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Beyond Personal Blame
The first question most people ask when they learn of their mate's affair is, "Why?" And the answers they come up with are usually based on personal blame, They blame themselves, their partner, their relationship, or the third party. This reaction is predictable in light of the fact that the Monogamy Myth leads to seeing affairs only as a personal problem, a personal failure of the people involved. By examining the effects of this personal view of affairs, we can better understand just how destructive this approach can be to the efforts of people to understand and deal with their experience.
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I'm still trying to cope with the reasons for his affairs: too fat, too skinny, too much sex, too little sex, too neat, too sloppyand the list goes on and on.
I can't help but feel inadequate. My thoughts are, "What's wrong with me?" Was I not successful enough to suit her? What was she looking for that I didn't provide?
When people look for reasons to explain why their partner has an affair, they inevitably start with themselves. Every weakness they ever worried about becomes a source of concern. They look for some personal inadequacy (either real or imagined) that might have caused the affair. Unfortunately, this way of thinking has been reinforced by mostof the popular books, articles, and advice columns about how to prevent affairs.
One of the most common conclusions by a person who feels personally responsible for their partner's affair is, "I wasn't sexy enough." There's a standard line of thinking that if someone gets the sex they want at home, they won't look for it somewhere else. This assumes that the only reason people have affairs is because there's something sexually lacking at home. But since sex is not the only reason for having an affair, good sex certainly can't prevent it. In fact, many people report the outside sex much less satisfying than the sex at home. Usually, the desire is for newness and variety, and has little to do with the degree of satisfaction with the primary partner.
Another common source of personal blame is thinking, "I wasn't attentive enough to my partner's needs and desires." This thinking is based on the belief that constantly boosting a partner's ego can keep them from looking for someone else who will. While genuinely paying attention to your partner is positive, catering to their every wish (as a ploy to keep them from having an affair) is usually transparent and contributes to a lack of respect for your feelings or your right to honesty, fairness, and equality.
The personal blaming often expands to include any area in which a person thinks they failed to be "the best." They see their partner's affair as a sign that they weren't smart enough, or successful enough, or attractive enough, or interesting enough. In fact, there's no way to "beat out" the competition in every area of life. Focusing on being the best in one area diminishes the amount of time and energy available for succeeding in others. Since nobody's perfect, it's easy to find some personal shortcoming to blame as the cause of a partner's affair.
For instance, a woman who was a full-time homemaker and mother was convinced that if only she'd been out in the world, she would have been a more interesting partner and her husband wouldn't have had an affair. At the same time, another woman who was career-oriented was convinced that her involvement with her career limited her time and attention to her husband and was the reason he had an affair.
Accepting personal responsibility for determining the behavior of another person inevitably leads to failure. My experience is a good example of the false premise of this kind of thinking. I tried to do everything possible to keep my husband "interested." I was always dieting (even though I wasn't overweight). I kept myself "fixed" with makeup, I wore sexy underwear, I was sexually active in bed and always available and eager. I was the consummate mother, the gourmet cook, the gracious hostess for parties and dinners for his business colleagues, and the lively and well-liked social partner. I was active in current political causes, but I also took care of everything that might make his life easier, including doing all the packing for his frequent business trips, paying the bills and handling all our financial matters (including our tax returns), and generally doing any and everything I could think of to be such an ideal wife that he wouldn't consider having an affair.
Later, when James reflected on his reaction to my efforts during that time, he recalled thinking, "Wow, this is great. I've got this terrific wife who's doing all these wonderful thingsand I've got my affairs too!" He felt like the luckiest man in the word.
It's unreasonable for anyone to think they can prevent their partner from having an affair, or to think they're personally to blame if it happens. But some people have an overwhelming sense of personal failure when they learn of their mate's affair. One woman, who felt her husband's affair symbolized her failure as a wife, took an overdose of sleeping pills. By the time she was discovered, the doctors were barely able to save her with emergency surgery. Her immediate reaction when she regained consciousness was that she had failed again; she couldn't even succeed at taking her own life.
With time, she came to see her suicide attempt as an impulsive act of desperation based on a misguided sense of blame. She felt very fortunate to have survived, and gradually gained an appreciation of herself as a person who deserved to live and to enjoy life. It's not unusual for such a disastrous event to open a person's eyes to a more realistic perspective of whatever difficulty they face. But hopefully people can learn to overcome the tendency to blame themselves for their partner's affair prior to any such trauma.
Of course, even when people succeed in avoiding the inclination to blame themselves, they still feel a tremendous need to figure out who or what is to blame for their mate's affair.
BLAMING YOUR PARTNER
mature enough, has weak moral principles, or is not secure enough as a man or a woman.
The person whose partner has an affair is likely to be very bitter and resentful toward their partner for their feelings of embarrassment and pain. And these feelings are usually reinforced by those with whom they share this information. One man told of reluctantly confiding in his best friend, who told him he was crazy for even listening to anything his wife had to say in her own defense. The friend said her actions had spoken for her; that nothing she could say would change the fact that she was a selfish, castrating bitch.
This is not an unusual reaction, since there's a great deal of support in society for placing the entire blame on the person who succumbed to having an affair, regardless of the situation. Our tendency is to judge them quite harshly, seeing them as evil or "sick" and in need of help to determine what caused them to do such a thing. We wonder why they bothered to get married if they didn't mean to be faithful, and we want to see them punished for what they did. We are self-righteous in our attitude because we're convinced they are deviant or immoral people. But in most instances, they're not bad people and don't deserve to be unilaterally blamed for what happened. While each of us is ultimately responsible for our behavior, the decision to have an affair doesn't take place in isolation; it is influenced by many other factors in society (which will be discussed in the following chapter).
BLAMING THE RELATIONSHIP
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We were never right for each other from the beginning. I thought she would change, but the relationship never really had a chance to work. We were just too different in our backgrounds and interests.
I know we got married too young. Everyone said we should wait, and they were right. This wouldn't have happened if we'd had more sexual experience before marriage.
The next most obvious place to look for problems causing an affair is the relationship itself. Everything comes under scrutiny. One of the most popular areas of blame is the idea of marrying too young and not sowing enough wild oats prior to marriage, thus leading to affairs later on. This, like a lot of things, can be a contributing factor. But it certainly doesn't explain the many people who sow their wild oats before marriage and then find in a couple of years that they miss what they gave up. And while most people start out marriage planning to give up outside sex, some never even slow down. I know of several instances where people had sex with others in the wedding party just prior to the wedding.
Another typical relationship problem that gets blamed as the cause of an affair is lack of communication. It's difficult to see how this can be judged as the explanation for an affair, since poor communication is seldom the problem in and of itself; it's often a symptom of other problems.
But since there are problems in every relationship, there's always something that can be identified as lacking. To assume a cause and effect between the particular problem and having affairs is much too narrow an explanation of such a complicated issue. No matter which factors are identified in a particular relationship, there are any number of other factors that could just as easily have been blamed for an affair. The bottom line is that we can't fully understand why a particular person has an affair just by analyzing their marriage.
BLAMING THE THIRD PARTY
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As far as I am concerned, the type of woman that will have affairs with married men is a disgrace to womanhood.
He took advantage of her by impressing her with his money and power. I don't know how she couldn't see him for what he wasa self-centered bastard who thought he was "God's gift to women."
Whenever someone wants to avoid blaming themselves, their partner, or their relationship for an affair, the third party provides a very tempting target. Much of the anger at the spouse who had an affair gets directed at the third party, especially if there's a decision to stay married. Some people feel that transferring some of the intensity of their feelings to the third party makes it easier to deal with rebuilding the relationship. One woman reported arriving at the conclusion that it was completely the fault of the other woman, that if it weren't for her, there wouldn't have been an affair at all. But it's much more likely that an affair results from the overall situation, not from any seduction by a particular person.
Opportunity and circumstances play a far more important role in determining an affair than any specific qualities of the third party. This is why there are so many affairs among people who work together or have other opportunities for developing close relationships. Of course, the third party gets very little understanding from anyone in this situation, including society as a whole. There's a tendency to see them as a kind of ogre. We'll focus on getting a clearer perspective of the third party in a later chapter dealing specifically with their role in extramarital affairs.
WHY WE TAKE IT PERSONALLY
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While the primary reason for this personal view of affairs is our belief in the Monogamy Myth, there are other significant factors that reinforce this view. In studying this issue for the past fifteen years and exploring related issues in the course of conducting workshops and seminars on values, perception, and cultural norms, I found a number of forces contributing to this personal view of affairs.
THE ADVICE OF EXPERTS
Since many people look to the opinion of experts as validation of the correctness of their opinions, the professional posture regarding the reasons for affairs has a powerful impact on others in society. Not only has the personal view of affairs been the assumption of the general population, but most experts agree. In fact, the standard advice of counselors, therapists, and advice columnists has been for couples to examine themselves and the conditions within their relationship to determine why an affair happened.
Since most people in the helping professions have their training or orientation in terms of psychology rather than sociology, they tend to see things in terms of personal, individual problems. They bring this bias to their work with couples dealing with affairs, and this personal orientation reinforces the attitude that affairs are due exclusively to individual weaknesses. This approach is considered to be the appropriate one when couples are in counseling, as illustrated by the following description of the role of a counselor: "A good marriage counselor will help a couple talk about the reasons for cheating in terms of the marriage and about the problems that lead a partner to seek an extramarital relationship. In counseling, the couple discuss what they feel the marriage lacks or where the rough spots are, and then with the counselor's help they work to correct their problems."
Almost any book, magazine, or newspaper advice column dealing with this issue reinforces this view of affairs as caused only by problems in the relationship. Following are some typical examples: "Cheating always points to a weakness in your relationship." "Ask yourself why you need to go outside the marriage, what is lacking in your relationship." "Affairs are then attempts to meet important needs that are unmet within the context of the marriage."
Sometimes affairs are explained in terms of the inability of a person to control their behavior. In Every Other Man, author Mary Ann Bartusis suggests: "Some men seem unable to remain faithful. I believe this is because they suffer from emotional deficiencies." And in her book Back from Betrayal, Jennifer P. Schneider writes of affairs as a sexual addiction.
The tendency of the experts to focus almost exclusively on personal failure and inadequacies strongly reinforces the personal view of affairs. And this interpretation contributes to the difficulty of being able to fully recover from the emotional impact of this experience. Despite the fact that 85 percent of the members of BAN had sought some kind of counseling, many expressed disappointment with the help they had received. Most of them continued to struggle with unresolved feelings for many years following their experience.
Of those who stayed in the marriage, most were involved in an ongoing battle with their painful feelings about their spouse's affair. Those who got out of the marriage fared no better. Some had been divorced for quite a long time, but were still plagued with feelings of bitterness and resentment. Others, who'd had affairs themselves, had been unable to recover from their sense of guilt and regretespecially when it had cost them their marriage and, in some cases, their relationship with their children.
THE LANGUAGE OF AFFAIRS
Another reason we see the issue of affairs only in personal terms is because our entire vocabulary for discussing affairs reinforces this perspective. The standard words are blaming words and serve to inflame the already raw emotions this issue stimulates. And, unfortunately, many of the books dealing with this subject use words that contribute to the problem. The trio of words used most often are adultery, infidelity, and betrayal.
The words adultery and infidelity reflect a personal assessment of the person who has an affair as an adulterer or an infidel. In one recent book dealing with this issue, the words cuckold and infidel were used throughout the book to refer to the people involved in this situation. Being labeled a cuckold feeds into the feelings of shame and embarrassment felt by someone whose partner has an affair. And being labeled an infidel is an extreme moral judgment of a person that places all the blame on their shoulders while ignoring other factors.
We have only to look at other words that have been used to label people to understand their significance. Through the years there have been many examples of the damage done by the words used to refer to certain groups of people. Most of us cringe at the thought that we once used words like "retarded" or "deaf and dumb" or "Mongoloid." The negative impact of this kind of language is undeniable in retrospect. It's irrelevant that there may have been no specific intention to inflict pain or create difficulty for the people involved; that was, nevertheless, the effect.
The word betrayal has been especially popular in books on the subject of affairs, with three recent books using it in the title. It might not seem obvious just why this is a problem. But the word betrayal implies that the person having an affair is fully aware of the pain this will cause their partner and proceeds to "betray" them anyway. This reinforces the idea of personal blame and adds to the difficulty of coping with the emotions and gaining a broader understanding of what has happened and what to do about it.
We need to raise our awareness of the impact of words and make a conscientious effort to diffuse the personal pain caused by the language we use to discuss affairs. Because of the power of words to affect the way we think, this book deliberately avoids the long list of judgmental, blaming words so common to the language of affairs.
The authors of American Couples, Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz, also expressed their recognition of the importance of the words we use to describe this issue: "We have purposely chosen the word non-monogamy when we write about sex outside a couple's relationship. We would prefer to use a less clumsy word, but this is the only word that is morally neutral: It neither condemns nor condones. We need a word that merely describes; therefore, we have intentionally omitted expressions like cheating, infidelity, and adultery, except when the couples we interview use them to express the way they feel."
In explaining the choice of the title, Adultery, for her book, Annette Lawson acknowledges the importance of the words used to address this issue. She consciously used the word adultery to reflect the fact that her study was based on addressing the "sinful" connotation historically attached to this issue: "There is almost no academic work by historians, sociologists, or anthropologists that focuses on adultery and no book with the word Adultery as its title. I wanted to speak of adultery for two reasons: first, I wanted not to avoid but to point to its long history as sin and crime and, further, to dramatize the greater sin, the greater punishment inflicted on the married woman."
THE LEGACY OF THE MONOGAMY MYTH
The unresolved pain from dealing with affairs is primarily due to the effects of seeing monogamy as the norm and affairs as a personal failure to fit this norm. As discussed earlier, the basis for this belief is a myth. While it's extremely difficult to overcome strong emotions with rational understanding, we need to take a closer look at the evidence that monogamy is not the norm in our society. This involves examining our sexual habits as they relate to our ideas of monogamy.
One significant pattern of behavior is that of divorce and remarriage, which we've come to call "serial monogamy." Not only is there a change of partners at that time, but usually a number of sexual partners between marriages. Since approximately half the population goes through this process, it's a strong challenge to our ideas of long-term monogamy.
The other serious threat to monogamy, of course, is the number of people involved in affairs. Earlier, I used the conservative estimate of 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women at some point engaging in extramarital affairs. But we need to take a closer look at the statistics on affairs to determine what they can contribute to an understanding of our sexual patterns.
While affairs happen in nonmarital, committed relationships as well as within marriage, most of the statistics deal only with extramarital affairs. These statistics began with Kinsey's reports in the 1940s and early 1950s. Kinsey's samples included 5,000 men and showed that by age forty, 50 percent of the men had experienced extramarital sexual intercourse.
Two studies during this decade dealing exclusively with men indicate a continuous increase in the number of men having extramarital affairs. The Hite Report on Male Sexuality of 1980, surveying 7,239 men, found 72 percent of men married two years or more had had sex outside of marriage. Jan Halper, author of the 1988 book Quiet Desperation, reported on the results of interviews with 4,000 men and found that 82 percent of the sample had had extramarital affairs.
The increase for women having affairs has been even more significant. In The Extramarital Connection, sociologist Lynn Atwater's book about women having extramarital affairs, she reported: "It is among women, more so than men, that rates of extramarital participation are rising dramatically." This observation is born out by the soaring statistics.
Excerpted from THE MONOGAMY MYTH by Peggy Vaughan. Copyright © 1998 by Peggy Vaughan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.