Answering the “Why?” of an Affair

Every week, I sit with couples trying to find their way through the devastation of infidelity in search of safety and stability in their marriage. The choice to stay in a relationship even with all the pain of the recovery process is courageous. Fleeing to solitude or another relationship seems so enticing. The wounded partner, caught in the confusion of the trauma, desperately wants clarity. Usually the the basic question is Why? Why did you need this? Why didn’t you turn to me? Why was I not enough?  Usually it is uncovered that an affair has less to do about the hurt partner then about the frailties of the offender who feels entitled, wants attention, a thrill or another who can commiserate with the difficulties a married life.

Then there is the question of how much you want to know about the details. Many hurt spouses want to know exact dates to get perspective on how unknowing they were. These are healthy questions to ask and are part of integrating the betrayal. But when it comes to sexual details proceed with caution. This information can be more destructive than healthy.

Each partner has a part to play if they want to have conversations that lead to healing. The betrayed partner deserves thoughtful honest answers to the why questions. A therapist can help to keep the focus on self reflection instead of partner/marriage blame.  Personal responsibility and self reflection has to come before reflecting on the relationship.

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The Love Avoidant

So, what does it mean to be called a Love Avoidant?  A Love Avoider is someone who resists our natural, human need to connect. A Love Avoider has walled him/herself off as to negate the need and the desire for human contact on a deep and emotionally intimate level. He/she is more interested in protection and survival than connection and relationship. What does this look like in a relationship?

**May be superficially pleasant and even charismatic;

**Hyper -independent. He/she does not seem to need anything from their partner except to be alone and often rebuffs the attempts of others to nurture, help or give;

**Despite this he/she will often be the giver or  caretaker in the relationship!

**Need stimulation outside the relationship.and spends much of time outside of the relationship – working, sports, with friends, projects, keeping busy.

”An affair is a classic avoidant response to avoid real emotional intimacy in the relationship-the ultimate in FAUX INTIMACY.

**Seems ‘not present’  when together give one word or vague answers to questions. You can’t really get to know this person beyond a certain level. Wants to be alone frequently;

**Hides behind walls of silence or anger with signs of hidden hostility such as eye rolling, sighing, interrupting;

**Withdraws or leaves early from social events;

**Has grown more and more distant since the early stages of a relationship;

**Perceives and complains that being controlled, smothered, suffocated and/or that partner is  “too needy;”

**Is non-committal. The partner never feels totally in the relationship;

**Experiences the relationship as a duty or obligation;

**Engages in a possible addiction or other self-medicating behaviors.

Maybe the Love Avoidant has it right. After all, being in a relationship is a risky and emotionally dangerous. You could in fact get hurt! . So is it wise to be afraid and to protect ourselves from being flattened…… More on what it takes to be brave,,, and the payoff!!

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Boundaries in relationships – bombs and sneak attacks!

I am grateful to Terry Real (renowned couples therapist and author of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” on male depression and “The New Rules of Marriage”)  for his Relational Life Theory. Terry’s theory provides a blueprint for individual growth in relationship via his Relationship Grid.

In the Relationship Grid, there are two axes. The vertical axis delineates the continuum of self-esteem. At the top, we have Grandiosity. Or what we call, going “one-up.” I think that I am better than everyone else. The rules don’t apply to me. My truth is the truth. I am entitled and contemptuous. judgmental and condescending. At the bottom, we have Toxic Shame. As opposed to appropriate shame which is appropriately feeling bad about something I did, where it makes sense to feel bad about something I did or did not do, toxic shame is says that I am bad. What this means in relationship is that I get stuck in the bad feelings I have about myself (narcissism) which prevents me from focusing on you, what you are feeling and our relationship. I feel flawed and worthless so I am going “one-down.” Healthy self esteem is midway between grandiosity and shame…neither better nor worse – just the same as you. Grandiosity can take the form of self righteousness, arrogance and contempt. It can also be subtle…an eye roll is the perfect exhibit of this. You see your partner, not as an equal, but as one who can be dismissed.

The horizontal axis on the Relationship Grid outlines our boundaries. A boundary is a psychological divide that both protects and contains.  A protective boundary shields me from the world. Like the rind of an orange, my protective boundary is the barrier to a word or action penetrates my heart and causes pain – unless there is some truth to it and I need to take it in and think about it. The protective boundary allows me to think.. Is this true or not? If the answer is “no,” then it flies off my back like water on a duck. If the answer is “yes” or a partial “yes,” then there is information there that is valuable for me to take in and utilize for my benefit.The containing boundary protects the world from us. It is the restraint that prevents us from saying things we regret- spewing out hurtful attacks that though recoverable, take a toll long term in a relationship. It can be subtle and passive. Teasing and criticism are shots with silencers -as harmful long term as tirades of emotion.

Marinate on these concepts for a while. Where and how do you throw missiles in your relationship?  (porous containing boundary) When do you let what someone says about you affect you more than what they may be saying about how they feel? (porous protective boundary)  More to come on looking at which quadrant you usually gravitate to in your relationship. And also more examples of how this shows up in my room!

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Low sexual desire

The new book by sexual educator Emily Nagasaki is my new ‘go to’ to recommend for couples experiencing  low sexual desire.  Much of the takeaway is simple re-education and understanding on the question: What is normal sexual desire? Some fascinating excerpts directly from Emily.

Lesson One There’s a very wide range of women’s sexual normalcy.

Emily Nagoski: “We’re taught, from the very beginning in our culture, a model of sexual response that is based entirely on how men work, and so [the assumption goes] the extent to which women fail to be like men is the extent to which they fail to be sexually normal, and that’s just not true…The standards, for me, for healthy, normal sex are consent, lack of unwanted pain and satisfaction. When all three of those things are there, you’re doing really well. Satisfaction’s complicated, though, because that’s based on, ‘I have an expectation of what it should be like and I either do or don’t match that expectation.’ And if your expectations are based on incorrect information, then you’re going to be dissatisfied, not for medical reasons, but because your expectation doesn’t make sense for who your body actually is.”

Lesson Two: Women do NOT understand their bodies. What culture tells us about sex is not what science tells us about sex.

EN: “Amazingly little has changed. Students walk into my class feeling very sophisticated, like they know a whole lot about sex, and what they know a lot about is what their culture has taught them about sex, and they know a lot about it. And that, it turns out, has very little relationship to what the science says about sex. So, halfway through my first lecture, which is about anatomy, they’re sitting there with their jaws in their lap, having had their minds blown about, like, how big the clitoris actually is and what’s the deal with the hymen. Things they really thought they knew that it turns out, no.”

Lesson Three: . There is a dual control model of sexual response – Accelerator and Brakes. 

EN: “There’s two parts to it, and one part is the gas pedal — or accelerator — which means the other part has to be the brake. So, the accelerator responds to all the sexually relevant information in the environment — everything you see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or imagine that your brain codes as sexually relevant and it sends the “turn on” signal. The brake, at the same time that that’s happening, is noticing all the very good reasons not to be turned on right now — everything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste or imagine — that’s a potential threat, and it sends a signal that says “turn off.” So, arousal is not just the process of turning on the ons, it’s also turning off the offs.”

Lesson Four:  If we want to change the “ons” and “offs,” we have to relearn:

EN: “There’s a normal bell curve distribution of how sensitive the accelerator and the brakes are. Most of us are just heaped up in the average section. There are some people with extra sensitive, or insensitive accelerators and extra sensitive or not sensitive brakes — most of us are just average. And, from the moment we’re born, our brains are learning what to count as sexually relevant and what to count as a potential threat, and that’s what we can change. It’s learned. There’s almost nothing that’s actually innately sexual, so we learn that and we can unlearn it and teach it something new.”

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Why people risk all for an affair

Texting is one way the other woman or man enters the family.

I work a lot with couples who are recovering from an infidelity. Inevitably the question comes up “How could he/she risk all that we’ve built together for an affair?”

Many therapists immediately turn to the marriage/relationship for reasons to explain why an affair happened.  And since very often the transgressor seeks to share blame with the ‘resolute spouse’  , the ground is fertile to spend countless sessions on ‘what went wrong in the marriage to have this happen.

My perspective is that most of the time an affair should be seen through the lens of the participating individual as a misplaced growth experience just as are expressions of self-loathing, (getting drunk) of rage (an indulgence of verbal abuse) or of entitlement. (I should be able to….fill in the blank….if I want.  The thing with infidelity is that it compromises the lives of so many other family members. So, why do people act in a way where they could be taking the risk of losing everything – their family, their children, their reputation, their hard won existence ?? For a glimmer of …what exactly? What is so compelling on the other side?

As a therapist I can emphasize the self-destructiveness or emphasize the longing, the quest of what one finds there. An affair is one of the most powerful ways to “beat back deadness” in there lives.  I don’t always think that there is always something missing in the relationship – as in, if the relationship had this “missing thing” it would vaccinate against this wanderlust.  An affair for many people it’s an experience of autonomy, of self affirmation as in, this thing I do totally for myself. Often it springs from deeply repressed feelings that I have only been doing for others, That I’ve only thought about everybody else’s needs and I have not attended to mine at all.  That sacrificing this life I’ve built is what is necessary to be free. I talk about this not as an excuse, but rather as a narrative that I often hear to answer the question, Why did you do it?

It may have been that I have taken care of my four kids, I have taken care of my dying mother, I have taken care of my family, I have taken care of my employees, I have taken care of my alcoholic sibling, I have taken care of my unemployed husband or partner, and I find myself in the libidinal space of an affair in which I can, for the first time, attend to myself.  The question is why I must go to a secluded, disconnected secret place of an affair to experience the feeling of having my needs met?  That is one place where I know I’m not taking care of anybody else. In this space no one my life can enter and therefore nobody can come in and ask me anything. And of course as they talk about themselves they are not thinking of the implications, only the personal motivations. The real trick is navigating these waters in the presence of the resolute spouse. It’s ultimately a differentiation experience and one of the gifts of couples therapy. 

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Codependence 101

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Codependence in couple relationships is a favorite topic of mine. It is one of the most common, unhealthy relationship patterns and underlies both major and minor struggles in the relationship. It is also at the heart of parental struggles to launch their children into a productive life in their 20s.

The term ‘codependent is used widely and often misunderstood. Briefly it is “a dysfunctional helping relationship where one person’s help supports and enables the other’s underachievement, irresponsibility, immaturity, addiction, procrastination, or poor mental or physical health” Some ways this happens: rescuing the other from self-imposed predicaments, bearing their negative consequences for them, accommodating their unhealthy or irresponsible behaviors, such that they don’t develop competence.

The helper’s emotional enmeshment leads them to keenly feel the other’s struggles and to feel guilt at the thought of limiting their help or terminating the relationship. Attempts to set limits on are usually difficult, guilt producing and thus not sustained.

Helpers drawn to codependent relationships find intimacy in relationships when their main role is as rescuer, supporter, and confidante. ‘Helpers’ depend on the other’s poor functioning to satisfy their own emotional needs like  the need to feel needed and the need to keep the other close due to fears of abandonment. Their relative feeling of competence often boosts low self-esteem.

On the other side, the dependent partner is bound to the helper since the helper’s aid has impeded their maturity, life skills, or confidence. In some cases it enables an addiction. Their poor functioning brings them needed love, care, and concern from the helper, and reduces their motivation to change.

Because of their profound dependence on the helper they are unlikely to have other close relationships which intensifies their reliance. This mutual dependence makes the relationship very resistant to change.

When codependence shows up in my room the task at hand is to take a look at boundary setting and motivate the helper to see her own needs for self care as relevant and ultimately more helpful in the long term to their dependent partner. More on boundaries in a different post!

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Esther Perel on avoiding Kitchen Sinking during arguments

I recently ran across a blogpost by Esther Perel on how to avoid ‘Kitchen-Sinking’ during arguments. Esther is a brilliant therapist and I am familiar with her work on sex and power in relationships. It was wonderful to find her addressing such a mundane, conflict management technique in her inimitable way!

When kitchen sinking happens, one silly dirty dish can start a fight and then piling on other dirty dishes can fill the sink and distract from the issue at hand. Another pitfall happens when we make the argument personal and not about the topic that started it. ie. Being irritated over spouse’s not helping with the household becomes “This is because your mom spoiled you -it’s impossible to live with a clueless man like you.”

Simple concepts like this can really help a couple fight fairly and recover more quickly from arguments.


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Healing After Infidelity

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Building trust after an affair is one of the most daunting challenges a couple will ever face.

Think of a relationship as a savings account. Every moment you spend together from the instant you meet, you’re making a deposit. Those shared experiences, both good and bad, are gradually building your bond, padding your balance. Learning about an affair, then, is the equivalent of discovering your account’s been hacked. It’s an abrupt vulnerability compounded by profound insecurity. One moment, you feel immune to almost any hardship. The next, everything’s falling away.

All is not lost, though. Not as long as you don’t want it to be. Healing after infidelity will take time, but it is possible. And not in some partial, superficial way. A complete restoration is within reach when both partners are dedicated to achieving it.

Angela Winslow’s treatment starts with a four-session assessment, first with both partners and then separately. This is going to be a gradual process, and one that’s never guaranteed, so it’s critical that her understanding of your relationship be as thorough as possible. If you don’t embark on the treatment from an honest place, there’s little hope that you’re going to reach any meaningful inroads.

So, you’ll start together, the three of you. Angela will ask each of you to describe your relationship before and after the affair. For the next two sessions, she’ll meet with each of you individually to learn more about you, including your relationship histories and any experiences that may have influenced your behavior in them. Then you’ll reconvene for the fourth session. There, she’ll share her observations and outline a course of treatment.

Affairs aren’t strictly limited to physical acts. In this day, with such easy access to anyone and -thing, they can catch even the offending party off-guard. A simple, otherwise meaningless conversation on Facebook, for example, triggers a dangerous progression that may not extend beyond words on a screen, but it still signals trust problems in a relationship.

Regardless of its form, an affair can be an opportunity for personal growth and a more fulfilling relationship. It won’t come easily. In fact, it may be one of the most trying experiences of your life. Which is why you’ll need guidance, a professional marriage counselor to steer you through the crisis, uncover the insight and enable you to use it to forge an even stronger bond.

The ultimate goal of therapy is to plant the seeds for the kind of intimacy that was lacking even before the affair. A kind that felt possible in the beginning months of your relationship, but, in recent years, you’ve been drifting further from. Once, you could tell each other everything and hardly speak a word. Now, you talk all the time, but it rarely means anything. So, a crucial phase of the recovery involves an unflinching analysis of your relationship in an effort to better understand how and why it came about. Straightforward as it may seem—innocuous flirting spiraled out of control—the affair is always more deeply rooted than that. What felt like years of status quo was something closer to distraction. But it only becomes decipherable through the magnifying lens of infidelity.

There are no easy answers to how to get over an affair. But the ones that do inevitably come, when properly utilized, will equip you to lead the marriage you always wanted. You’ll never look back on the experience with fondness. But you can see it as a turning point.

To schedule an assessment, contact Angela’s office. If you live in California, online appointments are available through Breakthrough.

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Are Prescription Drugs The Answer?

getting over an affair and depression with medications

Recently a client who had struggled for months in her attempts to reign in the anger over her husband’s affair, reported a significant change in her feelings and behavior after starting an antidepressant. She told me that she felt she now had the space to process her feelings and get perspective instead of feeling underwater in emotion.

I don’t believe that drugs are the answer to most emotional or relationship difficulties. Growth and change come about by learning to work through pain and difficulties, not avoiding them. But when circumstances become overwhelming and a person gets stuck in feelings of ongoing helplessness, the proper medication can allow them to regain some control.

I’ve heard the arguments against taking meds: I’ll lose control; I’ll just be avoiding the problem; I don’t want to become addicted; they’ll make me feel numb; strong people don’t need drugs; someone I know had a bad experience…

And the reasons go on. The fact is, there are medications today that were not available years ago and they are safe and helpful when properly prescribed and taken.

Medication may not be necessary but if has been several weeks since the discovery or disclosure of an affair and you still feel out of control when it comes to depression, anger, or anxiety, I encourage you to talk to a doctor about what might be helpful to you. It may take some time to find the right medication and dosage, but I cannot tell you how many people have said, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”

Another benefit is that often anti-depressants eliminate the need to self-medicate with alcohol, eliminating angry, alcohol-induced outbursts.

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Research On Divorce Effects

getting over an affair and depression with medications

Sometimes individuals who are contemplating divorce come in to get perspective on whether taking this step is reasonable for themselves and their children. There is a great amount of research on divorce and children, all pointing to the same stubborn truth: Kids suffer when moms and dads split up, and divorce doesn’t make mom and dad happier, either.

Parents are perceived by children as very competent people with supernatural abilities to meet their needs. For a child, divorce shatters this basic safety and belief that parents’ make decisions that truly consider their well-being. A divorce consider’s the parent’s desires and almost always goes against what kids want. For the first time in their lives, kids see that they are NOT the priority to their parents.  

But perhaps the worst thing is that a divorce demonstrates that love is not forever and later, as boy/girl friends come into the picture, that sex is casual.

That being said I always point out that children are resilient – mainly because they have no power , and the only power they have to keep parents close is to go along with them, being a good sport.

Psychologist Judith Wallerstein followed a group of children of divorce from the 1970s into the 1990s. Interviewing them at 18 months and then 5, 10, 15 and 25 years after the divorce, she expected to find that they had bounced back. But what she found was dismaying: Even 25 years after the divorce, these children continued to experience substantial expectations of failure, fear of loss, fear of change and fear of conflict. Twenty-five years! Wow.

The children in Wallerstein’s study were especially challenged when they began to form their own romantic relationships. As Wallerstein explains, “Contrary to what we have long thought, the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage . . . Anxiety leads many [adult children of divorce] into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether.”

As Wallerstein put it, “The kids [in my study] had a hard time remembering the pre-divorce family . . . but what they remembered about the post-divorce years was their sense that they had indeed been abandoned by both parents, that their nightmare [of abandonment] had come true.”

Parents tend to want to have their own needs met after a divorce – to find happiness again with someone new. But not only do the old problems often resurface for the adults, new problems are added for the children. As Wallerstein observed, “It’s not that parents love their children less or worry less about them. It’s that they are fully engaged in rebuilding their own lives — economically, socially and sexually. Parents’ and children’s needs are often out of sync for many years after the breakup.”  Children again feel abandoned as parents pursue better relationships after the breakup.”

Feelings of abandonment and confusion are only compounded when one or both parents find a new spouse. A second marriage brings complications and new emotions for children — not to mention new stepsiblings, stepparents and stepgrandparents, who often are in competition for the parent’s attention. (And the adjustment can be even more difficult — because it is the adults who choose new families, not the children.)

“Children never get over divorce. It is a great loss that is in their lives forever. It is like a grief that is never over. All special events, such as holidays, plays, sports, graduations, marriages, births of children, etc., bring up the loss created by divorce as well as the family relationship conflicts that result from the ‘extended family’ celebrating any event.

I never tell anyone not to get a divorce – that’s not my job. And these facts will rarely dissuade a parent who has emotionally checked out of their marriage. The best option for all is to cultivate a healthy marriage and seek help in the early stages of trouble, before the emotional checkout is complete.

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