I am setting up this blog because I find myself increasingly moved by the efforts of my clients who chose to work through the devastating effects of affairs, whether individually, or in couples and by the profoundly deepening connections that this work can bring, almost as if the couple is discovering each other for the first time. I would like to create a space where those concerned with extramarital or extra-relationship affairs can learn about them and share their own thoughts and feelings. I will join in with comments also, as well as more extensive entries. However, I cannot provide any advice or analysis for individual situations on this site. I am a psychotherapist with 27 years of experience in private practice in Walnut Creek and San Francisco.
To start, you may wonder how prevalent extramarital affairs are. Unfortunately, there are no good answers, as studies conducted on the frequency of occurrence in marriages show results ranging from 15 – 75%! The data also shows that the more dating one has done, the more likely one is to have an affair.
Is It An Affair?
The defining feature of an affair is secrecy. If either partner is having a relationship with another person that is in whole or part secret from his or her partner, then that is an affair. The presence or absence of sex is not a defining feature. Affairs that are emotional can also be devastating. The key factor is whether the relationship violates the (sometimes unspoken) agreements that the couple has about the intimacy boundaries around their relationship. Thus, what constitutes an affair in one marriage or relationship, might not constitute an affair in another. Some couples feel secure with each having intense emotional relationships with others and others do not. There is no right or wrong here; there are all kinds of relationships, the key is the agreement about how far these relationships can go, that both partners are truly in agreement, and that the agreement is being respected.
Upon discovery, both partners can feel shaken to the core. It is normal to experience this time as traumatic, to experience rage, fear of abandonment, seemingly unbearable pain, and exhaustion from trying to deal with it all. Arguments can go around in circles endlessly. Affairs are so stressful and exhausting that they can lead to health problems and emotional breakdown, not to mention the possibility of STDs. The time of discovery is a time when the need for support is extremely high, yet it is sometimes difficult to tell others because of fear of their judgments of you or your partner. You might be urged to “be strong and leave the bitch/bastard” when you are not quite convinced deep down that this is the way. It is true that leaving takes strength, but staying in and working it out also takes tremendous strength, though of a different kind. A good question to sit with at this time is “am I hanging in or hanging on?”
Why Affairs Occur
Unhappy marriages do not cause affairs. First of all, couples try to “solve” relationship problems in many ways, for example, putting more energy into communication, or insisting on couple’s therapy. Some couples have children in hopes of making things better. Unfortunately, many resort to substance abuse, domestic violence, or complete emotional withdrawal. An affair is only one available alternative. There does not appear to be any data that correlate any particular types of marital problems to affairs. Furthermore, there are many marriages that seem perfect, or very happy to one or both spouses and an affair still occurs. It can be very upsetting to scratch the surface of such a relationship because the discoverer of the affair may feel like he or she is being blamed.
Long term affairs can be the result of an internal split in the betrayer, who has always performed according to everyone else’s expectations and has kept his or her emotions separated from his or her experience of life. The new partner represents a completely new experience of emotional freedom, but the old partner represents security. This is particularly excruciating for everyone involved because both of these ties are extremely difficult to cut. The problem seems to be which lover to choose, but is really about how thinking and feeling have become separated that is best worked with in individual therapy over a period of time. If this is not done, it is not unusual for the person in the affair to swing back and forth between the two lovers without any resolution.
Long term “love affairs” sometimes occur when the marriage never had a strong foundation in the first place. Unfortunately, some couples marry because “it seemed like the thing to do at the time,” because of a shared desire for children or because remaining alone was too frightening. Some couples marry without sufficient time to really get to know each other. Others unconsciously choose partners who are stand-ins for a childhood caretaker that was neglectful or abusive in an attempt to make things come out differently this time, which usually doesn’t work.
“Exit affairs” occur when one cannot allow oneself to come to terms with their desire to end the relationship. These kinds of affairs make everything seem like it’s just happening, not like any decisions are being made.
Casual short-term affairs can occur as an act of revenge by an angry partner who feels powerless to communicate in any other way.
A one night fling can represent a lack of understanding of the true nature of the couple’s attachment to each other which underlies the belief that it won’t really matter. There may be an inability to maintain a felt sense of connection to the partner when they are not present physically.
Affairs frequently occur when there is a blow to the self esteem of the unfaithful partner in an otherwise healthy marriage. This can happen with job loss or business failure, or with the loss of attention one receives from their partner following the birth of a new child.
In some cases affairs can be a sign of mental breakdown, or a response to mental or physical breakdown of a partner.
Substance abuse can alter one’s judgment and lead to affairs also, but frequently the substance abuse is a symptom of other issues, either marital or personal. However, being intoxicated can be just the ingredient that pushes one over the edge.
Cultural factors can also influence affairs. One or both partner may have grown up not knowing any families where there were not affairs; it may seem like a normal part of married life.
These are just some of the more common scenarios, every affair is different and has it’s own reasons.