I spoke with a woman recently who told me that six months ago, she "fell" into an affair. I was taken aback by her apparent belief that she was a victim of her circumstances. It's not that she took no responsibility at all for cheating on her husband, but she definitely saw the affair as something that happened to her (not as something she made happen).
So let me say right out of the gate: Affairs ARE NOT passive events that just happen to people. The only victims of illicit affairs are the jilted partners.
When affairs happen, it's because you are what I call, "affair-ready."
What does "affair-ready" mean? It means that you are past the pre-contemplation stage* of marital discontent and you have started seeing the solution to the problems in your relationship as lying outside of your relationship; it means that you have an eye out for a better situation and that you spend more time and energy wanting to get out than wanting to stay in. It's a "grass-looks-greener" mindset.
Affairs ARE planned, even if you're not conscious that you're planning them. As with most compulsive acts, affairs are not set up in that split second you and your lover's eyes meet and you're consumed with sexual desire; the affair is set up months and sometimes years before.
It often begins with a relationship impasse (dashed expectations, festering resentments or one horrible misunderstanding) and lack of tools to deal with the problem head-on. That's where the seeds of fantasy are laid. If the problems don't get worked out, the affair-seeds begin to take grow and take root until pretty soon, you've developed a full-grown justification for straying. Of course, you may have the tools to resolve differences, but not the desire. In either case, the avoidance at play is what starts to deteriorate your union. As hard as it can be to tell the person you married that you no longer want to be in the marriage, it is the more adult thing to do, and it is far less hurtful than perpetrating a betrayal.
Affairs ARE NOT just about sex, although sex clearly plays a huge part in the allure of new relationships. Feeling attractive to someone is exhilarating. Seducing someone can be powerful. And, along with being a tension reliever, sex can give you a sense of well-being.
Affairs ARE devastating to the one who was betrayed. Being cheated on or left for another is one of the most painful experiences any adult will experience and it can take years to recover. I know several people who never get over the pain of the loss, the sense of betrayal and the sadness of losing the person they loved dearly. One woman I know died last year of what I'm sure was a broken heart more than six years after her divorce was final. Despite working hard to recover, she never got on the other side of the pain.
Affairs ARE NOT the easy way out of a marriage. When your ex is hurt and devastated, it will make any divorce more complicated, more emotional and it will take far longer to recover from than it would have if you had come to the decision from a more mutual place.
Affairs ARE avoidable. If you are unhappy in your marriage, do something about it such as seek out counseling (even if it's to help you split apart), talk to your mate, get help. Waiting until you are sure -- or until the time is right--will do little more than make help time pass and bring you to the boiling point of not being able to "take it" another second.
Here's something radical to consider: Monogamy is a choice, yet in our culture it is assumed. Talk to your spouse openly about whether monogamy suits you both. You might just be surprised by what comes of the conversation.
Deal with your feelings rather than waiting for "something" to happen. That something is almost always a crisis.
Are You "Affair-Ready?"
If you're not sure whether you're "affair-ready," check out these 10 signs.
If you have one to three, you should seriously consider telling your spouse now that you are not happy in the marriage; if you have four to seven signs, you are at high risk of straying; and, if you have eight to 10 of these signs, you are unquestionably an affair waiting to happen:
1. You often think that you "love but you're not 'in love'" with your spouse.
2. You've been unhappy with your spouse and/or the relationship for quite a while (more than one year).
3. You're bored.
4. You want out, but you don't want to hurt your mate.
5. You don't have the guts to ask for a divorce.
6. You've tried (or think you've tried) to tell your spouse that you're unhappy, but these complaints fall on deaf ears or are met with verbal or physical harassment.
7. You begin to spend more time with other people doing extra-curricular activities (perhaps you golf every weekend now, or you take up a new pastime such as biking, photography or the school auction).
8. You don't feel appreciation, respect or admiration by or for your spouse.
9. Your sex life isn't what you'd like it to be.
10. Other people you know have had, or are having, affairs.
I've been helping individuals and couples gain clarity with their relationships for many years. I've seen people suffer needlessly because they didn't know they had options; they didn't know how to have a conversation about their truth and they didn't ask for help.
I urge those of you who can relate to what's written here to seek out professional support. Most therapists are trained in how to deal with relationship troubles. That said, make sure you find one who you believe understands your unique situation.
My books are designed to help:
• If you'd like more information on what's involved in the *pre-contemplation stage of the divorce contemplation continuum, read Contemplating Divorce.
• If you want to explore what it means to have an open marriage, read The New I Do, (co-authored with journalist, Vicki Larson).
• If you are having trouble recovering from your spouse's affair, but you really want to move on, read Stronger Day by Day.
If you'd like a longer list of books to help you at some stage of your divorce (contemplation through post-divorce), feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll send you my suggested reading list.
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