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.