AFFAIRS: An Atypical Model for Better Coupling*
This is not an ode to infidelity, nor does it avoid recognizing the deep wounds and lost trust that is the fallout of such a breach within a couple. Rather, it’s a recognition of the ways people typically abandon key aspects of the self in the process of coupling – which creates the very desire to seek a more alive sense of self elsewhere. In an affair, two people come together usually because one or both is tired of and/or upset with their lives, themselves and/or their partners (but make the common attributional error of blaming it all on the partner) and then anyone who they highly value and gives them attention may come to be seen as an idealized mate.
An affair can involve enormous freedom and experimentation because, among other things, it’s a ‘breaking of the rules’…and a willingness to risk revealing oneself and one’s desires. The correlative of the attributional error is the belief that it’s this new idealized mate that’s causing the change; the reality, however, is that they are recognizing the need for change in themselves. (The question ultimately becomes whether they can bring the changing self back to the partnership and whether the SO (significant other) can make comparable changes as well). It can indeed happen.: People have affairs not because they don’t love their partners (although they may temporarily believe they don’t) but because they love and depend upon the other too much. And it’s that dependency that makes them fear the conflict and risk involved in real sexuality, real problem-solving and real living.
Four Critical Variables Differentiating Affairs From Significant Other Partnerships are:
– The level of dependency and the covarying degree of risk-taking – which subsumes sexuality
– The nature and constancy of expectations and demands (and the concomitant avoidance of vulnerability)
– Repairing earlier hurts by seeking the ‘perfect loving parent’ in the SO
– Allowing sexuality without shame
Dependencies and Lack of Risk-Taking
The very nature of the dependencies in SO relationships – and the concomitant belief that I must be accepted by my partner – is the undoing of unrestrained sexuality. When we’re dependent we feel highly vulnerable to being left or rejected and thus we work hard to maintain ‘comfortable’, status-quo kinds of bonds. But comfort is the very antithesis of excitement. When people describe affairs, they talk of becoming more of the self that they were in the past (or, more likely, the self they’ve wanted to be): They’re more free, more openly vulnerable, more willing to take risk, to be out there with their sexuality, trying things that seem fun in a shameless and direct way, or saying things more honestly because they’re less afraid of the consequences.
For sex to be truly good, there has to be a willingness to abandon the self-strictures that go with believing ‘I have to suppress what s/he won’t like or approve of ’. In affairs, so much of what’s attractive is how open, honest and even brazen one is.
In an affair (at least early on) expectations/demands of the other are so tame compared to the sometimes egregious demands that SO’s place on each other. In most SO relationships, the following become something of an actual ‘job’ – familiarly known as ‘taking each other for granted’:
-The other must take care of you, be aware of your needs at all times, even when unexpressed
-You’ll say you want accurate feedback but when they give it to you, you say they’re insensitive.
-They should pay attention to you when you want it even if they’re concentrating, or need alone time.
-They should know to help you with a task the minute you start doing it irrespective of whether they’re doing something else.
-Soothe you when you’re anxious, even if your anxiety is coming out as anger toward them.
-Help you with the children and take over many of the childcare responsibilities – even when you’re criticizing them for ‘not doing it right’.
-Know to touch you in just the right way to make you feel sexual,
-or…..if you haven’t felt sexual, they should discern why and approach you more perfectly. This is despite the fact that your reduced sexual interest may be more related to your own unexpressed hurts/anger toward your partner that you either haven’t done the work to figure out or haven’t attempted to express. Or they may be related to negative feelings about self that you haven’t identified and worked through.
The list is endless, but the bottom line belief is “you should be clairvoyant of my needs and act accordingly”.
People are careful about creating such mandates in an affair.
Repairing Earlier Hurts (and Replicating Parental Behaviors)
Partners unwittingly look to the other to repair the ‘wrongs’ (emptiness, sadness, sense of inadequacy, lack of attention/love/approval etc.) of their early environments growing up. People rarely realize they’re doing this. It manifests as expecting the partner to be the all-loving, ever-aware protector of our needs. And if we’re unhappy it’s their job to make us better. Furthermore, one of the more obtuse beliefs, wittingly or unwittingly expressed, is that to prove love the partners should ‘sacrifice’ for each other. That is, one should ‘hurt’ oneself in love – not the stuff of which a truly healthy relationship (or person) is made.
When the love/caretaking doesn’t come as they want – and many folks even anticipatorily expect they won’t get it (shadow boxing) – they back away, become resentful, contemptuous, critical, and blaming – often in the less-than-adaptive means they saw their parents use. They do this rather than looking to themselves to calm their own hurts, anxieties, and lack of self-efficacy. Some examples follow:
-Raquel constantly diminishes Jeann-George’s musical pursuits as idealistic, when what she’s mostly reacting to is his withholding nature in offering time/interest/affection towards her… much as she watched her mother’s constant annoyance with her dad.
-Raoul shuts down and feels contempt as he watches Robert’s deep enjoyment in his work, his friends and his painting. But Raoul doesn’t get that it’s not these things that ‘take Robert away’ from him but rather his own passive/aggressive dismissals and teasing about Robert’s work not being nearly as important as his own. He’s so threatened by losing Robert that, in feedback-loop style, he pushes him away preemptively.
-Lila berates Antonio for not working hard enough, questioning how he spends his time, and is interminably annoyed at the choices he makes. Yet the more she does so, the more Antonio digs his heels in the sand and becomes even less responsive. They’re stuck in the chiding parent/rebellious teenager stance. And you can’t feel sexual with a parent figure.
-Rani worries constantly when Jennie doesn’t text back right away/has fun with other people/doesn’t get into bed at the same time/doesn’t compliment her enough. And every behavior becomes a cause for Rani to complain that Jennie doesn’t love her enough. But unpredictability was what she witnessed between her parents and towards her, so she’s terrified (and furious) when she’s not in control of Jennie’s activities.
It’s simply impossible to desire someone with whom you’re so deeply entrenched in dysfunctional interactions. Juxtapose the above with the admiring and generous ways people treat a special new mate, not unlike the way they’d treated their SO’s early on.
In an affair, what people seek is a freshness and a renewed positive feeling about self. These emerge from experiencing yourself in new ways, allowing the other to see your vulnerability, interacting with someone who isn’t demanding that you right earlier wrongs or ‘make him/her whole’. It’s as if a new sense of self emerges. Imagine allowing that freedom in your original relationship – pretty heady stuff!
A Few Important Take-aways:
-Treat the relationship as a little bit more tenuous; don’t simply assume that it takes care of itself.
–Be curious as opposed to invested in specific outcomes; in sex… and in life.
-Stop seeking unconditional positive regard from your partner. Our relationships need to be somewhat conditional; our partners aren’t there to parent us. We need to challenge each other when communication and behavior break down. Being in a partnership doesn’t give you license to stop assessing how you affect each other. Save the unconditional positive regard for your kids.
-Not always knowing/controlling the exact state of the relationship could be a benefit, e.g, not necessarily knowing when they’ll text back, give you a compliment, be available. Accepting some unpredictability is not only necessary but sort of exciting.
-Try to see your partner at times as a stranger. Watch her across a room in discussion with someone, witnessing her posture, her deep engagement, her ability to listen and talk, to contemplate what the other is saying. To be kind and decent to someone. To be wittily funny at no one’s expense. Notice these things.
-Instead of seeing her going out to run/exercise/have meetings/engage in ‘self’ activities as selfish or unfair, learn to re-perceive it as a strength. And it is indeed a strength that she knows how to be alone and independent, that she can separate but come back together, that she needn’t always depend on you. This is truly attractive.
-Take the complaint out of talking about sex (https://glennmarron.com/2014/03/29/keeping-it-sexual-taking-the-complaint-out-of-discussing-sex/
-Resentment only keeps you disabled. Being resentful often feels like your only power, allowing you to feel superior to and separate from the other person. But it’s simply a poor replacement for problem-solving with them.
-Start perceiving the other more as a fully separate individual. Contrary to popular love songs, you are not ‘one’, though you can come together as one very blissfully at certain times, e.g., sexually, in deep conversation, in true warmth, affection, in admiration etc.
-Stop testing the other as to whether they’ll come through on x or y behavior. Just request it straight out.
-Get rid of the model of your partner being the person you ‘vent to’; relationships are not meant to be dumping grounds for frustrated emotions
-Don’t see your partner as the one to make you happy; that’s your job. Our partners can simply be terrific bonuses.
-Let yourself be ‘hungry’ for sexuality. When you’re afraid to know what you want, how you feel, or how to talk about sex, take the shame out of it. Talk about it as two foodies would talk about their hunger for certain tastes and textures and how much fun this or that would be to try out. Remember this analogy well.
-When people insist they have to be brutally honest, I remind them that honesty itself is never brutal.
-Model a new behavior, e.g, talk about a fantasy, touch them in new way or place, tell them gently you’d like to try something new that you think they’ll like. Your partner may well learn to take the cue to try out or talk about his/her own desires and interests.
-Avoid the model of ‘sacrifice’; leave that for Greek mythology!
*I am always quick to point out that the very nature of it being an affair means that it is not reflective of how things would truly be in an actual relationship. They’re more likely to move right back into the same dynamics they’d had with their original partners…. unless they begin to learn new ways of relating which, for a thousand reasons, makes more sense to work on in their original relationships. These issues are addressed and elaborated in other writings.