When politicians make the headlines for having an affair, people often respond by taking the moral high ground. Though affairs of ordinary people do not make it into the news, the truth is that any marriage can be vulnerable to an affair. Research suggests that infidelity happens in 30 to 45 percent of marriages. Since many affairs are kept secret, their frequency can be tricky to measure accurately.
What does cause good people to stray?
There are different types of affairs. They may be motivated by the need for excitement, sex, escape, feeling desirable, emotional connection, or a vehicle to leave a legitimately flawed marriage.
Affairs can happen to good people and even to marriages where partners seem content with kids who are thriving. Opportunity can provide temptation, putting even unlikely suspects at risk. In other instances, temptation and opportunity offer a welcome relief from loneliness in a marriage.
Interestingly, the typical man having an affair who seeks help is a relatively conventional man with traditional values who loves his wife – the type your mother would want you to marry because he would always be loyal to you. (In this example, I talk about men who have affairs, though this is not meant to imply that they are the only ones having them.) In these cases, he finds himself involved in an ongoing ambiguous relationship or an explicit emotional/sexual relationship. These men are unsuspecting culprits even to themselves because being disloyal has never been a consideration and being dutiful goes without question. They deny their vulnerability to temptation and do not see it coming until it’s too late.
The most common element driving the power of the affair is fantasy. The essential problem perpetuating the affair is failure to recognize fantasy for what it is. The glaring omission in awareness is that passion in romantic infatuation cannot be compared with intimacy in marriage. When a relationship is sealed off from the difficulties of reality involved in managing daily life, family and the natural cycles of long-term relationships, of course the sex and romance is compelling and easy.
The new relationship is a fantasy, a vacation-like relationship, revolving in its own orbit and, unbeknownst to both parties, usually only works within the context of the man being married. Often when this refuge is gone, the affair relationship typically is not sustainable long-term. Consistently, marriage to the affair partner is a major factor accounting for higher divorce rates in 2nd marriages.
The passion of new “romance” creates the feeling of being “in love” and is compelling like a drug. In fact, recent MRI research on the brain shows that during the infatuation state of romance, the brain shows the same changes as it does on cocaine. Though this evolved because it allows people to stay together long enough to mate, it has obvious drawbacks, especially in the case of romance outside marriage. The driving force behind decision-making becomes acquiring whatever provides the desired “rush,” whether drugs or illicit romance. Judgment is impaired and responsibility, values, and other people become less relevant.
Being immersed in the fantasy goes along with a failure to recognize that the marriage is in fact providing something essential: comfort, safety and security. Unfortunately, when this security is working effectively it’s invisible. It imparts a seamless, stabilizing, protective foundation which enables risk-taking, growth in other areas, and reduced stress.
Security alone may not be enough if there is a feeling of isolation or other unhappiness in the marriage. But without awareness that the marriage is meeting a vital need for stability, the man sees only that the new relationship offers something he does not have, which now feels vital. He harbors an inaccurate formulation of what he’s choosing between, going over the dilemma in his head—whether he should go for passion and magic or settle for a duller life and do the right thing.
To manage the conflict created by acting in ways that go against his values, a process of compartmentalization and rationalization occurs, enabling the man to essentially lead a “double life” without registering the impact of what he is doing. These defenses allow him to temporarily suspend reality and shut out emotional awareness of anything outside the fantasy.
Little does he know at the time that eventually he will be rapidly transported from the dream of “having it all” to the crash of losing everything. When a man tries to have relationships with two women, he soon realizes that he was probably in over his head with one. (What was he thinking?) But until reality sets in he doesn’t do the math, which reveals that this equation is easily reduced to zero.
The power of immersion in fantasy makes affairs much easier to get into than out of. Can these marriages survive? The good news is that marriages can thrive after this crisis, and most do. Part two of the series will offer tips for prevention and discuss the steps to healing from an affair.
Margolies, L. (2009). Who Said It’s Not Your Affair? Part 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/who-said-its-not-your-affair-part-1/0002340
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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