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Affairs / Marital Infidelity

Adele Wilde

Counsellor & Gestalt Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia

An affair may be defined as a sexual involvement outside a marriage. Secrecy and betrayal are defining features. So called 'emotional affairs' are usually on the way to being sexual or have sexual overtones. Internet affairs and pornography have been described as the means for having 'fantasy affairs'.

While individual studies vary significantly, the research generally indicates that about half of all long-term married people (presumably in Western cultures) have an affair, and that about three quarters of all marriages experience an infidelity at some point. In the past more men that women reported being unfaithful, but recent studies show there is little gender difference now.

Complaints of emotional dissatisfaction correlate with women having an affair, whereas complaints of sexual dissatisfaction correlate with men having an affair. Aside from dissatisfaction, attitudes, beliefs, and values are also significant predictors, especially for men.

Affairs can usefully be broken down into types that reflect the underlying issues in the marriage, and also say something about the way the spouses interact.

Conflict avoidance affairs are essentially attention-seeking affairs and reflect a marriage where partner(s) cannot talk in any meaningful way, or conflict is either denied ("controlled amiability"), or the couple don't know how to deal with difficulties constructively. They tend to occur earlier in the marriage. Discovery is intentional and brings issues to a head. The one who strays feels guilt and bewilderment ("I don't know why I did this. It was wrong."). Both partners may seek to minimize the impact and significance of the affair to the marriage (conflict avoidance).

Intimacy avoidance affairs occur in marriages where conflict is more the norm and is used to avoid intimacy, because partners are afraid of the vulnerability and exposure implicit in being fully committed emotionally. Thus, both are good at fighting, and both may have affairs. This style of interacting may indicate family histories of chaotic or abusive interaction. The affairs tend to occur after the first few years of marriage. The one having the affair experiences the lover as providing the love and understanding missing from the marriage. The affair, being outside the stresses and demands of everyday life, allows romantic fantasy to replace the real intimacy that the spouses are not able to generate with each other.

Sexual addiction affairs are about filling inner emptiness with seduction, sensation, and conquest. As such, these encounters are often not really affairs, but brief encounters, as the sexual addict pursues multiple partners. Like many addictions there is a careless, thoughtless, reckless quality about this activity. Sexual abuse histories may lie behind sexually compulsive behaviour. The married sexual addict (usually male) will often have a spouse who turns a blind eye in order to preserve the marriage.

Split-self affairs (or the "middle-aged man's affair" although an increasing number of women are also reported as involved in this type of affair) occur when the marriage is about security, respectability, and belonging in the community and family, while the affair is about love and deeper connection. Family life is about 'doing the right thing' in some way ("I can't leave because of the children" or "I couldn't do this to my parents"). The appearance of a good marriage hides a lack of serious emotional bonding. To this partner the unsatisfied longing for love and gratification of deeper needs and passions are felt as somehow not quite legitimate, and therefore have to remain hidden and illegitimate. Remaining married and having an affair allows this enactment of the split self. The marriage feels empty to this spouse, whereas the self feels empty to the sexual addict. These affairs, as part of a long marriage, can last for many years and are often well hidden. If the affair is exposed the 'wronged' partner, is likely to be both devastated and self-blaming.

Exit affairs are about finding a new partner while forgetting to leave the previous one. Their exposure coincides with the ending of a marriage and so the 'cheating' is often attributed as the cause of marital breakdown, but may really be the means by which the exiting partner gets the other to make the decision to end the marriage rather than take the responsibility themselves. A proper ending, and the pain that it entails, is avoided. When real issues are not dealt with it usually means that the follow-up relationship (the one stemming from the apparent reason for leaving) is likely to fail also.

The above typology of infidelity is a simplification of more complex motivations and patterns of behaviour, but provides a useful guide to understanding.

We want our partners to be faithful and loyal to us. Humans seek structure, predictability, safety, and the sense of creating a relationship. As such cooperation, commitment, trust, goodwill, benefit of the doubt, loyalty, and fidelity are basic ingredients and are wanted and necessary if a partnership is to succeed in the longer term. Most couples experience these qualities as intuitively right. Given such powerful forces at play the intrusion of an affair arouses equally strong feelings of painful betrayal, grief and loss, guilt, anger, blame, sense of failure, and shame. Separating, either from the partner or from the affair, involves painful adjustment and self-examination if maturation is to occur (rather than denial and repetition).

(Main source: Patterns of infidelity and their treatment by Emily Brown)

Adele Wilde
Counsellor & Gestalt Psychotherapist
Phone: 0439 324 703
Email: adele.wilde@gmail.com

Mt Lawley Counselling Centre
13 Alvan Street
Mt Lawley (Perth), WA 6050

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