Affairs: When Attachment Meets the Secret Fling: Part Two in a Series on Couples



I was asked to write on the topic of extra marital affairs-something that might give comfort and hope to couples experiencing the tumultuous path of healing from this kind of betrayal. And they will need it because the psychological fallout of an affair tops the list of life’s great traumas. Many marriages of course do recover from this experience, and many marriages come through this stronger than before…but it is not for the faint of heart.

Consulting the dictionary for the meaning of the word affair yields words like hanky-panky, dirty weekend, fling, dalliance. The intrigue linked to this word disguises the severity of the trauma which these so-called dalliances beget. Most of the men or women I have seen who have had affairs have no understanding of how tectonic the news of unfaithfulness is to the unknowing spouse and ultimately to the marriage. Most have affairs not for the wish to replace the partner but for the emotional flourish of it, for the secret, sexual whoosh of a new attraction. Most don’t anticipate that, instead, the affair is likely to rupture something far more basic…the attachment which couples come to rely on for their psychological stability and security in the world.

Attachment theory has shed light on this aspect of the relationship and fMRI scanning can show us what parts of the brain light up from security and safety relationship experiences and which light up from the whoosh of a new, secret, sexual attraction. And they are very different parts of the brain. The one that is stimulated initially by an affair is more related to the area of the brain that is stimulated by drugs…the pleasure seat of the brain which is geared toward short term, intense experiences.

Take away a new attraction, a new lusty fling, and a person may feel as if they are withdrawing from a drug high, but take away or threaten the security attachments we have come to rely on for our very sense of who we are and you will create trauma, sleeplessness, terrible anxiety, distrust, rage and possibly panic attacks. Accompanying that is a sense that the world isn’t as it was before, that what you had come to trust and know as one thing is another. Your spouse’s trip to the grocery store is no longer just that. A song, a smell, a word can all trigger pain so strong one feels as if they are going to die. An unconscious part of our brain remembers that without secure attachments infants die and the threat to this attachment even at the age of 40 or 50 or 70 triggers fears of abandonment and insecurity about one’s place in the world.

Feeling betrayed and fearful of the terrible power of the offending partner, the hurt partner withdraws from the relationship, likely triggering the same fears of abandonment and loss in the partner having the affair. Asked to give up the affair, fearing and feeling abandoned too, it is much harder for the offending partner to let go of the little raft of pleasure he or she had been sailing so happily downriver. So sometimes they hold on for a while…

And it is in this awful place that many people find themselves in when they open a spouse’s email or find a bill for dinner at a fancy restaurant. It is important for couples to respect and understand and name the nature of this trauma. Recovery can happen in therapy because for a while the therapist provides the safe place, the memory of the safe place that the couple once operated in and the hope that they will and can get there again. The therapist provides the comfort that there are steps to take and things to do and ways to heal. But it is not for the faint of heart…



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