How to work therapeutically with internet infidelity

Published in Online Affairs Practitioners by Janice Hiller from Tavistock Relationships on October 20th 2021

How is internet infidelity experienced?

Internet infidelity is invariably experienced as a breach of trust: a hidden activity that takes time, thoughts and feelings away from the primary relationship, and threatens intimacy. Research has shown that the sense of betrayal and loss experienced by the receiving partner is very similar to when physical infidelity takes place. Therefore, treatment approaches for internet infidelity will follow similar guidelines.

One difference with virtual infidelity is that engaged partners tend to deny that the contact is meaningful because it’s “only online”. This can lead to doubts by the recipient partner about their right to feel distressed. Questioning the validity of hurt feelings then becomes an issue to be addressed in therapy.

Engaged partners tend to deny that the contact is meaningful because it’s “only online”

A systemic approach to working with internet infidelity

Approaching treatment from a systemic perspective - and viewing infidelity as an intimacy-based problem - allows therapists to help those affected by infidelity to evaluate their relationship through healing and re-building the union.

Attending to the individual, relationship, and family-of-origin risk factors can help partners identify and address vulnerabilities to infidelity and protect their relationship from further betrayals. Interventions designed to promote forgiveness and improve communication and intimacy can help partners heal from infidelity and strengthen their bond with each other.

What should therapy focus on?

Despite there being a lack of studies providing systematic evaluations of treatment for online infidelity, researchers have identified several factors to focus on in the therapy process.

Early sessions

During early sessions, which tend to be highly charged and emotional, using non-judgemental language is particularly important. Although all partners might be very upset and need time to vent, a non-blaming stance - with a therapeutic balance - can lessen the expressions of anger and shock by the receiving partner. Despite demands to have more details about the infidelity, research has suggested that further sharing of information is rarely helpful and may prolong the suffering. It’s also important to note the potential risks of moving too quickly. There’s a complex balance required between structure and flexibility when treating affairs. Particularly with more dysregulated relationship partners in early sessions, it’s easy for the therapist to get derailed by the “crisis of the week.” Therapists need to assess whether it’s worth being derailed from the current focus to pursue a different track in therapy and address an immediate crisis. Often these problems are manifestations of underlying themes that will eventually be addressed as treatment progresses. If that’s the case, the therapist should consider formulating the immediate crisis as part of the underlying problem and relating it back to the treatment at hand. However, if the therapist determines that this is a new crisis or problem that requires immediate attention, then this may warrant deviating from the treatment plan for that session.

Creating a safe environment

Maintaining the therapeutic balance and encouraging respectful listening is essential for creating a safe environment to explore painful reactions. Treatment goals should be established early on, including finding out if the online relationship has ended. This will help each partner to commit to rebuilding their own relationship. Research has also suggested, as a first step, asking the engaged partner to take responsibility for the breach of intimacy, and making a commitment not to do it again. Refusal to end contact with the virtual partner would prevent most couple therapists from working on the issues, but it has been suggested that demanding that the engaged partner stops instantly might lead to ending therapy and the committed relationship.

Research has suggested... asking the engaged partner to take responsibility for the breach of intimacy, and making a commitment not to do it again

Therapists might unwittingly overlook the emotions of the offending partners when faced with the suffering of the betrayed partners. However, disregarding their emotional experience, or being judgmental, might discourage them from participating. Partners guilty of infidelity might be fearful of the primary relationship ending or of hurting their partner. They may even feel relieved that their infidelity has been discovered.

If betrayed partners fall into unhelpful interrogation, we should redirect them by asking, “what are you feeling?” and “what do you need?” We can then help them to express their feelings and needs to their partner. Unfaithful partners should be coached in listening and acknowledging the pain and damage they have brought to their partner and the relationship through their behaviour.

Exploring underlying issues

Exploring underlying issues is central to understanding why the infidelity occurred and to rebuilding the relationship. During this process, when dysfunctional patterns are identified, the receiving partner frequently feels unjustly blamed. Therapists can point out that the engaged partner is accountable for their actions, while all partners should acknowledge the context in which they took place.

As an aid to regaining trust, it’s suggested that you should encourage partners to communicate ground rules and adhere to a set of agreed schedules and plans for computer use at home.

Working flexibly

Therapists must be flexible so they can tailor their work to the unique needs of each relationship and increase the possibility of a successful outcome for therapy. At the same time, the therapist must also walk the tightrope of not excusing the participating partner for their actions. This difficult balancing act is one those in the relationship face themselves.

In fact, research has shown that injured partners express feeling torn between understanding their partners and blaming themselves versus blaming their partners and holding themselves blameless. This complicated matter should be directly addressed in therapy, with the therapist holding the participating partner accountable for their decisions, yet also acknowledging that there is a context in which these actions take place. This problem is also dealt with indirectly by the non-judgemental stance mentioned earlier.

The role of the therapeutic alliance

Research on treating couples with substance abuse suggests that the therapeutic alliance during critical sessions is the primary factor responsible for them staying in treatment. It’s likely that the same principle applies here: developing a genuine and supportive alliance that is well-balanced between all partners is critical to them carrying through with a long and often painful treatment.

Summary

When working therapeutically with client’s who have experienced internet infidelity, it’s important that you:

  • Confirm validity of the receiving partner’s distress
  • Avoid further details and encourage respectful listening rather than apportioning blame
  • Encourage both partners to explore underlying issues but engaged partner to accept responsibility
  • Agree rules for internet use at home
  • Encourage relationship–enhancing goals and discuss forgiveness

To see the full list of research references which have informed the content on this page, please see our research references section.

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