During the traumatic throes of the discovery of an affair, finding the right label, and therefore, singular explanation may feel like a life preserver.
As you read through books and web sites, you’ve probably noticed that almost everyone who writes about affairs has some way of categorizing them. Here are some common examples:
“intimacy avoiding”, “anger avoiding”, “romantic”, “exit,” “split self” “availability,” “alcoholic,” “retaliation, “revenge,” “sexual,” “culturally enabled,” “emotional,” “sex addiction,” proving you’re still attractive,” “can’t say no,””….
However, in my experience, this is only a good start, rather than the final word. Most affairs do not have a singular motive, or cause, but are multi-determined, frequently one piece in a complex puzzle. Understanding this enables couples to be more interested in the whole picture, and lessens the need for blame/shame dynamics.
Let’s use John as an example. (This story is not representative of any particular client that I have seen. Rather it is a composite based on my experience with hundreds of individuals and couples.)
John’s affair started months after his wedding and continued for years.
John had secretly been very anxious about getting married even though he believed that Julia was who he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. However, his upbringing had taught him that being a man means not showing vulnerability, and never revealing that you are unsure of yourself, so he kept his apprehension to himself. He appeared to be the perfect fiancee to Julia and to everyone else.
However, his anxiety exploded in the initial months of marriage when the obligations of domestic reality set in. He started drinking a little more than usual, and going out with colleagues after work more frequently. Home felt more and more stifling, limiting the freedom he was used to.
John became friendly with one of his coworkers named Helen and their talks became more and more intimate. They developed a friendship based on shared professional interests and the ability to understand and provide each other emotional support. Although John loved Julia, he had not been able to turn to her the way he was able to with Helen.
At home he felt pressured to be a “good husband;” strong, and invulnerable. Some of this pressure came from inside of himself. Some came from from Julia who had, herself, been brought up with limited experience of real intimacy and strong ideas about what a husband should provide. It was like he had to be the “father” at home, the father who didn’t need any emotional nurturing for himself. And so Helen became the missing “mother.”
Not wanting to think about what was happening John’s drinking increased and one night the line was crossed, the emotional affair became sexual and the deception heightened. (Although John was not an “alcoholic“, alcohol did play an important part in the unfolding of John and Helen’s relationshp.)
When John did let himself think about what he was doing he reasoned that most men have affairs, so it couldn’t be that bad. Maybe Helen could even help him loosen up so he could be happier, and therefore a better husband.
But Julia seemed to change. Where before she was tender and loving, she now seemed to nag and criticize much of the time.
Julia was feeling something was wrong that she couldn’t put her finger on. From her point of view John had slowly withdrawn from her. She was fighting for the relationship, pleading w/ him to open up to her and tell her what was wrong.
This made John feel less attracted to Julia who now seemed so needy, and more drawn to Helen who seemed to have no demands or criticisms of him and to love him just the way he was. He became convinced he was falling in love w/ Helen, and that being with her was the solution to his unhappiness. They started to make plans for the future which included him leaving Julia. But he became confused and frightened about really going through with this plan and entered therapy at this point.
In therapy John has come to understand the combination of factors that got him into the mess he was in.
His childhood experiences had given him the idea that affairs were no big deal. (“culturally determined”). He knew few men who weren’t having affairs.
He had had no role models for working out emotional problems with the people closest to him. When his parents disagreed, they alternated between yelling matches and stoney silences. In addition, his parents did not pay much attention to his feelings, but gave him a lot of positive reinforcement for things he accomplished like doing well in sports and getting good grades. If he could perform without complaint, he felt valued.
From Julia’s point of view he was “avoiding intimacy.” But how can you “avoid intimacy” if you were never helped to develop the capacity for it in the first place?
John was depressed and angry about the demands of marriage that he hadn’t expected, but didn’t believe he had a right to complain to Julia.
He divided himself up between being a dutiful, if withdrawn “good husband” for Julia, and being emotionally alive with Helen, who happily listened to his complaints about his marriage. He felt alive in a new and amazing way with Helen and dead with Julia. The responsible and emotional sides of him had to be kept separate (“split self”) because bringing them together and to his marriage would, in his unconscious mind, ensure being rejected.
(If parents don’t reliably respond to their child’s feelings, but instead push them away, or ignore or punish them for trying to communicate, then that child will come to believe that there is something wrong with those feelings (not with their parents). They come to regard their hurt and sadness as something that will push others away and so hide these feelings from others, and sometimes eventually, from themselves.)
The puzzle pieces take time to fall into place. And sometimes you find you have put a piece in the wrong place. During part of the therapy we believed John had had an “exit affair”, i.e., that he really had wanted to leave the marriage and he had unconsciously enlisted Helen to help him. However, once we worked through some of his issues around emotional intimacy, commitment, masculinity and alcohol, the picture wasn’t so clear. Eventually John felt that he wanted to try to save his marriage and he and Julia entered marriage counseling.
This is just one of an infinite number of scenarios drawn out to illustrate the complexity of understanding that is possible. Affairs happen in all kinds of marriages including those that are described as happy. In terms of healing, the bigger the picture you and your partner are able to develop, and the more meaning you can make out of what has happened, the more likely you are to attain a deep and lasting healing.