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Infidelity: Cognitive Therapy for the Hurt Partner and Unfaithful Partner
Infidelity continuing education MFT CEUs

Section 2
Emotional Distress from Infidelity

CEU Question 2 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Couples
Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

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In the last section, we discussed three therapist judgments that can interfere with counseling couples experiencing an infidelity crisis. These three therapist judgments are judging whether an affair is good or bad, separating the couple into victim and victimizer, and suggesting the couple should stay together no matter what. We also discussed choosing terms in infidelity counseling.

In this section, we will discuss the psychological impact of an affair on the hurt partner.  We will specifically discuss the five emotional losses experienced by the hurt partner following the affair.  These five emotional losses are the loss of the sense of specialness, the loss of self-respect, the loss of the feeling of control, the loss of a sense of order, and the loss of a sense of purpose.

Ellen entered counseling after discovering that Paul, her husband of seven years, had been carrying on an affair with his secretary for most of their marriage.  Ellen stated, "I started thinking, if Paul isn’t the person I thought he was, and our marriage isn’t what I thought it was… am I who I think I am?"  I explained to Ellen that the hurt partner can feel five senses of emotional loss following an affair.

5 Emotional Losses

Emotional Loss # 1 - Sense of Specialness
The first of these emotional losses can be the loss of the sense of specialness. Ellen stated, "Paul was the first person who treated me like I was unique and prized. Now I feel like garbage, like he just put me out on the street to be taken away with the rest of the crap no one wants. I even thought about just leaving everything. Why would my kids want a loser like me around anyway?"

I explained to Ellen that she was perceiving herself through the filter of Paul’s infidelity, and that her ability to see herself clearly was at an all-time low. Ellen replied, "I guess there’s a point to that. I try to keep reminding myself that even though I may not be special to Paul anymore, I’m definitely special to my two kids. I’m their only mother, after all."

Emotional Loss # 2 - Self-Respect
The second emotional loss the hurt partner can experience is the loss of self-respect. Have you treated clients whose desperate efforts to win their partner back violate their core values and principles? Ellen stated, "I spent a fortune on skimpy underwear and spa treatments trying to compete with Paul’s secretary, and just dumped the kids on my sister. I feel so horrible about it now. When Paul asked to take his secretary on a ‘final fling’ weekend, I even said yes! How could I have done that? I can hardly look myself in the mirror anymore."

I explained to Ellen that her basic values had not changed. The emotional maelstrom of Paul’s affair had temporarily hindered her ability to make the best decision for herself and her family based on those values. I encouraged Ellen to realize that her actions were an understandable due to her injury, and that she should not judge herself too harshly. Does your Ellen need to be reminded that the emotional shock experienced by the hurt partner makes most individuals behave in ways they will later regret?

♦ Emotional Loss # 3 - Feeling of Control
In addition to the loss of the sense of specialness and the loss of self-respect, the third emotional loss the hurt partner can experience is the loss of the feeling of control. As you know, the hurt partner will often experience obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior.

Ellen stated, "I feel like my mind’s been contaminated! I wake up at 3am and can’t stop imagining Paul and his secretary together! I keep going back over and over things that happened, wondering what I missed! I even found out what restaurants Paul took her too by reading his credit card bills, and I find myself going by them over and over to see if they’re there. I’m driving myself crazy!"

Thought Stopping Technique
I encouraged Ellen to try the Thought Stopping cognitive-behavioral technique to work through her understandably obsessive thoughts. I explained to Ellen, "When you notice that you are thinking of Paul and his secretary together, come up with a phrase you can use to break your concentration. For example, Stop, here I go again, dragging myself down. Let it go.’ Next, focus your attention outward. Think of something intriguing around you, or a funny memory. Then, turn your attention inward. Breathe slowly and deeply, and tell your muscles to relax. You may not be able to stop these thoughts, but with this technique you can gently distract yourself."

Emotional Loss # 4 - Sense of Order
A fourth emotional loss experienced by the hurt partner following an affair can be the loss of a sense of order. Ellen stated, "I thought I had been a great wife to Paul! I always tried to be supportive, to take care of him! I mean, my mother always used to tell me, if you treat your husband right, he’ll treat you like a queen! If Paul cheated, I must have been doing something wrong!"

Ellen’s assumptions about marriage centered around the idea that if she was a good and loving person, she would be loved in return. She began to believe she had gotten what she deserved from Paul. Clearly, other clients may respond to this challenge to their assumptions by coming to believe that the world does not operate according to the principles they once believed in.

Emotional Loss # 5 - Sense of Purpose
In addition to the loss of the sense of specialness, the loss of self-respect, the loss of the feeling of control, and the loss of a sense of order, a fifth emotional loss the hurt partner may experience is the loss of a sense of purpose.

Ellen stated, "There were days I just couldn’t see the point in living if I couldn’t trust anyone to love me. I wasn’t enough for Paul, I was a failure! Some days when I got home, I’d leave the car running and try to work up the courage to kill myself." I explained to Ellen that it was understandable for her to experience thoughts of suicide after the emotional devastation of Paul’s affair.

I stated, "Right now, your depression is like a thick morning fog, and it’s hard to imagine being able to see clearly through it. But over time, you can learn how to value yourself again, and trust in the people who love you." Have you discussed suicidal thoughts with your Ellen? Would playing this section in your next session be helpful to him or her?

Think of a client you are currently treating. Rreread the five emotional losses and assess which losses are the strongest in that client, and whether playing this section during your next session might act as a springboard for added insights.

In this section, we discussed the five emotional losses the hurt partner may experience. These are the loss of the sense of specialness, the loss of self-respect, the loss of the feeling of control, the loss of a sense of order, and the loss of a sense of purpose.

In the next section, we will discuss 4 differences between how male and female hurt partners respond to an affair. These four gender differences involve the desire to preserve the relationship, depression versus anger, feelings of inadequacy, and obsession versus distraction.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Alexopoulos, C., & Taylor, L. D. (2020). If your girl only knew: The effects of infidelity-themed song lyrics on cognitions related to infidelity. Psychology of Popular Media. Advance online publication.

Apostolou, M. (2019). The evolution of same-sex attraction in women: Male tolerance to same-sex infidelity. Journal of Individual Differences, 40(2), 104–110.

Atkins, D. C., Marín, R. A., Lo, T. T. Y., Klann, N., & Hahlweg, K. (2010). Outcomes of couples with infidelity in a community-based sample of couple therapy. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(2), 212–216. 

Bendixen, M., Kennair, L. E. O., & Grøntvedt, T. V. (2018). Forgiving the unforgivable: Couples’ forgiveness and expected forgiveness of emotional and sexual infidelity from an error management theory perspective. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 12(4), 322–335.

Bohner, G., Echterhoff, G., Glaß, C., Patrzek, J., & Lampridis, E. (2010). Distress in response to infidelities committed by the partners of close others: Siblings versus friends. Social Psychology, 41(4), 223–229.

IJzerman, H., Blanken, I., Brandt, M. J., Oerlemans, J. M., Van den Hoogenhof, M. M. W., Franken, S. J. M., & Oerlemans, M. W. G. (2014). Sex differences in distress from infidelity in early adulthood and in later life: A replication and meta-analysis of Shackelford et al. (2004). Social Psychology, 45(3), 202–208.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 2
What are five emotional losses experienced by the hurt partner following an affair? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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