In therapy, Involved Partners sometimes ask “Should I keep my affair secret?”
It’s fashionable for untrained all-purpose couples therapists to nudge Involved Partners into disclosure. Therapists can be somewhat preoccupied with their own discomfort. They advise clients that they “don’t keep secrets.”
But I feel that safety trumps knowledge. Most therapists would agree that if you are in a marriage where there is regular or even sporadic domestic violence, you should keep your own counsel about your affair. Therapists are trained to ask “are you afraid of your partner?” But sometimes this question isn’t enough.
It’s important to appreciate the intensely volatile nature of infidelity. Research tells us that marital affair-related violence can occur in some cases where there has been no previous history of abuse or physical violence. Because this is an uncommon occurrence, this fact eludes some couples therapists.
Why is that the case? Why do men and women who have never been previously violent capable of such explosive rage? Research reveals that affair violence is more directly related to the politics of power, and powerlessness than to the infidelity itself.
The Betty Broderick case is a case in point. Betty’s husband, after calling Betty “crazy” for being suspicious, finally admitted he was having a workplace affair. When Dan Broderick insensitively taunted Betty with legal wrangling and married his affair partner on the 20th anniversary of his marriage to Betty, Betty’s rage exploded. She entered the unlocked home of her ex- husband and shot him and his new wife as they were sleeping in bed.
The fact that Betty had worked hard to put her husband through both law school and medical school fueled her sense of injustice, irresponsibility, and powerlessness. These are the building blocks of a female anger. Culturally, we have a hard time discussing female rage. We need to explain wives like Betty, so she was diagnosed by court psychiatrists as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
OK, so you told your couples therapist there has never been any domestic violence in your marriage. Are they content with that simple answer or do they dig deeper? Do they ask you about the history of your partner’s relationship to frustration, anger, and rage? Or ask if you would describe them as controlling or quick-tempered? Did they ask you if your spouse has ever done anything out of anger that shocked or surprised you?
Affair Disclosure occurs in a dysfunctional marital dynamic. Your therapist should conduct a thorough marital assessment before dispensing any advice to you on affair disclosure. A lack of a history of violence, in the context of the incredible stress of affair disclosure, sometimes provides a false sense of security.
Research by Johnston and Campbell (1993) revealed a pattern of violence related to divorce. Their findings include affair disclosure violence.
The more hidden conflict and unresolved issues, the greater the risk of affair-related violence. Exit affairs, where the Involved Partner holds little empathy for the Hurt Partner, is statistically at the highest risk. Next are the Conflict-Avoiders. It may seem odd that of the four major affair types, Conflict Avoiders are in the second position for the risk of violence. This type doesn’t intend to do violence, but the tightly wound nature of these couples may cause them to lose self-control and explode.
Then come the Intimacy-Avoidants. They engage in ongoing battle by definition. Their chronically combative style is indicative of poor self-regulation and histrionic behavior. Split-Self Affairs are the least violent. This is because they are invested in order and containment.
It’s not unusual for Hurt Partners to fantasize about revenge. Sometimes these fantasies are violent. But most Hurt Partners can self-regulate. They prefer to withdraw, ruminate, obsess, and verbally spar with their Involved Partners. However, there are a few that can’t, and that minority of Hurt Partners is who we are discussing in this post.
Risk-multipliers are drugs and alcohol, access to firearms, social provocateurs, and how well the Hurt Partner’s relational wound is managed. As to the intrapsychic issue of assessing affair-pain management, in reviewing the mental state of the Hurt Partner, employ an old word not often used; hapless as a mnemonic device.
Hapless means unfortunate.
Research shows extreme violence occurs when the Hurt Partner feels betrayed. The essence of this rage is feeling: Humiliated, Abandoned and Powerless, Lonely, Embarrassed, Shamed and Scared.
Rage is a wound so penetratingly deep that it overwhelms the ego. Surprising your partner in flagrant delicto with their affair partner, or coming home to learn that your partner has suddenly left and has moved in with their affair partner, and a social/family network which promotes havoc and discord are a few examples of triggers that may induce a sudden apoplectic rage.
Unrelated family stress such as an ill parent, job loss, or a loss in a court battle can also push a Hurt Partner over the brink. The deadliest combination of force-multipliers is the combination of overwhelming stress, drugs and alcohol, and the availability of firearms.
Research suggests that violence is more likely at certain predictable emotional inflection points:
Affair violence is typically impulsive and has many aggravating contributing factors. Hindsight in affair violence is always 20/20. That is why a careful assessment of a couple struggling with infidelity is essential.
Should I keep my affair a secret? It’s an important question. Do you want to repair? Then disclosure is part and parcel of the repair process. However, when it comes to the potential for violence no assessment tool is better than your own intuition.
If you have concerns for your safety, don’t let your therapist cajole or guilt trip you into disclosure. If you’re anxious or fearful, listen to your gut, and talk about your concerns.
I’d like to thank Emily M. Brown MSW LCSW. She is the founder and director of the Key Bridge Therapy and Mediation Center in Arlington, VA. The 2001 second edition of her book Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment was an invaluable resource for this recent blog series on styles of infidelity.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.