Family systems theory has a history of critique by feminists for ignoring larger societal processes, thus inadvertently assuming equality in processes that are not inherently equal (e. g., Goldner, 1985; Hare-Mustin, 1978). Current research suggests that gendered power processes continue to organize how heterosexual partners relate to each other, making it difficult for couples to build mutually satisfying relationships (Coontz, 2005; Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 2009). These same societal processes also influence both the etiology of affairs and recovery from them. Therefore, resolution of infidelity involves the interplay of many complex issues, of which gender, power, and culture are part (Williams, 2011). When contextual factors such as gender and power are not explicitly conceptualized, equality in couple relationships is assumed and responsibility tends to be placed equally on both partners for setting the stage for an affair (e. g., Brown, 2005; Olmstead, Blick & Mills, 2009). As a result, interventions may inadvertently promote gendered relationship patterns that make it difficult to establish a foundation for mutual support and intimacy (Knudson-Martin & Huenergardt, 2010; Scheinkman, 2005; Wiengarten, 1991). This limitation is an ethical issue in couple's therapy. This dissertation is a compilation of three publishable papers that outlines a couple therapy model for working with infidelity that places gender, power and culture at its core. The first, a grounded theory analysis of the infidelity treatment literature provides a useful foundation for a socio-contextual model by identifying five conditions that limit attention to gender and power, including (1) speaking (or assuming) as though partners are equal, (2) reframing infidelity as a relationship problem, (3) limiting discussion of societal context to background, (4) not considering how societal gender and power patterns impact relationship dynamics, and (5) limiting discussion of ethics on how to position around infidelity. Paper two, a theoretical clinical model, the Relational Justice Approach, incorporates the larger social context in relation to infidelity treatment utilizing elements of Socio-Emotional Relationship Therapy (Knudson-Martin & Huneregardt, 2010). This paper includes three stages: 1) creating an equitable foundation for healing, 2) placing the infidelity in a societal context, and 3) practicing mutuality; it has been published in the December 2011 Family Process journal. The third paper, a task analysis examines the therapeutic processes within RJA to develop an empirical model of change. Findings indicated four necessary stages: (1) creating an equitable foundation for healing, (2) creating space for alternate gender discourse, (3) pursuing relational responsibility of powerful partner, and (4) new experience of mutual support. This dissertation adds a macro-lens for working with infidelity that is not only clinically sound, but socially just.

LLU Discipline

Marriage and Family Therapy


Counseling and Family Sciences


School of Science and Technology

First Advisor

Knudson-Martin, Carmen

Second Advisor

Distelberg, Brian

Third Advisor

Hertlein, Katherine

Fourth Advisor

Huenergardt, Doug

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Level


Year Degree Awarded

January 2012

Date (Title Page)




Library of Congress/MESH Subject Headings

Married People -- Sexual Behavior; Adultery; Marriage -- Psychological Aspects; Grounded Theory; Marriage Counseling; Couples Therapy; Systems Theory; Couples -- Psychology; Interpersonal Relations; Man-Woman Relationships

Subject - Local

Family Systems Theory; Infidelity; Gendered Power Processes; Gendered Relationship Patterns; Couple Therapy; Grounded Theory; Relational Justice Approach



Page Count

134 p.

Digital Format


Digital Publisher

Loma Linda University Libraries

Usage Rights

This title appears here courtesy of the author, who has granted Loma Linda University a limited, non-exclusive right to make this publication available to the public. The author retains all other copyrights.


Loma Linda University Electronic Theses & Dissertations

Collection Website



Loma Linda University. Del E. Webb Memorial Library. University Archives