We can all learn from couples who have faced the betrayal of infidelity. To think that you or your partner (or your relationship) are immune to the toxins that can lead to an affair is shortsighted—too many loving and initially committed couples have fallen prey to infidelity. So rather than thumb your nose at those who have strayed, let’s learn from what went wrong in their relationship.
The fallout from an affair is an emotionally excruciating experience, and the roller coaster of reactions that follow can easily overwhelm one’s ability to cope and make sense of what happened. Yet, central to the healing process is the couple coming together to make sense of what went wrong—to create a joint understanding of the vulnerabilities of the marriage/relationship and their own shortcomings as individuals.
What Can an Affair Teach Us About Ourself and Our Relationship?
Learning from an affair (your own or others’) is a process that starts with a deep reflective stance: A journey of questioning your own emotional blind spots and family-of-origin issues that may have the potential to undermine your relationship. Also, couples must look at the unspoken (and often painful truths) of their relationship that are easily swept under the rug.
While there are different reasons that can influence one’s decision to cheat on their partner/spouse, here are a few themes I’ve observed from clients who have had affairs. What follows is not justification for infidelity, but rather a window into the struggles of couples who tried to make their relationship work but ended up violating the commitment of monogamy.
1) I Matter…
Cindy shared that her affair had more to do with feeling like she no longer mattered to her husband than it had to do with a sexual liaison. For years she felt unimportant, ignored and minimized by her husband Hector. By the time Cindy met Steve and they began their affair, she felt emotionally vulnerable, and Steve made her feel important. This was a powerful draw for Cindy.
As Cindy described, “He was attentive and he really listened. I know that sounds so cliché, but it’s also an undeniable need that I have. Steve made me feel like I mattered, unlike my husband, who made me feel like he couldn’t care less.”
Feeling like we matter to those who are important to us is a powerful emotional need that, if neglected, can lead to a host of negative reactions (e.g., defensiveness, withdrawal, depression, anger, insecurity-anxiety). Too many of us become affair-prone when we lose all hope that our feelings and desires really matter to our spouse/partner.
How do you show your spouse/partner that s/he matters to you?
2) I’m Interesting…
“Barb showed an interest in me, in my work, my dreams, my aspirations… She always seemed curious about what I was thinking and feeling, asking about how my day went. For the last ten years of my marriage, I hadn’t felt interesting or believed that my wife was interested in me.” ~ Eric, describing the emotional pull to have an affair.
Couples often get into relationship ruts, predictable routines of communicating that end up strangling the bonding energy of curiosity and mutual interest. Most of us are probably guilty of this: At some point down the marital or relationship road we begin to see and experience our spouse/partner with the same familiar and tired eyes—we expect things without feeling and expressing gratitude; we assume we know everything there is to know about what they are thinking and feeling without questioning, without checking in, without offering the gift of our presence to one another.
Whether this dynamic occurs because of competing priorities (the kids come first; work stress is all-consuming; caring for aging parents) or a complacent lack of trying, it’s important for all of us to realize how this lack leaves some of us vulnerable to the attentiveness and interest of another.
How do you and your partner keep mutual curiosity alive over the long haul?
3) I’m Desirable…
“I’ve always had a high sex drive, and when Leonard stopped touching me and started to rebuff my sexual advances, I was devastated… I felt rejected and undesirable for many years and tried to shut down this part of me until I met someone at work who really desired me and made me feel alive sexually.” ~June, describing why she had an affair after twenty-two years of marriage.
Anyone in a long-term marriage or relationship will tell you that sexual desire and passion are difficult to keep alive. It’s natural for the intensity of a couple’s sexual desire to wax and wane (and sometimes even plummet) depending on the circumstances and stresses of life. The danger, of course, is to totally ignore this important part of your relationship and then assume that your partner has no problem placing his/her sexual needs on hold for extended periods of time because you are feeling asexual.
It’s a very heady experience when someone makes us feel sexually desirable, and it’s a dangerous experience when this occurs while our partner is continuously making us feel undesirable and unwanted. (For more information about how to keep passion and intimacy alive, check out Don’t Let Marriage Ruin Your Sex Life).
How do you and your spouse/partner attend to and nurture your sexual relationship and make each other feel desirable?
No couple is immune to the dangerous allure of an affair. Many loving, dedicated, and committed couples have found themselves on the slippery slope of an affair, confused about why their once fulfilling and loving relationship unraveled and why they ended up betraying themselves and their partners.
We all must work to strengthen our marriage/relationship; one way to achieve this important end is to identify and meet each other’s deepest emotional needs: the need to make one another feel like we matter, the need to feel that your loved one is interested in you, and the need to feel desired and desirable. Attending to and discussing these three needs is a good starting point for the journey of strengthening your marriage/relationship.
Here’s to a strong marriage/relationship!
Dr. Rich Nicastro