A bit more about my last post on the issue of infidelity and what makes it a “hard reason” for considering divorce” as opposed to a soft one. To catch those readers up on terminology, I am writing about Discernment Counseling and hard versus soft reasons for considering divorce. Hard reasons are considered the more challenging issues often leading to a divorce decision, as opposed to soft ones, which are presumed to be more “workable.” Again the research has shown that approximately 30% of couples approach divorce with ambivalence. As such these are the couples that could benefit from Discernment Counseling, a structured process for couples to explore their options before making a final decision about staying together and working on their marriage or pursuing divorce.
In graduate school as part of my couple’s therapy training, the standard of care was that a therapist would not put himself in a position of “being a holder of secrets.” That meant he would tell the couple at the outset of therapy that anything either of them told him “in confidence” would be shared with the other partner. The rationale for this approach was to make sure the therapist did not become “triangulated” into the couple’s relationship by ending up in an alliance with one by having information that both did not have. On its face this made sense. As I progressed as a couple’s therapist I realized that in the case of infidelity (as well as in other scenarios), this framework left the cheating partner carrying important information without any therapeutic space to examine and explore the meaning behind it. As a result I sometimes found myself doing couples therapy while one of the partners maintained a relationship on the side and never mentioned it or knew how to bring it into the therapy room for fear of risking turmoil. It was after several of these cases that I decided that my therapeutic framework needed to change; I decided to break with tradition.
As I wrote in my last post, enter Discernment Counseling. As part of this work, couples are seen together at the beginning of each session to “check in” and log any thoughts or feeling that have come up since the prior meeting. Then each partner is seen individually while the other sits in the waiting room. During this phase, the conversations with each individual are confidential between him/her and me, the therapist. It is during this time that issues such as infidelity are given the necessary space to be acknowledged and discussed. The cheating partner is given the opportunity to examine their decision(s), what they may be receiving in this other relationship, and what it might mean for them to pause or end the affair while they consider turning their attention towards working on their marriage. The affair might be about sex and/or about emotional connection. The cheating partner may even love this other person. The idea of giving any or all of this up in order to try and salvage a marriage that may already be over also needs exploration and all of this is part and parcel of marital ambivalence.