Affairs might be ‘sexy’ but they are rarely purely about sex. More often than not, an affair can be an unconscious attempt to solve a problem in the original relationship. It’s clearly a signal that something is wrong, but how do we know what that is? When working as a couples therapist I’ve noticed that most affairs tend to be provoked by one of six triggers. These are the deeper relationship issues that might have led to the affair, and can give some ideas about what steps to take as you solder your relationship back together.
1. Conflict-phobic affair This is when one or both partners won’t argue, and skirt around their differences rather than work through them. The problem with this is that they’re not sharing all of themselves, and so levels of intimacy drop. The relationship becomes routine, rather than being kept alive by fresh dialogue. Inevitably, each partner begins to feel lonely. But airing their troubles and risking confrontation feels too frightening, so paradoxically, to save their marriage, they seek intimacy elsewhere. The straying partner is often careless, as if unconsciously they want to get found out, because this will force them to look at their relationship. When both sides take responsibility for their conflict avoidance there is a good chance they can learn new and more authentic ways of being together.
Prospects for recovery: Good.
2. Vulnerability-phobic affair The opposite of the conflict phobes, these couples are often good at arguing – almost too good. For them, conflict is a way to maintain contact with each other. But this isn’t healthy debate – both sides are too frightened of opening up and showing their vulnerabilities. Instead, there is a strong need to be right and to prove the other wrong. This leads to role play rather than more intimate, authentic sharing, which can escalate the belief that their partner does not care about them, thus increasing their fear of being vulnerable, which then leads to loneliness – and then to infidelities. It is likely that the affair gets discovered quite quickly. Even then it can escalate into tit-for-tat affairs on both sides and by the time they get to see a couples therapist, the couple are usually on the brink of splitting up. If both partners can learn to see that their fear of being open and vulnerable is the root cause of their ‘I’m-right-you’re-wrong’ game, they can drop the roles and regain their intimacy.
Prospects for recovery: Fair/good.
3. Incapacity for intimacy affair This is another version of the vulnerability-phobic affair. The straying partner finds the messiness of a longer-term relationship, after the novelty and idealisation stage, too complicated. A new partner seems so much more straightforward… until they get to know them and the whole cycle starts again. They go through this cycle several times before they can realise that it might be their own incapacity for intimacy that’s leading to their affairs and subsequent break-ups.
Prospects for recovery: Fair/poor.
4. The divided self affair The wandering partner loves the idea of their perfect family and a perfect spouse. But they also love their lover. They never intended to have an affair, and see it as something that ‘just happened’. Their self-image as a good spouse and parent is important to them, but what they probably didn’t do is accurately assess the depth of their feelings for their ‘perfect’ partner at the start. Their partner is someone they think they ought to love, rather than someone they actually love. After quite a few years of trying to keep this up, they will be knocked off their feet by an infatuation. The trouble is, they are still wedded to the idea of themselves as part of the perfect family. They may never be found out. It is often a mistress who contacts a wife in an attempt to get things moving. They will still be reluctant to move in with the mistress and will probably only do so if they are thrown out by their partner.
Prospects for recovery: Fair/poor.
5. The sex addict affair If one partner is a sex addict, this stems more from their individual issues than from any problems with their relationship or partner, and consequently the ways of working through it are more limited. The prospect of change is small. Being addicted to sex is not unlike other addictions, such as alcohol or gambling. The addict feels empty and uses the addiction to feel temporarily full, but it never lasts and the addiction can continue indefinitely unless the addict is prepared to work hard in therapy and at changing their behaviour. The partner of a sex addict, as often as not, overlooks the affairs, either consciously or unconsciously. This can be because of co-dependency (‘I’d be nothing without you’) or might be related to how they want themselves and their marriage to look to others.
Prospects for recovery: Dependent on whether the non-straying partner can tolerate the situation. The addict is unlikely to change unless they are highly motivated to.
6. The exit affair The purpose of an exit affair is to try to force the non-straying partner into ending the relationship. Alternatively, it might have started as a distraction from the pain of separation. The affair says, ‘It’s over’, when honest communication has not been happening for a long time. Such an affair could be seen as the cause of the split, but it’s usually a way out after the straying partner has made a decision to end the relationship. Often such a couple comes to therapy because the exiting partner feels that the therapist can mop up their partner’s hurt, allowing them to exit more easily.
Prospects for recovery: Hopeless.
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