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The Schema Therapy Bulletin

The Official Publication of the 

International Society of Schema Therapy

A Schema Therapy Approach to Affairs

Professor Bruce A Stevens, Clinical Psychologist (Australia)

This is an extract from Breaking Negative Relationship Patterns, a self-help resource to be published by Wiley in 2016, by Professor Bruce Stevens and Dr Eckhard Roediger.

Affairs are often part of the breakdown of relationships. Sadly, it seems that few people have much psychological insight into what happened or are wiser after the event. ST can help us to understand and possibly find some resources to deal with this common challenge in couple counseling.

Andy and Margo came for therapy. They were an attractive young couple who seemed to have everything going for them. The husband was a high school teacher. He had an infatuation with Kirsty, another teacher in his school. Kirsty had recently separated from her husband and Andy was “being supportive”. Margo was in a state of near panic, and she acutely felt the threat of Kirsty to their marriage.

Almost all people enter a romantic relationship, whether marriage or living together, with a conscious intention of remaining sexually faithful, so an affair is inevitably a falling from an initial ideal, whether a religious or a personal value. It is usually secretive, guilt-inducing in the person involved and anywhere from infuriating to shattering for the partner who finds out. Although most of our discussion of this topic focuses on the affair in relation to a marriage, the dynamics are similar for an engagement, de facto partnership, or longer term committed relationship. In those cases, there may be less of a public dimension than with vows made in a marriage service, but often there are children involved and the legal situation can easily become entangled.

While affairs may be  erotic and intensely sexual, there is a sense in which they have little to do with sex. The real dynamics are unexplored conflict, anger, fear, and emptiness. Such is the pain of an unhappy relationship that an affair tries to keep at bay. It is the symptom of a deeper malaise. 

An affair almost always represents an externalization of an unhealthy process in the original relationship. In this way, an affair may help to keep the real issues, such as unresolved conflict over differing wants, “safely” underground.

There are various classifications of affairs. We find the following useful:

The six types of affairs Brown, E.M. (1991). Patterns of infidelity

Conflict avoidance affair: “Peace at any price” leads to problems through the avoidance of relationship issues. 

Intimacy avoidance affair: Hurt and difficulties with emotional intimacy lead to seeking it elsewhere. 

Sexual addiction affair: The affair is part of a pattern of repeated infidelity. 

Empty nest affair: Children have left. This is an affair to meet the emptiness of home life after raising children. 

Out-the-door affair: The decision to leave has been made. This is the transition. 

Homosexual affair: Perhaps sexual orientation issues have long been denied, but are now expressed. 

Tripod affair (Lusterman, 1998, Infidelity) longer term hidden or open, stabilizes the original relationship. 

Mode Work with Affairs

Schemas are very important in understanding the emotional learning behind an affair. But this is a topic to be considered later.  Most Schema Therapists work with modes so we will make this the focus of the following.

It is valuable to think about the mode, or state of mind, in which an affair is attractive. While a schema-based conceptualization looks on the underlying personality traits, a mode perspective focuses on the here-and-now reaction of the person and leaves the history aside. In complicated cases, such as those involving the personality-disordered, this helps manage the reactive elements within the couple relationship.

Think about the following cases using this list of modes: Vulnerable Child, Angry Child, Enraged Child, Impulsive Child, Undisciplined Child, Happy Child, Compliant Surrender, Detached Protector, Detached Self-soother, Self-aggrandizer, Bully and Attack, Punitive Parent, Demanding Parent, and Healthy Adult. 

Natalie talked about the affair: “I just needed the comfort of being with him.” (Detached Self-soother)

Val said defiantly, “I just wanted to get back. Stick it to her and rub her face in it—the worthless bitch she is!” (Bully and Attack)

Desmond said with a sad tone, “I felt totally alone. I needed comfort. My wife was no longer talking to me.” (Vulnerable Child)

Nerrida spat out, “I hate Ben. I was glad that his brother was interested in me. I know it hurt Ben that I screwed his younger brother, but I deserved to get some attention!” (Angry Child)

An affair might “feel right” when the person is in a child or coping mode. If you can understand the mode, then it becomes possible to introduce some circuit breakers to bring choice into the cycle. Perhaps mindfulness or a third-person perspective can be used to gain some distance. For example, “How would your best friend comment on this affair?” Then try behavior pattern breaking targeted at choices to continue or stop the affair. 

Understanding schemas and mode work sets ST-C apart from other therapies. It is different in conceptualizing what “caused” the affair and how the healing process unfolds. The cause in our minds is important from three aspects:

•How can this understanding assist to “affair-proof” a relationship?

•How can a change in relevant modes provide more security to the traumatized partner?

•How can the recognition of the mode cycle facilitate an earlier foundation of insight, a reduction of blame, the taking of responsibility, and a layer of hope?

In this way, outcomes change. Mode therapy can effectively address the many challenges of a couple with one partner in an affair. In this sense, we are able to stress the experiential and interpersonal behavioral aspects of this therapy, making it truly a third-wave therapy and setting it apart from its cognitive origins. Generally, the shift to  working with modes is now central in ST. We can usually trace the occurrence of an affair to a mode clash or an activated schema. The ideal of ST is supporting a couple to move from getting stuck in a mode cycle or flipping between mode cycles to an encounter of two more or less Healthy Adults aware of their full spectrum of needs and able to negotiate their mutual fulfillment. Since the emotional activation in an affair is extremely high, the externalizing tools (such as the mode cycle clash-card or standing up together, looking down on the scene) are very helpful in getting the couple to return and process difficult emotions. Healthy couples work at confronting or getting help with unhealthy modes to the point that the unhealthy mode eruptions are minor and not a threat to the relationship. We aspire to this vision of a healthy relationship. 

Sometimes mode clashes are hidden, but eventually they emerge, and the key to ongoing relapse prevention lies in being able to conceptualize and heal the clash. The risk of rupture in the relationship is lessened with greater awareness of mode dynamics.

We often first see the parent modes directed at the betraying partner. This may come through the injured person from Punitive Parent, with harsh moral standards or attempts at revenge. Another way this might be expressed is out of Demanding Parent mode, with demands for complete disclosure of all past betrayals. This can be unrealistic and even impossible to satisfy no matter how much effort is given to the rehashing (think about the task of raking leaves in the back yard, which can never be complete). Instead, aim for a “good enough” disclosure, which might be best contained in a single session. 

Connection must always be between two equal and accepting partners, even though both may disagree about their own or the other’s bad behavior. Encourage the couple to turn away from such a coping mode of behavior with the recognition that it is injurious to the self and others, and to deliberately embrace theother more positively through Healthy Adult. 

Nikki was devastated at Mark’s “slip” at the office Christmas party. She obsessed about it and demanded that he show “evidence” of a change in “character”. While some of this might be considered sensible and even potentially good self-care, the onus was on Mark to prove himself—with Nikki as the prosecutor and judge. The relationship was stuck for a while in this unhelpful dynamic.

Room must be given to  acknowledge that we are all flawed. We all engage at times in various sorts of bad behavior that can challenge intimacy. We also need to allow for the possibility of repentance and a lasting change in behavior.

ST-C aims to make both in the couple relationship fully responsible, individually and jointly, for more effectively meeting their own needs. Often, it is understanding where my feelings and needs come from that allows me to be more effective in Healthy Adult mode. 

Therapist Tip: Mode therapy is different in its approach to healing a couple ruptured by an affair, be it emotional, sexual, or both. Consider the following:

•Use chair-work to heal the individual mode of the perpetrator (Betrayer) in front of the partner. You can put the mode wanting the affair in a coping mode chair, since we usually regard an affair as a self-soothing behavior. What mode is it? Give it a label and then see how Vulnerable Child feels with what they are doing. Place the Vulnerable Child behind the coping mode chair so it is covered by the coping mode. Start differentiating between the self-asserting part of the affair and balance it with the long-term effects for the attachment-seeking system. Offer two child mode chairs, one for each pole. Is this (the self-soothing coping mode) giving Vulnerable Child what is really needed in the long run? Getting in touch with the vulnerable and attachment-directed child mode helps reconciling.

•Have a dialog between these two child modes. Enter in Healthy Adult to talk to the modes. Can Healthy Adult better fulfill the underlying needs of the assertiveness pole, represented by the Impulsive Child chair? Does Healthy Adult need to teach the Impulsive Child that, just because you feel attraction and approval, it does not mean that you have to act?  

Healing the Affair with a Ritual

Farrell and Shaw (2012) have written about group exercises to remind members of the group that “us” has a corporate identity. So, too, with couples. We can be sensitive to what might enhance the couple work. The marriage ceremony is full of symbolism. Why not mark relationship recovery with some suitable symbols? The following is a good example:

Scott and Diana had repaired their relationship after a brief affair. Diana said, “I know I’ve forgiven Scott and I need to work towards trying to forget. The difficulty is that our marriage was damaged. I wonder if we might re-say our marriage vows? That would help me to get a sense of a fresh start based on a renewed commitment.” Scott was happy to make a fresh start in this way. They arranged for a civil celebrant to have a private ceremony in which they repeated their vows.

There are many other potential rituals of relationship renewal. Perhaps the richest resource is the creativity of the couple and knowing what feels right for them.

Why Schema Therapy?

Schema therapy has been extensively researched to effectively treat a wide variety of typically treatment resistant conditions, including Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Read our summary of the latest research comparing the dramatic results of schema therapy compared to other standard models of psychotherapy.

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