An affair can bring a marriage or comitted relationship to an end, or it can be a wake-up call for the person involved in it, the person betrayed by it, and for the two of them as a couple. An affair does enormous damage to everyone involved in it. It feels devastating even when couples go on to repair and renew their marriage or primary relationship. But it can be done. However, the first thing that needs to happen is that the affair has to stop.
In these articles we will briefly look at some possible causes for affairs, types of affairs, and the first steps toward living and loving with awareness and commitment to creating the relationship you most want.
Why does the affair happen?
Part of what the betrayed person struggles with is the "why". If you are the spouse or partner of someone who has had an emotional or physical/sexual affair, you might be torturing yourself with that question -- WHY?
While clearly I don't know your situation, in general there are many reasonsthat contribute to an affair, and often the reason is actually a combination of reasons. Here are some of the main ones:
1. Escape from distress:
One of the biggest reasons people move into affairs is a feeling or sense of disappointment, sadness, loneliness and other feelings of distress that arise in their marriage or relationship. These and other forms of distress often build up slowly in a relationship. You can read about some of the normal reasons distress happens in my article on Stages of Committed Relationship.
If you and your partner are in a committed relationship you are constantly creating a relationship climate, whether you think they are or not, whether you mean to or not. You are not only creating it when you talk to one another, or when you fight, or when you make love -- although you are certainly creating it then too. You are creating it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You cannot NOT be creating it!
Everything you say, do, fail to say or do, and the way you say or do it creates the climate. If you use a harsh or helpless tone, you add to distress. If you blow off or discount your partner's concerns, whether you mean to or not, you create distress. If you nag, criticize, use sarcasm, you create distress. If you shut your partner out, you create distress. It doesn't matter whether you shut them out because you are angry at them, stressed at work or from traffic, worried about finances, or simply wanting to relax and veg out in front of the TV. The BEHAVIOR creates distress, no matter what your INTENTION or reason is.
You create distress when you refuse to talk, when you pout, when you withhold sex, when you have unemotional sex, when you forget to call your partner to just say hi, when something or someone else is more important than your partner--even if it's the children or your work. You create distress when your partner expresses a need and desire more than once and you refuse to grow and stretch, all the while claiming "that's just not me" refusing to step out of your comfort zone to develop more of yourself. You even create the climate by the thoughts you have and the things you tell yourself about your partner and your relationship. You create distress by labeling your partner as 'self-centered', 'controlling', 'needy', etc., even if you only tell yourself. You tend to find or project what you look for and focus on.
Just as you create distress, you can also create happiness, fulfillment, a feeling of aliveness and connection. You can think about the good qualities of your partner and how glad you are that he or she is in your life. You can express appreciation and love through words, touch, actions, a look, or a smile. You create a positive climate when you do little thoughtful things for the other, when you listen without putting in your own 2 cents. You create love when you do loving things and entertain loving thoughts. You create love and intimacy when you can talk about frustrations, concerns, fears, dreams respectfully and in a way that leads to connection.
I could go on, but you get the idea. You constantly create the climate --distressful or loving -- whether you are at home, at work, or 2000 miles apart. And you may also get the idea that BOTH of you are doing that 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If the climate is loving or distressful, you have a big part in it!
When unmet needs, feelings of disconnection, fighting, withdrawal, inattention build up, people look for a way out -- and a way to get their needs met and feel important, special and loved. For some that means turning toward the children. For others, it means throwing themselves into their work. For others it means building an impenetrable wall and withdrawing into themselves. For others, it means turning toward someone else.
2) Affairs often begin as innocent relationships. Several things change them into affairs:
a) Living in distress, someone offers a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, a word of encouragement and appreciation. This is VERY common situation in affairs. Both of you in your marriage or partnership long to feel valued, treasured, cherished. You want your spouse or partner to see the best in you, not just your mistakes or shortcomings. When the distressed person receives, care, concern, attention, respect, interest or other things missing in their own relationship, they have moved several steps closer to an affair. They feel more connected than to their spouse or primary partner.
b) The relationship seems to snowball toward a sexual relationship.
Even though the person always has a choice to make, and makes choices over and over throughout the development of a relationship, taking in the good things of the other person, feeling cared about, draw the person more and more into the relationship. Then something else comes in.
c) Rationalization and denial helps the person make choices contrary to their core values. The person tells him or herself that the relationship is harmless, that they are not doing anything wrong, it's just a friendship, etc.. Even when the person feels themselves being pulled more and more deeply into the relationship, the denial and rationalization continues so that they can justify it to themselves, and of course, to anyone who may ask about it.
d) Then two things even more powerful push up against their rationale for choices made -- fantasy and neurochemicals. I want to be clear. The person spiraling down this path is no victim. He or she is constantly faced with choices. Many people faced with those choices use their commitment, their core personal or spiritual values, their regard for their partner and or family, to step out of the spiral. There are constant choice points along the way. No one is pulled in against his or her will.
Again, the climate in ANY relationship is constantly being created. So if the person is saying things to themselves like, "THIS new person cares about me. My partner cares more about him/herself than about me. He or she never has time for me. I try to talk and he or she never listens. THIS person sees me for who I am, who is interested in me, who wants to be with me, who compliments me."
Two climates are being created -- the person is adding to the distress of their committed relationship, and nurturing the new relationship. They are making choices.
Fantasy and neurochemicals. As the person takes in and basks in the attention, understanding, care and concern, fantasy comes into the picture.
Fantasy begins to develop. "This new person is so much more loving. This is what I need. If I'm with them, they'll be like this with me -- which is what I always wanted -- and I'll feel happy like this forever." The spiral deepens as the person spends more and more time thinking about the new person, imagining what it will be like when they meet again, and what it might be like to be with this person. The person also imagines things he or she could say or do to make this new person happy, that would express the appreciation and love they now feel.
Around this time, if not before, neurochemicals start to go into another level of production and fuel the feeling of connection, chemistry, energy, aliveness. The person feels 'in love' again. The main chemical is PEA, related to a family of amines, like amphetamines. The person experiences a 'high' which only adds to the rationalizing and fantasy.
More rationalization. "If this new person makes me feel like this, which I haven't felt in so long, if ever before, it must mean that we're meant to be. Maybe we're really soulmates. My feelings don't lie. Why shouldn't I experience happiness." And so it grows.
If any of you are in this stage, you may not believe what I am about to say, but I'm going to say it anyway. THIS WONDERFUL FEELING WILL END! It is a physiological fact. If you didn't look at the Stages of Relationships article before, look at it now. The person in this stage is on a drug! The high will end. The next phase of relationship will come. You will eventually experience the same kind of frustrations you did in your original relationship, because you recreate what you need to realize your healing and growth as a human being. God, Nature or the Universe is not interested in your comfort. It is interested in your wholeness.
3. Time, energy, attention, thoughts directed toward the new relationship automatically add to the climate of disconnection and distress in the primary relationship. The involved partner pulls back even more from their primary relationship -- in thought and behavior, even when the betrayed partner does not know about the affair. Energy, attention, focus, aliveness is going toward the fantasy partner and there is no way that the diminishment or loss of those things are not going to be felt at some level in the original relationship.
4. People put themselves in situations that can easily develop into affairs, even when that is not their original intention.
Having lunch or a drink alone, working together alone all create possible situations. Add alcohol and you take it up a whole other level. Alcohol affects the frontal lobes of the brain which is the section that normally cause us to think about the consequences of our actions, the impact it will have on others, our personal moral values that would normally guide our choice.
Another growing problem involves individuals and groups creating situations that foster casual sex. Conventions, company business done in hotel rooms or strip joints can add pressure to be one of the gang and participate in inappropriate activities.
5. Some people with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are susceptible to brief or repetitive affairs, because of a tendency to impulsive behavior -- again, because those parts of the brain that would stop most people, don't operate in the same way -- similar to the effect of alcohol. That does not mean that everyone with ADD will have an affair, but rather that they can be vulnerable because of their impulsivity. Like the other reasons, even if it is present, it is NOT an excuse. But it might be something that needs to be addressed with your therapist or physician.
If you think ADD might be a factor (the person can be easily distracted, need constant stimulation or entertainment, must be busy doing something, forgets about time / agreements / promises, etc.) I encourage you to read the book Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell, or Answers to Distraction (click on the title to order it now--both are also available on audiotape). Hallowell is a psychologist who is an expert on ADD, both because that is his specialty, and because he, too, has ADD. The book addresses symptoms, behaviors, and suggestions for children in one section, and adults in another section.
6. Some people involved in affairs have developmental issues around commitment, closeness and other areas.
Certain needs become frozen. Certain anxieties appear in any relationship as it deepens and moves toward emotional intimacy. Actually, that is true for all of us to some degree or another. That's why committed relationship can be a primary path toward healing and growth. However, certain frozen needs can make a person more vulnerable to seeking solace and relief in affairs. A fear of intimacy can also contribute to vulnerability to affairs.
7. Lack of knowledge and skill in dealing with conflict, frustrations, hurts, anger.
When couples don't have adequate skills in dealing with conflict, which is a part of any close relationship, efforts seem to only add to the problem or have no positive effect. This is a major cause of distress. There are fights, hurt feelings, things said that hurt. No one wants to live in that kind of climate. The person gives up trying, or simply blames their partner. They then believe they just need to find the right person. Those skills can be learned -- counseling, coaching, workshops, books and tapes can make a difference. Check out our bookstore or services. There are qualified professionals in your area. Read out article on choosing a counselor or coach, and then ask questions when you call people in your own geographical area.
8. There is a cultural contribution to the problem.
We live in a society that does not support marriage or long-term committed monogamous relationship. The culture and the media bombard us with messages about "if it feels good, do it." And, "you deserve better, dump him/her." Instant stimulation and gratification is the name of the game. In addition, casual sex is made the norm in movies and other media. It is encouraged and a person can feel pressured to be one of the 'gang'. There is also a myth that all you have to do to be happy in marriage or committed partnership is agree to be partners, share living space, wake up every morning, enjoy the fruits of your partnership and it will all be wonderful. Partnership of any kind takes commitment, healing and growth on the part of both partners.
In our society holding to one's values is often discounted. Some people have never taken the time to discover what their own core values are, and are therefore more susceptible to outside expectations, fads, pressures. There is an especially prevalent attitude for men in our culture -- that somehow it's OK, or it's part of being a man to have casual sex that 'doesn't mean anything." As I mentioned in #4, work groups, social groups sometimes promote inappropriate behavior. There is also an attitude that "that's just how men are." That is not how men are, anymore than it is how women are and women have affairs too. Do men and women want a satisfying sexual and emotional relationship? Yes. Do both men and women want to feel valued, cherished, respected, appreciated, loved, cared about by their spouse or partner? You bet. Can men and women use their ability to make and keep a commitment, use their core values, use their frontal lobes to think about the consequences and impact on their lives and others as they make their choices? Yes, yes, and yes.
These are just some of the reasons affairs happen. But as you can see, there is always choice. They do enormous damage to the foundation of trust of the betrayed, and to the integrity of the person cheating. DON'T DO IT! There is no way to avoid pain when you get involved with another person. And usually you end up hurting your spouse/partner, the affair partner and yourself.
In an upcoming article we will look at 'emotional affairs', and more about affairs why they are hard to end -- even when you love your spouse or primary partner, and taking first steps toward recovering your primary relationship.
An EXCELLENT article on virtual and emotional affairs is "Infidelity in the Digital Age" by Robert Weiss, Ph.D. Although he talks about technology and cheating, he also states clearly what constitutes 'cheating'.
You have permission to use this article for non-commercial purposes, but you must include the following: © Dawn Lipthrott, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in marriage and relationships in Winter Park, FL. Her goal is to help people take the relationship they have and make it much more of the one they both truly want -- and in so doing, make the world a better place. You can find out more through her Website, www.relationshipjourney.com
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