The anatomy of an affair

By Ginger Manley | Posted: Tuesday September 18, 2012

September 2012

Dear Ginger

I have just learned that my husband has been unfaithful. He says he did it to get my attention. He regrets his behavior and he wants us to reconcile. Do you think affairs can ever have a positive effect on a marriage?


Dear Monica

I am so sorry for what you are going through. Next to the loss of a spouse, an affair can be one of the greatest losses in a marriage. A good marriage is rooted in honesty. Honesty is what allows a couple to be truly intimate with each other. I am not speaking of intimate in a sexual way, but intimate in a way where each partner can share completely about him or herself—hopes, joys, sadness, fears, anger, and all the other states of emotion and thoughts. When a couple can be honest in these ways—which is very difficult for most of us to do—there is almost never room for a secret relationship to take hold.

Affairs require secrecy in order to have power. When any of us withhold knowledge about secret relationships from our mate, we set up a power differential that is unhealthy for both people in the marriage—and really, also, is unhealthy for the affair partner. The secrecy is what keeps tension going in an affair. Will she/he be where we have pre-arranged? Will he/she look or act as hot as my imagination wants me to think? Will the sex be as wild and crazy as I fantasize? Will I be able to do this (again) without my spouse finding out? Will I be able to continue this without my affair partner finding out I’m married? All of these considerations “up the ante,” to use gamblers language. And having an affair is a lot like gambling—the odds of winning long-term are not very good, but it can be a fun ride when the dice or the cards are going one’s way.

People have affairs for lots of reasons. Some do so just because they can. Maybe they have more money or more position than do lots of other people, and if so, maybe there are always wanna-be partners hanging around and not a lot of folks saying no to the person with the power. In my practice, I often heard stories about men or women in public office or who were sports or entertainment figures, and there were groupies literally throwing themselves at these folks. Some have affairs because they are bored with their present marriage and it is easier to create a new relationship on the outside than to deal with the problems in the ongoing relationship. Some people get “love sickness.” They fall in love (probably it is lust) with someone with whom they work, who goes to their church, or with whom they socialize. Occasionally this works out for a long-term relationship, but usually the fire goes out on one side or the other pretty fast. Other people fall into a pattern of compulsive affairs, either with strangers or with people they know.

The getting into and early stages of any secret relationship have very powerful emotional charges, similar to those released when we read a good mystery book or watch a competitive event, like during the recent Olympics. What’s going to happen? What will be the hurdles? How will the characters handle the challenges? Who will win? But as most affairs move into repetition, the charge often decreases, causing one or both affair members to need to escalate something to produce another charge. People take more risks. They leave behind clues. Often one partner gets bored and wants to move on, which may add further drama.

Back at home, the uninvolved spouse may be clueless or may have some gut-level notion that something is not right, but no concrete proof on which to nail a case. If the spouse becomes sufficiently suspicious, he or she may begin to search for evidence to substantiate the gut feeling. While the involved spouse’s actions are inherently dishonest, now the other spouse begins to engage in dishonest actions, like searching private emails or cell phone calls or credit card bills, or sometimes even hiring a detective to verify suspicions.

At some point all of this will come to light, usually in an angry, confronting manner. Things are said; threats are made; guilt and grief and anger are compounded. Most folks need the help of an uninvolved third person, like a counselor or pastor to help them look at the whole picture, including what has been happening on both sides of the street. This is not to imply that you did anything to cause your husband to act the way he did, but there are always issues for each individual as well as for the coupleship.

If both of you are willing to be completely honest—to disclose even the hardest parts of the truth—and then are willing to rebuild trust, one day at a time, I think the newly remodeled marriage may be stronger than ever. I have never seen an affair that is done to get the other mate’s attention have a positive effect just because the straying partner decides to give up the affair and come home. If he will not go with you for help, Monica, get there by and for yourself. What you learn may save your life and it could save your marriage.








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