The Remarkable Impact of Being Seen: More on Erotic Transference and Love

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.

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Bette Davis is the actress in the top photo.

 

When Sex is Too Much Trouble

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If you are young enough, the idea of sex as a chore is beyond imagining. You know you will change as you age, but the thought of sex as a job, obligation, or — worse yet — too much trouble, is inconceivable (pun intended). You’ve heard, perhaps, of those who lose interest, but don’t really think you ever will; and are too busy with the mating game to put your mind into an unattractive future (in both senses), whether due to the march of time or other factors.

Philip Roth tells us about a re-evaluation of the sexual project, as we read the viewpoint of his narrator in The Human Stain. Indeed, the character’s altered attitude toward sex drove him to move from the city to the seclusion of the countryside:

 My point is that by moving here I had altered deliberately my relationship to the sexual caterwaul, and not because the exhortations or, for that matter, my erections had been effectively weakened by time, but because I couldn’t meet the costs of its clamoring anymore, could no longer marshal the wit, the strength, the patience, the illusion, the irony, the ardor, the egoism, the resilience — or the toughness, or the shrewdness, or the falseness, the dissembling, the dual being, the erotic professionalism — to deal with its array of misleading and contradictory meanings.

The complaint is not unknown. Indeed, some men prefer sex with prostitutes because it takes care of the problems driving Roth’s narrator to isolate himself from sexual encounters altogether. For those men, the exchange of dollars for skin does away with the “misleading and contradictory meanings” and the emotional and behavioral role-playing they find so bothersome.

We do a lot for sex — at least for the connectedness and commitment we hope will come with it. Would the amount spent on cosmetics, hair supplies, skin creams, Viagra, sex toys, personal trainers, gym classes, face lifts, breast implants, hair plugs, mirrors, bar bells, watches, clothing, cars and jewelry total nearly so much without the hope of a sexual or romantic payoff?

How much time is spent choosing those items and activities? How much time in using them? How much time in wondering whether they have done the intended job? How much time observing whether anyone notices?

Sex is in the scent of perfume and pheromones and aftershave. Romance and seduction are on the air of radio broadcasts and TV programming. Sex sells cars, shoes, and itself. But don’t, please don’t point out the obvious: you would be considered crude. By comparison there is some honesty in the professional transaction of money for sex; one could argue, more than is inherent in the pursuit of a trophy spouse or the prospective mate’s willingness to become a sexual hood ornament.

Roth’s point, however, is more subtle than any of these things. He is referring to learning the steps of the mating dance and performing them to perfection, even when you don’t like the music. Part of his concern is the sheer effort involved, the fashioning of disguises, the worry that you are boring, the time to make yourself look good, the forced concentration on the other person while stifling a yawn, the calculations designed to impress, the compromises, the things said to promote yourself, and those unsaid to hide what is unbecoming.

Then there are the questions of strategies and tactics, the intracranial meeting of your own personal staff of generals to call the shots as if you were embarked on a military campaign: when to phone or text, when to touch, when to flatter or smile or laugh, when to be unpredictable and what you can predict about the target’s vulnerabilities and impregnabilities.

If one’s heart is aflutter, an attempt to comprehend what is going on in the relationship is inevitable, despite your flustered, pulsating state of body and mind. Your conception of the union’s status may not coincide with what the other thinks or hopes, but consumes much time and psychic energy. Curiously, Roth’s character does not mention the frank danger of sex. The dreaded risk of injury, the extraordinary vulnerability, the nakedness in every sense, involving every sense.

He seems more concerned with the way one is captured, thrown about, unbalanced by an enticing companion. The brain is pitched into the trash heap because there is no reasoning with all the impulses holding sway. Sex presses you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do and experience half-crazed feelings of pre-relationship desire, early relationship passion, and end-of-relationship desperation.

How do we maintain a full-time job with all this happening?

Some don’t, you know. The burden of the sexual road show can’t bear the tumult or spare the time to do those other things.

Sexy

Should you be young enough, the excitement of the chase, not to mention your raging hormones make the carnal marketplace seem the only place to be; an arena that might define you as popular, alluring, or powerful. For a few, this comes naturally. For most, the meat market is a little like being placed on a skating rink before you’ve learned to walk; too much, too soon. Still, our genetic programming pushes us into the fray.

Time strips away the appeal and ratchets up the cost sex exacts, just as Roth suggests. The hormonal flush diminishes gradually, while the desperation mounts. The psychic scars of failed relationships make one hesitate, but the clock is running. Not just the ticking biological time bomb, but the worry you are gradually becoming invisible to members of the opposite sex because your shining externals don’t have the glow of their best years. A receding hairline, or growing waist line tell you your “use by” date is approaching much too fast. Meanwhile there appears no end of competitors who want to take your spot; less weathered or younger or richer or just simply smarter and better looking.

All this is more than enough to make one nauseous, anxious, or depressed.

Some do, temporarily or permanently, throw in the towel — give up on the sex project. You can have a rich life without lust, but it certainly is different from the wildly urgent existence of the sexual being, where youthful animal instinct meets the combustible allure of the primordial creature in heat.

Celibacy meet-up groups exist around the world, although not all of the folks in these are abstinent by choice. Some are like Roth’s fictional character, choosing to be free of the trouble of sex. A portion of those who opt for continence may resist the lure of flesh as a kind of discipline or a way to concentrate on other things and grow personally; perhaps to sublimate their sexual energies, focusing on something beyond and above the narcotic of skin and the grip of Mother Nature’s hard-wired programming.

Resisting temptation is always an interesting and difficult project, so there is doubtless knowledge to be gained in it, much as any kind of philosophical or religious abstinence provides, like a day of fasting.

How long would you travel this solitary highway?

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There are as many ways to live as people who are living. One such way could include a span of time without sex. The world is beautiful and forever new if you only look hard enough. Intimacy does not require some sort of penetration of bodies.

For myself, if I were to take a break, I’d schedule a winter in a forbidding place where everyone is covered up.

I’d have lots to do — things of importance to me.

When spring comes and the comely shed their coats?

That would be another matter.

The images, in order: Sexy Secretary Drawing by Dimorsitanos, With Reference to Sexy by Mickey esta en la casa, and Monique Olsen by Christopher Peterson. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This essay is a revised version of The Emotional Cost of Sex, published in 2012.

How Would a Friendship with Your Therapist Work?

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The fantasy of having a closer relationship with one’s therapist occupies the mental space devoted to imaginary things. It must, because few counselors permit such a connection. Professional ethics generally prohibit the dual role of therapist/friend and therapist/lover. Yet, there is value in fleshing-out what this double-bond would look like in practice.

Responses to my recent post, Being Excluded From Your Therapist’s Life, suggest the fantasy dies hard. What follows is an effort to describe how the relationship would function if brought to life — the day-to-day lives of a shrink and his patient. I invite you, dear reader, to think along with me. Let me know if my concerns are off-base. Even more, once you finish reviewing my ideas, I’d love to read your own notion of how to create the connection some of you want with your therapist: an outline better than the current prohibitive model you say is frustrating.

I will use myself as an example. First, were I to lower therapeutic barriers, I’d accept only unsolicited volunteers for friendship. No direct invitation would be addressed to patients. I’d then need to consider who I’d enjoy having as a friend from among those who expressed an interest. Let’s assume three people both want this and seem a good fit for me. Any number I might choose would be arbitrary. Pick a different one if you like. Remember, however, the bigger the numeral, the harder it will be for this system to work.

FIRST PROBLEM: Even without an announcement, I assume some folks would become aware of my possible willingness to pass time with them informally. This might happen by word of mouth, within a written statement of clinic policies given to patients beginning treatment, or due to a general change in the ethical guidelines applying to all clinical psychologists.

A therapist is human. He finds some people more compatible than others. This doesn’t mean the potential chums are better than anyone else, only that they possess the kind of personal qualities the doctor enjoys socially. Unfortunately, “no” would be the message delivered to some people. Imagine how those “blackballed” might be affected, including the negative impact on the therapeutic alliance. In effect, my partial openness to friendship necessarily establishes a three-tiered clientele:

a. Those clients who do not request friendship.
b. Patients who become friends.
c. The unfortunates who get rejected.

Might some occupants of the lowest tier infer I offer them professional services only to make a buck, since I don’t want to socialize? While not true, any alternative explanation sounds hollow, at least to me.

SECOND PROBLEM: How might I differentiate between time spent as a therapist and hours passed as a pal? That is, what if a client with me at Starbucks begins to talk about personal problems? How should I respond? I’d need to choose among three roles:

a. A sympathetic friend.
b. A therapist doing an unscheduled session out of the office.
c. A doctor who thought he was off-duty.

If I react as the doctor I must then remind my coffee-partner I am not at work. Indeed, I might emphasize that we are having a non-therapeutic relationship at his request. What do I do, however, if my friend ignores the boundary or gets emotionally overwhelmed in the restaurant? In addition, how do I deal with the question of a fee for my service if I find myself doing lots of therapy outside the office?

THIRD PROBLEM: I am the proud owner of a good social life, as complete as I’d like it to be. In our example, it has suddenly been enlarged by three people. My downtime instantly becomes “jammed-up.” My freedom to enjoy family and personal connections already present, many of long-standing, is now reduced. Disappointments among both chums and loved ones are inevitable. This will be predictably stressful. How do I choose which relationships to honor? Would arguments or resentments follow? Would some of my patient/friends experience surprise or worse when their expected access to me is less than they dreamed? Might this add to the history of rejection that triggered at least a few of them to enter counseling in the first place?

FOURTH PROBLEM: As noted in “Problem Three,” the abrogation of my former ethical restrictions leaves me trying to find time to do what I want, including contact with children, spouse, old buddies and recent dual role chums. Perhaps you’d advise me to limit new patient/friends from the start by saying to volunteers, “Yes, I’m open to being your friend, but I can’t because I just don’t have the time.” I doubt this would satisfy them forever and might seem phony.

Remember, too, I am introverted by nature. Were I to add the three newbies and try to keep the rest of my social network unchanged, I imagine draining myself. Might I become resentful about this? If so, would anger and fatigue intrude on all my relationships, as well as diminishing my competence as a psychologist? The answer would be “yes” to both questions.

FIFTH PROBLEM: Let’s assume the new ethical guidelines still prohibit sex, broadly defined. In other words, kissing, fondling, and everything more. Further imagine I have a fulfilling marriage (which I do). Now, however, I am spending time as the “friend” of a woman (or women) I find attractive. Age is not important, type is not important, whether you’d be attracted to them is not important. The only consideration of consequence is my susceptibility to the allure of such a person or persons. Yes, perhaps I could screen out those whose magnetism I felt from the start, but this wouldn’t prevent attraction from developing in the course of the friendship. Nor do I assume that both of us would experience the same beguilement, but I’m expecting sometimes we would.

You all know nothing stops two people who begin a relationship (casual, professional, or otherwise) from becoming sexually intimate down the line. All of us are the offspring of ancestors who had intercourse. Lots of it. We are built to reproduce. Oscar Wilde put it best, “I can resist anything except temptation.” Under my new rules, however, I’d have to do just that. Had I maintained the previous metaphorical moat between myself and my patients, those ethical principles would have helped in cementing this boundary. Avoiding temptation is far easier than resisting it. Our hypothetical scenario puts me pretty much on my own, doing enjoyable activities — as one does with platonic companions — a few of whom happen to be “hot.” The slope is slippery and my skis are on. If I begin this downward adventure I will destroy my patient, my family, and myself.

SIXTH PROBLEM: The decision to permit friendships with clients rests on an implicit assumption: I have something to offer as a friend no one else can provide. This is absurd. No practitioner I know, including myself, is unique in his capacity for understanding, affection, loyalty, wit, and all the other qualities present in a good chum. It only seems so to the client.

Moreover, by becoming the buddy of the person to whom you are ministering, you reduce his incentive to develop healthy connections outside of the office and to take the risks necessary to do so. Stealing the initiative of the people you serve harms them.

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By now you’re either on board with my concerns, believe I’m unnecessarily worried, or think I’m just plain wrong. What I hope I’ve done, however, is to make it clear that an extra-therapeutic relationship with a mental health professional can’t measure up to an imaginary nirvana. It holds enormous risk for the parties in the consulting room and dares causing permanent damage to each of them, as well as to others. By giving in to a client’s idealized dream of having MORE time and tenderness, the chances are increased of making a nightmare of complexity and disappointment for patient and doctor alike.

I know I have not dealt adequately with the depth of heartache experienced by those who suffer unrequited affection for their therapist; or perhaps I should say “unrequited access” instead. I can do no better than refer you to a wonderful, but exquisitely painful post written by such a person. Indeed, her blog is called Life in a Bind — BPD and Me, the first four words of which serve as a stand-in for both her topic and mine, examined from different perspectives.

You might not like the rules I chose to live by when I practiced, the same rules about which the American Psychological Association gave me no choice. Those ethical guidelines simplified my life and benefited my patients. They permitted me to focus on the most important responsibility my career demanded: helping people. Yes, they limited me and limited those on the other side of the therapeutic moat. We — both of us — needed some boundaries.

Perhaps it is too much to call the doctor’s office a “sacred space.” Yet, the external regulations enforced on patient and therapist are designed to protect each from the other; and, to safeguard each party from the injury he might do to himself if the barriers were lowered. As a therapist, you are therefore unable to assist people in the fulfillment of their dreams about you. As compensation, you have a chance to guide them safely to a healing place. We cannot permit you everything, but in our prohibitions perhaps we can enable you to find everything elsewhere.

In the end, if you don’t like the obstacles erected by all responsible therapists, I invite you to describe a more perfect system. Ideally you will design a new set of ethical principles superior to those psychologists use, less fraught with the problems I’ve described and others just as bad.

Good luck to you. I look forward to reading anything you fashion.

The first photo is called Joy in Arm Wresting by Bernd Schwabe. The second picture is Two Interlocking Braided Hands by M. Koenitzer. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Emotional Cost of Sex: Why Some People Don’t Bother

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In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the narrator describes how his changed attitude toward sex drove him to move from the city to the seclusion of the countryside:

My point is that by moving here I had altered deliberately my relationship to the sexual caterwaul, and not because the exhortations or, for that matter, my erections had been effectively weakened by time, but because I couldn’t meet the costs of its clamoring anymore, could no longer marshal the wit, the strength, the patience, the illusion, the irony, the ardor, the egoism, the resilience — or the toughness, or the shrewdness, or the falseness, the dissembling, the dual being, the erotic professionalism — to deal with its array of misleading and contradictory meanings.

The complaint is not unknown. Indeed, some men profess that they prefer sex with prostitutes because it takes care of the problems that drive Roth’s narrator to isolate himself from sexual encounters altogether. For those men, the exchange of dollars and cents does away with the “misleading and contradictory meanings” and the emotional and behavioral role-playing that they find so bothersome.

We do a lot for sex; or, at least for the connectedness and commitment that we hope comes with it. Would the amount spent on cosmetics, hair supplies, skin creams, Viagra, sex toys, personal trainers, gym classes, face lifts, breast implants, hair plugs, bar bells, watches, clothing, cars and jewelry amount to nearly so much without the hope of a sexual or romantic payoff?

How much time is spent choosing those items and activities? How much time in using them? How much time in wondering whether they have done the job intended? How much time watching to see if anyone notices the difference?

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Sex is in the air in perfume and pheromones and aftershave. It is on the air of radio broadcasts and TV programming. It sells cars, shoes, and itself. But don’t, please don’t point out the obvious. In that event you would be considered crude. By comparison there is some honesty in the professional transaction of money for sex; one could argue, more than is inherent in the pursuit of a trophy spouse or the prospective mate’s willingness to become a sexual hood ornament.

But Roth’s point is more subtle than any of these things. He is referring to learning the steps of the mating dance and performing them to perfection, even when you don’t like the music. Part of it is the sheer effort involved, the fashioning of disguises, worry that you are boring, the time to make yourself look good, the forced concentration on the other person when you are stifling a yawn, the calculations designed to impress, the compromises, the things said to promote yourself, and those unsaid to hide that which is unbecoming.

Then there are the questions of strategies and tactics, the intracranial meeting of your own personal staff of generals to call the shots as if you were embarked on a military campaign: when to phone or text, when to touch, when to flatter or smile or laugh, when to be unpredictable and what you can predict about the target’s vulnerabilities and impregnabilities.

If one’s heart is aflutter, there will inevitably be some attempt to comprehend what is going on despite your flustered, pulsating state of body and mind. Your conception of the union’s status may not coincide with what the other thinks or hopes, but it consumes much time and psychic energy so long as the interaction matters to you, regardless of the accuracy of your assessment.

Curiously, Roth’s character does not mention the frank danger of sex. The dreaded way it can injure, the extraordinary vulnerability that can come with it — the nakedness in every sense, involving every sense.

He seems more concerned with the way that it captures you, throws you about, wreaks havoc with your balance and equanimity; and pitches your brain into the trash heap because there is no reasoning with all the impulses that hold sway, making your gray matter a vestigial organ. Sex presses you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, and experience half-crazed feelings of pre-relationship desire, early relationship passion, and end-of-relationship desperation as you hold on for fear it will slip away.

How is it that we keep up our grades or maintain a full-time job with all this going on?

Some don’t, you know. The burden of the sexual road show can’t bear it or spare the time to do those other things.

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If you are young enough, the excitement of it, not to mention your raging hormones make the carnal marketplace seem the only place to be; an arena that will define you as popular, alluring, or powerful. For a few, it comes naturally. For most, it is a little like learning to skate before you’ve learned to walk; too much, too soon. But still, our genetic programming pushes most of us into the fray.

Time strips away the appeal and ratchets up the cost that sex exacts, just as Roth suggests. The hormonal flush diminishes gradually, while the desperation mounts. Psychic scars make one hesitate, but the clock is running. Not just the ticking biological time bomb, but the worry that you are gradually becoming invisible to members of the opposite sex because your shining externals don’t have the glow of their best years. Your receding hairline, or growing waist line tell you that your “use by” date is approaching much too fast. Meanwhile there appears to be no end of competitors who want to budge into line; less weathered or younger or richer or just simply smarter and better looking.

It is more than enough to make one nauseous, anxious, or depressed.

Some do, temporarily or permanently, throw in the towel — give up on the sex project. You can have a rich life without it, but it certainly is a different life than the wildly urgent existence of the sexual being, where youthful animal instinct meets the combustible allure of the primordial creature in heat.

You can find celibacy meet-up groups around the world, although not all of the folks in these are abstinent by choice. But some are like Roth’s fictional character, choosing to be free of the trouble of sex. A portion of those who opt for continence may do it as a kind of discipline or as a way to concentrate on other things and grow personally; perhaps to sublimate their sexual energies, focusing on something beyond and above the narcotic of flesh and the grip of Mother Nature’s hard-wired programming.

Resisting temptation is always an interesting and difficult project, so there is doubtless something to be gained in it, much as there is in any kind of philosophical or religious abstinence, like a day of fasting.

For how long would you traverse this solitary highway?

Well, as the tire ads say, that is “where the rubber meets the road.” Assuming, of course, that you have a choice.

But, there are as many ways to live as there are people who are living. And one such way could include a span of time without sex. The world is beautiful and forever new if you only look hard enough. Intimacy does not require some sort of penetration of bodies.

As for myself, if I were to take a break, I’d do it in winter in a forbidding place where I wouldn’t see too many winsome strangers, some of whom might want to be won.

I’d have lots to do — things of importance to me.

When spring comes and the comely shed their overcoats?

That would be another matter.

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The images, in order: Sexy Secretary Drawing by Dimorsitanos, Animated Icon of a Sexy Dancing Girl by Jochen Gros, With Reference to Sexy by Mickey esta en la casa, and Monique Olsen by Christopher Peterson. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Unfaithful and Feeling Guilty: Now What?

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Infidelity happens. I’m not condoning it, but humans are known for mistakes, and this is simply another example of our fallibility. Still, what should you do if you have realized the error and broken off the affair? Assuming that your spouse or significant other doesn’t already know what happened, should you confess?

Let’s add two more conditions to the hypothetical situation that I’m describing: first, that you feel guilty; and second, that you have no intention of ever violating your partner’s trust again. Let us further assume that it is unlikely that your spouse will find out about the affair from someone else.

This, in other words, is one of those moments between you and your conscience. I’ve counseled people who felt so guilty that they believed they had no choice but to confess. I’ve also treated people who didn’t tell, believing that they would injure the spouse unnecessarily.

Sometimes these affairs are very old. I remember the first patient who reported a situation such as this to me. The infidelity had actually happened years before. It had gone on for a few months, then ended. The man had been faithful ever since and, it was clear, had every intention of being faithful from then until the end of time. But he felt terrible about what he had done and couldn’t shake the feeling despite the passage of time.

One consideration that such a person needs to take into account is that, for the spouse, the event is new when it is uncovered, even if it happened years ago. The wound happens at the moment of discovery or confession and doesn’t exist until that time (assuming that no STD has been communicated). But once the indiscretion is revealed, the emotions of anger and sadness are triggered, as is the sense of betrayal, and the lack of trust. Even if the infidelity is 100 years old, it typically feels to the injured party as if it happened today. And the long climb back to marital accord now begins, with no guarantee that the summit will be reached and good relations will be reestablished.

So, what if you don’t tell your spouse? Will your guilt last forever, undiminished? That depends on an enormous number of factors, including your religion (if any), your anxiety that your husband or wife will eventually find out (no matter how unlikely that might be in reality), your need for forgiveness/absolution, your ability to rationalize mistakes, your own capacity to forgive yourself, and so forth. If you need absolution and have a religious background, confessing to a priest, or fasting and prayer on the Jewish “Day of Atonement” might be helpful, depending on your particular faith. Therapists sometimes also serve the role of unofficial confessor.

If you were hoping that I would give you a clear answer, a “right” way to handle this situation, I undoubtedly have disappointed you. I frankly don’t think there is a right or wrong way in this type of case, at least not in the abstract. There are only ways that work better or worse; well, less well, or poorly; and it will depend not only on your own psychology, but the psychological makeup of your spouse. Thus, a solution that might be effective or useful for one couple, might be awful for another and lead to the end of the marriage.

Best, of course, not ever to be unfaithful. But, as I said at the start, these things do happen and, when they do, can have an overwhelming emotional wallop on all concerned. How you handle it shouldn’t be automatic. Much depends on your decision.

Choose wisely. As carpenters like to say, “Measure twice, cut once.” And know that the news will “cut.”

The above image is called Pashtun Couple by Arsalan Khan, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Infidelity and Its Treatment

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The names don’t really matter. Today they are Tiger Woods; Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina; and John Ensign, U.S. Senator from Nevada. Tomorrow they will be someone else. Every day, there are other names, little known, but causing no less pain.

How does it happen? How does it happen that people who claim to live by well established moral norms, who have taken a public oath to remain faithful to their spouse, violate that promise? There are several reasons:

1. Power and celebrity = opportunity. People in positions of power and celebrity have more opportunity than most to be unfaithful. They are surrounded, sometimes literally, with admiring and attractive younger people. As Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist anything, except temptation!” The famous and powerful have plenty of that.

2. Contiguity. You might think that the separation of sexes in some religious fundamentalist societies is unfortunate or wrong, but it does keep opportunity at a minimum. In modern Western secular civilization, men and women work together, eat together, and travel together on business. Repeated contact with a sympathetic business associate, pulling together with that person as a team on a business project, creates not just the opportunity for sexual contact, but the chance to get to know and like one another. Perfectly moral and decent folk can find themselves stirred by the presence of a person to whom they are not married, even though they weren’t looking for anything outside of the marriage.

3. Disinhibition. Alcohol and drugs. If you are around sexually attractive people in a party atmosphere or when you are “under the influence,” your judgment and hesitation are more likely to be set aside.

4. The “Great Man” rationale. More than once, I’ve heard men justifying the concept of infidelity in the case of those who are accomplished and powerful. Often, the rationale includes reference to the role that “the great man” plays in benefiting society. According to this line of reasoning, the “heroic” figure is thought to have earned the right to live by a different set of rules than the common man, and should be given the chance to be compensated for his contribution to society by being allowed multiple sexual partners.

5. The “It won’t hurt anyone” rationale. The faithless sometimes persuade themselves that there is nothing wrong with their behavior so long as anyone who might be injured (spouse/children) never knows about it. This is akin to the old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is present to hear it, does it really make a sound?” What the argument ignores is that the transgressor is changed by his act of betrayal, that he must tell a continuing set of lies in order to maintain the fiction of his character, that he risks his partner’s physical health in the event that he has become a carrier of a sexually transmitted disease, and that it is impossible to guarantee that the secret will never be revealed.

6. Mid-life crisis. Poor humanity. Poor man. We age, we lose our youthful good looks, sometimes our hair, our virility, our energy, our strength, our stamina. The antidote? A youthful or new sexual partner who, for a time, can help us shut out the dreaded and self diminishing passage of time.

7. Solace. The ups and downs of life are inevitable, even in the luckiest of lives. The best marriages are not immune to the daily stress that  takes a toll on a spouse’s ability to be compassionate, encouraging, and supportive. Financial worries, business reverses, family illness, house keeping, and child rearing soon diminish the “date night” and honeymoon atmosphere of the early days of the relationship. A fresh and sympathetic set of ears, all understanding and acceptance, often develops into something more, and something sexual.

8. “It’s not natural.” Some people, mostly men, justify infidelity with the notion that man was not meant to be a monogamous creature and the flowers of the field (i.e. the opposite sex) were meant to be enjoyed.

9. Longevity. At the turn of the last century in America, that is, about 1900, the average life expectancy was about 50 years. By that standard it was usual for marriages to be relatively short, 25 to 35 years at the most, many much shorter. No longer. Many now last 50 years and more. What happens in that time? People get older, their bodies change, and their personalities alter as well. When I do marital therapy, I usually ask couples what initially drew them together. The most frequent answer I get is something like, “He was hot and we had a lot of fun.” Thirty years on, it goes without saying, he isn’t so “hot” and they sure aren’t having fun.

In order for marriages to thrive into mid-life and beyond, the couple has to work very hard at the relationship, to keep the sexual spark alive despite physical changes and familiarity, and to see to it that personality alterations are compatible or synchronous. Too often one partner wants the marriage to be exactly as it was at the beginning and believes that both the personality and physical changes in the other person amount to a breach of contract. Meanwhile, the other might feel held to a contract that is no longer appropriate to the current state of the couple’s life together and to their age, personality, and experience. One or the other very well may see infidelity as tempting under such circumstances.

10. The scoundrel factor. Although an injured spouse sometimes believes that “evil”  is the most likely explanation for her spouse’s betrayal, in most cases it really isn’t. Most people don’t set out to behave badly and many feel guilty when they do. That said, there are certainly more than a few cads among us, and they do with impunity what others only do with hesitation, a troubled conscience, or not at all.

11. Boredom. Boredom doesn’t cause anyone to stray, but it does set the stage for the temptation. Routine can kill even the things that we love. The pattern is well-known: wake up, go to work, come home, play with the kids, do the bills, and collapse from exhaustion. Or, the stay-at-home parent’s version: wake up, make food, shop, make food, take care of the kids, do the housekeeping, make food, clean, and collapse from exhaustion. Either way, the routine is deadening and there is little room for excitement.

12. A lack of sex. Again, this doesn’t cause infidelity, but can set the stage for it. A warning here: cease sexual contact at your own risk and at the risk of your marriage. But, this is not to suggest that you should have sex only because your partner wants to.

13. Cruelty, sarcasm, and a lack of appreciation. If the marriage has turned into a battle ground, with gratitude replaced by indifference or hostility, infidelity is more likely on either side.

When the infidelity is exposed, the result is devastating to the victimized spouse. Rage, sadness, a loss of self-regard, and feelings of inadequacy are common. What did I do? What didn’t I do? Why did he do that? If he felt that way, why didn’t he leave first before he took on another partner? The devastation occurs whether the infidelity is fresh, or the betrayed person discovers it years after it occurred. The emotional clock of devastation only begins to run from the point that one becomes aware of what happened.

If a couple comes to therapy in the wake of such news, several factors go into the therapist’s evaluation of the situation. First, is the infidelity over or is it still going on? If the marriage is to have any chance, the “other” relationship has to end. Moreover, it has to end because the spouse having the affair wants it to end and believes that the marriage is worth saving, not because his marital partner is threatening to leave or because of the fear of financial devastation in the course of a divorce.

The therapist will try to gauge what still binds the marital couple together, if anything. Do they still have positive memories of their courtship? Do they have children and are they concerned about the effects of a divorce on their offspring? Are they still in love? If there is no love on the part of even one partner, therapy is almost certain to fail to recreate it.

If the both parties want to save the marriage, have positive memories of the start of their relationship, and if loving feelings still exist between them, treatment often can help to repair things. One of the first items in need of attention will be allowing the injured spouse to grieve. This will require both tears and anger, but will need to be time limited. That is, however great the injury, the victimized spouse must understand that he cannot forever bring up the infidelity to be used as a weapon when he feels unhappy or aggrieved in the future. As the old farm expression goes, “Don’t burn down the barn to kill the rats.”

Of course, apology by the roving partner will be necessary and it will take time to rebuild trust. Once the immediate crisis is over, the couple needs to look at what contributed to their estrangement and what changes need to be made in their relationship. They have to reaffirm a set of values by which to live and goals for their relationship and for the family. Changes in patterns of communication will likely be necessary, as will time and attention to each other. Serious self-reflection and responsibility-taking will be particularly important for the unfaithful member of the relationship, but the partner too must be willing to look at the possibility that he contributed to his spouse’s feelings of disaffection.

Such situations aren’t easy, but they can come out well. Good will, sincere contrition on the part of the person who strayed, and emotional generosity on the part of the victim are all key. The betrayal is never forgotten, of course. But time does its work on the scar of infidelity, just as bodily scars tend to soften and fade over time, even if they never fully disappear. Happiness and love may yet flourish.

The image above is a cropped screenshot of Lana Turner from the film The Postman Always Rings Twice, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.