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Separation Counseling: Brief Interventions for Divorcing Couples
10 CEUs Separation Counseling: Brief Interventions for Divorcing Couples

Section 8
Distress from Infidelity

Question 8 | Test | Table of Contents | Couples CEU Courses
Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

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In the last section, we discussed uncertainty training in two steps.  Step one was examining the costs and benefits of accepting uncertainty and step two was flooding with uncertainty.  We also examined problems associated with thought stopping regarding anxiety.

In this section, we will discuss the psychological impact of infidelity. We will specifically discuss the five emotional losses experienced by the client. 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.

Tammy entered counseling after divorcing John, her husband of seven years, who had been carrying on an affair with his secretary for most of their marriage. Tammy stated, "I started thinking, if John 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 Tammy that the hurt partner can feel five senses of emotional loss following infidelity. As you listen to this section, consider if you are currently treating a client who may benefit from having this section played in your next session?

5 Senses of Emotional Loss

♦ #1  Loss of the Sense of Specialness

The first of these emotional losses can be the loss of the sense of specialness.  Tammy stated, "John 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 Tammy that she was perceiving herself through the filter of John’s infidelity. 

Tammy acknowledged that her ability to see herself clearly was at an all-time low.  I stated, "The point to that is to try to keep reminding yourself that even though you may not be special to John anymore, you’re definitely special to your two kids. You’re their only mother, after all."

♦ #2  The Loss of 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 accept infidelity violate their core values and principles?  Tammy stated "I spent a fortune on skimpy underwear and spa treatments trying to compete with John’s secretary, and just dumped the kids on my sister. I feel so horrible about it now. When John asked to take 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 Tammy that her basic values had not changed. The emotional maelstrom of John’s affair had temporarily hindered her ability to make the best decision for herself and her family based on those values. I encouraged Tammy to realize that her actions were an understandable to her injury, and that she should not judge herself too harshly. Does your Tammy need to be reminded that the emotional shock experienced by infideltiy makes most individuals behave in ways they will later regret?

♦ #3  The Loss of the 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 divorced client will often experience obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Tammy stated, "I feel like my mind’s been contaminated! I wake up at 3am and can’t stop imagining John and his secretary together! I keep going back over and over things that happened, wondering what I missed! I even found out what restaurants John 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!"

♦ Technique:  Thought Stopping

I encouraged Tammy to try the Thought Stopping cognitive-behavioral technique to work through her understandable obsessive thoughts. I explained to Tammy, "When you notice that you are thinking of John 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." 


Think of your divorced client.  Was the divorce precipitated by infidelity?  Could the thought stopping technique benefit your client?

♦ #4  The Loss of a Sense of Order

A fourth emotional loss experienced by the hurt partner following an affair can be the loss of a sense of order. Tammy stated, "I thought I had been a great wife to John! 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 John cheated, I must have been doing something wrong!" 

Tammy’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 John.  Clearly, other divorced 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.


♦ #5  The Loss of a Sense of Purpose

In addition to the loss of 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.  Tammy 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 John, 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 Tammy that it was understandable for her to experience thoughts of suicide after the emotional devastation of John’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 Tammy?  Would playing this section in your next session be helpful to him or her?

Think of a divorced client you are currently treating. As I reread the five emotional losses, 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.  The five emotional losses a divorced client may experience after infidelity 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 the "Hanging Judge" syndrome in divorced or separated clients and its components, self-hatred, injustice, and a lack of compassion for oneself.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
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. 

Markman, H. J., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Ragan, E. P., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). The premarital communication roots of marital distress and divorce: The first five years of marriage. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(3), 289–298.

Øverup, C. S., Ciprić, A., Gad Kjeld, S., Strizzi, J. M., Sander, S., Lange, T., & Hald, G. M. (2020). Cooperation after divorce: A randomized controlled trial of an online divorce intervention on hostility. Psychology of Violence.Advance online publication. 

van Scheppingen, M. A., & Leopold, T. (2020). Trajectories of life satisfaction before, upon, and after divorce: Evidence from a new matching approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(6), 1444–1458.

Weiss, B., Lavner, J. A., & Miller, J. D. (2018). Self- and partner-reported psychopathic traits’ relations with couples’ communication, marital satisfaction trajectories, and divorce in a longitudinal sample. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 9(3), 239–249.

Question 8:  What are five emotional losses experienced by the divorced client following infidelity? To select and enter your answer, go to the Test.

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