Infidelity: From promise to promiscuity

There are so many paths to unfaithfulness. Emotional cheating, affairs, porn. What makes a person cheat and how to do couples deal with the ramifications? We speak to Margaret Ramage, one of the UK's leading experts on infidelity to help us understand more.

Infidelity: From promise to promiscuity

TOM: Hello Margaret and thank you for joining us on this webcam series about couples.
    We’ve chosen a topic for you - Infidelity - which sits a bit on the side of other things because it’s quite a big topic, there’s quite some profound ramifications.
    So, let’s just start. What are your thoughts on infidelity?

MARGARET:    Well, it is huge, Tom, and I think a lot of people have experience of it either in their families of origin or in their current families or they know people who have experience of it.
    Nobody prepares for it. Couples don’t usually talk about what would infidelity look like for us? If I were unfaithful how would you react? If I’m looking at porn does that count? As long as I don’t have intercourse is it okay?
    So they don’t really prepare for what might feel like infidelity to one person and, perhaps, not to the other. How they would react if such a thing happened and what it would mean for their relationship.
    People don’t get into a committed long term relationship thinking that it’s ever going to happen. So, when it does happen it’s a shock, it’s a break and people aren’t prepared for it.
    So the emotional reactions are sometimes very extreme, sometimes not. For some couples it doesn’t seem to be an issue. It seems to be something that they can ride through and come through and it doesn’t have a devastating effect.
    But, for the majority, it is a break in the relationship, everything that went before stops and has to start again. So it is huge, yes.

TOM:    So what does it mean for the therapist? This is aimed at therapists to help therapists.

MARGARET:    Yes. I think, what it means for a therapist is that they need to understand that an affair or an infidelity doesn’t stop at the event of the infidelity. Things have been going on before. The person who has the infidelity, may have resisted numerous temptations before giving in to it. They may have been very unhappy for a very long time, possibly without even realising how unhappy they are.
    I think in the world outside, the person who actually has the affair is very much blamed. How could he do this/how could she do this? What a dreadful situation and there’s a lot of judgement and blame.
    But, as therapists, we know that what people do is often not what they intend to do and it’s driven by forces that they may be completely unaware of.
    So, what we need to do is to really understand what those forces might be and so, to do that, we need to be aware that this affair did not start when it started. Something has been going on a long time before it actually starts.
    I think what that helps us to do is stay out of any judgemental position or the risk of siding with one partner or the other. It’s a systematic fault. It’s not just a one off event. Something has been going on for a long time before this happens.

TOM:    So, thinking again as a therapist confronted with infidelity. I know it’s a very polarised situation as one person has done something, the other hasn’t.
    How do you engage with that initially? How do you open that up and move it out of the polarisation that already exists?

MARGARET:    Well I think it’s important to look at it as purely a relational matter and each partner is reacting very differently to what has happened to their relationship.
    So they’re having very different emotional experiences, but both are very shocked - usually both are shocked - broken-hearted at what has happened, frightened about the future and sad about the past.
    So they do share a number of emotions although what’s happened to each of them is very different.
    Of course, another thing that you have to remember is that somewhere there is a third person here who also has an impact on what’s happening in the relationship.
    So, my position, really, is that this is about a relationship and each partner has a part to play. Very often, at the beginning, the wounded partner or the partner who didn’t have the affair feels that it’s all about the other person. The other person has betrayed them, has behaved very badly and not ready to look at what part they may have played.
    So, to begin with, it’s just validating the emotional experience, giving people space to express it and to say what they need to say, without allowing any conclusions to be drawn that might have a long term effect.

TOM:    Okay. Yeah, looking for the similarities, looking for the shared experience in that, I think. Okay, so that’s the first step.
    Now, you sort of alluded earlier it may be an ongoing situation - we don’t know that yet - or it may be not just ‘one’ third person, but a multiple of people. So there could be quite a few complexities as well that may be hidden yet.

MARGARET:    Absolutely. But until the emotional atmosphere is a little bit clearer, we’re not going to get to a place where we can understand and learn from that. Initially, it’s simply a matter of holding the space while the emotions calm down - which they do. They don’t stay at that intensity over a long period.
    After a little while people begin to see that their emotions are coming in waves. They’re not fixed and there are moments when they can see clearly. But until they have arrived at that stage, it’s not going to be possible to do sensible analysis.
    Sometimes people react very, very strongly. Some people do react as though there has been a post-traumatic stress period. Sometimes the disclosure and the discovery can tap into earlier episodes of loss trauma. So, there may be experiencing not the one that they’re experiencing now, but several others which maybe happened in the past.

TOM:    Yes. So, when you say “until the emotions have calmed down…” it sounds nice, but what’s happening here? The therapist is there with the couple, it avoided the polarisation of taking sides, being assigned a side by one or the other within the couple.
    So, how does it affect you as a therapist? Where are you at that moment in time?

MARGARET:    Well because I’m not in this relationship, I’m outside of the system and observing it. I’m also containing quite a lot and people are learning from my interventions that they can contain their emotions, they can sit and look at each other for moments of the time, they can actually listen to each other.
    So, I’m doing a certain amount of containing and quite a lot of directing. Emotional expression is all very well but, at the end of the day, having seen it and heard it and validated it, something has to happen. You can’t just have two people there expressing how miserable and upset they are. We have to take it somewhere and do something with it.
    One of the first things is to help people  learn that there is a place for emotional expression and we can contain and they can think about it.

TOM:    Well, it might be useful to have a little example of when you say “learning from you…”

MARGARET:    Learning from themselves, actually, because I can - at any moment - if they’re having a conversation that’s getting very heated, intervene and say “hang on a minute, let’s just pause here and look at what’s happening…” and they will do that. Mostly - not every time - but, eventually, they will.
    Eventually they realise that what they’re doing isn’t helping and they need to stop and look at what’s happening in order to make sense of what’s happening.

TOM:    Okay, but can you give us a little example for intervention. There are strong emotions, people are quite fired up, quite polarised. What can you say?

MARGARET:    Well, for one thing, I am sitting there quite calm in this and I can say “can we just pause this a moment…” I may need to say it a little bit louder - they may not hear me. But, actually, finding, again, a firm intervention of “let’s pause this a moment…” will have an effect.
    Or I may say “let’s pause this a moment and understand what you’re each saying because you’re both talking and nobody can be listening…”  or something very straight like that. But I find people do respond eventually.

TOM:    Sorry?

MARGARET:    They do respond. They’re in a contained situation, in a room with another person, they will limit themselves.
    I have sometimes asked people if they would show me how the argument starts. How do you row? What do your rows look like?
    The reaction I usually get is “oh, we couldn’t possibly show you. We’re far too ashamed of what we do.”

TOM:    Okay.

MARGARET:    Which indicates, immediately that people have a choice and they can contain it if they want too.

TOM:    But they have self-awareness, there is an observer.

MARGARET:    There is… thank you. There is an observer watching and judging what they do. I don’t need to make any judgments at all.

TOM:    Yes… no, but it is still a challenge to get people to listen to each other, to get people to move from their corner, so to speak, into a place where new learning is possible or where they can explore something.

MARGARET:    That is perfectly true. But the fact that they come into a room, close the door behind them and sat down implies that they are willing to do something. If they can get through the door and sit down and look at each other, we can do something.

TOM:    Okay, let me take you a back a little bit to something you said earlier about where does it start - you mentioned earlier somebody might look at porn or intercourse. There is a sort of ‘cut off’ where something is considered by one person to be infidelity, but not by the other person.

MARGARET:    Well, you see, I think, with this, Tom, there are always, invariably, looking at people with different sorts of attachments.
    We’re not seeing people who are securely attached because they create relationships which they find fulfilling and satisfying, meet their needs, they don’t come up against this.
    So the people we see are all struggling with different sorts of attachment difficulties. I think there are four main categories that we see - there are sub-categories, of course, and I probably missed out important ones before.
    But one of them is people where, for one person or other in the relationship, there is just not enough warmth, closeness, intimacy, emotional contact and they’re struggling to get their emotional needs meet.
    After a long period of time they may meet someone outside where suddenly, the person they meet outside touches that sore, hurting spot where they’re so hungry - and that’s very seductive. It’s very hard to resist that.
    So, in a relationship where one person may be rather emotive, distant, a bit of a loner and the other person is hungry, you have a situation that is primed for an affair or something to happen.
    Or there’s the opposite situation where there’s too much conflict, too much noise, too much criticism, somebody is feeling judged, criticised... whatever they try to do they don’t get the affirmation, the attention, the love, the emotional warmth that they’re seeking.
    Those are two ends of the spectrum of a hungry marriage really. One where there’s not enough warmth and one where there’s too much of the wrong sort of warmth and I think we all see couples like this and we can understand, I think, where one person is missing something and struggling to stay connected and stay close in the marriage.
    Someone offering that outside, over time, they’re very likely to fall for it. I think these are people who struggle against temptation for a long time before they actually give into it. They don’t ever intend to have an affair. But, again, these are the people who have come to the end of a long period of pain and sadness and doing their best.
    Then there’s the relationship which was never really quite right. The person who was perhaps a bit railroaded into commitment, into marriage, into pregnancy, into the mortgage, when they weren’t really feeling ready for it. It’s maybe a situation where you have two people at different developmental stages or different levels of recovering from their various traumas.
    So one person’s never been fully present, never really there and the other person hasn’t noticed because they’ve been running the show, they’ve been in charge. The person has gone along with them, done what was expected, done what was wanted - it looked okay - and the person who was running the relationship never really thought there was anything to be concerned about.
    Then, again, after a number of years the person who isn’t fully committed may meet somebody and suddenly realise what love, attention, connectedness feels like - and it feels very good.
    That’s why the people with the secure relationships and the secure attachments don’t have these problems because they’ve got that sense of connectedness that they want.
    But when they’ve been in a rather barren relationship where you’ve not been heard, you’ve gone along with things and not really felt fully yourself and suddenly someone sees you as, fully, who you are, that is very hard to resist. I think those are the ones that tend to break up.
    The other two where the closeness and the noise and the distance and the conflict, those people can repair their relationship. But the ones like this are very difficult to repair because one person was never really in it.
    Then, suddenly, they’ve left and they come to therapy after one person has left and owned up, if you like, and said to the other partner “look, I’m not here with you, I want to leave and I’m going to leave” and they do. They break up.
    Then there’s the fourth category where you have people who are really subject to compulsive urges. They may be framed as love or sex addicts. But, in a way, it’s not that they can’t help themselves, but it is that they can’t help themselves. They cannot stay focused and present in the one relationship. It’s just not part of the way they work and it’s the behaviour ‘acting out’ - whatever you’d like to call it - escalates, they do get framed as addicts.
    But they accept that as a concept and something that they need help with and there is very good help for them and these are also relationships which can recover.
    It’s partly a systemic thing because the partner of the person who’s doing all this is somehow going along with it in one way or another. Either they’ve got a feeling that there’s something funny going on, but they don’t want to address or they’ve got their own issues with the situation as it is.
    But that’s a, sort of, different thing, the compulsive acting out of addiction to whatever it is - all your sex workers or those different things.
    But, again, that can be recoverable in the best circumstances. Not always.

TOM:    Yes, it makes a lot of sense to me. I remember someone who had lots of affairs to combat low self-esteem, really, as a way of… so it had a very different purpose. It had nothing to do with relationship.

MARGARET:    Also that behaviour does gathers a momentum of its own. It’s as though having broken the taboo in the first instance, it then… it’s a bit like a rolling stone and it gets bigger and bigger and can become out of control.
    That’s where they need to go into some sort of a program. I think you’ve got Robert Hudson speaking. People like him they’re experts in that field and I usually encourage people to go and take on one of those programs.

TOM:    Yes, the people I’m thinking of, as I’m saying this, they had agreed to have an open - so called - open relationship. So they were both free to have sexual enterprises elsewhere. But it was the emotional infidelity that broke up the marriage.
    So, when one person fell in love with the third person, that’s what the relationship couldn’t sustain.

MARGARET:    Well, I think that’s what happens, Tom. I often say to people open relationships don’t always work because somebody falls in love with somebody and then the structure falls down because if you’re really in love and deeply connected you don’t really want to share.

TOM:    Yes. So now we’ve started talking about infidelity as the tip of the iceberg where there is a deeper underlying whatever’s going on in the relationship. That infidelity is the way in which we have to take notice, we can’t ignore it any longer, we have to look at it. Is that the way you see it or have I got a distortion here?

MARGARET:    No, that is the way I see it. But couples will struggle with it. They may have had an infidelity and got over it 10 years ago. Then there’s been another one five years ago and they’ve struggled through it and got over it, got it patched up.
    Then there will be the one that they say “look, this can’t go on. There’s something else here that we have got to look at…” because mostly people want to stay together if they can and as long as they can patch it up and keep going, they do.
    But then if there are these deeper underlying issues, they have to be addressed, in the long run.
    I think that’s what you’re saying, isn’t it, really?

TOM:    Yes. So, if it’s not… you said if it was - in its broadest term - if it was some kind of addiction; a sick addiction something else, this person will need some kind of support/help elsewhere because that isn’t really happening in the couples therapy.

MARGARET:    I think couples therapy can’t do that big job. I think those circumstances both partners benefit from having their own personal support and use the couple therapy to hold a space for them to talk about their progress, talk about communication, talk about whatever they want to talk about. But it can’t do the work of recovery from addiction. That’s been my experience so far.

TOM:    Okay. So then coming back to your job as a couple therapist, you’re back with the attachment, you’re back with the submerged part of the iceberg - so to speak.
    Okay. So tell us a bit more how you approach that. There’s a systemic problem that’s been going on for a long time, perhaps from the very start of the relationship, probably going back all the way to childhood.
    Here it’s, sort of, embodied between two people.

MARGARET:    Yeah, okay. Once the emotional atmosphere has calmed down a little bit they universally, in my experience, want to understand why it happened. They also want to know what happened - the story of the affair.
    Now that can be important because there’s a third person here that we sometimes need to put boundaries around what actually you are entitled to find about and what you’re not.
    Also, the importance of ending the relationship with the third person because as long as that contact continues its very difficult to do any really meaningful repair work on the marriage - the relationship if they’re married or not.
    So understanding why it happened can be very important and actually getting that understanding helps couples back into close connection.

TOM:    Can I just pause you for a moment … when you say… I can see your point that while the affair continues it’s difficult to work on anything meaningful, but do you put a contract in place or do you intervene at that stage and say “well, you can’t really do much unless the affair ends…” or how do you work with that?

MARGARET:    I say it’s going to be more difficult because when you’re trying to work on the relationship the energy needs to be going into the relationship - all of it. Having the third person still around is a distraction. So there’s that to it.
    But, for some people it’s impossible to break. It’s a work situation, they can’t not have contact with the outside person or it’s a sign that, really, this person doesn’t want to give up the affair, it’s not going to be given up. Therefore the couple has to learn to live either alongside it or to leave.
    But that’s not my job to tell them what to do. It’s my job to sit with them while they work that out. But it’s very difficult if the third person is still around.

TOM:    Okay, thank you. I just felt it was important to clarify that.

MARGARET:    It’s very important to clarify and, also, to hold some respect that the feelings of loss that the person who has given up the affair may be going through. They may have to go through quite a prolonged grieving process. It may take them a year or 18 months to recover from the sense of loss.
    During that time we can talk about the current relationship, we can hold it together. But we can’t expect any deep connection to grow until this person is free of those feelings of loss and broken connection in the other place.

TOM:    It sounds like you bring a lot of patience to the table.

MARGARET:    Well, it can be quite slow and very painstaking. But there are a lot of hurt people to be taken care of here at different levels of development. If someone has a childhood trauma reawakened by the situation of this loss, then that child is present as well. There are layers of work here and trying to stop them hurting each other more, who’ve hurt each other so much.

TOM:    Okay. Let’s come back to where I interrupted you…

MARGARET:    Oh, when was that?

TOM:    Finding the meaning and getting the story about… you were telling me about getting the story and how that may be very important.

MARGARET:    Well, I think it is. I think from our experience as individual therapists, we know how people talking about their own stories helps them to make sense of where they are with whatever their current predicament is - they’re depression or their panic attacks or their difficulties getting into relationships.
    A relationship has the same sorts of stories - how they got together, what happened next and often you can see the fault lines right from the very beginning, actually. They may have had a troubled time while they worked out how to be together. There may have been other people involved. One or other of them may have actually started as an affair in this relationship.
    Also, finding out what attracted them because taking people back to their initial attractions reminds them of who this person really is and, also, taking them back to the first irritations, the first niggles when they thought “oh, this is a bit difficult. But I won’t take any notice” and then how that developed because we do overlook things. We want it all to be nice.
    Really some of the things we overlook are important. Why do you spend an hour and a half on the phone? Well, that’s a good question. Who are they talking to? What are they doing?
    In the beginning of a relationship we would let that go. So going back to the delights and the disturbances of the early days can be very helpful.
    I think, also, learning about how their families are different from each other, the different relationships that they saw as they were growing up. How people resolved conflicts, for example, as they were growing up - because, again, we see this in couples. One person comes from a family where everything was out in the open and there was lots of noise and shouting and the other person came from a family where there was no conflict, nothing ever ruffled the surface. So how are they going to manage their own differences?
    Also hearing the stories of other attractions that may have happened over the life cycle of the relationship, where the strains and stresses have been, what happened when the children were born - if they’ve got children. How the decision to get married was made. This can be a clue where one person made the decision and the other person went along with it.
    Were there times during the relationship when they had felt they might separate, what did they do at those times? How did they make the decisions to stay together?
    Gathering up all that information and really highlighting the strengths and what they’ve been through together as a couple, but not dismissing the fault lines that had been there that need to be looked at with more care and more depth because, going forward, all of that needs to be a bit clearer and a bit easier for them.

TOM:    Okay. Sounds like quite a forensic of the relationship.

MARGARET:    Yes. They really want to understand why it happened. I think the feeling is “if I really understand why this happened, I can guard against it ever happening again.”
    Going forward, building trust and safety is absolutely primary and understanding why it happens helps to give them a feeling of control and build trust over the future.
    Also, quite often, people have known that something was wrong. There’s been a change in the atmosphere of the relationship, a change in the tenor, the sex stopped or one or other person became critical or grouchy or difficult.
    The other person sort of made light of it and said “this has happened because of work stress…” or “you couldn’t get over that flu…” and letting it go. When, in fact, it was a sign that something was going on that was really very important.
    So, again, understanding what happened gives them the, sort of, skills that they need to be careful, to watch over their relationship more carefully, going forward.

TOM:    I wanted to take you back to that, sort of, edge when one partner thinks that a particular behaviours or activities are not infidelity.
    I remember a case, some supervision for example, where a man had affairs that blew up and there was couples work and eventually it turned out that he also had homosexual affairs and he didn’t think that impacted his marriage at all. So he wasn’t prepared to talk about that.
    It’s just an example but is that common that people draw lines somewhere and say this is not… this doesn’t concern my partner? This is not infidelity?

MARGARET:    Yeah, absolutely and we’re looking at porn three hours at night but it’s not having any effect on my relationship or the example that you quoted “because it’s a non-sexual affair then it’s not affecting my heterosexual relationship.”
    Well, I think when we get to the feelings that the other person is experiencing, then we get a deeper understanding of what it is that’s going on in the relationship.
    One person doesn’t really mean to cause the depth of pain and loss and grief that it’s causing the other person and they’re often very shocked when they learn the impact of their seemingly innocent behaviour on the partner that they are closest to in the world and most don’t want to hurt. It’s a, sort of, wake up moment.
    Now, for some people, they can’t grasp that and that has implications for the future of the relationship. If they really can’t grasp it, then the couple have to decide what they’re going to do with their relationship.
    It would imply that one person is more securely attached or more evolved from their relational trauma, or whatever lost traumas they’re living with, than the other.
    When you have that imbalance and one person’s not prepared to look at themselves and do their work then it does have implications for the future of the relationship. It’s just too unbalanced.

TOM:    Okay. The example I used in the homosexual affairs was disclosed in the one on one session with the other partner. An attempt was made to swear the therapist to secrecy. You know “don’t tell my partner… it’s confidential.”
    So there was an awareness, on one level, that something wasn’t okay. So I think there are layers of secrets. You know secret after secret is perhaps something you see.

MARGARET:    Well, you see, by the time they come to couple therapy there has been a disclosure of some sort. Maybe not a full disclosure - very often not a full disclosure - but there is some disclosure.
    Step by step.  I mean, I’m very clear that eventually there needs to be… they need to know that there’s nothing more that can come out because you can’t build trust and safety and closeness when you’re waiting for the next layer of bad news.
    That, sort of, focuses the mind a bit, to tell everything. It may take a while, it may take weeks before the whole truth comes out and people have different ways in which they want to disclose.
    Sometimes it’s in a letter, sometimes it’s face to face. But it’s important that they have discretion over how they want to disclose but it’s also important that there’s nothing else hidden that’s going to be discovered in two years’ time because of the impact that will have on the other person, going forward.
    They’ve seen the impact of what’s come out so far, so I think they have some foreknowledge of what might happen if the whole truth isn’t declared. Also, enormous fear that if the whole truth is declared they will be rejected and there will be no hope for the relationship.

TOM:    Okay. You’ve just said the words “recovery and rebuilding trust.” What are the key issues here or the key difficulties?

MARGARET:    Well, sex, of course.

TOM:    No, for couples to recover trust, to rebuild trust.

MARGARET:    Well, sex is a huge thing here in rebuilding trust and rebuilding closeness because what often happens, after disclosure, is there’s a lot of sexual activity and then it drops off and there’s very little sexual activity because sexual intimacy then becomes fraught with worries about what happened before and memories of what happened and, also, fantasies about what the other person might be like. So, sex can be very difficult.
    Before, really, we can approach the sexual intimacy we need to get enough emotional safety and emotional openness.
    Am I answering  your question here, Tom?

TOM:    Yes, you are. Well… yes, you are. Go on. I think this is all very relevant to talk about… I mean, for example, you’re saying that people increase sexual activity typically. Almost, perhaps, as a way of “am I still attractive…” or almost as a sort of - what is the word - it’s like a comeback attempt and then it drops off. It’s more about trust and safety and perhaps more hidden feelings in the second part.

MARGARET:    Yes, I think that’s right. In the first part the thought is “if we have more sex in our relationship the temptation won’t be so strong and we will stick together.
    Then, as the emotional atmosphere calms down, they have to deal with the emotional impact rather than the immediate impact. Then the rage and the despair and the sadness and the loss tend to bring a different level of emotional experience.
    So the sex tends to diminish quite a lot and then when they get to the point where they are ready to think about intimacy and closeness and connection again, then we can start to move forward going to the sexual side of things and, maybe, just gentle closeness - holding each other - step by step really because the sexual side of their relationship has been damaged as well.

TOM:    Yes. Are there other common dynamics you recognise in the recovery of rebuilding trust phase?

MARGARET:    Yes, I think one of them is a recurrence… in the person who’s recovering from the loss - the person who feels they’ve been betrayed - is they move in and out of “how could you do this to me” and “I really love you and want us to be together.”
    So their feelings swing enormously. So “I don’t know why I’m with you” to “I can’t possibly be without you.” So they have an exhausting emotional experience like a roller coaster and they can very easily be triggered by things they see on the television.
    So what this does to the person who had the affair is make them hyper-vigilant as well because they don’t like these mood swings. They don’t like being attacked and blamed - although they’re quite willing to take on that they have done something that they feel is blameworthy and they may feel very bad about themselves.
    But those partners can be very tense and anxious about where they’re going and what they see or what they might do.
    One of the things I sometimes do here, is suggest that the plan a weekend together, away, just the two of them, at some remote distance - say six months’ time - so that they have that to talk about as a future focus.
    If they can do that, it helps them through the mood swings because they have this future focus. So whatever is going on, right now, we have our weekend in Wales or Edinburgh or wherever. That they have to plan together and they have to work out childcare etc.… Lots of things have to planned around the weekend away for a couple. So that’s a, sort of, counterweight to these things backwards and forth.
    Another thing that happens is that friends and family - if they know what’s going on - often take a view. So there may be pressure “you should leave him/you should leave her. How can you stay after what they did?”
    People outside don’t really understand the depth that love can take hold and what has happened. “I still don’t want to leave. I love her/I love him and I am determined to see this through.”
    Then seeing it through and working it through against quite a lot of pressure from friends and family who think they’re crazy. How can you stay with this?
    So it’s a terribly difficult emotional time.

TOM:    This must have impact on the therapist also? The churning around, the rollercoasting from “I can’t leave you, but I can’t bear what you did to me?” From a, sort of… it’s a subjective, perspective, psychodynamic… it must have quite an impact.

MARGARET:    Well it does have an impact and it really helps if the therapist has a solid relationship for themselves. It also helps if the relationship has good, strong supportive supervision. You know, a supervisor who understand this sort of work.
Another thing I find I do is puzzle it. I sit on the underground train - I have a short tube journey home - and I’ll be puzzling over what this actually is and its multi-layers.
    It’s good to have thinking time between work and home. Writing up the notes is very helpful to me. I know some therapists don’t keep notes, but I like to keep notes because I find that process helps me to think.
    When I can think I get a sense of what’s going on and how this can be managed, what the likely future is for this couple - not that I can dictate their future, you understand. They decide that for themselves.
    But sometimes people… it looks like a terrible situation and they don’t want to separate - and that’s the right answer. They just need to stick with it, work through it, hold through the situation and they will get there.

TOM:    So, what about when it doesn’t work? What’s the… We mentioned a few scenarios that might make it impossible. But, let’s say, people set out to recover and it turns out it’s just not going to happen.

MARGARET:    Yes, and that happens. Usually in the long term that is the right answer. It seems to happen mostly when one person has been more present in the relationship than the other and what they need is time and support to have the courage to say “I actually can’t stay with you. I have to go”.
    This is where having an individual therapist can be very helpful. It’s a terribly hard thing to do to someone you’ve lived with intimately for 10-15 years, to actually say, because you know how much it’s going to hurt the children, it’s going to have an impact on their lives and their school.
    But, if that is the truth, then that is the truth and that’s what people want to live, ultimately. They want to live their own truth however difficult it is to get there.

TOM:    Yes, okay. Yes… sorry, I’m just getting into thinking too much. When you… no, let’s not go down that route.
    I’m quite struck by the passion you seem to have for this, for couples who’ve experienced infidelity and were trying to work through this - and it’s quite hard for me to hear and see your passion for these two people caught in this situation.

MARGARET:    Well, as you know, Tom, we fall into the work we know most about from our own life history, aren’t we?

TOM:    Yes, that’s, sort of, true.

MARGARET:    So, I guess there are things in me that make this a really important thing and that relates to my own family or origin and upbringing and experience, the drivers that we all bring to the work that we’re taken to.

TOM:    I imagine that must make a difference for the people you work with, what you bring to the table.

MARGARET:     I suspect it does because if you have a level of understanding and compassion and knowledge that if I hadn’t lived through my family of origin and the things that I’ve lived through, I wouldn’t understand. But then any therapist can’t have knowledge of everything that they’re confronted with.
    But you happened to pick me to talk about the one thing that I have a lot of experience of.

TOM:    Well, maybe we should also mention the hopefulness because you wouldn’t - that’s one thing you didn’t acknowledge - if we, as therapists, believe that something can be dealt with managed more forward, then, of course, that sets a, kind of, beacon for the people you work with.


TOM:         So I imagine that would also be part of your successes.

MARGARET:    Well, yes. But my hope isn’t necessarily to make this marriage perfect and help them stay together. My hope is that if they will come and sit down and talk to each other, they’ll work out what is the right answer for their particular situation.
    And, as we’ve said, sometimes that is separation.

TOM:    Yeah. No, no…. I didn’t want to assume that staying together was always the best outcome, but the hope that something good can come out of this. That something positive… this situation can move forward into something better.

MARGARET:    Yes, it’s true. I think, also, I have a conviction that, as human beings, we have a drive to health. We want to be the best and fullest person we can be. When people come and sit down in a room ready to explore themselves in depth, that’s part of their journey to being the whole person that they’re striving for - and I believe that very strongly.

TOM:    Yes, absolutely.
    Now, we slowly need to come to an end. When you think of people who consider working with couples, who consider additional training or are being confronted with a couple who bring infidelity into the consulting room, what would you want to say to them?

MARGARET:    Well, I put a caveat because some people don’t realise how very different couple work is from individual - and you’re not working with two individuals, you’re working with a system and the relationship happens in the space between these two people. It’s not located in either of the two people.
    I think that takes training. I don’t think that, necessarily, comes naturally to an individual therapist to be able to take that view. So I put that out there at the beginning, that I really believe couple work does need training.
    As a psychotherapist we usually start off doing individual work and couple therapy is not the same. It’s not for everybody. I think it works better if you’ve got a solid relationship of your own because you get pulled about - I get affected by what I see. I come home grouchy some nights - and I know why. It’s because I’ve been sitting with a very grouchy relationship and I’ve got… I’ve caught some of it and I’m bringing it home.
    You need good supervision, someone who really understands relationships and systems and practice, lots of practice.
    Sometimes I think of the couples I worked with ten and fifteen years ago, I wish I could see them again now - they’d have a much better deal.

TOM:    We all have to… we all need to learn somewhere… yeah.
    Okay, Margaret. Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation. It’s been a pleasure and thank you for taking part in this series.

MARGARET:    Thank you, Tom. I’ve enjoyed it too.

TOM:    Thank you very much.

Further reading

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

  2. Harley, W. F and Harley Chalmers, J. (2013). Surviving the affair. Michigan: Baker Publishing Group.

  3. Vossler, A and Moller, N.P. (2014). The Relationship past can't be the future" couple counsellors' experiences of working with infidelity. Sexual and Relationship Therapy Vol14 No 4.

Author Bio

Margaret Ramage is a Sexual and Relationship Psychotherapist with 30 years' experience of working in the NHS and private practice. She was Co-Director of the St Georges' Hospital Medical School Course for MSc in Human Sexuality, the first medical school based training of its type in the UK. Her publications have mostly been on topics related to women’s sexuality and sexual problems. She has trained in Systemic Family Therapy, Somatic Trauma Psychotherapy and Family Constellations and works with infidelity from a variety of perspectives. New developments in neuroscience frequently refresh her approaches. She is a Fellow and a past Chair of the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists.

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