Emotional Affairs: The Silent Marriage Killers


Affairs have become an unbelievably common occurrence in marriages today.  It is no surprise that divorce rates are at their highest levels ever when we consider how far society has fallen in making affairs acceptable.  This point was recently driven home to me quite vividly as a friend of my wife’s recounted an experience she had.  She was with a group of four of her friends one day having a casual conversation together.  In the course of that conversation she discovered that she was the only one of the five that wasn’t having an affair.  Her friends talked as casually about their affairs as they would about their shopping lists; they were just normal parts of their lives.  My wife’s friend actually felt like the outsider because she herself was not also having an affair.  Imagine that… She felt like the outsider because she was the only one that was faithful to her spouse.  How sad this is.  I myself have been appalled to hear of people actually advising friends to have an affair as a means of “coping” with marriage.  To me, this has nothing to do with coping, but has everything to do with escaping and taking the route of instant gratification (aka: selfishness). 

It goes without saying that affairs are absolutely devastating to a marriage.  They inflict serious harm on the self-esteem of the offended spouse, cause feelings of bitterness and resentment, eliminate emotional intimacy, and obliterate trust.  All of these things are extremely difficult to recover from, and divorce does not solve the problem either.  The damage done lasts beyond the termination of the marriage.  Even remarrying a kind and loving individual does not erase the deep wounds of the affair.  The most surprising discovery made by those that have been offended in this way is that complete healing only occurs by working with the offender to overcome the damage, provided that person is willing to end the affair.  Even in this situation, recovery takes a great deal of time, effort and endurance.  Without question, a far better path is to prevent the affair from happening to begin with.

If we are to prevent the devastation of affairs from reaching our marriages, it is vitally important that we understand the reasons they occur.  Some of these reasons can be very surprising, given what many people believe about affairs.  One of the most common misconceptions about affairs is that they are all about sex.  Rarely is this true.  Affairs are much more about feeling accepted, loved, and validated than they are about sex.  Sex may definitely be a major part of the affair, but not for the reasons most people think.  Most people believe that sex is all about the physical sensation.  No one can deny that this is there, but there is another element that is far more important and far more impactful.  It is the fact that sex is an extremely powerful form of validation.  To many, it represents the ultimate display of acceptance.  For those who are struggling to feel loved, accepted and appreciated in their relationships, having a sexual relationship with another is a desperate attempt to fill this void. 

Obviously, sex is not the only means by which we can fulfill our needs for closeness, acceptance and appreciation.  In fact, for many, sex really doesn’t do much to fulfill these needs at all.  Simple companionship can be just as powerful.  This is where some of the greatest dangers lie in the world of affairs.  When individuals have a physical relationship outside of their marriages, there is no denying it is occuring.  A very clear line has been crossed.  However, for those who are having emotional affairs, those based more on companionship, this line is much more hazy. 

CoWorkersIn truth, emotional affairs are the most devious of all affairs.  They sneak in gradually over time and steadily grow in intensity.  They are easy to deny because there is no clear cut act that defines that they are occurring.  They are incredibly crafty as they convince you that it is “just a friendship.”  As the relationship grows, there is a steady drift away from the marital relationship.  This gradually peaks as the individual becomes numb to their spouse and shifts all their affections to the other. 

Another of the great dangers of emotional affairs is that they can be extremely difficult to end.  These affairs are not based on physical acts, but very real emotions.  Those in the midst of an emotional affair are convinced that they are in love with another, so falling out of love with them, without cause to stop loving them, seems impossible.  In addition, this other person has been, in whatever way, fulfilling the emotional needs that are most important to the offender, so ending this relationship is terrifying for them.  They are afraid if they do so, these needs will never be fulfilled. 

There is one last thing I’d like to say about emotional affairs.  They can occur even when couples are not having problems.  I was speaking with a man some time ago that was considering leaving his wife for another woman.  He explained that for all intents and purposes he had a good wife.  She treated him kindly, wasn’t a nag, took good care of him and their home and anything else he wanted.  His problem was that he just didn’t feel the same excitement around her as he did around this other woman.  There was nothing inherently wrong with his marriage, but in his mind the rush of a new relationship overshadowed any feelings that existed between he and his wife.

09CorvThe image that came to my mind as I was speaking to this man was that of two different cars.  The first was a brand new sports car.  It looks great.  It has all sorts of new gadgets and design features that are fresh and exciting.  You feel a rush as you drive it, and you don’t have to worry about doing any kind of serious maintenance.  It is truly a feel good, no worry car.

60corvThe second car is an old classic.  You bought it years ago when it too was a brand new sports car.  You had the same rush with this car at the time as you do with the brand new sports car.  The problem is that over time things started to go wrong with the car.  The standard routine maintenence was no longer enough to keep it up.  You had to start fixing things.  Eventually, you reached a point where you had to decide whether it was better to keep fixing things or to get rid of it and get a new one.  You decide to keep it for its sentimental value.  You continue to care for the car, fixing this or that as issues come up, but at the same time developing a great bond with it because of all the time and money you have invested in it.  You’ve come to know this car so well that you can sense the slightest problem through a minute change in the engine noise or the tiniest shimmy in the steering wheel, but you also know just how to drive it so that it performs at its peak.  You love this car.

There is no comparison between the true love of marriage forged over time and experience and the false love of infatuation that occurs in  affairs.  No matter how new and shiny these relationships may be in the beginning, all relationships reach a point where repairs are required.  Those who embark down the road of affairs expecting that sports car to always be new and exciting are in for great disappointment.  The day will come when they find their new relationship in need of serious repairs.  Anyone seeking a maintenance-free relationship is unknowingly setting themselves up for misery.  They will never find what they are looking for.  Happiness in marriage is not determined by the number of repairs we have to do.  It is determined by how much we invest ourselves in making those repairs. 

If we are to avoid the pain and misery of afffairs from entering our relationships it is imperative that we lock our hearts.  We cannot allow the draw of an exciting new maintenence-free relationship to distort the reality of the time-tested love we have with our spouses.  We must ensure that our energies are not invested in developing new relationships, but in enhancing those we already have.  Do not forget that no one is immune to affairs.  Many with high moral standards are surprised by how they gradually placed themselves in a position that was completely contrary to their values and the love they have for their companions.   The deceptions of affairs are real.  We must always be vigilant of our thoughts and feelings, or we too could find ourselves drifting down the wrong path.

There is so much happiness to be found in marriage and complete loyalty is an essential ingredient for discovering it.


Putting Away Defensiveness and Building a Relationship

Sometimes it is really amazing how hard we work to keep ourselves from being better.  It may not be something we are consciously doing.  In fact, we are most likely very unaware when we are doing it.  Nonetheless, it is something many of us definitely do.  How do we do that?  Through defensiveness.  Defensiveness is one of the single greatest barriers to growth for us personally and for our relationships.  So much so that relationship guru, John Gottman, actually calls defensiveness one of the “four horsemen of the apocolypse.”  If defensiveness is regularly present within ourselves and our relationships, we can guarantee that complete destruction is not far behind.

What is it about defensiveness that hurts our progress so much?  Why don’t we look at a quick example?  Let’s just say that I have a tendency to lecture my wife.  When someting comes up that bothers me in some way I go on an on about all the ways it affects me, why it’s wrong, and what she can do differently.  If this were the case, it would likely send the message to her that I see her as a child that has to be educated on the right way of doing things.  She would probably see me as self-righteous, critical and one heck of an annoyance.  She may also think that I see her as unintelligent and incapable of figuring things out for herself.  All of these things would most definitely have the effect of pushing her away from me and making her feel like less than she is to me. 

Now let’s say that my wife tells me that I lecture her too much and expresses how she feels when I do that.  If I were in defensive mode, I might say something like, “I wouldn’t have to lecture if you would listen to me.”  Or maybe even “I am not lecturing!  I’m just trying to give you solutions!”  Either way, you can see that the last thing on my mind is actually listening to the message she is sending me.  So what is the end result?  She goes away feeling even worse than she did when she first approached me, and I go away feeling criticised, with no intention of doing anything differently.  I make it her problem in my mind, and remove any responsibility I might have to do things differently.  In short, I have set myself up for diving into a pattern of frustration, victimisation and ever-growing distance from my wife.

Most people who have been married, or who have been in any kind of relationship for that matter, can relate to this example in some way.  It is incredibly common.  It is not difficult to see how defensiveness can hurt a relationship.  The thing that is much more difficult to understand is why we do it when it hurts us so much.   Why do we work so hard doing something that only causes distance between us and our companions? 

In order to understand this, we have to first understand a little bit about the most basic of human needs: love and acceptance.  All people have an innate need to be loved and accepted by others.  It is at the very foundation of all other human needs.  It is so important to us that nearly all we do in any social situation is in someway aimed at fulfilling this need.  We may be careful with the way we talk, dress, laugh, or any number of other things because we do not want to be rejected by others.  Even our selfless desires to serve and help others may in some way be traced back to our desires to be accepted by God.  Somewhere in all our actions that motivation almost always exists. 

Because being loved and accepted is such a deep-rooted need, we also do everything we can to protect that need.  When we are defensive we have a strong tendency to view complaints as attacks on our character.  More importantly, we see them as messages that we are in some way unlovable and/or unacceptable.  This causes a pain that strikes us at our very center.  Having no desire to experience this pain, we then fight back to defend ourselves against the notion that we are unacceptable.  We do all we can to convince ourselves that we are actually ok.  We take blame off ourselves and put it on the other.  We justify our actions, hoping that if we can give a good enough “explanation” the other will see that our behavior makes sense.  We attack back, criticising the other in hopes that they will realize they are the ones who are flawed, not you.  We make all these tremendous efforts simply to protect ourselves from the pain of feeling unloved and unaccepted. 

So, let’s now go back to the question again.  Why are we defensive even though it causes great damage to ourselves and our relationships?…  We are defensive because the pain of feeling unloved and unaccepted attacks with greater speed and greater depth, and is far more vivid than is the damage done by defensiveness.  It is a simple issue of whether we would react more quickly to placing our hands on a hot stove as opposed to a warm stove.  We will always naturally react to the greater pain first. 

The next question is, if we always react to the greater pain first, how do we ever stop the damage done by defensiveness?  I like to think of the solution like this:  if we put up our shields each time we see a sword flying at us, we must change the sword into a rose.  When you first read this statement you may get the impression that I am recommending that we change the other person in some way.  Certainly, there is much to be said for letting your companion know that it’s easier for you to receive their comments when they are delivered calmly and politely.  However, your main focus cannot be in changing your spouse if you hope to overcome defensiveness.  When I say we need to change the sword into a rose, I am actually referring to how you perceive your partner’s comments. 

As I mentioned before, we become defensive when we view comments as attacks.  Rather than viewing them as attacks allow me to present an alternative interpretation.  There are two parts to this new interpretation.  First, any form of criticism we receive is an opportunity to learn how to be better.  We are able to become aware of potentially destructive behaviors or habits we might have that we may not have been aware of.  I once heard a statement by a very wise individual.  He said, “Whenever I receive a criticsm, I always look for the truth in what was said.”  He then explained that he does this so that he can learn how to bring himself one step further in his progression.  When we resist feedback, we are actually working to stay stagnant.  As I have discussed in previous posts, there are few things that cause a person greater misery than stagnation in the face of high growth potential.  By receiving what it is our partner’s are trying to convey to us, we are also allowing ourselves to move toward that potential, and that growth feels great!

The second part of this new interpretation of feedback has to do with the true message our companion’s are trying to convey to us.  Understanding that the core needs of everyone are love and acceptance, with the underlying need of closeness within a relationship, we can now also understand the purpose behind nearly all complaints.  We receive complaints when our actions, or non-actions have somehow sent the message to our companion that we do not love them, accept them, value them, and/or want to be close to them.  This is the message that they ultimately want us to understand, but the key to this message is this: these things only bother them because they want to be loved by us, they want to be accepted and valued by us, and most importantly, they want to be close to us.  They are telling us that they want to be close to us, but our behavior is making it difficult for them to feel that.  Did you ever consider that when your spouse is complaining to you that what they actually want is to be closer to you?  That thought can really boggle the mind, especially if we have always viewed complaints as intentional attempts to inflict harm on us, with no desires to be closer.  When you really think about it, can you think of a single complaint you have ever made to your spouse that did not stem back somehow to a desire to feel loved, accepted, valued, or closer to your spouse?  It can be a powerful realization to understand that complaints are nothing more than invitations to be closer. 

When we change how we view complaints we open ourselves up to a world of opportunity for growth and greater happiness in our marriage.  We no longer believe we have to protect ourselves from harm because we no longer see complaints as harmful, but as instructions for love.  We can then put away defensiveness because we realize that the only things we are actually defending ourselves against are growth, peace, confidence, selflessness, humility, happiness, and increased love. 

The rose is before us, we only need receive it.red_rose_1.jpg Red Rose image by Chopman001


Carnival of Family Life: The Paper Toy Edition

Bad Relationship Advice: The Case of Abuse

There is one very important exception to the principles I discussed in my previous post.  If you are in a situation where abuse is involved, taking care of yourself or even leaving may very well be good advice.  In this case, this is not selfishness.  This is simply self-preservation. 

Abuse in any form is unacceptable.  The most common forms include physical, sexual, and emotional/verbal abuse.   Physical abuse is fairly easy to recognize.  It is intentionally inflicting physical harm, or preventing actions necessary to maintain life and safety.  Sexual abuse is forcing any sort of sexual contact (physical or visual) against another’s will. 

Emotional abuse can be far more difficult to identify.  This is also the area where friends and family make the most errors in giving advice.  You must be very careful in assessing emotional abuse.  I have often met with individuals whom were convinced that they were being emotionally abused, either because of their own conclusions, or of those close to them.  However, after observing what they deemed emotional abuse, I would find that it was their own personal insecurities that were abusing them, not their spouse.  Due to strong feelings of inadequacy or being unlovable that resulted from long past experiences, a minor inadvertent comment by their spouse could trigger an intense emotional response in them.  What was perceived as emotional abuse was nothing more than an “emotional landmine” that their spouse happened to stumble upon. 

I have just as often discovered that the one crying the abuse was a greater perpetrator than their “oppressor.”  Individuals often complain to others of those things they actually dislike most about themselves.  If you hate yourself for the way you lose your temper, you are likely very sensitive when others lose their tempers as well.

The moral of this story is that neither you nor those close to you are in the best position to determine whether you are being emotionally abused or not.  It is absolutely true that many times in abusive relationships it requires the encouragement of others in order to recognize and/or have the courage to stand against the abuse.  In the case of emotional abuse, it is very important that you seek out professional help in assessing and working through the issue.  You and those close to you are far too emotionally involved to make a reliable judgement.

Please don’t misunderstand, true emotional abuse is extremely damaging to an individual.  It can cause emotional and psychological problems that can persist for a lifetime.  In no way is my intention to diminish this fact.  It is my intention to reduce the damage done by perceived emotional abuse- those situations where an individual reacts rashly due to their incorrect perception that they are the victim.  Please be very careful in considering emotional abuse.  This, or any other type of abuse, should not be dealt with without the assistance of professional help.

Published in: on March 18, 2009 at 11:44 am  Comments (3)  
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