Following on from yesterday’s post, Affairs: The Infidelity Epidemic, Kate Figes offers further affair help through her research and writing.
Why Adulterers Secretly Yearn to be Caught
By Kate Figes
Behind the worrying rise in infidelity there’s a surprising but poignant truth says relationship expert
Relationships expert Kate Figes spent three years talking to cheating spouses, psychologists and marriage counsellors for an explosive new book examining why infidelity has become so common in modern Britain. She reveals the surprising reasons men and women are tempted to stray — and what they can do to salvage their marriage.
Often people subconsciously cheat to hurt their partner and to get their attention
The devastating secret is finally out: your partner has been having an affair. You had no idea it was going on and your emotions are in turmoil. “How could you do this to me?” you cry. “How could you lie to me like that? What do they have that I don’t?”
Nothing your partner says could ever provide an adequate answer, but these questions are asked over and over again.
The discovery that a spouse — male or female — has been having an affair often creates an emotional vortex in which communication is all but impossible. There can be raging jealousy as well as an overwhelming sense of impotence.
Sexual betrayal feels like a rejection of all that you are: “I was not good enough to keep them faithful.”
“It’s like a bereavement for a lot of the couples I see,” says relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Evelyn Cooney. “People go through the same stages as they do with grief for the loss of the relationship they thought they had.”
The symptoms of the sexually betrayed can resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder. Their lives have been blown apart: every assumption they’ve ever made about their partner, the meaning of their relationship and themselves as sexual beings has been shattered.
It isn’t just the thought of your other half making love to someone else that hurts. Infidelity raises primal anxieties about being abandoned. The person we trusted to have our best interests at heart threatens our sense of self, place, purpose and security.
As Nora Ephron wrote in Heartburn:
You suddenly have no sense of reality, you have lost a piece of your past. The infidelity itself is small potatoes compared to the low-level brain damage that results when a whole chunk of your life turns out to have been completely different to what you thought it was.
High Profile Affairs
Natasha Giggs has recently filed divorce after cheating on her husband with his brother Ryan Giggs while Kristen Stewart and director Rupert Sanders, were caught embracing on camera last year, resulting in Sanders’ wife divorcing him.
The deepest betrayals take place at times of greatest emotional vulnerability, such as when we are ill, unemployed or have lost our firm flesh and youthful looks. Male infidelity is common after the birth of a child.
Little wonder, then, that the first instinct of so many wronged spouses is to kick their partners out of the family home. This, after all, is what modern society has come to expect.
Though we’ve become much more understanding of frailties such as alcoholism or depression, we draw the line at infidelity. In these cases, most people agree, there are only victims and villains — so we tolerate and even expect an explosive reaction from wronged spouses.
In short, they’re encouraged to behave like victims. The cheaters, meanwhile, are vilified by friends, family and even their community.
Such reactions may be understandable, but they force both parties to take defensive positions. The danger is that the deeper resentments which may have provoked the betrayal will never be addressed.
For Kristen, who had a six-month affair with a married man when her children were five and three, the problem was boredom with routine. “I just wanted to be someone other than a wife and mother,” she says.
Oliver, on the other hand, just wants to escape the constant bickering at home. After ten years of marriage, he says, he and his wife are having “lots of tit-for-tat childish arguments where neither of us will budge. That’s snowballed to the position where we’re not getting on at all.” Rather than try to work out a better way of communicating, he’s been having an affair with a married woman for the past six months.
Most of us still assume, however, that the root cause of infidelity is sex. This is far from the case.
“I think the erotic aspect is the least significant component to an affair,” says Brett Kahr, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and couples counsellor. “I also think large numbers of people have low-grade depression. The safety of commitment feels like deadness. The affair gives people the illusion they have become enlivened.”
Marriage vows have never been under as much strain as they are now with many men and women in relationships admitting being in an affair
If the marriage was in terminal decline before the affair, then the couple will split up. But what if there’s something worth saving?
Sadly, the drama of a discovered affair induces such a state of panic that neither spouse knows what they want or what to do next. There’s an overwhelming sense of emotional chaos.
Both blame each other. The trouble with blame, however, is that it masks the truth of what’s really been going on between two people, often for years.
In this common scenario, both spouses pour every ounce of their energy into destroying each other rather than addressing the slow decay of their relationship, which lies at the heart of the affair.
It’s easy for a man who’s strayed to blame his spouse for failing to make him happy, for not being that perfect mate, for letting their sex life die.
And it’s easy for a mother to blame her partner for failing to understand just how tired she gets from looking after the children and going to work. It’s also easy to lay blame on the third part of the triangle — the lover — rather than to face up to all the subtle and subconscious ways one partner may have pushed the other away, making them vulnerable to an affair.
“When I started my work, I had the naive notion you’d find 99 per cent of the fault in the man who had mistresses, while the wife just cleaned and cooked or was perhaps withholding sex after the seventh baby,” says Brett Kahr.
“But having done this work for a long time, I can say hand on heart that it is usually 50-50. When you start to unravel the story of the affair, we find that each one has had a contribution to make in hurting the other. The aggrieved women are often biting and critical, which can then drive the man into the arms of a more understanding woman. When it’s the woman who’s had an affair, there is often passivity in the man, which seems to anger and propel the wife.
“Couples do a complicated, unconscious dance that involves a lot of provocation and goading, with each taking up positions.
“When you start to peel back the layers, you find that each has been needling the other, sometimes for years.”
Brett Kahr believes that the primary reason for having an affair is not because you’ve just met the most beautiful woman (or man) you’ve ever seen, but because you subconsciously want to hurt your partner.
And, in many cases, there’s certainly an element of unconscious revenge. Sometimes the pressure cooker of deceit and denial when one spouse is having an affair builds to such an intensity that the only way out is to get caught. So, he may leave telltale notes or presents lying around — clues that are actually a cry for help.
Indeed, some erring spouses feel so powerless within a marriage that they actually want to provoke a crisis.
While researching my new book on infidelity, I heard of love letters being inserted into favourite books, just waiting to be found.
Worse still were at least ten cases in which the adulterer’s mobile rang home mysteriously on speed-dial. The spouse then picked up the phone, only to hear their partner making love to someone else.
After the Affair
One possible reason behind people engaging in affairs is that we’ve come to expect far more of marriage.
In the heat of discovery, such betrayals can seem too much for anyone to bear. But probably the best advice at this early stage is not to do anything that could be regretted later — such as kicking out the unfaithful partner.
All of the research suggests that it is only with time, and enough distance from the drama of the affair, that a couple can gain perspective on the relationship and be able to decide rationally whether they’re better off separating or staying together.
Some, like Marianne, regret they didn’t try harder from the start to save their marriage. She’d been married for 20 years when she discovered her husband was having an affair and remembers being in such shock that she could barely speak.
“I also knew I didn’t want him to go,” she says. “So I just tried to live through it day by day. Then I got really upset because he wouldn’t come on holiday with me and the children.
“He wasn’t prepared to leave [his lover] for just one week and I thought then: what’s the point of even trying? So I told him to go. The thing is that I’m not sure where we might be as a couple if I hadn’t done that.”
Isabel and her husband, on the other hand, made no immediate decisions. Like Marianne, she’d been traumatised by news of her husband’s affair, which she likened to an earthquake.
The months immediately afterwards were fraught with anger and uncertainty, but she’s glad she resisted cutting him out of her life.
It’s only now, years after the event, that she feels able to say: “We were equally to blame. We’d got very stuck. I wasn’t really there for him — I was distracted by my parents dying and other horrible things happening, and I didn’t want anyone near me.
“I think [the mistress] just came along and gave him what he wanted at the time. One of the most important things was that I understood why it happened. It’s ridiculous to have a knee-jerk reaction to it, asking “How can I ever trust him again?” because you can. Eventually.
“Yes, it took me a long time to recover, but how long is a long time when you have a lifetime together?”
It can be hard to stop blaming and trying to punish a person who’s wounded you so deeply. But if you can get your rage under control, you may finally be able to address the root causes of the affair.
First, you need to be able to see the betrayal as something that’s happened to you as a couple, rather than a deliberate humiliation.
Each partner has to find ways to talk honestly to the other about their dissatisfactions — without making the other feel at fault for not making them entirely happy.
We can’t take back the hurt, but we can rebuild trust by sharing our emotions (even the more ugly ones), spelling out the changes we want in the relationship, and accepting the feelings of our partner as valid (even the more ugly ones).
“It is possible to come back from the brink, but I never thought that could ever be the case when it first happened,” says Clare, who had been married for more than 30 years when her husband had an affair with a younger woman.
“There were lots of big conversations. It was such an explosive event that it gave me permission to talk about things I’d kept quiet about or maybe was in denial about or just couldn’t be bothered mentioning.”
Even if a couple are going to break up, it’s still crucial for them to take responsibility for the problems in their relationship.
A wronged wife who continues to cast herself as an innocent victim will see weakness and passivity as a part of her identity, which bodes ill for future relationships.
Some couples, of course, end up back together without confronting the root causes of the affair. But resentments on both sides can fester for years.
Take the woman who says she’s forgiven her husband, but brings up the subject of his infidelity at every dinner party. Or the wronged husband who now delights in flirting outrageously in front of his wife.
Others withdraw sex or stop being kind to their partner.
“These couples endlessly gnaw at the same bone, reiterate the same mutual recriminations and blame each other for their agony,’ says counsellor Esther Perel. “Why they stay in the marriage is often as puzzling as why they can’t get beyond their mutual antagonism.”
For those who want to rebuild a contented and committed relationship, there’s nothing more powerful than a sincere apology — and sincere forgiveness.
True forgiveness is not a sign of weakness or that you condone appalling behaviour. It doesn’t mean you’ve stopped feeling hurt or aren’t fearful about the future.
What it does mean is that you’ve rediscovered the humanity of the person who hurt you so badly and surrendered the right to get even.
A marriage with a shared past of intimacy and love is nearly always worth saving. As film star Paul Newman once said: “Why go out for a hamburger when you can have a steak at home?” Familiarity, the safety of relationship and the fact someone is available to us doesn’t have to dampen desire.
“If a couple want to make a go of their relationship after an affair, one of the first things that happens — which signifies a good prognosis — is that their sex life dramatically improves,” says psychoanalytic psychotherapist Jenny Riddell.
This is because the disclosure of an affair forces many couples to reconnect intimately — by fighting, screaming, crying and making passionate love.
Or, as Naomi discovered after her husband had a fling: “The sex has been better since he came back because he must have learned a thing or two — so why not benefit from it?”
But we delude ourselves badly by thinking that there can be heaven on earth for more than a few moments in our love lives.
True heaven lies in triumphing over difficulties together. It lies in sharing funny moments, conundrums, new sources of amazement, the day-to-day life of a family.
In the end, it is sharing the ordinary that keeps the passion of a long relationship alive.
Affairs: Common Ways of Discovery
- Went through mobile phone - 41 per cent
- Went through social media account - 23 per cent
- Went through files on PC/laptop/tablet - 13 per cent
- Caught in the act (face to face) - 11 per cent
- Told by friend - 5 per cent
- Told by family member - 3 per cent
- Confession - 2 per cent
- Other - 2 per cent