On April 7th, Bonnie Teitleman of the Faculty & Staff Assistance Office,
Sandy was reviewing the family bills and noticed that her husband Bill, age 52, had made more than 50 calls and texts to an unfamiliar out-of-state number. With a sinking feeling, she called the number. A woman answered. Sandy identified herself, explained that she saw that Bill had called the number numerous times and asked why. The woman told her that she and Bill were passionately in love and planning their next meeting. Sandy felt devastated. Things hadn’t been great, but they were planning their summer vacation to the Grand Canyon.
What Are the Causes of Affairs?
While affairs and adultery has been present throughout history, Shirley Glass, PhD writes in her book, Not “Just Friends”, that today affairs happen to good people in good marriages and that friendships, work and internet liaisons increase the risk. This essay is about the good people who find themselves in a serious emotional and sexual relationship outside of their marriage, not about the philanderers or sex addicts who are seeking thrills and casual sex.
People spend more time at work, dressed up and on best behavior, while their partner at home may be cranky, unshaven or preoccupied. Working closely on projects, going out to lunch and sharing interests may lead to friendships and emotional intimacy. Travelling on the job offers opportunity and vulnerability if the traveler is in hotel, lonely and doesn’t fear discovery. Bill travelled several times a year for work with his unmarried affair partner (Sharon, age 31), who was delighted to join him at hotels. Sandy was preoccupied with taking care of her elderly parents and didn’t have much energy left for him, while the affair partner was enthusiastic, sexual and a good listener. Bill loved Sandy and didn’t think she would find out. Sharon hoped he would leave his wife and make a new life with her.
Causes of affairs are many. People who struggle with low self-esteem, who avoid conflict and intimacy with a partner may find themselves attracted to someone who appeals to their ego and idealizes them with adoring eyes and flattery. Marriages with emotional and/or physical and sexual distance may be vulnerable, as are those where partners have fallen out of love. Starting a family is stressful on young marriages as the man may be temporarily displaced as the main love object of his wife with the birth of a child. Midlife, a time when people tend to look at what’s missing from their lives and what time remains to them, is often a time of increased susceptibility. Women may fear aging and a loss of attractiveness, while men fear loss of sexual potency and opportunity. Romance, excitement, novelty and the need for secrecy in an affair intensify the experience.
What are the Impacts of Affairs?
Learning about an affair can be devastating. The betrayed partner may experience shock, anger, sadness and anxiety as well as a disruption to their usual functioning. They have lost trust and belief in the goodness of their partner and marriage. The betrayed partner may be numb or obsessive in wanting to know all of the details. They may have intrusive thoughts and images. They feel humiliated. Over time, they may and should consider what their contribution to the affair might be.
After a few weeks, Sandy began thinking about how unavailable she had been for Jim in the last year. She knew she was his major emotional support and that she had been going to bed early every night, a time they formerly had used to watch TV and share their days.
The unfaithful partner may lose the marriage and family, their sense of integrity and trust of the partner as well as the fun and secrecy of the affair. They can react with defensiveness and impatience with the betrayed partner who probes relentlessly for details. They may feel guilt over hurting either a loyal partner or the affair partner, as well as shame. For someone in an unhappy marriage, they may feel relief that the secret is out, that they can walk away.
Bill had mixed feelings. On the one hand, he grieved the loss of the excitement, anticipation, emotional and physical intimacy of the affair. On the other hand, he felt shock and regret that he hurt Sandy and did not want to lose her. He expressed the wish to recommit to the marriage, doing whatever it would take to repair it. He was deeply ashamed of himself.
The unmarried affair partner may well believe their lover will leave their spouse, but Shirley Glass, PhD notes that 85% of men who had affairs stayed in their marriages. Sharon was devastated that Bill chose to remain with Sandy. She experienced sadness and became so uncomfortable at work that she decided to find another job. Although she didn’t report to Bill, she considered filing a suit for sexual harassment as he was senior to her. Eventually, she realized that a marriage based on solid values, shared interests and vision for family was a better life choice for her than Bill.
Are There Different Types of Affairs?
Emily M. Brown in Affairs: A Guide to Working Through the Repercussions of Infidelity identifies five types of affairs:
- Conflict avoidance affair
- Intimacy avoidance affair
- Sexual addiction affair
- Split self affair
- Exit affair
What are the Warning Signs?
While there are no foolproof warning signs, patterns of changes in usual behavior may trigger suspicions. Here are some of the behaviors that might be concerning:
- More time away from home, evenings and weekends, more travel
- Attention to personal appearance, changes in clothing style, hair, make-up, weight loss, working out more frequently.
- Need for privacy, turning off computer when partner comes into the room, hanging up a call quickly, evasion of details (or unusual detail) about who or what he/she is doing, evasiveness on bills
- Change in affection, saying “I love you” less frequently or more frequently
- Change in sexual behavior, less interested or more interested, trying new techniques
- Unpredictable behavior in interaction with spouse, may be more critical, irritable and rejecting, may pick arguments, look for more time away from spouse
- Money may be short if being spent on hotels, meals or gifts
How Has Technology Impacted Affairs?
Technology has ramped up affairs dramatically. Cyberspace offers a place for people to meet and spend time, building emotional intimacy and cybersex activity quickly and intensely. Computers and mobile devices make potential affair partners available, accessible and affordable. Sandy was exhausted at the end of the day and went to bed early, leaving Bill hours to “Facetime” with Sharon. And he didn’t have to buy her dinner. The online aspects of the affair are about fantasy, not reality.
What Can be Done?
Couples therapists, clergy and other professionals who work with people affected by infidelity note that each case is unique. Treatment will therefore vary, depending on many variables. What was the health of the relationship before the affair? Do you and your partner want to stay and work on the marriage or use the affair as an opportunity to divorce? It may be wise to wait several months to make that decision. If you decide to work to rebuild the marriage, both partners need to determine what the affair has meant and what their contributions may have been. Do you still like and care about each other? Do you have respect and a memory of love?
The unfaithful partner needs to end the affair and stop all communication with the affair partner. Emily M. Brown talks about working on the marriage in her book, Affairs: A Guide to Working Through the Repercussions of Infidelity by taking responsibility for yourself and your choices, holding yourself accountable, being scrupulously honest with yourself and your partner and communicating effectively.
You may choose to see a therapist either as a couple or as individuals. You can find a good one by asking for recommendations and setting up a consultation. You should ask about his/her training and experience with couples, what his/her policy is on secrets (therapist can help people disclose secrets), what values about marriage and affairs the therapist might have. The role of the therapist is not to save the marriage but to help clarify the issues and identify strategies that may help make a decision or improve the relationship.
Happy marriages are not a protection from temptation of an affair. After an affair, you will have to decide what the best course of action is for yourself and your family. Whether you remain in the marriage or leave, you will need to grieve, let go of bitterness and find forgiveness and hope for the future.
By Bonnie Teitleman, LICSW