I treated the unfaithful of every faith. Many led conscientious lives of mindful moral rectitude. How surprised they were when religion and family didn’t insulate them from infidelity.
What is the magic in the eyes of another – including a therapist – who looks, hears, and understands you? What characteristic of new love turns people upside down, in or out of marriage?
Let’s begin with what is believed about straying spouses. Conventional wisdom in the United States labels extra-marital sex as a matter of evil intent (active pursuit of someone else), lust, and “trading up” to an attractive partner who is often younger. Potential injury to the spouse is an afterthought, when thought at all. You are “bad” to cross the line. A more charitable opinion indicts absent willpower. Perhaps I believed such views myself when I began my practice.
Then I encountered people who were wracked with guilt and still loved the mate from whom they’d strayed. These folks led principled lives and consciously avoided or resisted such opportunities for years, until …
The secret ingredient explaining the attraction of a new person may be the same quality many a patient finds in her therapist.
Yes, most everyone wants sexual intimacy, but put warm bodies aside for a moment. Let us also set aside those who do seek to “trade up.”
Recognize this: we all want to be known or “be seen,” and once seen, embraced for the entirety of our being. Some don’t receive this gift because they hide themselves from others, avoiding openness. One can disguise oneself in public, creating a persona quite different from the truth of your existence. Then, even if people enjoy or admire you, the stunt double receives the applause, not you.
For many, the externals get in the way of being understood and accepted in totality. I’m speaking of those who are too beautiful, too plain; too fat, too thin; too rich, too poor; too young or too old. Even too gifted or too “average.” The barrier of these qualities is not surmounted. The other’s X-rays do not penetrate the dominating impression made by those outward facts. The “package” remains unwrapped, the contents unrevealed.
Now think of what a good therapist does. He gradually understands you, comes to know your secrets, observes how you think, what makes you laugh, grasps why you cry. He cups his hands and catches your tears. You become more than your externals to him. You experience less emptiness in his presence. Indeed, you might believe you have been newly minted because, for the first time in forever, someone perceives you with fresh eyes.
When you look in his eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. For the first time. At last.
Think of a small child who loves you. You might be his mom or dad or grandparent, his aunt or uncle, his baby sitter or neighbor. You come into his home and he runs to you, embraces you, and shines the light of his being on your being. Therapists come close to having this effect on some of their patients. A new lover shares the capacity of the small one to make your heart full to bursting. You are their universe, the focal point of their life. The longer you have lived as an “unknown,” the more likely you will be overwhelmed.
Even in good marriages we can get taken for granted and take the other for granted. Or perhaps one’s universe was never fully encompassed by the spouse. Maybe the routine of working, getting, spending, raising kids, cleaning house, and mowing the lawn wears us down, dulls our vision. You might not have known the room of your life was dark and cold until an attractive stranger shines his light on you: looks at you in a way that makes you remember the long missing warmth of the summer sun. It is not only the sex that draws one to stray, it is the sparkle in the other’s eyes.
No, I’m not giving the unfaithful a pass. I am trying to understand them.
New or old, in love or friendship, we must see the other with new eyes. That is what therapists do.
Call it a survival technique.
Call it love.
Call it our duty.
We must try.
Bette Davis is the actress in the top photo.