The Voice of an Affair
In the middle of the road of life
I found myself in a dark wood
Having strayed from the straight path.
DANTE, THE DIVINE COMEDY: INFERNO
Affair. The word breathes. It's palpable. It evokes emotions that swamp the senses. For those caught up in the whirlwind, love beckons. Lust and longing rule. Passion is awakened. We are filled with yearning, desire, exhilaration, and freedom. Alive. For others, the word affair strikes at gut level. Jealousy and rage. Loss and abandonment. The horror of betrayal vies with the chill of fear. The calamity shakes our soul to the very core.
I believe that everyone involved in an affair suffers deeply, for an affair is an assault upon the rock of fidelity. Fidelity is the hearthstone upon which we build our homes and families. Fidelity is where we invest our hopes and dreams. Fidelity is the last bastion for us all. When a partner takes a sexual detour from marriage vowswhether vows were echoed in vaulted cathedrals or whispered in secretsilence falls. A world shatters. And it is to those who live in these shattered worlds that I try to bring a semblance of understanding and growth, helping them heal and grow whole again.
In this book, I want to clarify that at its deepest level, an affair is a betrayal of the self. An affair tells us the story of a shadowed self, a part of ourselves about which we feel uncertain, a self that is not whole or authentic. Self is that combination of feelings, thoughts, and actions unique to each one of us. There are parts of ourselves that we do not allow ourselves to feel or to know, and often the first symptom of this lack of an intimate connection with ourselves is an affair.
An affair, or a sexual detour as I prefer to call it, is an avoidance. A path around a bruised or damaged part of ourselves, not only a sexual detour around the marriage. An affair is an immediate reaction to a present circumstance and lets us avoid dealing with conflict by providing an alternate choice. The underlying issues have roots that reach far into the past. An affair is a cover story, a curtain, a shadow play for a story begun long ago, buried in the unconscious, that is being replayed in the present. This drama takes place offstage, in the wounded, hidden aspects of the self that remain unknown. Because unconscious reasons are out of our awareness, we give ourselves rationales for an affair that often have nothing to do with the real drama within.
All of us who have been in any way touched by an affair seek answers. To my patients, no matter on which side of an affair they find themselves, I repeat the same litany: A sexual detour has little to do with sexual chemistry and a lot to do with the chemistry of escape. It has little to do with the ability to have great sex and a lot to do with the inability to communicate on an intimate level. The truth is that an affair is more about who we are, what we are afraid of, how we handle our conflictsboth within ourselves and in our marriagethan about the third party in the triangle.
In an affair, the betrayed marriage partner usually symbolizes the anxiety or conflict from which we seek to escape, and our fantasies center around the new sexual partner who promises a ticket to freedom. A marriage partner is often the one whom we blame for our problems. The reason for this is simple: Happily, a marriage partner usually means that we have found someone in whom to invest all our hopes and dreams. Unhappily, this means that he or she becomes heir to the impossible task of fulfilling them. No one can accomplish this herculean task. No one can fulfill our unspoken longings and heal all the wounds within. In marriage, if we lay the unfinished task of growing up and growing whole at the feet of our marital partner, he or she may begin to represent what we want to avoid.
The Meaning Behind a Sexual Detour
Our childhood experiences are replayed in our intimate adult relationships. Wounds sustained in childhood shape the wishes we hold for our adulthood and the nature of our adult interaction. When our adult reality does not match those unfulfilled childhood wishes, we react. The most common reaction is flight. When we escape from a current conflict by engaging in the flight to a sexual affair, we may believe that new wounds in the present have triggered our behavior. The truth, however, is that past experiences fuel both the nature of the issues and the manner in which we choose to address or to escape those issues. In this way the drama of our early lives is replayed in the present.
Escape from intimacy with a marital partner via the route of a sexual detour allows us to avoid confronting conflicts from these earlier relationships. Shying away from acknowledging or revealing these vulnerable parts of ourselves prevents us from attaining true intimacy, because we express our unresolved conflicts in behavior that harms our relationships and avoids resolution. We seek escape instead of confrontation and insightful solutions.
I tell my patientsespecially the ones who do not want to hear itthat, in the deepest sense, a sexual detour has nothing to do with another person. It's about our inability to build intimacy into the marital relationshipindeed, into any intimate relationship. It is about who we are and how we feel at the center of our being. It is about what we want. What we fear. What we are afraid to feel. What we cannot allow ourselves to have or to be. It is about what is unknown. Unattended. Unfulfilled. In search of this fulfillment, we sometimes wander alone, lost on a sexual detour.
The desire for more sex is rarely the reason behind the affair, even when sexuality is a major component of the affair. The driving force of sexuality in an affair may simply provide a feel-good escape. Despite the physical intimacy of a sexual affair, sexual detours represent an escape from intimacy. The task of creating marital intimacy requires dealing with frustrations, problems, anxieties. Infidelity, which isolates us from our own pain, offers distance from the problems, not solutions. An affair is about emotional alienation. An affair is not about what we find with somebody else. It's about us. It's about what we cannot find in ourselves.
Intimacy and the Self
Intimacy is something we all want. And why not? Intimacy offers some great benefits. Intimacy with our inner self bestows upon us a sense of confidence and security. When we develop a good sense of ourselvesintimacy with what is withinwe are able to express ourselves creatively, bond with others, and risk being genuinely vulnerable. We can have our needs met if only for the simple reason that we know what they are. Intimacy lends hope and infuses us with a sense of well-being.
In order to become intimate with another, we first have to be able to be intimate with ourselves. A sexual detour sends us farther down the road from dealing with the problems within. We may substitute sex, and even marriage, for the self-knowledge necessary for true intimacy. It is only in the discovery of deep personal truths that we emerge as whole, authentic, and capable of achieving true and lasting intimacy.
Intimacy is a catchword for a host of feelings we all want. But at its heart, what does it mean? Intimacy is revealing to ourselves, then to a partner, all our fears, wishes, hopes, and dreams. Who we are inside. Knowing ourselves is one task of adulthood, and communicating that knowledge is the task of forming a relationship. When we each have the freedom and ability to reveal who we are and are accepted, we will be heard and seen in the relationship and will have established an intimate connection.
Being heard has nothing to do with hearing, and being seen has nothing to do with vision, but they both have everything to do with having emotional needs met. Being heard and seen for who we are gives us the sense of being valued, approved, accepted. Having needs met is a crucial state in infancy when survival is at stake. This translates to emotional survival in adulthood.
Many fears interfere with our ability to be intimate with ourselves or another. Feeling what is inside may simply be too painful or anxiety-provoking for us to face. The fears, anxieties, and wounds covered up by an affair are mainly unconscious ones of which we are unaware. We may be afraid to endure the pain of growth. We may suffer fear of disapproval. Fear that we cannot compete or achieve. Fear of making a choice or taking responsibility. Fear of consequence. Fear of no consequence. With fear couching our every move, we escape to a sexual detour instead and bury there what we cannot handle in reality.
Intimacy with Another
Intimacy with another requires us to be comfortable enough with who we are and have a good enough sense of self-worth to achieve closeness and union without feeling overwhelmed by fear of abandonment or fear of control. The fear of abandonment, and of control, interfere with the development of intimacy. When these fears operate in a relationship, they create distance instead of an intimate exchange. These fears are caused by our very early mothering experiences, which were interpreted at the infantile and childish levels at which they occurred. In the intimate relationships of adulthood, these experiences continue to color our relationships with highly charged emotions.
Building intimacy into a relationship requires learning how to deal with the feelings that provoke a fear of intimacy, instead of running from them. I often tell my patients that their fears of loss and abandonment, or fears of control, no longer represent the same things they experienced as infants and children, even if the feelings remain the same. Feelings aren't facts. As adults we can learn to handle those feelings that interfere with intimacy instead of allowing them to provoke us into flight from intimacy. They don't believe me at first, of course, but sooner or later they do.
A common understanding among therapists is that the lower the quality of marital emotional intimacy, as reflected by our ability to communicate and solve problems, the more likely we are to have an affair. We often make the mistake of believing that the act of being married will provide intimacy and prevent infidelity. Marriage does not carry a guarantee of intimacy, nor does it prevent affairs. Marriage is only a container, an arena wherein intimacy canif we allow itoccur. Relationships carry risk. Potential. Washing machines carry guarantees.
Intimacy and Sexual Detours
A sexual detour need not be catastrophic, either for ourselves or our marriages. An affair is not a cardinal sin. It is not even a dream come true. But even just a brief fling is something to which we must pay attention, something we must try to understand. A sexual detour presents us with a crisis of opportunity. Sexual detours can motivate us to look into ourselves and finally see who we really areor want to be. If properly decoded, a sexual detour can lead us toward a path of self-knowledge, growth, and authenticitytoward intimacy. If we understand the hidden meaning, we can empower ourselves and enrich our lives. We must recognize a sexual detour as a sign. A signal. A flag.
It seems easy enough, this business of intimacy, of knowing ourselves. But in truth, understanding ourselves and feeling vulnerable are difficult. We run the other way as fast as we can. Why? Because we're human. We avoid reflection and the intimacy that inner knowledge offers because of the anxiety this process generates. We refrain from introspection because we've been taught an easier route, one that passes for the real thing. We have not been well schooled in the hard work of attaining a whole, integrated self or in the art of forging an intimate connection. Literally and figuratively, we live in an unconscious world. Our culture promotes quick fixes and easy escape. Give me. Get me. Buy me. Illicit dust colors the landscape of love. Sex sells.
The scent of sexual allure, the fragrance of seduction, carries names like Obsession, Jealousy, Joy, Passion. Conversely, survival depends on institutions with names like Fidelity, Trust, Vanguard. We are expected to make our lives cohesive with elements as disparate as oil and water. Lust. Longing. Fantasy. Denial. We are largely taught an ethic that undermines lasting intimacy. We've inherited a paradox.
One of my first cases exemplified this cultural legacy of ours to an extreme degree. Irene and Zachary were as green in the business of relationships as I was in treating them. They were in desperate straits. Irene felt disillusioned, confused, helpless, and hopeless. Her self-esteem drained out of her with every drop of new beauty lotion. Zachary, her husband of two years, was equally beside himself about the marriage and even less intact. The marriage was in a downward spiral. They dangled on the brink of a divorce. Or an affair. Whichever came first. Fortunately, I did.
Since their marriage, Irene had presented herself every evening fully made up and glamorously decked out. If they didn't have sex, she felt rejected and unloved. Zachary, for his part, felt inadequate and anxious. The only reaffirmation of self-worth for either of them depended on her successful seduction. Sexual encounters were tense. All of them were silent. The diamond of their marriage held no facets. Certainly no intimacy. Not a shred of communication. Sexual allure was the key. The crucial element was arousal. I was dumbfounded when I realized that Irene meant to keep love alive with perfume. Worse, if that didn't work, her next ploy was to keep Zachary off guard by flaunting the attention of other men. She would make him jealous.
Luckily, I had learned a thing or two about what keeps people together and knew it had nothing to do with what fragrance she wore or how much she shredded his sense of self-esteem. Elements that hold people together vary in degree. Shared values and goals, the integrity of the family unit, even a dysfunctional one, keep people together. The common denominator of what makes a relationship last is the ability to communicate inner wishes and fears to a responsive partner. In short, not sexual chemistry, but the ability to be intimate.
Historical Perspective on Sexual Detours
A look at history may teach us how the past colors our current attitudes and expectations of love, marriage, and fidelity. In the beginning, sexual detours were not an issue. Cave dwellers didn't hold seminars on strengthening their marriages.
In the history of mankind, sexual intimacy did not begin with fidelity. Male and female met, mated, and separated in the same manner as almost all other animals. Among cave-dwelling humans, monogamy for life did not occur. While sexual activity did not include fidelity, it contained something much more profound: With impregnation of the female, sex left attachment in its wake. Not between lovers, but something much more instinctual: the passionate attachment between mother and child. This attachment, as much a biological imperative as procreation, ensured survival of the species.
In the book Passionate Attachments, Willard Gaylin observes that the human infant is born in a state of helplessness unparalleled in the animal kingdom. Babies remain in a state of incapacity, unable to survive, longer than any other creature. The human infant can neither clutch nor cling, nor is it capable of fight or flight. A loving adult must care for it. Imagine that: must. Otherwise a baby will soon die.
The need for attachment stems from our upright posture. Our brains are massive, but the pelvisbecause it is structured to an upright statecannot give birth to a fully formed head. We are born prematurely. The first year of life is an extrauterine fetal year. The attachment between mother and child gives the infant the best chance to survive not only this premature birth but also the many years ahead.
With the evolution of humans, females of the species gathered together in groups in order to better ensure the survival of their young. The group effort resulted in the evolution of cultivation and storage. Females clustered in shelters that males would visit, then leave. Sex would attract the men. Motherhood would hold the women. It still does.
When agriculture took root, men began to spend more time around these clusters, and groups evolved in which males played a more permanent part. As primitive clans were established, incest taboos developed, but indiscriminate mating remained necessary for survival of the species.
Males and females eventually learned that their family unit increased their ability to survive. Only then did marriage evolve. Marriage existed in the context of procreation. Children were needed to help with the labor that ensured the family's survival. Ages passed where marriage laws and customs were a simple civil ceremony. Only when the Holy Roman Empire and canonical law were at their peak did marriage become a holy sacrament. This enabled families to more securely transfer land and inherit wealth. Marriage choices were largely made on the basis of the wealth the partner could bring into the new family unit. Companionship, happiness, and contentment were held in high regard, but they all existed as lesser considerations. Marriages were an economic matter, an orderly, arranged affair.
The Emergence of Courtly Love
Love, however, was another story. In human history, love had been loosely defined either as erossexual desireor as spiritual love. The Greeks considered friendship the purest form of love. Eastern cultures did not burden their relationships, which often showed great warmth, stability, and devotion, with the notion of romantic love. Sexual desire was separate from the notion of love. Love in the context of romantic love did not enter society's vocabulary until the twelfth century. Our Western romantic-love-before-marriage premise is a holdover from the Middle Ages when crusades and troubadours were in full session. During that period in time, the concept of romantic love blossomed, and afterward it became fashionable to marry for love.
Courtly love swept through the feudal courts of medieval Europe in a tidal wave of poetry, songs, and love stories that ignited the imagination of the Western world. Its fire, aided in the later eighteenth century by the rise of the pulp novel, blazed a trail into myths that have carried the notion straight down into our present-day hearts. Romantic lovefrom the Song of Solomon to Shakespearebecame epidemic. Courtly love caught the romantic imagination and filled inner needs to the extent that it has remained a driving force of our present-day relationships. We drink romance as old wine in new glasses.
The Connection Between
Courtly Love and Adultery
For hundreds of years, "falling in love" was presented as a rupture of the conjugal coupleadultery. History celebrates adultery. In literature and myth, some of the most passionate love affairs occurred when one or both of the lovers were married. Paris and Helen, Tristan and Iseult, Lancelot and Guinevere, Paolo and Francesca, Don Quixote and Dulcinea, Dante and Beatrice, Anthony and Cleopatra.
The phenomenon of romance and courtly love was not left to the imagination. The ladies of the Middle Ages gathered into groups called courts of love. Their purpose was to define the rules and traditions of love. According to A Short History of Women by John Langdon-Davies, such a court, led by the Countess of Champagne in May 1174, created a list of thirty-one rules that explicitly defined the rules of romance. A sampling:
Marriage is no good excuse against loving.
Whoever cannot conceal a thing, cannot love.
Love must always grow greater or grow less.
Love that is known publicly rarely lasts.
Every lover turns pale in the sight of the co-lover.
A new lover makes one quit the old.
Real jealousy always increases the worth of love.
The true lover is haunted by the co-lover's image unceasingly.
Extramarital passion was love. Love was yearning. Love was lust. Love was infidelity. We still seek to emulate in an institution of realitynamely, marriagethe forbidden romantic love that existed only in myth.
This then is our legacy: an animal heritage of biological givens that embraces both indiscriminate mating and an instinct for attachment, marriage as an economic survival tool that is no longer necessary, and an eight-hundred-year-old romantic code of love that has little to do with either.
The Contemporary Nature of
Just as a look at history provides a glimmer of understanding for our present-day attitudes and expectations about love and marriage, a glance at our present-day lives shows us how those past romantic love ideals provide fertile ground for adultery. Romantic love continues to be a loose cannon on the deck of marriage. We only have to look at the growing divorce rate to prove this claim. Affairs are commonplace. Half of marriages end in divorce. More children are raised in shattered families than united ones.
Affairs are present to a great degree in marriages that end in divorce. Affairs are reflections of how we isolate ourselves from our marriage partner. This desire for isolation may stem from the unrealistic expectations we have of our partner, which can result in unspoken resentments, anger, even despair. Given the degree to which affairs contribute to the isolation of marital partners, it is easy to see why a host of misconceptions have accumulated about affairs.
Four Misconceptions About Affairs
1. In every affair there is a saint and a sinner; the victim is a saint and the betrayer a sinner. It is not as simple as that. An affair is not something that happens to people. It happens between two people, even though one may have been betrayed.
Notwithstanding cruelty and abuse, both marital partners have a piece of the pie of responsibility when one partner chooses a sexual detour. We may or may not have acknowledged our role consciously, but there are no victims, only volunteers. Sadly, affairs turn love into alienation more often than enduring friendship, and moral judgments have no constructive force. They do not heal wounds or shattered families.
Excerpted from Sexual Detours by Holly Hein. Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Holly Hein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.