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

Section 3
Responses to Infidelity

CEU Question 3 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Couples
Social Worker CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs

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In the last section, we discussed the psychological impact of an affair on the hurt partner.  We specifically discussed 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.

In this 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.

As you have observed, men and women tend to assign different meanings to a partner’s affair, which in turn color their emotional responses to it. I have found that most clients react at least partially in gender typical ways.

4 Gender Differences

Gender Difference # 1 - Women Preserve, Men Run
The first gender difference you may have observed in the hurt partner’s reactions is that women try to preserve the relationship, while men tend to turn and run. Alex, 43, recently discovered that his wife Bonnie had been sleeping with their twenty-two year old landscaper. Alex stated, "I’ve been nothing but loving to Bonnie! I don’t deserve this kind of treatment. If she doesn’t love me the way I deserve, I should just go find someone else!"  Would you agree that Alex’s response is a more typical male perspective?

Women, on the other hand, are more likely to hide their feelings and try to make the relationship work no-matter-what. I find that there are two cultural reasons for this tendency. The first is that, as you know, divorced women tend to suffer more economically than divorced men. This is due in part to the fact that divorced women tend to assume more responsibility for daily childcare. It is also due to the fact that women tend to hold lower-paying job than their male peers.

The second cultural reason that, as you are aware, women tend to try to make a marriage work after an affair is because American society delivers the message to women that it is the measure of their self-worth to maintain ties to others. One study illustrated this by interviewing girls on how they felt about being mistreated by boys. Girls under eight freely expressed their anger. Girls over the age of twelve when asked the same question, generally responded "I don’t know."

Clearly, this study revealed that as women get older, they stop trusting their intuitions when they have been wronged.  Would the preceding information benefit a female client of yours?  Perhaps you might consider playing this section in a session.

Gender Difference # 2 - Women get Depressed, Men get Angry
A second gender difference I have observed in the hurt partner following an affair is that women tend to get depressed, while men tend to get angry. I know you know this, but perhaps your client needs to hear that culturally, women are more likely than men to define themselves in relationship to others, and equate their self-worth with being loved. As we saw with Ellen, from the last section, she became depressed because she believed she had failed at the most significant relationship in her life. Ellen directed her criticism inward.

Barry, who had been married to his wife Rhonda for three years, became angry when Rhonda left him for her lover. Barry stated, "I know Rhonda’s not completely at fault here. It’s that bastard she’s with! He coerced her into moving out on me!! I’m a real laid back guy, but every time I see his face I just want to punch his teeth down his throat! I have fantasies where I go over to his place and run him over with my car!!" 

Barry directed his criticism outward. By blaming Rhonda’s lover, rather than Rhonda herself, Barry avoided confronting the possibility that Rhonda was dissatisfied with him. I feel that Barry’s anger allowed him to feel powerful and in control. In my practice, I have observed that for many men, anger wards off unsettling feelings of shame and self-doubt.

♦ Gender Difference # 3 - Women Inadequate as Companions, Men as Lovers
In addition to gender differences in the desire to preserve the relationship, and depression versus anger, a third difference I have observed in the hurt partner following an affair is that women tend to feel inadequate as companions, while men tend to feel inadequate as lovers.

Researcher Richard Buss points out that in general, women are more disturbed by their husband’s emotional involvement with another woman, while men are more disturbed by their wife’s sexual involvement. Buss attached electrodes to the heads of men and women. Men tended to sweat and have an accelerated heart rate when they imagined their wife having sex with another man, but were less affected by imagining their wife platonically attached to another man.

Women exhibited the opposite reaction. Ellen feared that because she was not a good enough person, Paul had had to seek emotional companionship in another. However, Alex stated, "I guess I just have been a big disappointment lately in bed. Why else would Bonnie go for such a young guy? He must be better in bed than me. God, what kind of a man am I?"

Clearly, Alex’s assumption that he was sexually inadequate led to feelings of anger. However, Alex’s feelings of sexual inadequacy also caused him to overlook other, nonsexual factors such as communication and intimacy. Does your Alex need to be encouraged to ask his spouse  which emotional needs are not being met in the marriage?

Gender Difference # 4 - Women Obsess, Men Distract
A fourth gender difference I have observed in the hurt partner following an affair is that women tend to obsess, while men tend to distract themselves. In my experience, a male hurt partner spends less time ruminating on an affair than a female hurt partner. Carl left his wife Paige immediately on learning she had been having an affair. Carl stated, "Whenever I start thinking about Paige and that idiot, I go to the gym and lift weights. It makes me feel strong to be able to do that. Just put it away and move on."

Generally, female hurt partners spend more time dwelling on the deception of the affair. In the process, female hurt partners tend to become embittered by their partner's lies. Understandably, this results in female hurt partners remaining more mistrustful for a longer time. For example, Ellen’s active reliving of Paul’s infidelity kept her hurt and insecurity alive, and impeded her healing process. 

In this section, we have discussed four 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.

In the next section, we will discuss five conflicting aspects of the unfaithful partner’s response to the disclosure of the affair. These five conflicting aspects of the unfaithful partner’s response are relief, impatience, absence of guilt isolation, and self-disgust.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
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. 

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.

Leone, R. M., Jarnecke, A. M., Back, S. E., Brady, K. T., & Flanagan, J. C. (2020). The moderating role of infidelity on the relation between oxytocin and conflict behaviors among substance misusing couples. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 28(3), 251–257

Marín, R. A., Christensen, A., & Atkins, D. C. (2014). Infidelity and behavioral couple therapy: Relationship outcomes over 5 years following therapy. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 3(1), 1–12.

Negash, S., Carlson, S. H., & Linder, J. N. (2018). Emotionally focused therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: An integrated treatment to heal the trauma of infidelity. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 7(3-4), 143–157.

Walsh, M., Millar, M., & Westfall, R. S. (2019). Sex differences in responses to emotional and sexual infidelity in dating relationships. Journal of Individual Differences, 40(2), 63–70.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 3
How do male and female hurt partners tend to differ in terms of feelings of inadequacy following an affair? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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