- Written by Margaret Bernhart
As the dawn streamed its illuminating rays into his hotel suite, Stan sleepily squinted through the fog of last night’s festivities. Thoughts of yesterday’s corporate battles danced in his mind. Never had he been so eloquent, so sharp or so persuasive. His honed and strategically planned marketing presentation was executed with the precision of a stealth bomber, landing him the biggest deal of his career and financial rewards which included a handsome bonus and a promotion to president of the southeast region. He was sure to be envied by his peers, hated by those who couldn’t make the grade, and noticed by senior management. Champagne and well-wishes flowed that evening and he had even interrupted the effervescence to call his wife and brag about his spoils of war. Her response seemed distracted and less than supportive, subduing the conquering hero’s enthusiasm. Then her ensuing questions and accusations of neglect toward his family disarmed his boyish bravado, leaving him angry and powerless to respond. Hadn’t he conveyed numerous times that his additional travel was for the good of the family? Sure, he hadn’t had much time for his wife and he didn’t even know that his daughter just turned three, but after all, he was doing this for those he loved. Why couldn’t she understand this, just once? He hated her nagging and wondered what life would be like if the badgering ended and life wasn’t so complicated. Interrupting his mental debate came the sweet aphrodisiac of “Good morning, Stan.” It floated into his consciousness, striking a compelling contrast to his wife’s irritating tone. He turned over and glanced at Cynthia, his administrative assistant. She looked warm and inviting. Their relationship was so easy and unencumbered, he thought. She was a passionate sexual partner, unlike his wife who thwarted his advances by turning her back and saying, “I’m too tired.” He felt like such a warrior at work, a terrific lover with Cynthia and an absolute failure in his marriage and phony at church. Stan slid out of bed with a nagging uneasiness about his reentry into his other life and hastily began purging himself of the vestiges of moral indiscretion.
Extramarital affairs are more common than we think as 50% of all spouses become victims to infidelity. We are less likely to get divorced than to have an affair, says marriage expert and Christian psychologist Willard Harley. Frequently it is the “good girl or guy” who gets caught in a web of deception they vowed would never happen. Attraction most often begins with someone the spouse knows well and spends time with on a regular basis–frequently a friend or co-worker. The reason for this is that the people we are frequently with are in the best position to meet our important emotional needs. Conversation and affection are usually missing in the marital relationship when a spouse has an illicit encounter. “Sex is actually not the driving force in most affairs” says Harley. “In fact, most people who have affairs regard the sex as a minor player. What they appreciate the most about the relationship is the love and acceptance that is communicated in their conversation. But sex is usually the inevitable outcome, and since sex works best with great conversation and affection, the sex is also great.” A recent study only magnifies the drawing appeal of illicit affairs as sex is viewed as 80% of the problem in struggling marriages and only 20% in good ones
John Gottman, a premiere researcher in the dynamics of marital relationships, has a different view from conventional wisdom which says that conflicts slowly erode the marital bonds, and that teaching couples communication techniques on how to fight fair will lead to conflict resolution. While this maybe true in a small percentage of situations, Gottman discovered that “69 percent of all marital conflicts never get resolved because they are about personality differences between couples. What’s critical is not whether they resolve conflicts but whether they can cope with them.” It seems that fights and disagreements are intrinsic to all relationships, however it is couples who don’t let the fighting contaminate the other parts of the relationship that have lasting and fulfilling marriages. Focusing on the deeper values like friendship, listening, acceptance and a companioning together to forge life’s ups and downs are potent predictors of a couple’s commitment to the relationship. As long as those factors are intact, conflicts don’t drive people apart.
In his book, His Needs Her Needs, Harley’s research backs up what Gottman and others are saying by identifying the 10 qualities couples most desire in a relationship. The basic needs a woman desires from her husband are: affection, conversation, openness and honesty, financial security and family commitment. For the man the needs most valued in a spouse are: sex, recreational companionship, attractive spouse, inviting home life and admiration. Though these qualities are gender-specific, they can be interchangeable for some spouses. Harley believes that, “It is impossible to stumble into an affair if we are honest about our needs.”
Harley’s statement is true for one category of spouses caught in infidelity. But often those who transgress the marital bonds are not aware of their needs, especially for those spouses who come from a background of emotional, physical or sexual trauma. Individuals with these histories have mastered the ability to dissociate from pain and are to some degree oblivious to their own needs and what is transpiring between them and a member of the opposite sex. It is not uncommon for a man or a woman to state when they first come for counseling, “I have no idea how this happened.” And yet the affair was not just a one night’s indiscretion, but a planned and purposed series of duplicitous rendezvouses. Both types of spouses will need to walk the road of honesty and humbling consequences, seeking forgiveness and regaining trust. However, the spouse that detaches from life due to a history of trauma will need additional therapy to address their dependency on fleeing from pain and reality or they become a prime setup for subsequent emotional and sexual affairs.
How do you tell if you are a man or woman who fits into the second category? The key is how you use dissociation in your daily life. All of us detach from what is going on around through selective attention or we would have sensory overload. Sometimes we “zone out” as we watch a TV program and are unable to recall the plot or go on “auto pilot” as we drives for miles staring at the little white line, not remembering the towns we have passed through. The shock over the loss of a loved one or trauma from a car accident are all temporary forms of dissociation. Dr. Dan Allender says, “Dissociation is a form of selective attention and imagination. Without those capabilities, one would never be able to learn, make connections in thought, or develop intuition in relationships.” However individuals who have had trauma in their backgrounds have developed a lifestyle of detaching. Dr. Lenore Terr, MD, describes it this way: “Dissociation causes traumatic memories to be set aside–set apart from normal consciousness. Bodily responses, emotions, actions, and memories have little or no relationship to one another. Physical pain is missing from physical injuries. Affect is missing from extremely moving events. And memory may be missing altogether, except for fragments.” This is why some spouses caught in affairs will exhibit little emotion though they verbalize a level of contrition when caught, are oblivious to the inappropriate emotional connection with someone of the opposite sex, miss the signs leading up to a full-blown affair, and while in the midst of the affair perhaps didn’t feel the gravity of their actions. These individuals also seem to be attracted to high-stress jobs as they easily compartmentalize painful events, emotions, actions and bodily responses. They appear calm and cool on the outside able to handle a crisis, but have difficulty with empathy as they really are fleeing from the painful realities of life as they have done since childhood.. Spouses with traumatic backgrounds often have the additional complication of sexual addiction issues that need to be addressed. Sexual addiction is rooted more in the lust for nurturing and intimacy than sex itself, while confusing sex and love. This type of addiction can take a variety of forms including Internet pornography, sexually explicit magazines and books, X-rated movies, multiple affairs, and voyeurism.
No matter which category a person may fall into, looking at the deeper issues that precipitated the movement outside the marital bonds is a necessity not only to ensure future fidelity, but to bring about healing and wholeness for the individual and the possibility of a deeper and lasting relationship with the betrayed spouse. The personal agony of being honest about what has occurred, facing the penetrating eyes of a pastor, therapist and accountability partners, a ruthless personal inventory and mutually agreed upon consequences will exhibit the fruit of righteousness which is the beginning of showing oneself faithful and trustworthy. I have seen marriages transformed through the betrayal of a spouse as both partners undertook the agonizing journey through the valley of the shadow of death and met God and their spouse in a new way. God told Adam that it is not good for him be alone and He brought Eve to him. Then at the sight of Eve, God’s final and crowning act of creation, Adam bursts into song:
“This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be call Woman, because she was taken our of Man. For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:23-24).