Focus on Infidelity

Just days ago I arrived home from the stellar conference, Anatomy of Intimacy – Focus on Infidelity that took place at University of California, Irvine, and I was immediately slammed with the cold/flu that is going around. Now that I am alert and functional again, I wanted to share some updates and reflections with you before they recede into the “busyness” of holiday preparations. The conference was dynamic and fascinating and made me marvel that no meeting ever before has focused exclusively on the complexity of infidelity.

The conference included Janis Spring, Esther Perel, Marty Klein, John and Julie Gottman, Tammy Nelson, Alex Katahakis and myself. My husband, Dr. Peter Pearson, did some (widely proclaimed) spectacular panel moderation with Judith Anderson.

One aspect of the conference that was especially effective was that each speaker’s talk seemed to build on the one before. Whether an attendee was a novice therapist or a seasoned one, there was very practical learning to take back into the office on Monday. Over the next few weeks, I’ll pass on to you summaries of the presentations in the order presented so you can take a small piece for yourself.

Janis Spring

Janis Spring kicked off the conference describing her 4-part sequence of an ideal sequence therapeutically for a couple in the aftermath of an affair:

  1. Conduct a funeral for the lover (primarily in individual sessions)
  2. Affair-partner bares witness to the pain they have caused
  3. Understand why the affair took place. Each partner considers motivation such as: ease of opportunity, health or death anxiety, escape from responsibility, rebellion, drugs/alcohol, anger, illusion of love, or long-time sense of entitlement
  4. Earn trust. Janis explained clearly why trust is not built on words alone. She described low cost and high cost trust-building behaviors. One example of a high cost trust building behavior is setting up a fund for a private investigator that can be used by the other when and if they fear they are being lied to again.

Janis concluded her talk by describing her controversial “open secrets” policy. “Open secrets” refers to her policy of informing both partners that their individual sessions with her will be confidential. She clarifies with both partners the importance of her knowing the truth about what is happening.

Janis has just come out with a new edition of her book, After the Affair, which now includes a chapter on cybersex. Her book is an excellent resource for clients to read, so they know the path to rebuilding their marriage.

Next Up: Esther Perel

Esther has lived in several different countries, speaks 9 languages and brings a unique perspective to her work on infidelity. She reminded us to always be aware of the cultural context and especially to remember that openness and transparency work best in an egalitarian culture. In extremely repressive regimes, infidelity can result in stoning or death.

Even in the United States, we are currently witnessing the destruction of the esteemed career of David Petraeus as his affair comes to light. I especially admire Esther’s capacity to encourage us to think deeply about the complexities of monogamy, love and desire. Here are some thoughts from her presentation:

  1. Today we expect one person to give what a whole village would provide.
  2. Many affairs are about beating back deadness and valuing the self that emerges.
  3. When exploring the meaning of an affair, be sure to encourage the partner to shift from being a detective into being investigative about meaning and motivation.
  4. Help partners make the very important distinction between “what it meant to me” and “what it did to you”. This enables room for two very different realities.

I could continue but I’ll wrap it up now, leaving you plenty to think about and time to absorb it before sending another summary after Thanksgiving.

Whether you’re here in the United States where we celebrate Thanksgiving or not, I invite you to acknowledge the good in your life: family, friends, partner, career, home, health, leisure. Hopefully you enjoy something on this list.

And I am thankful for everyone who joins me and Pete in our work to support couples everywhere.

To read the next post in this three-part series click Pornography and Cybersex, Trust and Betrayal.

We help couples struggling with adultery in Menlo Park, San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, San Jose, Campbell and the surrounding areas.

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Oxana Holtmann
Oxana Holtmann

Thank you Ellyn! I deeply appreciate you sharing this!

Pamela Wood
Pamela Wood

Thanks so much for sharing Ellyn. The information you present is always so timely and appropriate! I look forward to the next one.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Vivian Baruch
Vivian Baruch

Thank you very much Ellyn! It’s much appreciated. Vivian.

Ann Langley
Ann Langley

Thanks so much for this summary, Ellyn. I had hoped to attend this conference and missed it so am extremely happy to be able to learn from what transpired there. Have a lovely Thanksgiving and I look forward to more to come. Ann Langley, PhD

Salomon Nasielski
Salomon Nasielski

Thank you so much Ellyn for this piece of information. It makes me feel so sorry that I cannot travel too often to the US.
Is there more to read from this very important conference somewhere ? Or is there some sort of recording that I might purchase ?
Thanks again, with my warmest memories to you and Pete (JHello, Chianti !)

John Brumme
John Brumme

Hi Ellyn,
I was privileged to be an attendee at the conference and was amazed at the selection of speakers. One of the best conferences I’ve attended. But one challenge is to go back over my notes and conference handouts to remind myself of all that was said. So thanks for this review on your part! It’ll help me process the information.


John, Salomon,Ann, Vivian, Pamela and Oxana-I really appreciate you taking time to write.
And yes, Salomon the conference was recorded. I will post a link when the videos/audios are ready.
You will also have 2 more installments of summaries from me.
Warm regards,

Sheila Bost
Sheila Bost

Thank you so much for the update. I had to cancel out on the conference because our four children had planned a delayed celebration that weekend for our anniversary. It was a memorable family time, but I also wish that I could have heard the conference. Such practical, clinical work for therapists who work with couples. I appreciate your generosity and time in sharing with the larger community.

Patti Bitter
Patti Bitter

I know I’m a little late to the party – just wanted to thank you again Ellyn for your words of wisdom. I’ve been working with a couple for some months now, making their way back from an emotional affair on his part. They have had a very few tender moments, very avoidant couple. I really liked your differentiation “what it meant to me” and “what it did to you” – will probably use this very phrase in tomorrow’s session.

Again, thanks for all you do to enlighten us.


Cassandra Richmond
Cassandra Richmond

Hello Colleagues, I’m working with an unmarried couple in which the woman in the relationship had two flngs with men she met on two separate occasions while on spring break or girls trip. They were brief, meaningless and took place before the two individuals became a couple. Here is the problem, when the now couple are having a conversation about past relationships, she was asked “was there anyone before me?” she stated that there had been 2 people before him, she briefly dated but not relationships. The boyfriend stated his anger that she had betrayed him. He states she should have told him before he committed to her (he moved to the state where she was residing) even though they were not a couple. Does this count as infidelity?

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."
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