In Therapy, An Affair Is More Than Just Sex
When working with patients who are having or had affairs in my NYC therapy practice, an affair isn’t just about sex. Yes, sex may (or may not) have started the affair, but that’s never the entire story. More than just one cheat, an affair is a type of second relationship or set of relationships.
Folks who come to me for therapy during affairs typically want help ending it or navigating feeling stuck. Maybe the affair used to be exciting, but now it feels overwhelming. It used to be nice, but now it feels scary like you might get caught. Or maybe the affair ended, but you feel at a loss to move forward. Taking a step back, an affair is often a symptom of something larger going on in your relationship with yourself, your partner, your family or your lover.
Therapy can help you find out what is at the root of the affair to get you unstuck. How? I find asking these four questions helps:
How Did You Get Here (i.e. What Has Been Going On In Your Relationships)?
An affair doesn’t just–poof!–happen. In relationships, it’s so easy to get stuck in the daily events that we don’t take time to reflect how we got here. When we do, we can learn the fuller story of what was happening before, during and potentially after the affair.
I often talk to folks about the affair and their marriage/long-term relationship as two distinct relationships in order to see what each relationship is (or isn’t) fulfilling. I might ask: What happened during the start, middle and end (if there is an end) of the affair and your marriage? Who are you in each of these relationships? What worked? What does each relationship lack? How were (or weren’t) you participating in your relationships? Did you feel disconnected, unheard, unfulfilled or triggered? How?
While this isn’t a true crime episode, learning what has happened before, during and after your relationships is a way of unpacking the events surrounding the affair and the relationships involved. We can see what led up to the affair, as well as get close to what got messy, overwhelming or needs to be rearranged. Often when we look at relationship history, there is a pattern of behavior, feeling and relation. In this, we can locate what the affair provided, whether excitement, a fulfillment of wanderlust, companionship, discovery, protection or a sense of maternal or parental care.
Do You Feel Lost In The Affair And If So, How Did You Get Lost?
When I talk to patients about affairs, they often describe feeling lost–not only from their relationship, but also from themselves. In a relationship, even if it is a marriage, it can feel vulnerable to admit how you are changing or what you want or need. It can be scary to potentially blow up your relationship by saying something is no longer working. By keeping quiet, your wants, needs and desires get lost. And so do you. An affair can be one form of being lost as an adult.
Say, for example, your partner recently had a baby. All the attention and conversation is centered on the baby. Sex isn’t discussed, and neither is anything else. So you wander, figuring out how to be fulfilled in a different way. You got lost in the world of new parenthood and with the affair, you found yourself not just having to fill the role of the parent to this baby.
Affairs take up lots of time and energy. It can be hard to ask yourself in the thick of it what you want and how you feel lost when you are busy hiding an affair and negotiating time between two relationships. Ultimately, seeking therapy can be a way of saying, “Hey, I’m lost. Something isn’t working and I need help.”
If The Affair Is A Symptom, What’s The Larger Problem?
By thinking of an affair as a symptom of a larger problem or set of problems, we are consciously focusing on the person having the affair and what they might be struggling with, rather than the sole fact that they had an affair. Often when I do this with patients, there’s a palpable sense of relief in the room. I’m not putting you on trial for having an affair, judging the sex or emotional infidelity.
By taking away this cultural judgment and stigma, we can look more clearly at why the affair happened, what it provided and what it meant with curiosity, hope and care. We can also explore what problems may have existed before the affair, such as anxiety, anger, depression, loss of sense of self, a difficult transition, change in family or work, feeling at a loss, or feeling out of control.
What might the larger issues be? Maybe you’re not talking about your needs or wants with your partner or maybe you don’t even realize your needs and wants are different as you age. You may feel like your new partner listens where your spouse or primary partner is too focused on the daily minutia (money, new parenthood, aging parents, etc.) Or perhaps you feel creatively stuck because you gave up your creative outlet in exchange for “growing up,” parenthood, your career or a closer partnership. An affair can also indicate past trauma that has been negated or neglected that gets triggered in your primary relationship and ‘cared for’ in the secondary one.
Finally, What Do You Want To Create?
In an affair, it’s easy to forget you had a choice in creating this and similarly, you have choices in what you want to create moving forward. In therapy, once we explore your relationships, how you got lost and what larger problems the affair might point to, we can sort out the clutter so to speak and ask: Now, what do you need or want to do? Does this other relationship really help you or does it drive you bananas? Do you want to end the affair and work really hard on yourself, your relationship and your family to get your needs met more fully? Do you want to find a new way of being in the partnership? Or do you want or need to leave your long-term relationship or marriage?
In my therapy practice, I describe this process as finding out who you want to create being. Creating being indicates that there are many choices in how we do relationships and that it’s an essentially creative process. I help patients figure out who they want to create being by offering up three or four options of how things could be different–not as the “right” answers per se, but to show that there are lots of ways of being and thinking. This offers a wide-lens view of the range of choices in moving forward, rather than a limited binary.
For instance, in therapy, you learn you were drawn toward an affair because you needed more time away from the family to work, create and be physically active. Rather than seeing your options as simply as being stuck in the family versus having freedom with this other person, you could find opportunities to invite your partner, your kids and your family in, creating ways to both find time for yourself and ask more of your family. By allowing for a frank conversation about your feelings, needs, wants, potentials and limitations, therapy provides space for you to take risks to grow and push yourself in what you want to create in your life and relationships.