Extramarital affairs are not a new phenomenon for mankind. We have seen them both in biblical history (2 Samuel 11:2-4) and in our current culture. Some studies indicate that anywhere from 20 to 25% of spouses will engage in an affair sometime within their marriage, and that does not include ‘emotional affairs.’ With the growing prevalence of so-called ‘hook-up apps’ along with the phenomenon of reconnecting with old romantic interests via Facebook, the incidence of extramarital affairs is likely to rise.
While some [treatment] methods have shown success in helping couples move forward after an affair, they all lack a grounding in an authentic human anthropology along with a proper understanding of marriage as a communion of persons.
Psychotherapists have developed numerous methods to combat marital infidelity within therapy. While some of these methods have shown success in helping couples move forward after an affair, they all lack a grounding in an authentic human anthropology along with a proper understanding of marriage as a communion of persons. This gap between clinical methods and marriage’s anthropology peaked my interest, and is a focus of my doctoral dissertation. The product of that work is a new way of conceptualizing marital therapy when working with infidelity, along with uniting a variety of therapeutic approaches in order to honor the complexity of the human person. I entitled this new method Catholic Marital Infidelity Treatment (CMIT). Within this essay, I hope to give the reader a very brief introduction to this method.
The Tenets of CMIT
CMIT’s ‘lens’ is a combination of a systems and attachment approach. Its four main tenets are as follows:
1) First, the therapist tailors his treatment plan to address the couple’s attachment styles, conceptualizes the infidelity as a traumatic experience via attachment injury, and seeks to help the couple alter adverse emotions and cognitions in order to effect concrete interpersonal change. These actions will help to repair the marital attachment injury and assist the couple in building their dispositions towards fidelity.
2) Next, the therapist should not counsel the couple towards divorce, separation, nor that the infidelity should continue. If the affair is ongoing, then the therapist will explain to the couple that therapy will be unable to proceed since the offending spouse’s motivation to change is questionable. It should also be noted though that the therapist may counsel for separation if there is ongoing physical, emotional, and/or spiritual abuse as indicated within Canon Law (n. 1153) and supported by canon lawyers as a violation of the personalistic norm.
3) Reconciliation is the goal of therapy. Reconciliation supports the Catholic anthropological notion of marriage as a communion of persons. This is because reconciliation views the person as gift and we should treat others with the same mercy that God has shown towards us.
4) Help the couple develop fortitude/resilience in order to progress within post-traumatic growth. This final aspect continues to ground the therapeutic process within the Catholic anthropological tradition, along with ensuring that the therapist moves the couple towards the Catholic notion of mental health.
The first session within CMIT is a joint session in order to gain some anecdotal knowledge regarding the affair, and of the couple in general. How does the couple communicate? What is the severity of their negative sentiment override? These are just two questions you therapist should ask himself during this session. Afterward, the therapist should have the couple take the Gottman Checkup in order to help the therapist understand a variety of factors within the couple’s life. The checkup is a cost effective and relatively speedy assessment measure that is widely accepted within the psychological community. The next two sessions should be individual in order to administer the Adult Attachment Inventory (AAI) to each spouse. The anthropological reasoning behind CMIT’s use of the AAI is that attachment is the psychological explanation for the theological reality of man only finding himself (achieving secure self) in the total giving of himself (the reliance on another as a secure base and safe haven). Additionally, an attachment focus helps the therapist better understand the traumatic nature of infidelity since the offended spouse experiences it as an attachment injury.
Briefly, an attachment injury originates with an event (or series of events) where an adult’s attachment figure (in this case their spouse) proves to be unavailable at a critical moment(s). The spouse discerns the attachment figure’s unavailability as abandonment and experiences the abandonment as a trauma. The attachment figure’s perceived betrayal then colors the relationship as a whole. The fact that the offended spouse experiences infidelity as a trauma also indicates how attachment captures the theological reality of grave sin. Grave sin contradicts nature to the point of causing a shift in the person’s psyche.
Reconciliation After Marital Infidelity
After the initial assessment phase, the therapist can focus on stabilizing the couple along with normalizing the offended spouse’s . The therapist should prevent the couple from simply blaming each other, or the offending spouse from simply absorbing all blame since that action would prevent the couple from the much-needed processing of the event and their current state.
The next phase involves the couple exploring how their marriage arrived at this point. In paraphilias) where one spouse’s unconscious conflicts are played out, and in such cases, the other spouse bares no responsibility for their spouse’s actions. However, CMIT’s systems approach (along with the Church’s understanding that we are all in some way responsible for each other) necessitates that the therapist help the couple explore how they each contributed to their marriage reaching the current state. While this can be an especially painful phase, its point is not to blame the couple or either spouse. It is designed to help them develop prudence and personal responsibility so that they do not find themselves in the same predicament in the future.
CMIT moves beyond each of the current marital therapy models and seeks to re-establish a communion of persons.
The final phase encompasses two significant aspects: reconciliation and fortitude. By seeking to assist the couple in reconciliation, CMIT moves beyond each of the current marital therapy models and seeks to re-establish a communion of persons. Thus, the couple becomes a wonderful sign of God’s love for the world, along with God’s mercy towards his children. After a reconciliation has been established, the couple should be encouraged to look back at the progress they have made in therapy, which has helped them develop the virtue of fortitude. For example, the couple should be helped to see that they had to develop their own method of coping with their trauma in a way that allowed them to effectively live their lives and grow closer. These actions alone capture the endurance aspect of fortitude something that the couple will need not just to avoid a future affair, but more importantly to flourish within their vocation.
Catholic Marital Infidelity Treatment seeks to begin a movement where couples suffering from infidelity are viewed as two individuals living as a loving communion of persons within a vocation, who have deeply held core beliefs, are part of a larger family system, and who have suffered a profound attachment injury (i.e. the affair) that should be seen and treated as a traumatic event. The therapist utilizes cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, family systems, and forgiveness interventions in order to help the couple recover from this trauma and to grow stronger as individuals and as a couple. I have begun to put CMIT under therapeutic scrutiny, and I hope others will soon begin to do the same. By doing so I hope to gain some empirical validation for this method so that it can gain wider use.
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