The Marital Labyrinth series continues with this fifth article – published simultaneously at Psychology Today – in which Dr Tobin considers the underlying causes, and the missing ingredients in a marriage, that can lead to an affair. You can view all articles in the series at this page.
After the Affair: The Therapy Begins
Kate and Dan began therapy with me approximately a month after Dan discovered Kate’s affair with Julian, her recently divorced co-worker and friend. Not surprisingly, he reacted with shock, rage, and confusion. Kate’s response: “You’re as responsible as I am for this affair. You’ve shown no interest in me nor our marriage. Did you really think your neglect would stop me from living?”
His answer to her: a four-letter expletive, and then— silently—he packed his bags and moved out. For three weeks, they didn’t communicate until Kate sent him an email acknowledging how she hurt him. She promised to end the affair if he agreed to enter couple’s therapy. His answer: “Yes. But if you’ve lied about ending the affair, I’m done with therapy and the marriage.”
My work with them involved both individual and couple’s work. Fifteen minutes into the initial session, I decided to separate them. Dan was too filled with rage and blame to work on the marriage. I wanted him to expel his invectives without risking Kate’s counterattack.
Being a referee is part of a marital therapist’s job description—until it becomes a brawl. Then, I separate the combatants. The first few weeks of therapy, I met with each of them individually. They both agreed to commit to three months of therapy. At that time, they would decide either to end the marriage or continue the process of healing the relationship.
Over the next few chapters in this series, I’m going to focus on Kate’s initial dilemma, her struggle, and her ultimate decision to be with Julian. We can learn a great deal about marriage and its challenges from Kate’s affair with Julian.
Before we hear from Kate, I want to emphasize this point: Loneliness, not sex, fuels an affair of the heart. The affair partner is rarely more attractive, better in bed, or more scintillating than the spouse.
He or she simply shows more interest.
* * *
The Allure of an Affair
From Kate’s journal describing her business dinner with Julian:
I couldn’t remember the last time I smiled so much or felt so utterly at ease. I reached into the silver basket for a roll. He did too and our hands touched. Like a teenager, I was excited over a man’s hand brushing mine. I felt terrified. I wondered if he felt the same. Fantasies are safe if they are one-sided. I’ve never been unfaithful to Dan. If this were just physical attraction, it wouldn’t have been so threatening to my marriage. The problem is: I like who I am with Julian—relaxed, alive, and sensuous.
Yes or No to an Affair?
What would any of us do if faced with a similar choice? It’s so easy to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude and insist that if we were in the same situation, we would be faithful to our marital vows. You never know until you’re confronted with the same challenge that Kate was faced with.
Kate is a lonely woman. Her marriage to Dan was the antithesis of what she was experiencing with Julian: connection, excitement, and friendship.
Many of us have been there. Every conversation is an effort. You can feel the resentment, confusion, and hurt lying in wait beneath the surface. The simplest interaction is fraught with levels of meaning that defy understanding. You don’t know where to begin. So, you play it safe and don’t begin at all.
Does this Sound Familiar?
If this sounds familiar, you’ve most likely said to yourself, “I know I love my partner. Just try harder. Don’t lose it. Show him how much you want this to work.”
You take a deep breath, you tell yourself you can do it, and without even knowing how or why, you’re once again in a place of misunderstanding, hurt, and anger. What you want is to be heard, and what you get in return are the reasons why it’s your fault. You react by defending and attacking.
That was Kate’s situation before the affair. She was convinced—or she convinced herself— that she had tried to make her marriage work, and nothing helped. So here she was with Julian feeling like a woman for the first time in years.
How do you walk away from a powerful emotional attraction, a desire that is so hypnotically pleasurable that it makes the voice of morality sound like the helpless plea of a desperate parent? We can almost hear Kate saying, “Anything that feels this right must be okay.”
So, who do we root for: the Kate who says, “No!” or the Kate who says, “Yes!”? The Kate who turns away from Julian and toward her marriage says, “No!” to passion, romance, and love.
For what? More of the same dullness with Dan? The likelihood of a flat, loveless marriage?
Yes, there are marital vows and kids to consider, but what about responsibility to oneself? What about taking the risk to get the most you can out of life and relationships? Is fidelity to an unresponsive partner a higher value than a commitment to living a life filled with connection and vitality?
Why Yes to an Affair?
It may be too late for these questions. In fact, like many who choose an affair over marriage, Kate may have made her decision far before she consciously acknowledged it. Perhaps, it was after her last frustrating sexual encounter with Dan. It might have met some physiological need of his, but it left her feeling cold and empty. There was no romance, no foreplay to speak of, just the perfunctory sexual release—another lonely night in bed. Or perhaps it followed a moment when she needed a word or a touch from Dan, but he was too stuck inside himself to notice, and she was too victimized to ask.
There are an infinite number of possible scenarios that can chip away at the moral underpinnings of a marriage. Every slight rejection, insult, and inconsiderate act weakens the framework of a relationship, and every rebuffed attempt to repair that relationship severs the trust and loyalty that are the building blocks of a strong connection.
At some point something breaks for one of the partners, and it’s at that moment that an affair becomes a possibility.
The Collapsing Moral Center
In essence, for Kate and for any of us who have sought a romantic attachment outside of marriage, a period of depression and helplessness precedes the relationship. Something—let’s call it the “moral center”—collapses. In a state of emotional deprivation, we may find our principles and values weaken. At that point, monogamy can appear like a prison sentence rather than the natural expression of a committed and loving relationship. The affair then becomes the “sweet” antidote to the unmet needs and depression that result from an unhappy marriage.
An affair, such as the one that Kate chose to enter, does not occur in a vacuum. It’s neither a momentary moral slip that anyone of us can fall prey to, nor a basically irrelevant statement about marriage.
A romantic affair can only occur when a marriage lacks those ingredients it needs to succeed: friendship, trust, love, and commitment.