Why Good People Have Affairs
Written By: Mark Smith
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When the movie Fatal Attraction came out, it absolutely terrified men throughout our culture as to the possible consequences of infidelity. To be quite honest, I hope that this article helps to elicit a bit of healthy fear of slipping into inappropriate relationships for anyone of either sex who might currently be toying with the concept. I do not have the writing skills to adequately convey to you the sheer agony, the life-destroying shock and the core sense of complete betrayal and rejection I have witnessed in my office so many times through the years as shattered people struggled to deal with the horrifying reality of their spouse's infidelity. The word "depression" does not begin to describe it. Facing the evidence of a spouse's affair is bone crushing, spirit wounding and it conjures up the deepest and most powerful feelings of abandonment possible. And, of course, the effect on the children of the marriage is perhaps even more profound. A weak moment or some very poor judgment during a mid-life crisis can and frequently does break families apart forever. I don't think that a straying parent has ever had a good answer when asked by their child why they are packing their bags to leave home, never to return. The "loved ones" are not the only ones who feel the pain; the cheaters themselves go through massive amounts of their own personal hells. Let me see if I can capture just a small portion of their agony. 1. They have to see the person they vowed to love forever be completely devastated. 2. They frequently get to face the fierce legal representatives of their rejected spouse whose sole purpose is to extract a pound of flesh as well as more than half of everything that they own. 3. Many times couple friends side with the cheated upon spouse, leaving the cheater feeling friendless and socially isolated. 4. There is somewhat of a social status change when someone moves from "happily married" to "divorced due to cheating." 5. If they are the husband, they get to move into a tacky apartment and they get to see the kids every other weekend, or if they are the wife, they have to go back to work and they still might have to sell the house. 6. The inner sense of guilt, shame and regret is something that many of them never work through. It haunts them like a bad dream each and every day for the rest of their lives. 7. Again, the worst consequence possible: the wails and the tears of their broken-hearted children. 8. A consequence that is not written about much, perhaps because it takes so long to occur, is the pattern of adult children, wounded by a parent's affair and subsequent abandonment, then re-creating that scenario in their own marriages. Please believe me when I tell you that such reenactments of the family drama are more the rule than the exception. All in all, affairs frequently result in untold amounts of pain and anguish for all concerned over the course of several generations. It just isn't natural and it just wasn't meant to be; families are meant to stay together and love each other. The fleeting emotional and sexual highs are never ever worth all the pain and destruction.
Far from judging or shaming those who have strayed, this article is actually geared toward helping to understand such behavior in order to lessen the shame and help bring about an environment of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. Given that the price tag is so incredibly high, it begs the question: why are affairs engaged in at such an alarming rate? Why do nice, caring, thoughtful and otherwise quite loving people involve themselves in behavior that ultimately is exposed for being immature, selfish, destructive and even downright cruel? There are reasons why people do what people do. None of my comments are meant to excuse the cheating partner, but rather to make some sense out of behavior that many times just seems so completely shocking and out of character for that individual.
To understand affairs, one must first understand how the majority of completely normal dysfunctional American marriages work. After the magically delicious initial bonding stage of falling in love or as we therapists call it, "enmeshment," almost all marriages will eventually drift apart into "emotional cutoff." Once the juice of the highly addictive enmeshment period wears off, we are left with the really hard work of attempting to resolve conflicts, raise children, accept a person whose every flaw is now quite obvious to us, share intimacies, grow older, make a living, get the household chores done, and try to keep the romantic and sexual flames from being doused by all the above. Frankly, the truth is that not very many people have the relational skills or the emotional health level to keep their marriages from sliding into some level of emotional cutoff. Everybody has issues and most of us have quite a few of them. In my experience both in and outside the office, the truly emotionally healthy couple is very rare. You've all heard of the 7-year itch; that is just another term for emotional cut off. It is when invisible walls slowly develop between couples, when they stop talking deeply from their heart of hearts, when scary unresolved conflicts are just buried and ignored and when sexual encounters begin to be more and more infrequent. The once star-crossed lovers begin to operate more like roommates. It all happens so subtly. Once that happens, both partners are in serious risk of having an affair. Their emotional and their sexual needs are not being met by the one whose job it is to meet them. Without even knowing it, they unconsciously begin to emit the vibes of someone whose needs are not being met and quite frequently there are attractive and interested people all around who sense those vibes and begin to respond to them.
People truly are needy creatures. If our distant and shriveled marriages aren't meeting our needs, we will instinctively seek to get our needs met elsewhere. There are many directions we can go to overcompensate if our spouse isn't meeting our needs; we could over-invest emotionally in our children (which is ultimately harmful to them), we could draw a little more self-esteem from overworking, we could become best friends with a parent or a friend, or we could attempt to lose ourselves in a new hobby. Of course, the classic beginning to an affair is the innocent lunch meeting that opens the door to some emotional intimacy, usually some sharing related to the distant and unfulfilling marriage. Emotional intimacy leads to sexual intimacy both within and outside of the marriage. If you are literally starving for attention, admiration, romance, magic and touch, then your behavior might even shock yourself as you find yourself entangled in something powerful and out of control that you never ever would have dreamed of starting. One of the concepts that some clients find difficult to swallow is that responsibility for marital problems is ALWAYS divided exactly at 50%-50%. This is also absolutely true in all marriages where one spouse has cheated and one has not. I like to use this analogy to attempt to explain the responsibility of the non-cheating spouse. If you go on vacation and you not only leave the front door to your home unlocked but you also leave it wide open, and then you discover upon your return that someone has swiped your DVD player, I submit to you that you contributed in a major way to your loss. And, as I have explained to many a brokenhearted fellow, in a very similar manner, you have some responsibility for leaving the door to intimacy with your wife wide open if you were busy working 80 hours a week for the past 10 years rather than paying attention to her emotional, relational and sexual needs. A spouse seeking love and attention elsewhere is as much of an indictment about your lack of providing intimacy as it is about their sexual acting out. If you are currently emotionally cut off from your spouse and the magic is gone, the talking has stopped, the flirting is a memory and the sex is almost non-existent, you had better get some help IMMEDIATELY! The door to your spouse is wide open and it might not be long until someone slips in and steals their heart away. We can help you rekindle your romance and build a better marriage than you have ever had before. We can help you to virtually "affair proof" your marriage. That might be the best investment of time, money and energy that you can make. You and your spouse need to develop some new emotional intimacy skills. It is as if although the world is three dimensional, a fourth dimension of emotional depth/romance/intimacy exists. You need to learn how to tap into that fourth dimension in order to light some major romantic and sexual fires in the safety of your own marriage. Please do not wait to get help. You are playing with fire if you do. Your spouse need not come if they aren't quite ready to yet. It only takes one spouse to start the work of healing a marriage.
A growing number of marital affairs have at their root cause a sexual addiction, usually, but not always on the part of the man. I'm not really majoring on this particular type of sexual infidelity with this article. Sexual addicts are so caught up in their fantasies and their sexual acting out that they have long since lost the ability to experience true love and true intimacy from which qualities such as loyalty, fidelity and appropriate sexual boundaries flow. If a sexual addiction exists, the therapeutic approach will be much different than if the affair was basically about emotional cutoff in the marriage. While the subject of sexual addiction is beyond the scope of this article, you can read more about in Patrick Carnes' book "Beyond the Shadows."
Is a marriage doomed if an affair occurs? Fortunately, the answer is absolutely not. Of course for any chance of reconciliation, the illicit relationship has to be completely severed. We have helped many couples through the years reconcile and then rebuild beautiful marriages after an affair has occurred. The key is for both partners to fully own their 50% of responsibility for the distance and emotional cutoff which led to the affair and for both partners to get into a full therapeutic recovery program for all of their unresolved issues which have their roots in childhood. There are no victims and no bad guys in marriage. When both partners humbly work together in their quest to learn and heal, they can eventually forgive one another and then build a truly satisfying, intimate and life-long lasting relationship.
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