In part 2 of this blog series I introduced certain dichotomies of character, and discussed how those may influence the dance between individuality and togetherness (closeness and distance) in couples. One of my intentions is to put thoughts about romance, love, passion and desire into question, and consider how, and why, those qualities in monogamous relationships don’t always fall on the same side of the spectrum. Further, I hope to illuminate some of the challenges that appear in monogamous relationships when one’s partner becomes an extension of one’s self. By this I mean, when one or both partners lose or give up too much of their own self to maintain the status quo of the relationship. My goal, both in my earlier writings and going forward, is to raise questions about the institution of marriage today, the challenges and expectations that arise when love becomes a dominating force in the equation of marriage, and how that impacts desire and passion in relationships. If love is about having, then desire is about wanting. Here in Part 3 I will look to delve into the meaning behind infidelity … to both understand it and humanize it, and challenge certain assumptions regarding how infidelity is currently processed in our society. Many of the ideas presented in this essay are influenced by the work of Esther Perel, whom I consider to be a mentor and leading voice in the study of marriage, relationships, and sexuality.
First, what is infidelity? A subjective question that will yield a broad range of viewpoints. For example, is sexting or watching porn an act of infidelity? There seems to be no universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes infidelity today, and the percentages vary widely on how people understand acts of infidelity differently. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines infidelity as “unfaithfulness to a moral obligation”, and “the act or fact of having a romantic or sexual relationship with someone other than one’s husband, wife or partner”. Adultery is defined as “sex between a married person and someone who is not that person’s wife or husband”, and an affair is explained as “a secret sexual relationship between two people”. Although most sources will give you a similar definition on infidelity, often centering on the sexual act, infidelity can be interpreted from a broad range of perspectives. Colloquially, we use words such as “cheating”, “betrayal”, “being unfaithful or adulterous”, or "abuse of trust” to describe infidelity. The language used to talk about infidelity is biased in itself because it automatically identifies someone doing something (negative or wrong) to someone else. This narrow and pathological perspective consequently leads us to believe that when a person has an affair, it is either a symptom of a bad relationship, or that something is wrong with the person who has the affair. Why is it then that people who are happily married and have a good sex life enter into affairs? What is it about when even “happy” people, who may love their spouses deeply and faithfully, cheat?
We live in a world where we feel entitled to happiness. If we are not happy, we believe we can be happier. Divorce represents a possibility, not a trap. Women once had more to lose when divorced, but this is not always the case today. Yet affairs are almost universally more common than divorce itself, despite the fact that both women and men go outside the boundaries of a relationship or marriage (interestingly, almost equally from a statistical perspective). The truth is it’s never been easier to cheat, but it’s also never been harder to keep a secret. From porn, tinder, grindr, to chat rooms and sexting … it is easy to connect, live out sexual fantasies, and go outside the boundaries of a monogamous relationship. This is also why an affair today can be like dying a slow death; we enter a torture chamber when an affair is revealed or exposed. What used to be a displaced hotel receipt, or lipstick marks on a shirt, might now be long, intimate, emotional exchanges via email or text message with another person. With all the technology out there and most couples owning multiple devices (iPhones, iPads, computers, etc.) such revelations often happen where one partner finds a text message on one device, which may alert him or her to something out of the ordinary, and the digging begins. Weeks, months, or even years of intimate conversations may suddenly and viciously put a once sacred relationship or marriage on the rocks.
In today’s connected world, betrayal is more personal than ever. Since we operate with expectations of being “everything” to our partner by fulfilling multiple roles in the relationship, an affair today threatens our sense of self because it tells us we are NOT … we are ”less than” what we thought. We have “failed”. An affair might provoke a crisis of identity, and immensely violates trust in a relationship. One of the most frequently asked questions by the deceived partner after an affair has been revealed is, “can I ever trust you again?” and “can I ever trust anyone again?” So, when we know the pain it will inflict on to our partner, and when committing adultery is a practice that is almost universally forbidden, why is it then so universally practiced? It is often said that men cheat out of boredom and fear of intimacy, while women cheat out of loneliness and longing for intimacy … should we still buy that generalization?
An affair might shatter one person’s world, causing immense hurt and loss, but it may also unlock a world of self-discovery and growth for the other person. The pain that an affair causes goes deep. Equally as deep is the desire someone has for another in an affair. Betrayal and desire are powerful and opposing forces but they travel side by side in monogamy. Desire is the driving force in the creation of an affair, a secretive relationship that involves some form of an emotional connection with the other partner. In addition to the secrecy and emotional connection, the most powerful aspect of desire in an affair is the imagination and fantasy about the other. In fact, affairs may be as much or more about desires and “wanting” what you ultimately can’t have as they are about sex. To know that you can’t have your lover makes you want him or her more. It’s something of a paradox -- and a self-enforcing system -- this desire machine. The desire to feel important, special, and loved by someone is like a drug … it keeps you hooked.
To fantasize about kissing, being touched, seduced, and hungered by another can be electrifying. The unknown and the desire to uncover and discover instinctively makes it difficult to turn away. This feeling ignites and fuels the desire and passion to let go, and risk what is safe and sacred. Integrity, vows, and promises are simply overshadowed by the velocity, vastness and unpredictability of desire. People often will risk everything for a glimpse of … what, exactly? Perhaps it is passion … transgression … and autonomy. Feeling “alive”. So … what if passion does indeed have a shelf life in monogamy? And what if there are things that even a good relationship can never provide?
The anticipation of the unknown. The thrill. The danger of trespassing the rules of a monogamous relationship (and of society itself). These are the things that bring an affair to life. Every day life becomes mundane at times; it is the wish for novelty, freedom and autonomy that can occupy our minds and hearts. When “normal” life is fairly routine, and as a parent this (usually) only becomes amplified, it is easy to escape to the thought of what your life could be … or what your life once was! The wish to capture lost parts of ourselves is in fact exactly what draws us to desire something outside of a monogamous relationship. In particular, the longing for autonomy … a life separate from one’s partner … the push for individuality … is what pulls us to passionately want something that differentiates us from our common lives and intimate relationships. When you feel like you are doing what you are not supposed to do, you feel like you are doing what you want to do! Feeling “owned” or overtaken by your partner might very well drive someone to claim or assert their individuality; but it is this very phenomenon that, when balanced correctly, is what can keep romance and passion alive in a relationship.
The expression of “feeling alive” is so often heard from the person who is drawn to or entangled in an affair. This nearly ubiquitous reference is important when attempting to understand the depths of infidelity. The main point is not so much about sex, but about going beyond one’s own limitations, breaking free from one’s own life as it stands -- and the rules and boundaries that govern this life (relationship or marriage). The theme of one’s own mortality is generally involved as well, the thought of which might make you question where your life is today and where it is going. The essence of infidelity is transgression. It makes you want to break rules (your own or the ones of your relationship) in order that you feel free, bold and independent. When you have an affair you are saying to yourself “I’m entitled to do something for myself.” You are taking care of yourself and no one else. You are simply letting go of being responsible.
When a loss, death or tragedy faces us it pulls us down, often into the depths of our own existence. We begin to question life: “Is this it?” … “is there more to life?” … “will I ever feel passion again?” The opposite of death is existence. When loss, tragedy or death touches us, we often need and crave the reaffirmation of what it means to be alive. Questions about life, our own mortality, and what the future may entail become more of a priority. It is during those times that we wish to bring back vitality. Affairs thus often happen around times when there has been a loss of a loved one and a longing for something in ones life. Dormant fires are stoked. Affairs are an act of betrayal but are also an expression of longing and loss, and perhaps life itself. If we read between the lines, and look beyond how infidelity is understood conventionally, we realize that a person might have an affair without it being a negative reflection on their partner or a symptom of a terminally flawed relationship.
These are existential affairs, where someone enters into an affair without the sole reason being their partner or the relationship at fault. As Esther Perel (2015) said: “It isn’t always our partner that we are turning away from but the person we have become. It isn’t so much that we are looking for another person than it is, us looking for another self.” It is no surprise then that a person will often choose someone for an affair with that they wouldn’t necessarily pick as a partner or spouse but who captures or brings out lost parts of themselves, or embodies something they can’t find anywhere else (e.g., not with their partner, spouse, or friends). Those who have an affair are typically not serial adulterers. In fact, they may have been monogamous and faithful for years or decades. But somehow they suddenly find themselves in serious conflict with their values and behaviors. They may believe in monogamy, they may have practiced it, and they likely even prefer it … but they might be close to or already have crossed the line with the risk of losing everything.
We might be talking about the husband who feels like all he does is work and provide for his family, only to come home to a critical, overwhelmed wife who demands more responsibility in chores and childcare. Suddenly, the once loyal husband begins to appreciate the compliments he gets from a female colleague with greater intensity. The attention makes him feel valued, special and important. With her he is not only the “bank” or “the father who never does enough”. He can get away from that role and be accepted for who he believes he is, or the person he once was even to his wife.
Or perhaps it’s the young mother who is overcome with the responsibility and demands of motherhood. She had always done what was expected of her but suddenly she finds herself wanting to escape the role of the constant caretaker. She becomes attracted to someone who is rebel-like, who brings out the youth she had to give up when she became a mother. Maybe she finally finds the opportunity to live out the adolescence she never had.
Affairs are paved on the path of autonomy. They serve as venues where we can escape the individual roles that become overwhelming or muddled to us. Again, it’s not always that the partner has turned away from their loved one (the conformist view) but from the self we have become and the role in life we have grown into. It is a crossroads of individuality and identity. If we are to take a holistic view, affairs must be understood from a dual-perspective; the hurt and loss it inflicts on one person, the meaning and growth it provides for the other.
Nevertheless, affairs happen for many reasons, and are not all created equally. An affair can occur as a reaction to a bad relationship, perhaps starting as a fling or one nightstand. Affairs can be indicative of a pattern that was role modeled in your family of origin (after all, we often do what we know or learned in our own family!), or an affair becomes a way to manage the anxiety and intensity in a relationship or marriage. In any case, we must be careful not to generalize any affair, as the reasons behind them may be as complex as any element of a relationship.
Am I attempting to legitimize all affairs or advocating for them? No. Am I against affairs, or trying to condemn them? No. I lie somewhere in the middle because I respect and admire the human condition and the mystery of romance and desire. I believe that taking a stance, or adopting a belief system that is based on judgment of either side (pro or against) may elicit a variety of challenges rather than benefits when it comes to monogamous relationships.
I know from my work with couples (and from research generally) that a large majority of couples who have experienced one or multiple affairs ultimately stay together. Often an affair, though it might be a factor if it occurred in a marriage, is not the primary reason a couple will separate. In fact, many relationships thrive after an affair because it completely disrupts the status quo of the relationship, which most likely was not working well for both partners. These couples turn a crisis into an opportunity. Often the fear of loss, and the shift in the status quo, allows couples to have new kinds of conversations and interactions with each other. The embers of desire may suddenly re-activate and romance, the mystery of this dance, returns. At the same time, some relationships end after being affected by one or multiple affairs, but typically those relationships are in decline well before the affair occurred.
Affairs are an unavoidable part of marriage. The nuances of love and desire need to be understood not in black and white, or good and bad, or victim and perpetrator. The reality is that an affair is only one way to betray someone. Betrayal can appear in many forms in relationships. Neglect, indifference, violence, abuse, contempt … all are ways we might betray a partner. The difference is they may not always directly involve our genitals. However, the hurt can be equally as painful, or perhaps even more so. With that said, the victim of an affair is not always the victim in the relationship or marriage. As Esther Perel (2016) reflects on the aftermath of an affair: “Every affair will redefine a relationship and every couple will decide what the legacy of the affair will be. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one?”
Part 4 will look at some of the defining aspects to recovery after an affair has been disclosed. Talk soon.
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Dr. Olivia Schläpfer Colmer offers individual, couples and family therapy in Miami, FL. Her office is located at 4770 Biscayne Boulevard, Suite 1440, Miami FL 33137.
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