Workplace affairs are on the rise. Research indicates that from 1982 to 1990, 38% of unfaithful wives had affairs starting at work. From 1991 to 2000, 50% of unfaithful wives began an affair at work. Psychologist and marriage and family therapist Shirley Glass, PhD, reports that 46% of unfaithful wives and 62% of unfaithful husbands in her clinical practice had an affair with someone they met through their work (Glass & Staeheli, 2004).
While affairs can begin in a variety of ways, work is one of the most frequently reported settings where infidelity begins. Many people who begin affairs at the office later say, “I didn’t set out to cheat on my partner; it just happened.” Although it may seem as though it “just happened,” there are steps that led up to the infidelity.
Research points to opportunity as a substantial factor in affairs that begin at work. These relationships typically begin with healthy boundaries. When a friendship crosses a line of emotional intimacy, the chances of moving into sexual intimacy increase (Glass & Staeheli, 2004).
If you think you may have crossed a line with someone at work, ask yourself the following:
- Do I talk with this person about things I do not share with my partner?
- Do I talk about my partnership issues with this person?
- Do I find myself believing this person’s partner doesn’t understand them or is mistreating them?
- Do I say things to this person I would not say if my partner were present?
- Am I in love with this person?
- Am I open with my partner about my extent of involvement with this person?
- Do I and this person touch differently in front of others than we touch when we are alone?
- Do I feel sexual tension with this person?
- Do I fantasize about having sex with this person?
If the answer is “yes” to any of these, put a stronger boundary between you and the coworker immediately (Glass & Staeheli, 2004). In the event of an affair, whether begun at work or elsewhere, what next? Partners not involved in the affair often feel hurt and need their hurt acknowledged. The affair might be the most apparent issue, but along with it are issues that left the relationship vulnerable to making poor choices.
Division of labor around the house, sex, and parenting are legitimate relationship issues. If a couple comes to counseling at this stage, the focus can immediately be on these topics. Sometimes one or both partners give an illegitimate response to legitimate issues. Domestic violence, substance abuse, and affairs are examples of illegitimate responses. In these cases, the illegitimate response temporarily negates the legitimate issues because the illegitimate response is so big.
The affair might be the most apparent issue, but along with it are issues that left the relationship vulnerable to making poor choices.
The partner who responded to legitimate concerns with an affair is responsible for owning the fact the focus is going to be on the affair for a period of time before the legitimate issues can be addressed. This takes courage because it is not easy to listen to the betrayed partner explain how the affair hurt them. Likewise, some people who have had an affair may be unwilling to be an open book to their partner for however long it takes to rebuild trust. Yet, these are important steps toward healing.
While some couples dig in and work through an affair and the issues preceding it, others find it easier to leave. In some cases, they leave for the person they had an affair with. But only a small percentage of relationships that begin as an affair last. Unresolved contributions to a failed relationship leave a person prone to make the same mistakes in future relationships.
What to Look for in a Couples Therapist
If you or your partner have engaged in an affair and are considering counseling, or have tried counseling before and felt it went nowhere, look for the following in a therapist as suggested by Glass and Staeheli (2004):
- Direction: A therapist should provide structure and direction rather than sitting back and watching your exchanges. While a part of a therapist’s role is to listen, it is with purpose—to help each partner develop insight and to facilitate improvement.
- Non-judgment, or unconditional regard for each partner: The therapist is there to help you reach your own conclusions, not push you to leave the partner who had the affair or stay together.
- Giving honor to the hurt each partner feels: There is no such thing as a negative emotion, but some emotions are difficult to feel. A therapist is there to hold space for emotions without minimizing.
- Focus on the affair: Sometimes the betrayed partner needs to know some details about the affair. There are often underlying issues to the affair, but focus on the affair comes first. Avoiding this focus is one of the most frequently reported sources of frustration among betrayed partners.
- Searching for understanding, not blaming: A therapist can help uncover the vulnerabilities to an affair. Also, we cannot change what we do not acknowledge. However, a therapist is not there to blame the person who was unfaithful, nor their partner.
- Patience: Resolving ambivalence and rebuilding trust after an affair takes time. Glass and Staeheli (2004) report that couples who stayed in therapy for more than 10 sessions had a better chance of staying together than couples who terminated therapy earlier. A therapist needs to take the necessary time to work through each step of the therapeutic process, however long that takes for each couple.
It is harder to take our own inventory than it is to take someone else’s. It is harder still to work on our own issues with honesty and self-compassion. But if each partner focuses on themselves, the chances are greater the couple will rebuild trust and intimacy. If you believe your partnership is vulnerable to infidelity or has already experienced it, contact a licensed couples counselor.
Glass, S. P., & Staeheli, J. C. (2004). Not just friends. New York, NY: Atria Books.
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