The Anatomy of an Affair

Posted by Michael Dale Kimmel in Columns 19 Aug 2016
photo courtesy of nymag.com

photo courtesy of nymag.com

How do affairs happen?

Typically, in my psychotherapy office, when I work with a couple that is struggling with the aftermath of an affair (e.g. one person was unfaithful to the other), it’s common for the person who cheated to say “I don’t know how it happened, I just kind of fell into it.”

But, upon examination, it becomes clear that there is usually a predictable chain of events that led to the affair.  This column is about how affairs “happen” and what you can do to prevent them from happening to you.

In my experience as a psychotherapist, here are some of the steps I’ve observed that make up the anatomy of an affair:

1. Planting seeds. An affair happens when a desire for intimacy (emotional, physical, sexual) is not met by your partner. Gradually you begin to – subconsciously – search for someone else to meet those needs.

2. Moving closer to someone else who really “gets” you. You begin sharing intimacies with a new person – let’s call him/her your “special friend”. You tell her/him secrets about yourself that formerly only your partner knew. You experience a real emotional high because this new person REALLY understands you.

3. Pulling away from your partner. You share less-and-less with your partner, and, not wanting your partner to be jealous, you keep the details of your relationship with your special friend a secret. Congratulations: you’ve just established the perfect foundation for infidelity.

4. Intimacy shifts from your partner to your lover. In her book “Committed”“ Elizabeth Gilbert writes: “We believe that if two people really love each other, then intimacy will somehow be intuitive to them, and their marriage will run forever on the mere power of affection. Because all you need is love! Or so I believed in my youth.”  We believe the Hollywood version of effortless intimacy that doesn’t need assistance, tools or maintenance, so we let what we have with our partner slip away.

5. The trigger event and the big leap. Something bad (or good) happens and who do you want to share it with? Yes, your special friend. And one day, you find that she/he comes closer, you wrap your arms around each other (only wanting to be close, right?) and then you find yourself kissing this person and realizing that, omigod, you LOVE them!  And the affair is off and running.

6. The aftermath. You face your betrayed and shattered partner (whom you still care about, of course) trying to explain that you never meant to hurt him/her, and you’re so sorry. Resulting in: intense pain all around.

How to prevent this scenario? The moment you find yourself sharing secrets with your special friend that ought to be shared with your partner, let a warning bell go off inside your head: Danger! Danger! Big problems ahead!

This is a pivotal point. Instead of heading into an affair, muster your courage, go home and tell your partner that you feel yourself drifting away from her/him. Tell your partner “I’m tempted to be intimate with someone else, but I don’t want to.”

Ask your partner for help: “How can we get back what we used to have?” Reaffirm your love for them and –as kindly as possible – tell them what’s missing in your relationship.

This is difficult, grown-up stuff. In the short run, it may seem easier to keep secrets from your partner and avoid emotionally wrenching conversations. But, in the long run, that’s how good relationships are destroyed.

It’s no surprise that, over time, most of us get bored with repetition. Relationships are no exception. If we become uninterested in our partner, we may look elsewhere for excitement .

Or we can be honest with our partner and work with him/her to keep the relationship good.

And, let’s be clear, this isn’t about monogamy, it’s about cultivating intimacy over time. Most of us, if we’re lucky, will eventually face this challenge: how do I keep this good thing going with this good woman/man?

I can’t sum it up better than the poet e.e. cummings:

“be of love (a little)/

more careful/

than of everything”