Affairs: Death of Your Relationship or Wake-up Call? by Dawn J.  Lipthrott, LCSW Reproduced with permission from the author An affair can bring a marriage or committed relationship to an end, or it can be a wake-up call for the person involved in it, the person betrayed by it and for the two of them as a couple.  It is devastating even when couples go on to repair and renew their marriage or primary relationship.  But it can be done. In this article we will briefly look at some possible causes for affairs, types of affairs and the first steps toward living and loving with awareness and commitment to creating the relationship you most want. Why does the affair happen?  There are many reasons that affairs happen, and often the reason is actually a combination of reasons.  Here are some of the main ones: 1.  Escape from distress:  One of the biggest reasons people move into affairs is a feeling or sense of disappointment, sadness, loneliness and other feelings of distress that arise in their marriage or relationship.  These and other forms of distress often build up slowly in a relationship.  If you and your partner are in a committed relationship you are constantly creating a relationship climate, whether you think they are or not, whether you mean to or not.  You are not only creating it when you talk to one another, or when you fight, or when you make love -- although you are certainly creating it then too.  You are creating it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  You cannot NOT be creating it! Everything you say, do, fail to say or do, and the way you say or do it creates the climate.  If you use a harsh or helpless tone, you add to distress.  If you blow off or discount your partner's concerns, whether you mean to or not, you create distress.  If you nag, criticize, or use sarcasm you create distress.  If you shut your partner out, you create distress.  It doesn't matter whether you shut them out because you are angry at them, stressed at work or from traffic, worried about finances or simply wanting to relax and veg out in front of the TV.  The BEHAVIOR creates distress, no matter what your INTENTION or reason is. You create distress when you refuse to talk, when you pout, when you withhold sex, when you have unemotional sex, when you forget to call your partner to just say hi, when something or someone else is more important than your partner--even if it's the children or your work.  You create distress when your partner expresses a need and desire more than once and you refuse to grow and stretch, all the while claiming "that's just not me," refusing to step out of your comfort zone to develop more of yourself.  You even create the climate by the thoughts you have and the things you tell yourself about your partner and your relationship.  You create distress by labeling your partner as 'self-centered', 'controlling', 'needy', etc., even if you only tell yourself.  You tend to find or project what you look for and focus on. Just as you create distress, you can also create happiness, fulfillment, a feeling of aliveness and connection.  You can think about the good qualities of your partner and how glad you are that he or she is in your life.  You can express appreciation and love through words, touch, actions, a look, or a smile.  You create a positive climate when you do little thoughtful things for the other, when you listen without putting in your own 2 cents.  You create love when you do loving things and entertain loving thoughts.  You create love and intimacy when you can talk about frustrations, concerns, fears and dreams respectfully and in a way that leads to connection. I could go on, but you get the idea.  You constantly create the climate --distressful or loving -- whether you are at home, at work, or 2000 miles apart.  And you may also get the idea that BOTH of you are doing that 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  If the climate is loving or distressful, you have a big part in it! When unmet needs, feelings of disconnection, fighting, withdrawal or inattention build up then people look for a way out -- and a way to get their needs met and feel important, special and loved.  For some that means turning toward the children.  For others, it means throwing themselves into their work.  For others it means building an impenetrable wall and withdrawing into themselves.  For others, it means turning toward someone else. 2) Affairs often begin as innocent relationships.  Several things change them into affairs: a) Living in distress, someone offers a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear or a word of encouragement and appreciation.  When the distressed person receives, care, concern, attention, respect, interest or other things missing in their own relationship, they have moved several steps closer to an affair.  They feel more connected than to their spouse or primary partner. b) The relationship seems to snowball toward a sexual relationship.  Every person always has a choice to make, and makes choices over and over throughout the development of a relationship.  Taking in the good things of the other person, feeling cared about, draw the person more and more into the relationship.  Then something else comes in. c) Rationalization and denial helps the person make choices contrary to their core values.  The person tells him or herself that the relationship is harmless, that they are not doing anything wrong; it's just a friendship, etc...  Even when the person feels themselves being pulled more and more deeply into the relationship, the denial and rationalization continues so that they can justify it to themselves, and of course, to anyone who may ask about it. d) Then two things even more powerful push up against their rationale for choices made: fantasy and petrochemicals.   I want to be clear.   The person spiraling down this path is no victim.  He or she is constantly faced with choices.   Many people faced with those choices use their commitment, their core personal or spiritual values or their regard for their partner and or family to step out of the spiral.  There are constant choice points along the way.  No one is pulled in against his or her will. Again, the climate in ANY relationship is constantly being created.  So if the person is saying things to themselves like, "THIS new person cares about me.  My partner cares more about him/herself than about me.  He or she never has time for me.  I try to talk and he or she never listens.  THIS person sees me for who I am, who is interested in me, who wants to be with me, who compliments me." Two climates are being created -- the person is adding to the distress of their committed relationship, and nurturing the new relationship.  They are making choices. Fantasy and neurochemicals:  As the person takes in and basks in the attention, understanding, care and concern and fantasy come into the picture.  Fantasy begins to develop.  "This new person is so much more loving.  This is what I need.  If I'm with them, they'll be like this with me -- which is what I always wanted -- and I'll feel happy like this forever." The spiral deepens as the person spends more and more time thinking about the new person, imagining what it will be like when they meet again, and what it might be like to be with this person.  The person also imagines things he or she could say or do to make this new person happy, that would express the appreciation and love they now feel. Around this time, if not before, neurochemicals start to go into another level of production and fuel the feeling of connection, chemistry, energy and aliveness.  The person feels 'in love' again.  The main chemical is PEA, related to a family of amines like amphetamines.  The person experiences a 'high' which only adds to the rationalizing and fantasy. More rationalization: "If this new person makes me feel like this, which I haven't felt in so long, if ever before, then it must mean that we're meant to be.  Maybe we're really soul mates.  My feelings don't lie.  Why shouldn't I experience happiness?"  And so it grows. If any of you are in this stage, you may not believe what I am about to say, but I'm going to say it anyway.  THIS WONDERFUL FEELING WILL END! It is a physiological fact.  The person in this stage is on a drug!  The high will end.  The next phase of relationship will come.  You will eventually experience the same kind of frustrations you did in your original relationship, because you recreate what you need to realize your healing and growth as a human being.  God, Nature or the Universe is not interested in your comfort.  It is interested in your wholeness. 3.  Time, energy, attention and thoughts directed toward the new relationship automatically add to the climate of disconnection and distress in the primary relationship.  The involved partner pulls back even more from their primary relationship -- in thought and behavior, even when the betrayed partner does not know about the affair.  Energy, attention, focus and aliveness is going toward the fantasy partner and there is no way that the diminishment or loss of those things is not going to be felt at some level in the original relationship. 4.  People put themselves in situations that can easily develop into affairs, even when that is not their original intention. Having lunch or a drink alone, working together alone, all create possible situations.  Add alcohol and you take it up a whole other level.  Alcohol affects the frontal lobes of the brain which is the section that normally cause us to think about the consequences of our actions, the impact it will have on others, our personal moral values that would normally guide our choice. 5.  Some people with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are susceptible to brief or repetitive affairs, because of a tendency to impulsive behavior -- again, because those parts of the brain that would stop most people, don't operate in the same way -- similar to the effect of alcohol.  That does not mean that everyone with ADD will have an affair, but rather that they can be vulnerable because of their impulsivity. If you think ADD might be a factor (the person can be easily distracted, need constant stimulation or entertainment, must be busy doing something, forgets about time / agreements / promises, etc.) I encourage you to read either the book Driven to Distraction, or Answers to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell.  Hallowell is a psychologist who is an expert on ADD, both because that is his specialty, and because he too has ADD.  The book addresses symptoms, behaviors, and suggestions for children in one section and adults in another section. 6.  Some people involved in affairs have developmental issues around commitment, closeness and other areas. Certain needs become frozen.  Certain anxieties appear in any relationship as it deepens and moves toward emotional intimacy.  Actually, that is true for all of us to some degree or another.  That's why committed relationship can be a primary path toward healing and growth.  However, certain frozen needs can make a person more vulnerable to seeking solace and relief in affairs.  A fear of intimacy can also contribute to vulnerability to affairs. 7.  Lack of knowledge and skill in dealing with conflict, frustrations, hurts and anger. When couples don't have adequate skills in dealing with conflict, which is a part of any close relationship, efforts seem to only add to the problem or have no positive effect.  This is a major cause of distress.  There are fights, hurt feelings, things said that hurt.  No one wants to live in that kind of climate.  The person gives up trying or simply blames their partner.  They then believe they just need to find the right person.  Those skills can be learned -- counseling, coaching, workshops, books and tapes can make a difference.  There are qualified professionals in your area.   Finally, do men and women want a satisfying emotional relationship? Yes.  Do both men and women want to feel valued, cherished, respected, appreciated, loved, and cared about by their spouse or partner? You bet.  Can men and women use their ability to make and keep a commitment, use their core values and use their frontal lobes to think about the consequences and impact on their lives and others as they make their choices? Yes, yes, and yes. These are just some of the reasons affairs happen.  But as you can see, there is always choice. Copyright Dawn J.  Lipthrott, LCSW,  Director of the Relationship Learning Center in Winter Park, Florida.    Copies of this article or parts thereof may be reproduced for personal use but must contain copyright information.  Reproduction for financial gain is prohibited.
Affairs - Death to a Marriage?
Suzanne Corcoran, LCSW-C, Counseling for Couples and Individuals in Rockville, Maryland