For as long as humans have had marriage and partnership, infidelity has existed as the dark sibling. Throughout time, women and men have risked everything, even torture or death (particularly for women) if their tryst was discovered; all this in order to pursue the overwhelming passion they felt for someone who was not their mate. The allure of the “other” can be so potent and powerful that it can undo the best intentions of faithfulness and cause women and men to risk hurting someone that they often care for very deeply, as well as destabilizing their life and families. Affairs can bring serious consequences, destroying long-term relationships, splitting up a family and causing untold drama and hurt to those involved. It is no surprise that the term “wreckage” is often used to describe what happens in the wake of an affair. Though often seen as a male behavior, women too have affairs, and for many of the same reason. So, given the price, why do affairs occur?
Esther Perel’s. book, Mating in Captivity; Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic offers great insight on the subject of affairs as well as the subject of long term passion and intimacy. In her chapter “The Shadow of the Third; Rethinking Fidelity” she speaks to the myriad of reason that people move toward affairs.
“People stray for many reasons–tainted love, revenge, unfilled longing, plain old lust. At times an affair is a quest for intensity, or a rebellion against the confines of matrimony. Transgression is an aphrodisiac, and sometimes secrets are a source of autonomy or a backlash against lack of privacy. What could be more titillating than a whispered phone call in the bathroom? Finally, the harried mom can feel like a woman again; her lover knows nothing about the broken Lego set or the plumber who failed to show up for the second time”.*
As a relationship counselor, I see how Perel has hit the nail on the head. For many women, the beginning of a relationship was passionate and fun, causing her to feel alive and wanted. That energy may wane unless both partners are committed to keeping it alive. Daily life can be the great killer of passion, conflict and resentment dulls the flames of love. Unfilled longing, revenge…these feelings are unlikely bed partners with easy intimacy and passion. In addition, our modern expectation of relationship is that we share everything about our selves and our life with our partner, yet this can remove all the mystery that once existed. Your partner, who once was “unknown” in so many exciting ways, has become the guy who’s every move you can predict and who’s every story you know. Shut down, stifled and uninterested, a woman may begin to stray to re-find that sense of adventure, that sense of passion and fun and a different sense of her self.
Within an affair, a woman is able to experiences a different self than the one she has become in her relationship or marriage. The marriage holds responsibilities, children, work, mortgages and housework. With the “other man” she finds herself to feel alive, open, sexy and wanted. That is a powerful antidote to her daily self-perceptions. As a client bemoaned to me recently in reference to her relationship with her husband, “I have become my own worst version of myself and I don’t know what to do to change that”. If someone new stepped in to her life and reflected a lighter, more beautiful self to her, it could be hard to deny the pull toward relating to that new person and therefore to a new sense of herself. Within an affair a woman is often able to feel more creative, more alive, and certainly less mired in the daily grind. This all proves to be a potent aphrodisiac.
An affair can be powerful wake up call, catapulting us into change. If a woman finds herself in the throws of an affair, close examination of her own motivations for this are important. What needs are unmet in her primary partnership? How can she take responsibility for her part in those unmet needs? Is it possible to work to change that partnership in order for it to become more fulfilling? What else is going on in her life that would lead her into the arms of another man? Are her needs for adventure and mystery being satisfied? Is she willing to risk her current relationship for this new one? Again, Perel speaks well to this.
“An illicit liaison can be catastrophic, but it can also be a liberation, a source of strength, a healing. Frequently it is all these things at once. When the intimacy is gone, when we no longer talk, when we haven’t been touched in years, we are more vulnerable to the kindness of strangers. When the kids are young and needy, extramarital appreciation can feel like a tonic. When they’re older and gone, empty nesters may seek replenishment elsewhere. If our health fails us, or if we’ve just been visited by death, we may experience outburst of dissatisfaction, a cry for something better. Some affairs are acts of resistance; others happen when we offer no resistance at all. Straying can sound an alarm for the marriage, signaling an urgent need to pay attention. Or it can be the death knell that follows a relationship’s last, gasping breath”. *
In my work, I view all life choices a client makes as holding the potential for their growth. In this view, affairs are not always “bad” although they are almost always messy and painful. I worked with a client recently who had been involved in an affair for two years. She had eventually come clean to her husband and we were digging through the wreckage, sorting out her overwhelming feelings and motivations. She had risked a long-term marriage that had been decent enough. She and her husband were good companions, good co-parents, had traveled extensively, were raising four beautiful children together. In many ways she had a happy life. As she used this very painful situation to understand herself better, she came to see that a passionate and creative part of her self had been dying for some time. When this sexy, passionate new man stepped in and ignited that creative part of her again, her desire for him became unstoppable. However, after two years she could no longer maintain the lie. Eventually, she made the choice for her marriage. Through much self-examination she came to know that she had to take responsibility for keeping that creative part of herself alive. She had to turn toward her marriage and her husband to do the work of making their marriage more than just decent enough. She needed her passionate self to have a place to be with him. She needed more and the affair had taught her a tremendous amount about herself.
From the perspective of growth and healing, affairs are a powerful opportunity for a woman to look closely at her life and choices and to work to bring that into alignment with their truth. It is the opportunity to be honest with herself and her partner in service of herself and the kind of relationship she most longs for.
Â© Ruthanne Harris Carosio 2010
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* Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, Esther Perel, HarperCollins 2006 Highly recommended reading!