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Infidelity

Before addressing any individual instance of infidelity, a strong distinction needs to made between infidelity as a power behavior, and infidelity as a search for an alternative source of attachment, affection, sex, or validation.

Power infidelity is a long-standing pattern of one or more partners that likely predates the relationship. If so, it is very likely to occur very early and often. The goal is often to have as many simultaneous 'relationships' as possible. Almost always, both the faithful 'spouse' and the 'lover' or 'lovers' are all told they are the 'real' love object. An old fashioned term is 'chronic philanderer' and a newer term is 'player' or 'spinning plates.' Power based infidelity can be clarified in couples therapy, but it is very hard to treat it, as power behavior tends to be associated with psychopathic personality or malignant narcissism. It is perhaps more common with men but my no means limited to men. Despite the potential for more than one affair at a time, power infidelity is a small proportion of all affairs. Occasionally, a 'double-life' scenario with 'two families' each unaware of the other, is heard about, and while this has aspects of power, it is usually an attachment based maneuver by a very secretive, reserved, or compartmentalized person.

To make terminology in the discussion that follows consistent but also neutral, the three people involved in any affair triangle will now on be referred to as affair partner, straying spouse, and uninvolved spouse. An uninvolved spouse usually is faithful, but on occasion may also be having an affair of his or her own, but for any given triangle the dynamic is the same. Also for clarity, any committed or exclusive relationship will be referred to as 'marriage,' and the participants 'spouses.'

Attachment based infidelity on the other-hand, usually has one relationship grow cooler as one grows 'hotter.' There are only two 'love objects', forming a triangle. The affair partner knows about the uninvolved spouse, but the uninvolved spouse doesn't know about the affair partner. Often this type of affair is as much or more about managing anxiety and emotion in the primary relationship then it is about a new relationship The primary relationship (even if cold and distant) is usually a safe relationship, and the side relationship is usually a dangerous or exciting relationship. Each makes the other possible.  Attachment-based affairs may be 'love affairs' or 'just sex' or anywhere in between, and this of course will affect the experience of the participants, but many of the triangular dynamics are the same. A straying spouse may on occasion be taken in by a player, but for that spouse, the affair is attachment based. Very immature, chaotic, 'drama' infused infidelity is also attachment based

Affairs where the participants appear to be just 'greedy' for sexual opportunity still qualify as attachment based because that is a way of relating. In true sexual addiction, the activity is more about achieving a 'trance' as a type of high (see my page on addiction) than about either power or attachment. Therefore, despite infidelity, real relationships don't exist. Sexual addiction requires knowledgeable assessment and treatment. Infidelity, even repeat, is not by itself proof of sexual addiction.

Though of course this is a secretive area with a lot of reasons to under-report, it is estimated that about 40% of both heterosexual men and women will have some infidelity in their lifetime (of course the number is the same for men and women, there are not more than a tiny amount of either sex having affairs with more than one straying spouse). Another way to look it at is the estimate that 75% of couples will be touched with infidelity

What is an Affair?

Shirley Glass's definition (endorsed by Esther Perel) has three elements: 1) a secret relationship. 2) with an emotional connection, and 3) sexual 'alchemy'. This includes both physical affairs and emotional affairs. What about an act that occurs just once, was not premeditated, and is not repeated? Well all three elements of Perel's definition are there (the secrecy, and the excitement from secrecy, is there going forward) (And of course, 'just once' may be a false admission upon discovery)

It may be helpful to think in terms of three situations: 1) where the straying spouse attempts to maintain the primary relationship as before using secrecy and a 'double life', 2) where the straying spouse meets somebody and changes behavior in the primary relationship rather drastically, making quick discovery likely, but fails to be honest and fails to clearly end the primary relationship, and 3) where the discontented spouse meets someone and immediately cleanly leaves the primary relationship. All three situations feel like betrayal, but the dynamics described on this page really only apply to the first two situations, especially the first.

Also, the acting out of sex addiction, if there is not continuity with one person, is again a betrayal but not so likely to follow an infidelity dynamic.

What is the difference between an emotional affair and healthy flirting or sexual polarity? In healthy flirting the feeling and energy can and is brought back to the uninvolved spouse. In an emotional affair, there is an alienation from the uninvolved spouse, and the straying spouse feels he or she has to 'protect' the feelings and energy from the uninvolved spouse, hence the secrecy which is Glass' first element. Emotional affairs are based on sexual desire (or 'alchemy'), which can be all the stronger while not consummated. Affairs are often more about desire than sex, but sex is necessary. If it was absolutely certain that an emotional affair would not lead to sex it would lose its holding power. Also a great many physical affairs are deceptively described as 'emotional' because what happens behind closed doors cannot be proven.

Why Do Affairs Happen?

There is no single reason for affairs, though it would be possible to come up with a medium-sized list that covered most infidelities. But the question of 'why', while natural, is not practical in dealing with an affair. It is not the 'why' or meaning of an affair which is relevant in rebuilding a marriage, but the function of an affair--what the it allowed to happen and what it prevented from happening. A close second in practicality is understanding the 'how' of an affair.

It is certainly not possible to attribute most affairs to mistreatment. If anything, a spouse who is 'over-benefitted' in the relationship is likelier to stray. (It is a general finding in social psychology that the better treated someone is, the less loyal he or she is.)

Why Don't Therapists Emphasize Morality More?

It is not possible or natural to study infidelity in a completely detached manner. Stories of great lasting pain abound. So also do stories of growth and self-definition. Love, guilt, betrayal, liberation, humiliation, eroticism, cruelty, and sensuousness all exist together in many affairs. But some affairs are textbook examples of narcissism and exploitation. Though it is a double-standard, objectively, it is almost always the case that a straying spouse feels devastated if they find out their spouse is also having an affair, while still feeling justified about their own affair. Each spouse wants to know, who is on his or her side?

Is it always wrong to have an affair? What about cruel, disabled or absent spouses? What about sexless marriages (more on this below under reconciliation) Often the deception to the uninvolved spouse is rationalized as protecting his or her feelings, but if the uninvolved spouse finds out, the deception compounds the pain or may even be its main source. Few affairs are premeditated, but some are. What about the assertion of many straying spouses that they are making their marriages work, or even enhancing them? How can the idea that some affairs are justifiable be reconciled to the certainty of pain to the uninvolved spouse upon discovery? If there are children, can it be better for them if there is a 'quiet' affair and no divorce? In cases of supposed non-discovery, does the tension of both knowing (in the gut) but not knowing (in the mind, for a fact) weaken the sanity and dignity of those involved? How can all this be reconciled?

While relationships must have justice to thrive, love and sex cannot always be forced into a format of fairness and remain themselves. What needs to be reconciled (from a therapeutic point of view) are two people, not two or more ideas or beliefs. The need exists even when the affair hasn't been discovered yet. Affairs, whatever the seeming benefits to the participants, invariably erode the respect toward the other spouse, slowly replacing it with contempt. If contempt was there before, it is increased.

Since therapists come into the picture of infidelity after the fact, it is not a matter of being pro- or anti-affair but pro- or anti-punishment. Punishment will not get anyone the love or relationship that they want.

As is described below, affairs offer an easy way to feel better or feel more alive, unlike the struggle to either leave a relationship cleanly or make it work (which as David Schnarch writes, takes the same skills.) Affairs are often entered into relatively unconsciously. Repairing a relationship, with or without infidelity or its discovery, must be done consciously.

The Erotic Holding Power of an Affair

Straying partners often feel justified in starting and continuing affairs because it feels so good or exciting. The good feeling is attributed to the specific match up with the affair partner. The straying spouse may believe they have found true love. He or she usually starts to believes the uninvolved spouse was a 'bad choice', and that the affair partner is the 'right choice.' Although it is possible that the straying spouse is more compatible with the affair partner than the uninvolved spouse, this is not necessarily the case, and compatibility really only comes to the forefront when domesticity is attempted, which doesn't happen in an affair.

Affair sex is very powerful, and while there may or may not be a contribution to this by the personal characteristics of the affair partner, mostly this is for the for the following reasons:

Non-Erotic Draws of an Affair

Issue of an Undiscovered Affair

A common question about infidelity is whether a straying spouse should confess an affair that is over but has not been discovered. It is at times suggested that some uninvolved spouses don't want to know, but this can often be self-serving excuse. Many authorities point out that the pain to the uninvolved spouse will be considerable and may have no real benefit. The straying spouse may sometimes feel guilty. Confession is a remedy for guilt but has to be weighed against the anguish of the uninvolved spouses, some of whom may truly not have the coping ability to recover. If the deception and alienation has been extensive however, it is hard to see how there will not be a barrier in the relationship going forward.

Another question is whether it is not sometimes a case that a 'well-managed' affair that continues without discovery cannot be the best solution for everyone. There are many anecdotal first person accounts that assert this. Some straying spouses are seemingly able to compartmentalize each relationship, and perhaps, avoid developing any additional distaste for the uninvolved spouse. It is not possible to disprove the idea of a beneficial affair in all possible scenarios, but what can be said is that the benefits of an affair make themselves known immediately, while the costs accumulate silently and are often under-appreciated. Also, the extent to which the uninvolved spouse knows 'something' is wrong somewhere and aches quietly is underestimated by straying spouses.

The Stages of Relationship Limbo

Michelle Langely, in studying infidelity, came to see that affairs (except power-driven infidelity) arise and continue in the midst of a slow progressive process of relationship dissolution. She conceptualized three stages, and called the overall process limbo because the straying partner was not actively working to improve his or her primary relationship, was experiencing an estrangement from the uninvolved spouse, but was not ending the relationship cleanly, so that a dismal situation dragged on for a long time, perhaps years. But underneath the stagnation, alienation continues, and eventually the marriage must end. Interestingly, the affair often ends at that point as well. Langely concentrated on 'female' infidelity, so while the model presented below seems to apply to both genders and same-sex relationships, it may reflect somewhat more precisely a pattern for heterosexual women. As alluded to in the section above on undiscovered affairs, it may be that in a minority of cases, the straying partner is able to compartmentalize both the affair and the primary relationship, and so, whatever the harms, limbo as a concept implying inevitable discovery and transition does not apply.

Relevant to this discussion is Michelle Wiener Davis' concept of a Walk Away Wife The term comes from a phenomenon seen in many counseling offices in which the wife 'suddenly' initiates a divorce to the great surprise of the husband. The wife is by that time so alienated that even if realistic efforts by the husband to change start to occur, they are seen as too little too late. The women has been ready to go, though she may or may not have known it, for years. The walk away gets triggered usually either when the children leave or she meets somebody. While a walk away is not an affair, the pattern of silent or unacknowledged alienation may be similar, and help explain the estrangement seen in stage 1 of limbo.

Stage 1 At this stage, the spouse that will stray feels as though something is missing in their lives. They feel they have all the things that they wanted—a home, a family, a great uninvolved spouse—but feel they should be happier. Over time, many of the women notice a distinct loss of sexual desire; this is less true the men. Wives spent a great deal of energy trying to avoid physical contact with their husbands for fear it might lead to a sexual encounter. They frequently complained of physical ailments to avoid having sex and often tried to avoid going to bed at the same time as their husbands. They viewed sex as a job, not unlike doing the dishes or going to the grocery store. Some of the women claimed that when their husbands touched them, they felt violated; they said their bodies would freeze up and they would feel tightness in their chest and/or a sick feeling in their stomach. Men feel rejection and often bury themselves in work or hobbies hoping passively that things will get better. Men may also get secretly resentful at this stage, missing the affirmation of a women's respect and sexual acceptance. Although there is not a third person at this point, this is how affairs and limbo start.

Stage 2 Spouses at this stage experience reawakened desire stimulated by encounters outside the marital relationship. Whether the new relationships involve sex or remain 'emotional affairs', they become the most significant thing to the straying spouse. Many of the women had felt no sexual desire for a long time, and many of the men had not felt desired. In the beginning most spouses feel guilt and regret and did not have sex right away but remained in contact with the stimulus person. Most experience what could be termed an identity crisis— even those who try to put the experience behind them. Constant reminders are everywhere. They feel when the topic of infidelity arises. They could no longer express their prior disdain for infidelity without feeling like hypocrites. Many tried to overcome feelings of guilt by becoming more attentive toward and appreciative of their spouses. Over, time however, most straying spouses resolve the turmoil by demonizing the uninvolved spouse, and justifying the affair in terms of desires and needs that were not being met in the marriage, or in terms of the uninvolved spouse’s past behavior. It is at this point that the affair is consummated physically, usually with the original stimulus but sometimes that person is not available and another affair partner is found..

Stage 3 Spouses at this stage are consumed with the mechanics of affairs, organizing their lives around the affair partners availability. Deceiving the uninvolved spouse becomes routine business. The straying spouse may respect the uninvolved spouse less and less for their trusting nature. He or she usually becomes bolder and bolder. Discovery usually happens at this stage, and while it adds to the complexity of the limbo, it does not end it. Straying spouses feel “alive” again and many believe that they have found their soul mates. They feel 'in love' (limerence). On the other hand, many attempts are made to end the affair. Prior to meeting with their lovers, straying spouses will vow that this will be the last time, but are unable to stick with their decisions.

Limbo can be prolonged, perhaps for years if the affair partner is married or the uninvolved spouse 'looks the other way.' However, limbo is still a progressive process in which respect and trust is eroded. The uninvolved spouse, perhaps having found out or at least knowing something is wrong, often initiates attempts to win back the straying spouses affection, but this usually has the opposite effect. Straying spouses have a distaste for spending time with the uninvolved spouse, perhaps stronger in women than in men. Straying spouses will become less responsible, sometimes doing the bare minimum in parenting, household maintenance, or work. The uninvolved spouse will often feel "I don't know this person anymore."

Often a trial separation is proposed by the straying spouse, ostensibly to find discernment about the marriage, but really so that the affair partner can be hosted more easily.

Doing a 180

Michelle Wiener Davis has developed a guideline for an uninvolved spouse in a situation where an affair has been discovered or is suspected. While it can be misunderstood as a strategy (and Davis' background is in the strategic school of family therapy) it is really just the natural course of action of a self-respecting person when he or she has been betrayed, duped, ignored, taken for granted, disrespected, or even has a spouse excessively distracted from the relationship by work school or hobby. It need not be limited to infidelity--it can be of great assistance whenever one's spouse is acting powerful, secretive and unaccountable. The actions are not retaliatory or toxic, they are actually fairly good boundaries though of course they would be a bit cold and detached for a healthy relationship.

The guideline does get it name from the fact that so commonly, out of fear and pain, most uninvolved spouses pursue the straying partner in a desperate way. Pursuit prolongs the limbo process. The 180 is an antidote to limbo. The spouse having the affair usually feels powerful, and pursuing them gives them more power, which is intoxicating. The 180 is not itself a plan for a good relationship or reconciliation, it is just one, a means of achieving peace of mind for the uninvolved spouse, and two, an antidote to the limbo process.

  1. Don’t pursue, reason, chase, beg, plead or implore.
  2. No frequent phone calls.
  3. Don’t point out “good points” in marriage.
  4. Don’t follow her/him around the house.
  5. Don’t encourage or initiate discussion about the future.
  6. Don’t ask for help from the family members of your wayward partner.
  7. Don’t ask for reassurances.
  8. Don’t buy or give gifts.
  9. Don’t schedule dates together.
  10. Don’t keep saying, “I Love You!” Because if you really think about it, he/she is, at this particular moment, not very lovable.
  11. Do more than act as if you are moving on with your life; begin moving on with your life!
  12. Be cheerful, strong, outgoing and independent.
  13. Don’t sit around waiting on your spouse – get busy, do things, go out with friends, enjoy old hobbies, find new ones! But stay busy!
  14. When home with your spouse, (if you usually start the conversation) be scarce or short on words. Don’t push any issue, no matter how much you want to!
  15. If you’re in the habit of asking your spouse his/her whereabouts, ASK NOTHING. Seem totally uninterested.
  16. Your partner needs to believe that you have awakened to the fact that “they (the wayward partner)” are serious concerning their assertions as to the future (or lack there of) of your marriage. Thus, you are you are moving on with your life…without them!
  17. Don’t be nasty, angry or even cold – Just pull yourself back.  Don’t always be so available…for anything!  Your spouse will notice.  More important, he/she will notice that you’re missing.
  18. No matter what you are feeling TODAY, only show your spouse happiness and contentment.  Make yourself be someone they would want to be around, not a moody, needy, pathetic individual but a self-assured individual secure in the knowledge that they have value.
  19. All questions about the marriage should be put on hold, until your spouse wants to talk about it (which may not be for quite a while). Initiate no such conversation!
  20. Do not allow yourself to lose your temper.  No yelling, screaming or name calling EVER.  No show of temper!  Be cool, act cool; be in control of the only thing you can control.  YOURSELF!
  21. Don’t be overly enthusiastic.
  22. Do not argue when they tell you how they feel (it only makes their feelings stronger).  In fact, refuse to argue at all!
  23. Be patient and learn to not only listen carefully to what your spouse is really saying to you.  Hear what it is that they are saying!  Listen and then listen some more!
  24. Learn to back off, keep your mouth shut and walk away when you want to speak out, no matter what the provocation.  No one ever got themselves into trouble by just not saying anything.
  25. Take care of you.  Exercise, sleep, laugh & focus on all the other parts of your life that are not in turmoil.
  26. Be strong, confident and learn to speak softly.
  27. Know that if you can do this 180, your smallest CONSISTENT action will be noticed far more than any words you can say or write.
  28.  Do not be openly desperate or needy even when you are hurting more than ever and are feeling totally desperate and needy.
  29. Do not focus on yourself when communicating with your spouse.  It’s not always about you!  More to the point, at present they just don’t care.
  30. Do not believe any of what you hear them say and less than 50% of what you see.  Your spouse will speak in absolute negatives and do so in the most strident tones imaginable.  Try to remember that they are also hurting and afraid.  Try to remember that they know what they are doing is wrong and so they will say anything they can to justify their behavior.
  31. Do not backslide from your hard-earned changes. Remain consistent!  It is the consistency of action and attitude that delivers the message.
  32. When expressing your dissatisfaction with the actions of the wayward party, never be judgmental, critical or express moral outrage. Always explain that your dissatisfaction is due to the pain that the acts being committed are causing you as a person.  This is the kind of behavior that will cause you to be a much more attractive and mysterious individual.  Further it SHOWS that you are NOT afraid to move on with your life.  Still more important, it will burst their positive little bubble; the one in which they believe that they can always come back to you in case things don’t work out with the affair partner.

Reconciliation