The State of Affairs

We all know about the power of affairs to destroy a marriage, devastate a family or traumatize an individual.   Affairs are occurring in epidemic proportion, and they are happening to good people and in good relationships as well as to those in distress.  Recent statistics suggest that up to 60% of married men and women have engaged in extramarital affairs at some point or another in their married lives.   If affairs are so destructive and immoral, why are so many people having them?  

The fact is, man is not biologically wired for monogamy, and our behaviors bear this out.  Not only have most people had multiple partners during their lifetime, but the majority of today’s marriages have either ended in divorce/remarriage, or have involved outside partners.  The one-partner-for-a-lifetime ideal, while laudable, is now the exception to the rule.   Is monogamy too high a standard for most people to reach? What drives a person to seek partners outside their marriage?  And why do our social and religious sanctions lack sufficient power to deter good men and women from seeking outside liaisons?   

At no other time in history has the expectation to live romantically and monogamously beyond the length of child-rearing ever existed.  Indeed, marriages lasting over 30 years are largely an invention of contemporary society.  Biologically speaking, the social imperative to mate and bond with a single individual for a lifetime poses a staggering challenge.  This is particularly so for people whose sex drive exceeds that of their partner and thus whose sexual needs go chronically unmet.  Culturally speaking, the romantic ideal that “the spark remain alive” for a lifetime has set us up for chronic failure.  People don’t understand that love changes shape over time, and that the ‘lustful high” of falling in love marinates and evolves to something more meaningful. The “love-based marriage” is a post-modern phenomenon that has largely been perpetuated by Hollywood and the media.  In fact, most non-western cultures don’t require mating for a lifetime or remaining “in love” for the duration.

American society has faced rapid and dramatic changes in its social architecture and with that, it seems, our moral codes have lost their suppressive power. Many of our formerly judgmental labels have neutralized in recent years, reflecting an acceptance of new codes and lifestyles.   Just as “broken homes” have evolved into the more acceptable “blended families”,  “unwed mothers” have morphed into the more acceptable “single-parent households”, and “living in sin” has renamed itself “cohabitation”, so too have extramarital affairs entered a more mainstream place in our social discourse.   No longer do affairs bear the scarlet letter they once implied; no longer are they a man’s macho prerogative and a woman’s secret shame.  Whereas we always knew that there must be equal numbers of women involved, not until recently have women claimed equal responsibility in seeking outside trysts.  The sanctions have indeed softened.

A host of social factors can account for this shift away from our conservative, post WWII lifestyles, creating more permissive social contexts in which affairs can thrive. With marriage becoming ever more disposable, many of our beliefs about love, “happily ever after” and “one man for one woman” have become obsolete. Many of our cherished myths have fallen from grace just as our social and religious sanctions have lost their suppressive power.  Sexual images inundate us at every turn. TV, movies, and even the news expose us to sex and sexual affairs on a daily basis; the fashion industry invites children to become sex objects before they even reach puberty -- sex is ubiquitous and sex sells.  Our puritan moorings have drifted to sea.

Of all the agents of change, perhaps the two most significant factors influencing the rise in affairs are the presence of women in the workforce, and the emergence of computers.  Women are now more financially secure and independent, and therefore less inclined to remain at home full-time.  By virtue of sheer exposure, as well as greater worldliness and self-confidence, women now occupy a similar place to men vis-a-vis the opportunity for outside trysts.  Couple that with the increased privacy and accessibility afforded by computers, cell phones and blackberries, and it is no wonder that the barriers to affairs have all but been lifted.  Secrecy and scheduling are a breeze.  Business meetings, travel, and off-site retreats offer the perfect setting and cover.  Intellectual collaborations and creative projects provide new excitement in contrast to the stale routines of home.  Soul mates are born as the reality of dishes and diapers find no place in the magic of an affair.

Affairs exist in many contexts and varieties, and what constitutes an affair to one may not be viewed similarly by another.  There are many ways in which intimate contact can be expressed, from clandestine, personal conversations to erotic touching, to actual intercourse. Indeed, sexualized interactions can occur “remotely” without there even being physical contact, as is the case with phone sex, video sex, and suggestive chat room banter.  People draw the line at different places, and what constitutes an infidelity to one may not hold true for another.  All of these eroticized relationships constitute some form of an infidelity or affair.  As such, the implied betrayal holds the power to damage trust, devastate one’s spouse and destroy a marriage. Ultimately, whether the affair is discovered or not, it exerts an influence on one’s behavior and state of mind that necessarily affects the course of marital events.  In this way, affairs can serve a uniquely “corrective function” that can either strengthen or weaken the marital fault lines.

Like marriage, not all affairs are alike.  The meaning they have and the consequences that befall differ with the individuals involved.  It stands to reason, therefore, that the process of healing will differ for each relationship, and for each of the individuals involved.  Affairs can happen to decent men and women and, while devastating to the betrayed spouse, are not necessarily the sign of a twisted moral code or a dysfunctional marriage.  It is very important to understand the meaning the affair holds and the context in which it arose and was perpetuated before walking down the path to recovery.  

However, certain universals seem to hold true across all marriages in which an affair has occurred. In addition to destroying the trust that once formed the bedrock of the marriage, perhaps the deepest assault to the betrayed spouse is his/her lost sense of reality.  Life as it happened during the course of the affair becomes suspect and begs revision.  The desire to know details and revisit shared past events rule the initial discourse and are the source of ongoing ruminations.  While the ultimate goal of the repair work is to create a new union based on complete transparency, trust, and open communication, the degree to which the details of the affair are helpful is a matter of great variability.  Similarly, the relative significance of pre-existing marital fault lines varies greatly from couple to couple.  It is important for there to be a safe container in which to explore these facets and to pace to the process of recovery so that further damage does not occur.  A marriage CAN heal from an affair; indeed, it can become even stronger than it previously was.  A skilled therapist can help guide the way.