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Faculty Interview

7 Questions With Dr. Nicolle Zapien

The CIIS Dean offers insight into her new book on infidelity and clinical approaches that are helpful for a broad range of contexts and people.

Lucretia Futrell April 24, 2018

Dr. Nicolle Zapien, Dean of the School of Professional Psychology and Health at California Institute of Integral Studies, has written a new book. Clinical Treatment Directions for Infidelity: A Phenomenological Framework for Understanding was published in February by Routledge.

With the writing of this book, the author offers readers an understanding of current client experiences of infidelity and the clinical approaches that are helpful for a broad range of contexts and people. Infidelity can be isolating--something that we don't talk about in the public sphere, because it can be shameful, humiliating, and sometimes even misunderstood.

What was the inspiration for this book? 

Nicolle Zapien: The book was a way for me to make the results of my dissertation more widely available to clinicians who generally receive very little training on the treatment of infidelity or sexuality concerns but nevertheless often encounter these issues in professional practice. I decided to study infidelity for my dissertation because, in my clinical practice, I noticed a steep uptick in cases of infidelity in the earlier part of the decade and found these cases difficult. I consulted with my colleagues, as one is supposed to do with difficult cases, and found others also knew very little. The literature at the time was also very moralizing and seemed to not apply directly to what my clients were experiencing. So I decided to address this gap with novel studies.

What are the biases on this topic? Cultural, societal, in the field? 

This is an interesting question because the entire issue is generally conflated judgments that are unquestioned and felt strongly. It is something we are proud of and romanticize, and also something of which we are ashamed and judge harshly. Clinicians also are often biased. We generally do not agree on how to approach these cases and tend to align our treatment planning and assessment with whatever has personally worked for us in our own relationships with regard to sex, marriage, divorce, commitment, and open relationships. And these ideas may not apply to all of our clients. This was another objective of the book to bring awareness to infidelity in a descriptive sense so that we could all question our biases in service of client-centered meaning-making.

What obstacles did you have to overcome in your research? 

It is fascinating because when I decided to study infidelity, I knew that I would find it challenging to find participants for my studies, or that if they participated, they would find it challenging to share intimate details due to social desirability effects. What I didn't anticipate, however, was how risky it is personally to study sexuality seriously. For example, while I was writing my book and after my dissertation and a few articles on the topic were already published, my husband received an anonymous letter in the mail to our home address. It simply said something along the lines of, "Is your wife cheating or is she a cheater apologist?" and then had a reference to another book with moralizing views about infidelity, implying he should read it. This was an interesting moment for me and for us in that it made clear that to study sexuality and infidelity was to put your own sexual self and relationship on the line. It's not like being a dentist or a chemist, for example. People seem to be more interested in knowing if I am pro- or anti-cheating or pro- or anti-poly and what is going on in my personal relationship than they are in my research findings. They seem to be unable to believe that I can be curious and respectful of positions that are different than my own lived experiences. To take a more open stance to questions about divorce, marriage, and sexuality is really edgy in some ways.

How do you recommend that the information in Clinical Treatment Directions for Infidelity be expanded upon in curricula, for example? 

Clinicians generally don't receive enough training in sexuality or technologically mediated experiences, and both of these areas are important for understanding infidelity. CIIS offers a sex therapy certificate program, for example, that does a great job of addressing the training needs of the field. Our Clinical Psychology program offers a course on eroticism and the psyche, and another one on technology and the psyche. We also have a doctoral program in Human Sexuality. I imagine that there could be a need for consultation services to clinicians on cases of infidelity and that the second half of the book with clinical exercises could be made into workshops or training to be used more widely.

What did you learn from the process of writing this book? Did your research change your opinion about infidelity? 

This is a difficult question to answer because there were so many things I learned through this process. For one, I was surprised at how easy it is to write a book and at the same time how difficult it is to write well. I learned a great deal about people's desires, ambivalence, and the mysteries of how perceptions, awareness, and decision-making work in situations that are objectionable to the self and/or society. And yes, my research to some extent provided more understanding of how people come to cheat, but my views are not vastly different than they were originally. I just have a lot more nuanced view of infidelity and decision-making than I did before.

What's next for you? 

Shortly after this book was finished, Dr. Susi Ferrarello and I wrote a volume titled Ethical Experience, which takes up an investigation of various dilemmas from a philosopher's view and from a psychologist's view. This book comes out in October. While it is in production, I am working steadily on a few blogs and events bringing together technology and humanities, and social scientists toward a design of humane tech experiences. At CIIS, we are hosting what we call a "reverse hackathon" on June 9. And I am the Dean of a school at CIIS, so there is plenty of innovation.

Do you have any personal motivations for this book? 

Yes, and I would say the professional motivations are greater. These motivations include wanting to contribute something that is concretely useful to the field and to disrupt the narrow views of sexuality and infidelity that are often held so that we can begin to get curious and have a more serious consideration of this often painful issue.

So, why do people cheat? 

The reasons are many, but of course, the reasons we can grasp ourselves and through research are only those that are available to us consciously. A great number of our motivations in situations like infidelity-where we say one thing and do another-are best understood as subconscious processes and ambivalent experiences. People want to be monogamous or true to their particular agreements, but they generally, when they cheat, cannot figure out a way to uphold these agreements and also stay true to other important commitments or values. For example, they value passion or particular sexual experiences and cannot figure out how to have productive discourse or movement in their primary relationships. And often they don't set out to cheat. They end up meeting someone and flirting without being aware that they are flirting and then these experiences build over time, sometimes a short time and sometimes a long time, into an affair.

Those who have been betrayed often don't understand this explanation. They imagine or idealize that all of us should be or could be conscious of all of our motivations all the time. And yet, the entire endeavor of psychoanalysis suggests that some motivations are not always conscious and available to us all the time. My book humanizes this experience but also calls us to become more aware of our internal motivations and processes.

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