purpose, which was to select those articles that can, do and will serve as a meaningful resource for family therapy professionals in gaining greater, awareness, knowledge and skills in working with the challenges facing our clients around infidelity.
Blumer, M. L. C., Haym, C., Zimmerman, K., & Prouty, A, (2014). What’s one got to do with it?: Considering monogamous privilege. Family Therapy Magazine, 28-33.
Hertlein, K. M., & Blumer, M. L. C. (2013). The couple and family technology framework: Intimate relationships in a digital age. New York, NY: Routledge.
Markie L. C. Twist, Ph.D., LMFT., LMHC., CSE., Virtual Issues Editor, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy
Comment from the Guest Editor of JMFT Virtual Issue on Infidelity
Infidelity is one of the most difficult and complex problems to treat in couples therapy, and a significant percentage of couples in therapy have experienced infidelity. Couples who seek treatment for infidelity often come to therapy experiencing high levels of emotional distress and relationship instability. Therapists who regularly work with couples will certainly face this difficult challenge, and it is imperative they are well-prepared to help couples navigate the path of healing and recovery. My intent is that this Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (JMFT) Virtual Issue (VI) will serve as a meaningful resource for family therapy clinicians, faculty, students, and scholars interested in the topic of infidelity in general, and the treatment of infidelity specifically.
A review of the articles about infidelity published in JMFT naturally begins with the two-part comprehensive literature review conducted by Blow and Hartnett (2005a, b). They reviewed empirical research articles from 1980-2004 in which infidelity was a major variable of interest (not theoretical or clinical practice articles or research articles based on hypothetical infidelity scenarios). Part I presents a methodological review and critique of the 50 research articles they identified. Part II presents a substantive review of the findings in these articles. Coincidentally, another comprehensive review was published in the same year by Allen et al. (2005) in Clinical Psychology. These reviews provide a thorough introduction and summarization of infidelity research up to 2005. Surprisingly, only 3 articles from JMFT were included in these reviews, suggesting that those conducting research on infidelity were publishing their findings elsewhere, and/or not much empirical research was being done on the treatment of infidelity (at least up until 2005). Nevertheless, these reviews laid the groundwork for the next generation of researchers and clinicians to address deficiencies they found in the clinical literature. They called for an increase in clinically relevant research (quantitative, qualitative, and process research), including improvements in samples, measures, research designs, and analyses. One thing to pay attention to in this VI is how well the authors have addressed the challenge raised in these reviews.
Following Blow and Hartnett, the remainder of this VI includes a variety of clinical, theoretical, and research articles focused on the topic of infidelity. Several of the articles provide valuable clinical guidance, one of which addresses the ethical dilemma of secrets and helping clients disclose infidelity. The research articles include both quantitative and qualitative studies, with a few focused on treatment processes and outcomes. Although much of the past infidelity literature focused on sexual and emotional affairs, readers will see that three articles that address internet or online infidelity are highlighted, as well.
In order to provide socio-historical context and to illustrate some of the changes in the way infidelity is understood and treated, I included one article published in 1981, which is the earliest JMFT article specifically focused on infidelity, and for contrast, two more recent articles both of which situate gender and power at the center of infidelity treatment. The first provides a very insightful evaluation of infidelity literature through the lens of feminist theory. The second presents the findings of a qualitative task analysis of the Relational Justice Approach (RJA) to treating infidelity.
I hope these articles will provide practical guidance for clinicians and inspiration for scholars in their future efforts to provide clinically-relevant research. Clearly, more research is needed on the process of treatment and healing from infidelity. I am grateful to Drs. Markie Twist and Fred Piercy for the opportunity to serve as the guest editor of this JMFT VI focused on infidelity. I would also like to thank Matthew Butler for his assistance with this project.
References Allen, E. S., Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., Gordon, K. C., & Glass, S. P. (2005). Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and contextual factors in engaging in and responding to extramarital involvement. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 12, 101–130.doi:10.1093/clipsy.bpi014
Blow, A. J., & Hartnett, K. (2005a). Infidelity in committed relationships I: A methodological review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31, 183–2005. doi:10.1111/j.1752 0606.2005.tb01555.x
Blow, A. J., & Hartnett, K. (2005b). Infidelity in committed relationships II: A substantive review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31, 217–233. doi:10.1111/j.1752 0606.2005.tb01556.x
Stephen T. Fife, PhD, Guest Editor, JMFT Infidelity – Representative Articles University of Nevada, Las Vegas Associate Professor, Marriage and Family Therapy Program
Reviews of Infidelity Literature
Blow, A. J., & Hartnett, K. (2005). Infidelity in committed relationships I: A methodological review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31(2), 183-216. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2005.tb01555.x
Infidelity is perhaps the most complex issue encountered by couple therapists. Although clinical literature, opinion, and speculation on this topic are abundant, research literature is sparse. What little available research exists is, in most cases, neither robust nor helpful to the practicing therapist. This article provides, in both narrative and table format, a comprehensive methodological review of the available research literature on infidelity from 1980 to present. Topics addressed in the narrative include the lack of a consensus on the definition of infidelity; design challenges, such as retrospective research, confidentiality, measures, and variables; and sampling issues, such as diversity and randomization. Throughout the article, we offer suggestions for future research.
Blow, A. J., & Hartnett, K. (2005). Infidelity in committed relationships II: A substantive review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31(2), 217-233. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2005.tb01556.x
This article, a follow-up on our methodological review of infidelity studies, provides a substantive review of the research findings on infidelity in committed relationships. The aim of this article is to present the most conclusive findings available to both researcher and practitioner on the subject of infidelity. We highlight attitudes toward infidelity; prevalence data; types of infidelity; gender dynamics and infidelity; issues in the primary relationship and their relationship to infidelity; race, culture, and infidelity; education, income, employment, and infidelity; justifications for infidelity; individual issues and their relationship to infidelity; same-sex couples and infidelity; attachment and infidelity; opportunity and infidelity; the aftermath and recovery process from infidelity; and clinical practices.
Research on Infidelity Treatment
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(2), 213-231. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2004.tb01235.x
The discovery or disclosure of an extramarital affair can have a devastating impact on partners, both individually and on the relationships. Research suggests that affairs occur relatively frequently in relationships and are a common presenting problem in couple therapy. However; despite their prevalence, there is little empirical treatment research in this area, and most therapists describe this problem as one of the more difficult to treat. In this study, we used a replicated case-study design to explore the efficacy of an integrative treatment designed to help couples recover from an affair. Six couples entered and completed treatment. The majority of these couples were less emotionally or maritally distressed at the end of treatment, and the injured partners reported greater forgiveness regarding the affair. Details of the intervention, suggested adaptations of the treatment, and areas for future research are discussed.
Williams, K., & Galick, A. (2013). Toward mutual support: A task analysis of the relational justice approach to infidelity. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 39(3), 285-298. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2012.00324.x
Gender, culture, and power issues are intrinsic to the etiology of infidelity, but the clinical literature offers little guidance on how to work with these concerns. The Relational Justice Approach (RJA) to infidelity (Williams, Family Process, 2011, 50, 516) uniquely places gender and power issues at the heart of clinical change; however, this approach has not been systematically studied. Therefore a qualitative task analysis was utilized to understand how change occurs in RJA. The findings indicated four necessary tasks: (a) creating an equitable foundation for healing, (b) creating space for alternate gender discourse, (c) pursuing relational responsibility of powerful partner, and (d) new experience of mutual support. Therapists' attention to power dynamics that organize couple relationships, leadership in intervening in power processes, and socio-cultural attunement to gender discourses were foundational to this work. These findings help clarify the processes by which mutual healing from the trauma of infidelity may occur and offer empirically based actions that therapists can take to facilitate mutual support.
Research on Responses to Infidelity
Olson, M. M., Russell, C. S., Higgins-Kessler, M., & Miller, R. B. (2002). Emotional processes following disclosure of an extramarital affair. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 28(4), 423-434. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2002.tb00367.x
In-depth interviews with individuals who had experienced marital infidelity revealed a three-stage process following disclosure of an affair. The process starts with an “emotional roller coaster” and moves through a “moratorium” before efforts at trust building are recognized. Implications for the literature on forgiveness and the process of change in couples therapy are discussed as well as implications for future research and for practice.
Leeker, O., & Carlozzi, A. (2014). Effects of sex, sexual orientation, infidelity expectations, and love on distress related to emotional and sexual infidelity. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 40(1), 68-91. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2012.00331.x
The purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of participant sex, sexual orientation, infidelity expectations, and love on emotional responses to emotional and sexual infidelity. Participants (72 lesbian women, 114 heterosexual women, 53 gay men, and 57 heterosexual men) completed a demographic form, continuous emotion ratings in response to hypothetical infidelity scenarios, the Infidelity Expectations Questionnaire (IEQ), and the Triangular Love Scale. Sex, sexual orientation, and commitment and intimacy among partners were significant predictors of various emotional responses to sexual and emotional infidelity. Alternatively, passion among partners and expectations about a partner's likelihood of committing infidelity were not significant predictors of emotional reactions to infidelity. Across participants, sexual infidelity elicited more distressing feelings than emotional infidelity. Group differences were also found, with women responding with stronger emotions to emotional and sexual infidelity than men, and heterosexuals rating emotional and sexual infidelity as more emotionally distressing than lesbian and gay individuals. Sex and sexual orientation differences emerged regarding the degree to which specific emotions were reported in response to sexual and emotional infidelity. Clinical implications are offered, including how mental health professionals might use these findings to help clients cope with the negative effects of infidelity on romantic relationships.
Research on Internet Infidelity
Hertlein, K. M., & Piercy, F. P. (2008). Therapists' assessment and treatment of internet infidelity cases. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34(4), 481-497. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2008.00090.x
In this study, we investigated through an Internet survey of 508 practicing marriage and family therapists which treatment decisions varied by gender of the client and background variables of therapists. The subjects responded to several typical internet infidelity scenarios. We varied the gender of the person initiating the infidelity for half of one sample. We also asked the family therapy participants to respond to how they might assess and treat each presenting problem. They also evaluated problem severity, prognosis of the case, number of sessions necessary for treatment, and the extent to which a therapist would focus individually or relationally. Results indicate that there were differences in how therapists assessed and treated clients based on client gender, therapists’ age, therapists’ gender, how religious therapists reported they were, and the extent of therapists’ personal experience with infidelity.
Hertlein, K. M., & Piercy, F. P. (2012). Essential elements of internet infidelity treatment. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(S1), 257-270. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00275.x
As the worldwide usage of the internet tops 1.6 billion people, problems related to its use such as online infidelity are becoming widespread issues for couples and, consequently, for their therapists. The purpose of this qualitative study was to understand how practicing therapists treat internet infidelity through exploring the basic themes used in internet infidelity treatment. We conducted in-depth interviews of 15 therapists with experience in treating internet infidelity. Our findings indicate that therapists go through a variety of steps in treatment, including: (a) develop physical boundaries, (b) develop psychological boundaries, (c) manage accountability, trust, and feelings, (d) increase client awareness around etiology of the Internet relationship, (e) assessment of the couple's context and readiness for change, (f) assess the presence of unique circumstances, and (g) work toward forgiveness. Implications and future research are discussed.
Whitty, M. T., & Quigley, L. (2008). Emotional and sexual infidelity offline and in cyberspace. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34(4), 461-468. doi:10.1111/j.1752 0606.2008.00088.x
This study investigated how men and women perceive online and offline sexual and emotional infidelity. Undergraduates from a large university in Northern Ireland participated in the study. It was found that men, when forced to decide, were more upset by sexual infidelity and women by emotional infidelity. It was also found that men were more likely to believe that women have sex when in love and that women believe that men have sex even when they are not in love. It was not, however, found that either men or women believed that having cybersex implied the other was also in love or that being in love online implied they were having cybersex. These results are explained through a social-cognitive lens.
Butler, M. H., Harper, J. M., & Seedall, R. B. (2009). Facilitated disclosure versus clinical accommodation of infidelity secrets: An early pivot point in couple therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 35(1), 125-143. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2008.00106.x
A critical and potentially polarizing decision in treating infidelity is whether facilitating partner disclosure or accommodating nondisclosure is most beneficial following private disclosure of infidelity to the therapist. Given couple distress and volatility following disclosure, understandably some therapists judge accommodating an infidelity secret both efficient and compassionate. Employing Western ethics and an attachment/intimacy lens, we consider ethical, pragmatic, and attachment intimacy implications of accommodating infidelity secrets. Issues bearing on the decision to facilitate disclosure or accommodate nondisclosure include (a) relationship ethics and pragmatics; (b) attachment and intimacy consequences; and (c) prospects for healing. We conclude that facilitating voluntary disclosure of infidelity, although difficult and demanding, represents the most ethical action with the best prospects for renewed and vital attachment intimacy.
Elbaum, P. L. (1981). The dynamics, implications and treatment of extramartial sexual relationships for the family therapist. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 7(4), 489-495. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.1981.tb01404.x
This article presents the dynamics, implications and treatment of extramarital sex. Historical and cultural perspectives, various types of infidelity experiences and family therapy implications will be discussed. Marital styles will be outlined as a frame of reference in understanding the topic and the importance of symptom generation vis-a-vis infidelity. Finally, specific recommendations for treatment and a brief consideration of extramarital relationships as a healthy alternative marital style will be offered.
Williams, K., & Knudson-Martin, C. (2013). Do therapists address gender and power in infidelity? A feminist analysis of the treatment literature. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 39(3), 271-284. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2012.00303.x
Sociocontextual factors such as gender and power play an important role in the etiology of affairs and in recovery from them, yet it is unclear how current treatment models address these issues. Drawing on feminist epistemology, this study utilized a grounded theory analysis of 29 scholarly articles and books on infidelity treatment published between 2000 and 2010 to identify the circumstances under which gender and power issues were or were not part of treatment. We found five conditions that limit attention to gender and power: (a) speaking (or assuming) as though partners are equal, (b) reframing infidelity as a relationship problem, (c) limiting discussion of societal context to background, (d) not considering how societal gender and power patterns impact relationship dynamics, and (e) limiting discussion of ethics on how to position around infidelity. Analysis explored how each occurred across three phases of couple therapy. The findings provide a useful foundation for a sociocontextual framework for infidelity treatment.
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