We all know the spin – affairs are erotic and highly sexual. But what counselors can tell us is that affairs may not be about sex alone.
What an affair can signal is that something is wrong in the relationship. It may not be obvious to the couple, but they are dissatisfied in some way. Sometimes it’s just a vague feeling of things not being right.
Take the case of Jerry and Deanne. Jerry confesses to Deanne that he had an affair when he was away at that conference last month. He tells Deanne, he doesn’t know why it happened, it’s just that one thing led to another and before he knew it, he’d cheated. He promises to never see this woman again. Can Deanne forgive him? Deanne is a forgiving woman and is prepared to forgive, but she realizes that something is wrong in their relationship. In counseling, both expressed only vague dissatisfaction in their relationship, but as they worked on issues, they discovered that they had never really been honest with each other in the two years of their marriage. Both were conflict aversive and couldn’t express unhappiness or anger easily. After the discovery of the affair, Deanne found it easier to be angry with Jerry. Feeling guilty, Jerry tried to avoid any expression of resentment, but after a few sessions, admitted he was irritated by Deanne’s frequent disinterest in sex.
What this kind of affair shouts is: ‘I’ll make you pay attention to me!’ The couple usually has a ‘nice’ relationship where issues are avoided and to the outside world they appear to have a model relationship. Very often these couples believe that anger is bad and must be avoided at all costs. A typical pattern with this sort of couple is that the more dissatisfied partner has an affair and quickly manages to get caught. The discovery of the affair exposes problems in their relationship and allows them to bring things out into the open.
If the couple is prepared to work at maintaining their relationship then they will learn to better address issues of conflict in the future.
Tim was in his second marriage to Ada. His first wife, Lisa, had left him because of his sex addiction and serial philandering. Tim knew that he didn’t want to continue having affairs and possibly damaging his relationship with Ada but he claimed that one woman couldn’t satisfy him sexually. He’d had dozens of flings with friend’s partners, neighbors and colleagues. He said he found it hard to pass up any opportunity. Things came to a head when he had sex with Ada’s best friend. Tim said he didn’t expect Ada to tolerate his behavior and he loved her a lot and he wanted to change. Ada confessed that she knew about Tim’s sex addiction before they married, but believed she could change him and when he had an affair with her best friend, she felt doubly betrayed.
People, very often men, involved in these affairs avoid dealing with personal needs by making conquests. These conquests compensate for feelings of emptiness, isolation, low self-esteem and shame. Some of these feelings might drive the person to search and search again for ‘true love’. These affairs are addictive behavior and like all addictive behaviors are used to escape from some real – and often – troubling feelings.
Ellie, although reluctant to hurt her husband James, finally decided to tell him that she’d been having an affair for 12 months and intended leaving him. James was 15 years older than Ellie but in the beginning, this age difference hadn’t mattered. After two children and James’ success as a lawyer, Ellie wanted out. She told her counselor that she was using her affair as a stepping-stone to leave the marriage. She didn’t intend staying with and marrying her lover, rather she wanted to forge a life for herself.
In this sort of affair, the partner who has the affair is testing out the possibilities beyond their primary relationship. This often happens when the marriage has been a long one and questions need to be answered about whether another life is possible. Questions such as: ‘Can I make it on my own?’, ‘Am I still attractive?’, ‘Can I be happy in another relationship?’ and most importantly, ‘Can I get you to kick me out?’ The out-the-door partner is looking for self-validation and perhaps, less consciously, a desire to avoid taking responsibility for ending the relationship. It’s fairly typical in this sort of affair that the relationship has become a shell.
Even though Harry and Tamsin thought they were close, when Harry revealed that he’d had a number of flings and even visited prostitutes whilst overseas at a conference, they realized that they never really communicated nor connected at a ‘deep level’. Interestingly, their styles were very different and learned in their families of origin. But neither style made for any really ‘deep and meaningful’ connection between them. Harry’s parents had been two people who appeared to be strangers and Harry recalled they hardly ever spoke to each other. Tamsin, on the other hand, had come from a family where real intimacy was impossible because her father had been an alcoholic and her mother had a tendency to drama, so there was one crisis after another.
What Harry and Tamsin are playing out is the avoidance of intimacy – that’s central to their relationship – and the reason for Harry’s affairs. The affair is a shield against hurt. Typically, intimacy avoiders are skilled in conflict – there may be exchanges involving criticism, sarcasm and blame. It’s easy to see how this kind of hostility provides justification for turning to someone else. In this way, the affair can become a weapon and the other partner may counter with their own affair.
It can be either the man or the woman who decides that there’s not much holding them in their long-standing relationship now that the children have gone. An affair seems to be the answer. This happened to Emma and Stan who’d been married for 28 years but found that after their last child left home, they had nothing to talk about. Emma had an affair with an old friend and was seriously considering leaving her marriage for this man, who is a widower.
The empty-nest affair can signal that the marriage was held together in a belief about family rather than a strong emotional bond. The person who has the affair wonders whether they ever ‘really loved’ their partner – they certainly have nothing in common anymore. When the children were still at home, the focus is on them, all communication between the couple is centered on their parenting roles. When the children go, then the relationship can seem empty. The answer appears to be to seek fulfillment elsewhere.
Lucinda had one brief lesbian encounter at college. When she and Barry married 10 years earlier, she believed herself to be heterosexual. But there were some niggling doubts in the back of her mind. However, it wasn’t until she’d met another woman at a special interest group she’d been attending that her real sexual orientation became obvious. Barry was devastated and worried that this new development would have a negative effect on their two children – a boy and a girl. Lucinda’s newly found sexuality meant that she had to make a decision and Barry had to deal with being rejected.
The gay/lesbian affair is similar in dynamics to the ‘out-the-door’ affair in that in both, the erring partner tries out another way of life before exiting their primary relationship. Men, like Barry, feel doubly rejected because they can’t compete with their partner’s new lover. As Barry said, ‘I could even understand it if she went with another man. But a woman? She’s so turned off that she’s rejecting men altogether. How could I fail her like that?’ Men like Barry, or women when their male partners have chosen a gay affair to end their relationship, feel like they have failed as sexual partners and have difficulty accepting the change in their partners.
For more about the range of affairs – from flings to true affairs of the heart, you can read more on my blog Affairs 101: Part One.