I’ve been a therapist for a very long time. I’ve encountered people from all walks of life with varied viewpoints, personalities, strengths and idiosyncratic quirks. I’m never bored, rarely shocked and almost never irritated. But the operative word here is “almost.”
I have lost count of the number of times when a spouse who’s been unfaithful says, “I wasn’t looking for an affair, it just happened.” It’s as if these people were simply going about their days, minding their own businesses and alas, they suddenly found themselves stark naked in hotel rooms having breathless, passionate sex. It just happens? Uh, I don’t think so.
Affairs aren’t spontaneous; they require planning and decision-making. Frequently, the choices people make that pave the way for an affair – dinner with a co-worker, meeting an old boyfriend or girlfriend for a drink after work just to catch up, having lunch with an attractive, single neighbor on a regular basis or sending a lengthy Christmas update to a long lost heart throb – can seem relatively innocent.
But one dinner date or late night conversation often leads to another and another and another. The talk becomes more personal. Confessions of marital dissatisfaction begin to surface; the listener becomes empathetic and supportive.
But the riskiness of this behavior is minimized. People tell themselves, “I just needed someone to talk to. I wanted an opinion from someone of the opposite sex.” If you’re complaining about your marriage to a sympathetic ear, you don’t need a degree in psychology to know that the implicit message in these conversations is, “I’m unhappily married. Want to fool around?” You can tell yourself that you’re not doing anything wrong, but the truth is, this sort of interaction is a sheer, slippery slope.
Then there is alcohol, the inhibition-buster that “made me do it.” And while it’s true that many a bad decision have been made while under the influence, having a drink is a decision. Having two drinks is two decisions. You can do the math on the rest of the story.
What about bad marriages? Don’t they justify being unfaithful? After all, life is short. We only have one go around, right? Look, life is short and feeling lonely in marriage is no way to live.
But dulling one’s pain through the instant gratification of hot sex or emotional closeness with someone who doesn’t argue with you about bills, children or the in-laws isn’t an effective or lasting way to fix what’s wrong. There are infinitely better ways to combat loneliness, a sexual void or marital unhappiness. Help is out there.
Furthermore, what’s always amazed me is how differently people react to similar circumstances. I’ve met people whose marriages were sexless for years, and although that made them miserable, they simply could not cheat. I’ve met other people who, when their relationships hit predictable bumps in the road, rather than work things out, they sought comfort in the arms of strangers. Unhappy marriages don’t cause infidelity. Being unfaithful causes infidelity.
In fact, infidelity complicates life enormously for everyone involved, a fact that should not be minimized when planning the next “just friends” Starbucks break.
People who say their affairs just happened aren’t necessarily intentionally trying to justify their behavior; they often truly believe what they’re saying. They simply lack insight or awareness of the ways in which their actions, however subtle, have led them down destructive paths.
But in the same way that affairs don’t just happen, neither does healing from betrayal. Unless those who have strayed look inward and take personal responsibility for their choices, they will not be able to get their relationships back on track when they’ve gotten derailed.
Instead they’ll see themselves as victims or reeds in the wind. And in my view, sorry, but that’s just a lot of hot air.