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Understanding Your Partner's Affair
Affairs can be devastating to any relationship. Deciding whether to stay or leave can seem like a confusing crap shoot. Should you get marriage counseling? Should your partner seek individual therapy? What caused the affair in the first place? Friends and family all have their opinions and advice to give. But before you decide whether to forgive or move on, it can helpful to determine what type of an affair actually occurred. You wouldn't make a decision about whether to amputate your foot without a proper diagnosis of the nature and prognosis of an illness, so neither should you decide whether to throw in the towel on a relationship without trying to understand the dynamics that resulted in the affair.
Not All Affairs Are Created Equal
While affairs can all produce common feelings of betrayal, pain, anger, disgust, and fear, these are the consequences of the affair and not causes. How upset a person becomes after being cheated on is not the primary determinant of how difficult the affair will be to correct. But, if we should avoid looking at just the emotional upset of the betrayed to gauge whether the situation is solvable, neither should we rely solely on the assurances of the betrayer that s/he will change. Rather, we should examine the type of affair that occurred and this can shed light on how extensive the problem is and what will be needed to correct it. Affairs are not cookie cutter events and each affair has a different cause, treatment, and prognosis.
The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time Affair
As difficult as it is to admit it, we are all human and subject to human frailties. We make mistakes; we hurt the ones we love. Painful to be sure, but this type of affair is perhaps the easiest affair to overcome. This affair occurs as a perfect storm of emotional susceptibility, opportunity, environment, and a momentary lapse of judgment and control. A person must first be susceptible. That means that they must either be in an emotionally vulnerable state, perhaps being separated from a loved one, or having recently experienced a loss or setback, or on the other end, be in a moment of rare success, achievement, or suddenly catapulted into a new personal arena. Vulnerability/rapid success is not enough to trigger a wrong place/wrong time affair, however. The person must also have several other factors in play at the same time. For an affair to ignite, a person who is in an emotionally susceptible state must also be in an environmental context in which the affair could readily take place. An essential attribute of this type of affair is that it is not planned out in advance and there is not a lot of arranging to be done. This type of affair is a sort of spontaneous combustion produced by a confluence of uncommon events. The context represents a sort of moment frozen in space and time, where previous roles, relationships and identities are blurred and not readily apparent.
Think of Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet on the Titanic. In the regular world, the two would have scarcely spoken to each other, but in the unique and surreal environment of the ship, an affair was born. The context of the ship, separated in space and time from their normal environments combined with the immediacy of Kate Winslet's emotional turmoil and attempt to commit suicide by jumping off of the ship, produced a certain chain reaction of events that simply would have not occurred in a normal context. Winslet's affair with diCaprio had the final ingredient: an ardent admirer who pursued her. In this type of affair, the person is either pursued in the moment, or there is mutual attraction. It is rare for a person in this type to be the sole strong pursuer. The overriding theme is giving in to momentary weakness rather than conquest. These affairs are either one night stands, or brief affairs that end as soon as the context changes (the ship docks). These affairs are typified by later regret, guilt, not wanting to pursue after the context changes, and re-commitment to the original relationship. In these affairs, relapse is unlikely because the series of events leading up to them are unlikely and if even one factor is out of place, the chain reaction stops. If the cheater has a previous history of affairs, then this affair is not the likely culprit. In wrong place/wrong time affairs, both spouses are, in effect, the victims of circumstance.
Healing from this type of affair is possible, and if the couple has good communication, the relationship can even emerge stronger. The affair can serve to wake the couple up and help them recognize how much they mean to each other. The cheater's remorse can have the effect of turning him/her into the pursuer of the primary relationship, easing the blow of the affair as the cheater pulls out all of the stops to prove his/her love for the spouse. This type of affair is amenable to traditional couples counseling and generally has good outcomes, as long as the couple works to keep up good communication and supports each other through the healing process. Many couples can even work through the affair on their own, or with the support of family, clergy, or community. The recovery time averages from 3-12 months. In these cases, individual therapy for the cheater is not the treatment of choice and can even worsen the situation by pulling the couple out of sync (unless of course there are other factors like individual mental illness, suicidal thoughts/actions, or an ongoing pre-existing therapeutic relationship). If other factors necessitate individual therapy, then adjunctive couples therapy can be added to keep the couple in balance.
The Titanic example is not a perfect fit because Kate Winslet had one key factor that is not usually associated with this type of affair: she was unhappily engaged to another man in an unequal relationship. We will discuss a different type of affair next where this factor will become relevant.
The Structural Affair
Some affairs are not the product of one individual's thoughts and actions, but rather the result of the structure of the primary relationship itself. In this type of affair, the cheater perceives him/herself in an unequal position with the spouse. Here, the cheater feels subordinate in the relationship and his/her attempts to directly rebalance the relationship fail or meet with obstruction. The relational imbalance can occur because of psychological factors, with one partner being more domineering or more meek, or it can occur due to contextual factors like one partner earning more income, being more popular or attractive, or having more control over decisions.
In structural affairs, the affair is a symptom: it is an indirect or even passive aggressive attempt to get back at the spouse or force a restructuring of the relationship. Structural affairs can be one-sided or a series of affairs by alternating spouses. In this type of affair, the relationship is the problem. It has a lopsided or rigid structure that prevents mutual problem solving, open communication, or perhaps is a relationship that once worked but failed to adjust to a change in life circumstance or life cycle. For example, these affairs can occur when a previously equal couple suffers a job loss of one spouse, or when one spouse is promoted significantly beyond the capacity of the other. Or the affair could occur after the birth of a child or during a major life transition. It is not uncommon for couples to have a great relationship as lovers, but when a child is born, over focus on the new child and act as-if they were now solely parents instead of being both parents and a couple.
Structural affairs must be carefully evaluated because if the cheater is the less powerful partner, after the affair is discovered the tendency could be for the betrayed partner to become even more heavy handed and blaming of the cheater. Of course, this will backfire on the betrayed spouse, because when they act in this way, they will unbalance the relationship even more and create yet more of the conditions that brought on the affair in the first place. Structural affairs require systemic change for full resolution. Unlike wrong place/wrong time affairs, structural affairs typically do not resolve with the passage of time or with momentary remorse and remonstrations of the cheater. In structural affairs, the problem is more than just communication, although blocked communication can exacerbate the problem. The problem is the structure of the relationship: the roles; responsibilities; decision making; rigidity; and closeness/distance of the couple. If the structural or power imbalance of the relationship is not identified and corrected, there will be a relapse of affairs or the eruption of other problems like gambling, drug abuse, or other destructive symptoms. Symptoms generally are not random, but rather will target the exact hot button issues of the spouse. If the spouse's vulnerability is emotional betrayal, the cheater will fall in love with someone else (with or without sexual consummation like an internet romance). If the spouse's vulnerability is sexual fidelity, the cheater will have extramarital sex. If the spouse's vulnerability is keeping up a public image, the cheater will be arrested with a prostitute. If the spouse's vulnerability is fiscal responsibility, the cheater will lose money gambling or take his/her lover on a junket.
This type of affair usually requires treatment to fully resolve. Although individual therapy can be helpful if the cheater has some pathology that causes them to be unusually passive or meek, the primary treatment is couples counseling, but with a skilled therapist who understands that both spouses will need to change to correct the problem. In this type of treatment, chastising the cheater or just trying to get the cheater to make amends to the betrayed is not likely to produce change in the appropriate direction and can make things worse. Communication skills training may be a necessary component, but probably not the curative factor. Communication skills in these cases is just a vehicle to allow for the restructuring of the roles and responsibilities of the couple. Here, the betrayed spouse must take up his/her own share of the change and understand the role s/he played in creating the conditions for the affair. In structural affairs, both spouses are responsible for what happened and both must play a role in creating change. Here, the relationship is the true patient and not the individuals. With the appropriate treatment that is weighted more toward the "roll up our sleeves and work" variety and less toward the "let's have a good cry" variety, couples can expect reasonably good results with an expected treatment duration of 8-18 months. Naturally, this is dependent on the skill of the therapist and the willingness of both partners to work and accept responsibility.
The Philandering/Pathological Affair
The philandering/pathological affair is probably what many people think of when they learn that someone has cheated. This type of affair is expressed somewhat differently in males than females, but both share a common prognosis and similar treatment modalities. In this type of affair, there is a long standing pattern of cheating. The cheater typically has many "conquests" and is frankly unable to keep his/her pants zipped. Some key clues that an affair is philandering and not structural is if there is a history of affairs in previous relationships (more prominent in men), a history of sexual abuse as a child (more prominent in women), a history of drug abuse, or a history of significant emotional instability. In this type of affair, the cheater might be a person with a diagnosable mental disorder. As a disclaimer, it is possible that the person is merely immature, especially if s/he is chronologically very young (teenager or early twenties). So if you are experiencing this as a teen, hang in there, they could grow out of it. But for the purposes of this article, we will assume that the affair is occurring in a presumably mature adult.
Chronic hyper-sexuality can be a symptom of several serious mental or physical disorders. On the medical side, hyper-sexuality can be caused by a variety of problems ranging from brain tumors to Alzheimer's disease.
And on the mental health side multiple affairs could be a sign of
- "sexual compulsiveness" (sometimes called impulse control disorder, not otherwise specified),
- bipolar disorder (a mood disorder punctuated by periods of impulsiveness and mania),
- drug abuse (especially crystal methamphetamine abuse, cocaine abuse, ecstasy abuse, and alcohol abuse),
- borderline personality disorder (labile moods, unstable relationships, rage, alternating fears of abandonment and engulfment, impulse control problems),
- histrionic personality disorder (dramatic, needs to be center of attention, exaggerated appearance, sexual profligacy),
- narcissistic personality disorder (self absorption, superciliousness masking internal emptiness),
- antisocial personality disorder (no conscience, unfeeling, lack of empathy)
The dynamics can be varied. One common pattern is the need to make multiple sexual conquests to confirm one's own attractiveness, value, or power. While the structural affair can be enacted to gain power in a relationship, the philandering affair can be more geared to exert personal power or dominance, regardless of the health of the primary relationship. The wrong place/wrong time affair is a problem between the self and circumstances; the structural affair is a problem between self and partner; the pathological affair is a problem between the self and self. With the pathological affair, the names and faces of the primary relationships may change, but the pattern remains.
Pathological affairs based on personality disorders are deep seated problems, frequently associated with a history of child abuse, that express themselves as a longstanding pattern of unstable relationships, but the primary problem is the internal dynamics of the person him/herself. Narcissistic types make conquests to prove their own worth (like certain politicians); antisocial types use sex to control or dominate (like a pimp); histrionic types seduce others to keep their place in the spotlight; borderline types test boundaries of relationships and sometimes see their only value as sex objects because of childhood abuse.
Pathological affairs based on drugs and alcohol can be evident by a broader pattern of deteriorating performance in several life domains. Once the wheels start to come off the cart, problems can escalate at work, in parenting, with legal problems. If the affairs only happen while drunk or high, then this could be the culprit. If the affairs transcend drug/alcohol use, then further assessment is needed.
Pathological affairs based on sexual compulsions can be confined to this life arena, although some people also use drugs in an ancillary way. Drugs and compulsions can reinforce each other and sometimes operate in a similar fashion.
The prognosis for pathological affairs is significantly worse than for the previously mentioned affair types. Treatment duration is typically longer, with higher relapse rates. The treatment of choice for this type of affair is individual or group psychotherapy, or drug treatment. Professional help is strongly advised. Couple's therapy should be used with caution as it could deflect attention from the primary problem: a mental disorder or drug abuse. It might be best for the cheater to undergo psychological evaluation and treatment alone for a period of time before conjoint therapy is attempted. Unlike structural affairs, treatment for this type of affair may include having the cheater take sole responsibility for his/her actions and make amends, and block attempts by the cheater to blame the betrayed for the problem.
The bridge affair is a type of affair that acts as a transition from one relationship to another. Bridge affairs have some characteristics of structural affairs and some characteristics of pathological affairs. People that engage in bridge affairs can have individual psychological problems, but usually at a much lower level than the major pathologies listed above. And bridge affairs can involve both partners. Bridge affairs can represent a sort of avoidance of problems and come in two main varieties.
The first variety of bridge affair can be caused by internal states of conflict
avoidance or even external pressure from family, religion, or society
to remain married even though it is an unhappy arrangement. The person's position basically could be "I don't love you, but I can't bring myself to break up with you because it might cause conflict, so I will cheat on you until you leave me." Or it could be "I don't love you and you don't love me, but we have to stay married on the surface, but underneath, I will live my own life." This variety is like an escape hatch: "I want out and this is the way."
In the second variety of the bridge affair, the person also wants to avoid conflict. But unlike the first variety, here the person may not want to leave, but fears that s/he might be dumped and so creates a bridge affair to protect him/herself from the pain of a breakup. This variety can be caused by communication problems in the relationship. Communication is blocked, or one person is misreading what the other person is intending. This variety can also be caused psychologically by avoidance of conflict and hypersensitivity to pain. This variety is like a life raft: "I am at risk of pain and need a safe haven."
Bridge affairs of the first variety have a poor prognosis. Couples counseling rapidly arrives at the recognition that the relationship is over and treatment is focused on how to separate in the best way and helping the betrayed deal with his/her loss and move on with life. Treatment may begin as couples therapy, but soon become individual counseling. In couples that cannot or will not divorce, treatment can involve renegotiating the marriage as a marriage of convenience and not one based on romantic love.
Bridge affairs of the second variety can be treated with either individual or couples therapy and can have a good prognosis. Treatment can involve communication skills training, identification and expression of emotions, assertiveness training, and desensitization.
Go Slow and Avoid Jumping to Conclusions
As you can see, there are many types of affairs, each with their own treatments, causes, and outcomes. Using a one size fits all approach is the surest way to failure. When you are living the situation, it can be difficult to see things clearly and objectively due to all of the emotions swirling around. Go slow, examine the problem from all sides and seek professional help when necessary.