In this eighth installment of the Marital Labyrinth series, published simultaneously at Psychology Today, Dr Tobin considers the affair as a solution in the mind of the adulterer. You can view all articles in the series at this page.
Imagine for a moment that you’re Kate’s closest friend. She tells you, “I can’t keep this a secret from you. I’m falling for another man. I work with him. From the moment we met, I could feel the chemistry. I was scared and excited, but I couldn’t resist. He makes me feel alive… desired. I feel smart and beautiful when I’m with him. Can something this good be wrong?”
So, how would you answer?
Would you lecture her on the dangers of marital infidelity, replete with statistics on the devastating impact an affair can have on marriage and children? And what about the fact that every major religion comes out squarely on the side of monogamy even to the point that the Old Testament proscribes stoning as the punishment for the adulterer?
Perhaps, you would take the blunt approach and say, “Kate you’re crazy. This is total madness. You’re acting like a love-struck teenager. Watch a soap opera, don’t live it. You’ve got to stop this now before you get into something that’s going to ruin your life.”
Kate’s response to you: “You’re right but I am sick and tired of doing what’s right. The only thing that does for me is make me depressed, angry, and bitter.”
An alternative answer
Okay, let’s say you’re a good listener and even though you want to express your outrage, you keep your opinion to yourself. You listen compassionately as Kate describes how lonely she feels in her marriage – that the affair is a solution to her problems. She might even tell you, “I know this is crazy, but if it’s a choice between dead inside and dangerous, I’ll go for dangerous. Is that wrong?”
“Kate,” you answer, “I’m not God. I can’t answer that question for you. Only you can. I understand how unhappy you’ve been and how good Julian makes you feel, but before you get too involved with him why don’t you deal with your marriage?
“Either try to make it work or get out of it. Just don’t continue living a lie. Think of this affair with Julian as kind of a marital heart attack. You know— a warning that it’s time for you and Dan to get your act together.”
Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Yes—especially if you’re not the one having the affair. Forty-seven years of experience working with couples have taught me that when you’re in the throes of an extramarital love affair you’re not looking for an answer to the question, “Is cheating wrong?” On the contrary, what Kate wants from her best friend is confirmation that the path that she has chosen is morally justifiable…that the affair is in fact a solution.
From her perspective, how could it not be? Julian saved her from death by boredom.
The Emotional Bubble
Why is it that Kate or any one of us experiencing the intense highs of a romantic marital affair seem unwilling to accept any form of confrontation, be it moral, religious, and/or just plain logical? To understand that phenomenon we need to understand the concept of the emotional bubble.
If you were to say about someone that he lives inside a bubble, you would immediately conjure up an image of a person who lives inside of himself, cut off from the kinds of influences and distractions that affect most of us.
Inside the bubble we can create our own world, replete with imaginary characters and heroic fantasies. Often the strength of the bubble is directly related to the sense of disappointment, frustration, and failure that we feel in our work and relationships.
For some time now Kate has felt the pain and emptiness that comes from living with a stranger. Perhaps, she’s made efforts to heal her relationship with Dan. Perhaps, this is how Kate would have described her marriage: “I tried to talk to Dan about our problems, but he never responded. He was either too tired or too wrapped up with his business to even notice. I just gave up trying.”
In the absence of love and connection, a deadly apathy permeated Kate’s relationship with her husband. The moment she gave up on her marriage she unconsciously said yes to the possibility of an affair.
For Kate, her affair with Julian becomes the immediate solution to her pain and emptiness.
The deadness is gone and in its place is an exquisite sense of pleasure. However, for Kate to maintain this intense pleasure she must defend herself from feelings of guilt and shame. She must protect herself from that inner voice that screams, “This betrayal goes against everything that you know is right and true. Don’t do it!”
Thus, to continue her relationship with Julian, she must convince herself that it’s moral, beautiful, and honest. And from her perspective it is. The experience of passion, connection, and aliveness form the elements of a powerful inner argument that enable her to maintain an essentially guilt free relationship with Julian.
These are the same forces that are at play in all extramarital romantic relationships. To resist them takes enormous moral and psychological strength. Let’s not be lulled into thinking that this could never happen to any of us, or if we were faced with the possibility of an affair, we would say No.
Let’s try to understand Kate’s inner world and how she constructs a defense against guilt and shame. Remember Kate is no different from any one of us that crossed over this marital red line. She is not a sexually promiscuous woman who lacks respect for her marital vows. She is basically a decent and moral person who has given up all hope that she will ever feel fulfilled in her marriage.
How an emotional bubble can make an affair feel like a solution
However, now that she has entered into an affair, she must convince herself that it’s the right decision. She does this by creating the emotional bubble, which enables her to sustain the affair. Here’s how (Adapted from her journal):
- She convinces herself that the affair is a justified solution:
- Was it the feeling of being alone that made me say yes to the affair? Yes, but I sensed it was deeper than that. Something to do with the fear of being cut off from me. Never again feeling passion, burying myself to accommodate my marriage.
- The affair with Julian meets real emotional needs:
- Okay, so Dan’s a sweet guy and a fine person. But I need more than that. I need what I had yesterday— poetry and passion. I didn’t know how desperately I needed that feeling of aliveness. It may have been the most incredible day of my entire life. I made love to a man who made me feel myself.
- The affair acts as a sedative for her depression and despair:
- What did I do to deserve deadness and dullness? Why do I have to live with that the rest of my life?
- She believes that the affair will be a beneficial solution in her marriage:
- Maybe it will be better for the marriage. The problem with our marriage has been me. Dan thinks that things are just fine. I’ve been the one wanting more. Well, maybe I’ve wanted something from Dan that he just can’t give. If I get what I need from Julian, I don’t have to expect Dan to give me what he can’t.
- She experiences highly pleasurable and erotic inner fantasies:
- …at every traffic light along the way, the face that I saw in my mind’s eye was not Dan’s glaring at me in guilt, but Julian’s. I imagined his smile, his laugh; his hand on mine. I felt the sensations of the day before.
- She feels a powerful desire to repeat the experience:
- My emotions surged, as a voice inside me said, “I can still feel the sweetness of Julian’s touch. How can I hold on to that? I can’t give it up. I won’t give it up.”
- She feels sexual passion:
- I could feel the heat of his body next to mine. He led me to his bed and began to slowly remove my suit jacket. It slipped to the floor…
- Her feelings of guilt and betrayal become weak:
- In fact, the thought that I was cheating on Dan never entered my mind. At the time, I rationalized to myself that I wasn’t really hurting him, that anything so loving, so real, that moved me so deeply, could not be wrong.
- Hadn’t I just committed “adultery?” That was such a nasty word. How could something so beautiful have such an ugly name?
- Lies, deceptions, and duplicity become essential elements in the maintenance of the affair:
- I called the sitter on my cellular phone. “Maria, I have to stay later than I thought at the office. Can you stay with the kids till Dan gets home?”
- She experiences a heightened sense of reality:
- I felt as if little things I had seen a thousand times suddenly became alive.
Kate was justifying her affair as a solution
While Kate was justifying the affair she was protected from the pain of guilt and shame. For Kate to end the affair the balance of pleasure and pain had to shift. The negative consequences of lying and cheating and their effect on her children, her husband, and herself would by necessity have to become stronger than the pleasure of the relationship.
When that did happen, her emotional bubble burst. How and why she arrived at the place where guilt was stronger than denial will be the topic of a future article.
One thing we can assume is that Kate’s response to the same friend who said, “You’ve got to deal with your marriage. Don’t continue living a lie,” would most likely have been, “You’re right. I can’t live like this. It’s too painful. I must stop running away and either work on the marriage or end it.”