Most of us avoid pain.
Sometimes, when the pain is highest, we quit. The question is: “Quit what?”
Some quit faith, and avoid church-type people. Some quit the way that they have learned to ‘be’ (e.g. careful or considerate or frugal). Some quit marriage.
Counsellors think of quitting as an ’emotional cutoff.’ Quitting extricates one from the present pain — but promises persevering pain in the future.
Affairs start this way: first, there is dissatisfaction with the marital relationship. Most often this dissatisfaction is really dissatisfaction with one’s self projected onto the screen of the marriage. This leads to an emotional emptiness or loneliness, set up by the erroneous assumption that the spouse is there to solve one’s psychic neediness.
Perhaps the wife or husband wishes greater sexual variety, or greater creativity generally — and, when this is frustrated, becomes angry with the more ‘boring’ partner. Of course, it is difficult to be miserably angry and to feel ‘in love’ at the same time. Love wanes.
This is typically the setup – and then the quitting begins. The couple grows apart; the marriage assumes a parallel structure, like two train rails – connected by obligations and responsibilities, all the while supporting the energy and direction of the children.
Sexual intimacies — once the sacrament of the covenant — become repetitive, predictable, infrequent and essentially unsatisfying.
Monogamy begins to feel like a trap and ‘unnatural’ — and, of course, it is easy to find examples of other people’s exciting lives, unburdened by the responsibility of marital faithfulness.
This could have been the story of any number of men or women I have met, counselled, prayed for and wondered about. The affair-ing person doesn’t do it for the sex only – but for the celebration, the hope of being understood, the sense of being wanted.
Here are some suggestions for affair-proofing your relationship — or, if you have had an affair, for rebuilding the covenant.
These ideas are for making a relationship work, rather than for rescuing a relationship that is badly broken and bleeding. The latter might need different skills; but these principles could help you:
Figure out who you are.
People have affairs often because the ‘other woman’ (or ‘other man’) defines them in a way that they have longed for.
Perhaps they long to be courted, or listened to and understood, or affirmed for being smart or attractive, or deeply wanted, even hungered after — these things are what some spouses want, and don’t get. Then the emotional or physical affair begins.
Separate from your family of origin.
Affairs often arise out of family roles, learned and practiced while growing up.
People feel trapped into playing the same role that a parent played, and sometimes they feel that quitting the marriage or leaving the family is the only way they can get out of the trap.
For instance, some people feel they must play the role of ‘ready rescuer,’ always available to comfort; this becomes exhausting.
Others play the role of ‘family hero,’ needing to be right and responsible all the time.
There are many more – but, regardless of the role, when a person is more role than real, quitting happens.
Commit to a mission.
Churches and businesses have ‘mission statements’ posted at the front of their sanctuaries or printed on their letterheads. But couples and families seldom commit to a mission. So they shift and change without conscious purpose.
What is the mission of your family? If you don’t have one, you can borrow mine: ‘Make God glad.’ Commit to a common mission — and celebrate your successes.
Pick a slope and be conscious of it.
When we talk to our spouse, do we talk ‘down’ or ‘up?’ Do our words curse or bless? Do we flat-line – offering no warmth, no risk, no reality? Or do we set ourselves on an upward slope?
A couple looking for good, planning for better and celebrating the unexpected are not usually a couple that ventures into an affair.
Engage in 10-10 talk.
Talk for 10 minutes in the morning, face-to-face, about your day, your hopes, your needs. Then do the same in the evening.
This is one-on-one, without the distractions of TV, computer or Blackberry, kids and preparation for meals. It is an encounter, and it is hard.
But once you have gotten 30 days into it, you will find that you have built an opportunity for intimacy and change — which will be great for your life and even better for your marriage.
Get a good ‘adjunct.’
An adjunct is an assistant to help you get what you want and need – perhaps by helping you define a family mission.
Psychologists and pastors are good at this, as are all kinds of therapists who listen and think with you.
A therapeutic adjunct who wonders and prays with you, helping you make good and godly decisions, is worth his or her weight in gold.
In our province and country, it used to be said that adultery was grounds for divorce; but in our no-fault divorce culture, adultery is now, wonderfully, grounds for forgiveness, maturity and change.
One can still choose unforgiveness, immaturity and ‘stuckness’ if one wishes; but why would one do this when a better option is available?
Did you know that 80 percent of Canadian couples who have experienced unfaithfulness create an enduring and improving marriage following the affair?
They don’t quit; they create.
Affairs, much like suicide attempts, are often a ‘call for help’ for the marriage — or at least a call for change and improvement.
Rather than quit, a couple can decide, wonder and plan for change. They don’t have to quit, even when the pain is highest.
Paddy Ducklow is a psychologist and the Erb-Gullison Professor of Family Ministries at Carey Theological College.