With Tiger Woods back in the game after his "bad decisions" admission on ESPN, I couldn't help but recall George (not his real name), who had consulted me about how to deal with his new affair. Visions of Woods, Jessie James, Mark Sanford, John Edwards and others came to mind -- along with the similar stories of countless patients over the years.
George began by telling me that "She was standing off by herself during a conference break, leaning against a wall, sipping coffee. "As I walked by, our eyes met and I felt a sudden jolt -- a rush of energy, real connection. Suddenly we found ourselves talking, feeling like we had known each other for years." The affair "just "happened," George added.
That's an explanation I've heard many times. Another one sounding a bit more "strategic" came from Jan, a 41 year-old lawyer. She told me that her affair was a "marriage stabilizer...safe and discreet, a perfect solution for me." She decided it was a rational alternative to the disruption of divorce.
Of course the public always enjoys being titillated with stories of public figures' affairs, especially when hypocrisy is exposed. But cultural attitudes have clearly shifted to-wards acceptance of affairs. They're seen as a life-style choice; an option for men and women yearning for excitement or intimacy that's lacking or has dulled during their marriage.
Given that new reality, I put together what I've learned about psychology of affairs -- their meaning and their consequences for people in our current culture.
Based on my work over the decades, I find six kinds of affairs that people have today. People make their choices, but I think a non-judgmental description of these six kinds of affairs (but with a tinge of humor) can help people deal with them with greater awareness and responsibility.
Here are the six I've diagnosed:
The "It's-Only-Lust" Affair. The most common, it's mostly about sex. It can feel really intense, but it's also the quickest to flame out. John and Kim met through work, and felt a strong physical attraction. John was separated; Kim, married. They felt powerless to resist the pull. "It was inevitable. We ended up in bed, as well as a lot of other places! It was wonderful," John added, with a big grin. The liberating and compelling feeling from this kind of affair, though, can mask hidden emotional conflicts.
An example is the person who's able to feel sexually alive and free only in a secret relationship, hidden from the imagined hovering, inhibiting eye of one's parent -- which the person may experience unconsciously with his or her spouse. The lust affair is often short-lived, and passion can slide downhill pretty fast as the excitement declines or underground emotional issues surface again. It can also fade if the lovers discover that there wasn't much connecting them beyond sex. As John later told me, "As great as the sex was, we didn't really have much to say to each other. Eventually, that became a turn-off."
The "I'll-Show-You" Affair. Rachel began realizing the depth of her anger and resentment towards her husband after years of an unhappy marriage. She had long felt unaffirmed, ignored, and disregarded by him. His adamant refusal to go to couples therapy pushed her into acting upon her anger. Rachel told me that a previous therapy had helped her recognize her collusion in becoming so subordinate in the marriage. But she couldn't create a solution, nor figure out how to deal with her desire for revenge.
She knew that "getting back" at her husband wasn't going to produce empowerment or healing, but nevertheless began a disastrous affair. She subsequently discovered that the man was only interested in a narcissistic conquest, and he quickly dumped her. Eventually, she realized that beneath her anger was a desire for a man who would really recognize her, who could "see" her, as her father never did. But before that awakening occurred, she suffered, and she still had to deal with the reality of her marriage and how to heal her own trauma.
The "Just-In-The-Head" Affair. Can you call it an affair if the "lovers" don't have sex? Consider Paul and Linda. They became very close working together on a volunteer project. Paul was married, and Linda was divorced but living with a boyfriend. They found they had much in common -- a similar outlook on life and a spiritual compatibility as well. They enjoyed talking and looking forward to time together. They spoke on the phone frequently and lingered around afterward working on the project. Soon they realized that a very intimate and emotionally close bond had developed. It definitely felt like much more than just a friendship.
So why didn't they have sex? Linda, who was my patient, said that neither of them wanted to disrupt or leave their primary relationship, or "mess it up." So, they chose to keep it platonic. That level of intimacy and intensity makes it an affair of the mind, if not the body; it's more than just a friendship. I find that people in this kind of affair find something in each other that's lacking in their "real" relationship, and they're not dealing with that. Aside from the challenge of remaining on the chaste side of the sexual borderline, such "lovers" must hope that their primary partners continue to believe they're telling the truth. And there's a risk that what they're not finding in their primary relationship will become increasingly disruptive to it.
The "All-In-The-Family" Affair. Bill thought this was fail-safe, because no one would suspect. He and his wife's sister finally had sex after years of mutual, erotic teasing. Suddenly they were in the midst of an affair that neither wanted to end. They thought they could keep it secret; that neither would make any demands on the other and it would be perfectly safe. If you think that was naive, it was. Most "family" affairs are interwoven with family dysfunctions and buried resentments. Neither Bill nor Tina, his sister-in-law, looked seriously at the issues in their respective marriages or inter-locked families; or even how dangerous it was. Postscript: One of their spouses eventually discovered the incriminating e-mails, and the family affair quickly turned into a family nightmare.
The "It's-Not-Really-An-Affair" Affair. We humans are experts at creating illusions for ourselves. In this affair one party is available but the other isn't. The available partner believes that the other really will leave his or her spouse, given enough time and patience. Jane, divorced for several years, began seeing a married man. She told me vehemently, "It's not an affair! It's a relationship!" But that takes two equally available and committed people. I've seen many women and women over the years (though it's usually women caught in this trap) who truly believe their lovers will leave their spouses. Ninety percent of the time it never happens. Jane eventually realized that her lover never had any intention of leaving. In fact, he had had multiple affairs throughout his marriage.
The "Mind-Body"Affair. Here's the most dangerous one of all for the lovers' existing relationships. It's so powerful because it feels so complete -- emotionally, sexually, intellectually, spiritually. Matt and Ellen, who consulted me as a couple, met through a parents' function at their children's school. Right away, they felt a strong, mutual connection. "If I believed in reincarnation," Matt told me, "I would say that we were together in a former life. We feel like ‘soul-mates.'" "I never thought a relationship could feel like this," said Ellen.
The "mind-body" affair is highly threatening to a marriage because it feels so "right." Of course, the couple may try to end it or turn it into a "just-in-the-head" affair, but that rarely works. Of all the different affairs, I've found that this kind most frequently leads to divorce and remarriage. The upside is that the new relationship often proves to be the right match for the couple. Nevertheless, it generates all the mixed consequences that all affairs produce, especially when children are involved.
Learning From Affairs
You might assume that you can isolate your affair from the rest of your life. Or, you might not give much thought to its consequences. Both are mistakes. If you're considering an affair or are in the midst of one, I suggest you consider the following:
- Some affairs are psychologically healthy. An affair can help leverage you out of a de-structive or deadened relationship that's beyond the point of renewal. The positive feelings of affirmation and restored vitality generated by an affair can activate the courage to leave a marriage when doing so is healthiest decision for both yourself and your partner. I've seen both men and women become psychologically healthier through an affair. It spring boarded them into greater emotional honesty and mature action. Of course, you have to be honest with yourself, here, and not rationalize yourself into having the affair while postponing necessary action.
- An affair can help renew your relationship with your existing partner. An affair can spur you to confront what you really want from your existing partner and motivate you to try creating it. Larry, a journalist, had an affair for nearly four years. After an argument with his lover one day, he realized he was beginning to feel much of the same irritation and sexual boredom that he felt towards his wife. "This is pretty screwed-up," he said to me. "I've got to do something." As he examined what he really wanted and valued he recognized his own role in evading long-standing conflicts in his marriage. He saw that he wanted to experience what he did during the affair...but with his wife. "I want my wife and lover to be the same person," he said. Larry began to confront, with his wife's participation, the real problems in their relationship and the steps it would take to rebuild it.
- There's always a reason for beginning an affair, and it relates to some issue in your existing relationship. It's far better to face and resolve that first. You don't just "find" yourself having an affair, or "end up" in bed with someone. It's your choice, but it can be beautifully rationalized. So take a look at what's missing or unfulfilling in your relationship, why that is, and whether you can -- or even want to -- do something about it. It's preferable to try renewing your relationship, or end it with mutual respect.
By acknowledging that an affair means you're living a lie in some form, you have a greater chance to deal with the emotional and practical consequences of the affair in a healthier way. And there are plenty of consequences -- for yourself, your children, your existing relationship. But if you fool yourself about the reasons for your affair and what it may set in motion, you can squander irreplaceable years, trapped within illusions and rationalizations. When it all comes crashing down, loneliness and emptiness may be all that remains. That's why I advocate awareness at the outset: You can become more conscious of your actions, and use that awareness to deal maturely with their consequences. Or yes, you can remain unconscious...but then you still have to deal with the consequences!