The masses are still titillated by the Ashley Madison hack. Women are still checking (and rechecking) to see if their man showed up on the incriminating Scarlet List. Cheating is hardly a new phenomenon, but this ‘age-old’ problem is complicated by ‘new age’ technology. The Internet makes it disturbingly easy to cheat. But here’s another perspective – affairs can serve a surprising function – to stabilize relationships.
Yes, I said stabilize. You may wonder how an affair can possibly stabilize a relationship when, if discovered, it will rip away its very foundation. Here’s the shocking truth – in a perverse and disturbing way, affairs can actually hold things together. An affair, by its very existence, modifies the emotional distance (and, by default, emotional investment) in a relationship.
Caveat: I am in NO WAY recommending affairs as a healthy or therapeutic way to deal with disappointment in relationships. I am only explaining, from a clinical perspective, how the complex dynamics of infidelity can actually maintain a relationship when it might otherwise end (and in some cases, should).
An affair is a symptom of a global relationship disturbance, not the disturbance itself. Becoming involved in an outside relationship can actually be an adaptive maneuver, a distraction from dealing with problems that are too painful to acknowledge.
In her classic book, Intimate Partners, Maggie Scarf described affairs as ‘emotional distance regulators.’ The existence of a third person in a marital system indicates that a couple is having trouble handling the complex dynamics of ‘distance and pursuit’.
Couples tend to have patterns in terms of how they relate to one another. One person is typically the initiator of intimacy (the ‘pursuer’); and the other is less likely to initiate intimacy (the ‘distancer’). In general, the female is the pursuer of emotional intimacy and the male is the pursuer of sexual intimacy. Of course, this is not always the case. Harriet Lerner wrote beautifully about these dynamics in her classic bestseller, The Dance of Intimacy.
If a couple has chronic difficulty negotiating these dynamics, a psychological wall may develop between them. Once a wall is erected, either partner is vulnerable to turning elsewhere for connection (whether it be sexual or emotional). In other words, if a wall stands between spouses, a window can easily open to someone else.
Sex is an important medium of currency in relationships. Finding another sexual partner is a way to devalue a spouse’s currency. Their worth, sexually and emotionally, immediately decreases. If a husband wants more sex but his wife is chronically unreceptive to his overtures, taking a lover reduces the value of her ‘currency’ (i.e. her worth at any given moment).
Hundreds of men have told me they are less angry and resentful toward their wives because they know they can count on sex with their lovers. “I can be pleasant and less grouchy because I no longer worry about the humiliation of being rejected by my wife,” Tom told me in a recent session. “We are actually getting along better since I started having sex with someone else. It’s so ironic. I know its f***ed up, but it’s the truth.”
By taking a lover, Tom created an emotional triangle. An emotional triangle is an ongoing, repetitive cycle of interactions that involve three people (although not all parties are necessarily aware). Triangles develop when a problem (identified or unidentified) between two people cannot be discussed or resolved. Suddenly, a disappointed spouse can shift their focus onto something (or someone) outside the dangerous zone. Attention is diverted away from the painful relationship and on to the secret, exciting affair. A temporary breath of fresh air (but just a welcome distraction, really).
Both men and women report that honest dialogue about their disappointments would be so anxiety-provoking (and in some cases emotionally, financially, or physically unsafe) that they do not dare initiate a conversation. “It is easier to keep my mouth shut.” Sadly, assumptions such as “He will never change,” or “She just doesn’t like sex” give people the ‘green light’ they need to justify their actions.
Triangles lower the intensity of primary conflict. The ‘other’ woman (or man) is introduced to temper otherwise unbearable tension between the primary couple. Lovers actually serve a stabilizing function that allows the primary relationship to continue. The cheating spouse has a secret coalition with the lover, which allows him/her a reprieve from the unbearable pain stemming from the primary relationship.
No matter how bad the primary relationship feels, the cheating spouse can console him/herself by thinking “I don’t have to care what goes on here.” They can temporarily dissociate from the pain because their mate no longer matters so desperately.
One of my clients was so profoundly unhappy in her marriage that she was considering suicide. Suicide felt like a more viable option than leaving her husband. Instead of killing herself, she had a steamy hot affair with a man who had been flirting with her for years. During her affair, she reported that she “hated her husband a little less every day,” and by the time she ended her affair, she felt ready to recommit to her marriage. Her suicidal thoughts disappeared. “Not only did my affair save my marriage, but it literally saved my life,” she told me
Adultery is a powerful form of unspoken communication. It might buy you some time, but, in the end, you are left with the same pain that made you vulnerable to the affair in the first place. Some initiate new affairs. Some “call it quits.” Some stay silent in unfulfilling relationships.
But the ones who are willing to address the underlying dynamics can not only heal, but take their relationship to a whole new level. It is a tough road, but one definitely worth travelling. It has been my honor to guide hundreds of couples down this road. With the right commitment and willingness to be vulnerable, genuine, and curious, couples can end up stronger than they ever would have been without an affair.