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.

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Beware of Bad Relationship Advice

Good relationship advice can be very hard to come by, particularly when you’re seeking it from friends or family.  This is primarily because most of the advice we receive is founded on principles of selfishness rather than love.  Comments like, “You need to take care of yourself.”, or “How can you put up with that?!  You should leave!”, seem to be universal answers for every problem.  Sadly, even many therapists, speaking from the baggage of their own failed relationships, may give this type of advice.  Those who give this advice always mean well.  They are not trying to cause further damage to our relationships.  They are merely trying to be supportive.  Unfortunately, being told we are right is not always what is right for us or the relationship.  Well meaning people can wreak great havoc by promoting selfishness and separation.

Even if the advice you receive from others seems like good advice, considering the information you have given, it is very important to remember that their assessment of your situation is only based on half of the information.  I am constantly amazed by how masterfully we can paint ourselves as the ultimate martyrs in our relationships.  I remember one couple I met with particularly well.  The husband started the session by constructing a perfect picture of his wife being a perpetual nag, while he did nothing but serve her and do her will.  The wife then jumped in and told the story of an uncaring distant husband, who only saw her as his “whore.”  Had I only heard one side of their story I would have been ready to call out the hangman’s mob to bring the other to justice!  It is not only unwise, but completely wreckless to give advice when only having half the information.  At the same time, it is even more unwise and wreckless to take advice when you know you have only given half the information.  Remember, YOUR story is not THE story.  The true story usually ends up being some kind of average between your perspective and your spouses. 

This brings us to the question, “So, how do you know when advice is good advice, and should be taken?”  For starters, if you are sincerely looking for advice and not just someone to tell you you are right, then begin by making sure that the third party has as much information as possible.  If possible, give them the opportunity to speak with both of you.  You will be doing you and your relationship a great disservice by only offering your perspective.

Second, in listening to others’ advice, look for signs that they may be reacting particularly strong to certain issues.  This could be a sign that they are speaking from their own relationship baggage, which could drastically affect the reliability of their advice.  The best advice comes from those who are able to be as neutral as possible.  If they have a strong emotional connection to a certain aspect of the issue, they will likely be speaking from their emotions rather than their wisdom.  This is an extremely common reaction, one that even some therapists fall in to.  It causes great bias in how others view our circumstances, so be very vigilant of this hazard.   

Finally, ask yourself the question, “Is this advice based on principles of love or selfishness?”  This simple question can reveal a great deal about the quality of the advice you are receiving.  It reaveals whether you are receiving constructive or destructive advice.  If you have seen the movie Fireproof  you may remember the scene where the wife is surrounded by her friends, telling them about how awful her husband is.  The scene rapidly switches over to her husband complaining to his best friend about her.  The scene goes back and forth, showing the reactions of the friends of the couple to the news they have heard.  The friends of the wife say things much like the other blind, selfish phrases I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  Things like, “You are so right”, “You need to leave him!”, or “He is no good for you!”  On the other side, the husband’s friend reacts very differently.  His response is to put the responsibility back on the husband, asking him what he is doing to make the relationship better. 

As the movie goes on, the effects of these different approaches become very apparent as the husband gradually makes more loving and committed efforts to the relationship, while the wife slowly drifts further away, even to the point of becoming involved with another married man.  Fortunately, the wife eventually recognizes the efforts of her husband and comes back to him, but it does leave you to wonder how much faster that would have taken place had she had the type of friends her husband did.

 Don’t fall into the trap of giving or accepting gifts of destruction.  Much advice can appear appealing as it is wrapped in the alluring wrapping paper of confirming our beliefs and justifying our wrong actions.  But, when that package is opened, we find nothing more than a ticking time bomb waiting to explode on our relationships.