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Do You Honestly Think You Can Have An Affair And Still Be Best Friends With Your Partner?

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Do You Honestly Think You Can Have An Affair And Still Be Best Friends With Your Partner?

Wise Readers: Last week’s post about Jessica, a woman who is torn between her affair partner and her husband, drew a lot of heated response.   Some of it was directed at me, for sharing my opinion.  What did people think?  How does science address topics like open marriage, and what happens to children post-divorce?  

Read on!

 

From Erica:

I loved this “I don’t buy it for one hot minute that you are literally unable to stop the affair, nor that you lack the self-discipline.  I don’t believe “I can’t” from anyone.  You’re an adult.  You can, if you decide to.”

I get that people get lonely after years of marriage and the same routine. Can’t they find happiness, peace and companionship by engaging in healthy communication with the person they vowed to love and honor? Better yet, why don’t they indulge in parenthood so much so that they’d never do anything to make their children cry or feel any type of instability? I believe that it boils down to being selfish… yes, that’s my opinion.

My parents got divorced when I was a young child due to infidelity. The infidelity and subsequent divorce effected me all of my life and it will continue to. It sculpted my relationship with my parents and older siblings who were able to grow up with both parents in the home. I could write a book about my childhood, but to save time 😉 I’ll say this: AS PARENTS, WE CANNOT MAKE DECISIONS SOLELY ON OURSELVES. WE MUST MAKE EVERY DECISION WITH OUR CHILD(REN) IN MIND.

 

Duana’s response:

Erica, I’m so sorry that happened to you.  As you know from the article, the research (from Judith Wallerstein, Shirley Glass, and others) backs you up.  What parents decide has repercussions for many years of their kids’ lives, even when those children are grown.

In fact, I’d like to quote Judith Wallerstein —who studied one group of post-divorce children for 25 years— here.  She was at the forefront of research on children of divorce.  In 1970, when California became the first state to legalize no-fault divorce, the idea was that divorce would *benefit* children.  The adults would be happy, so everyone would be happy.  Strangely, that decision wasn’t studied in any way before it was made.  It was simply presumed that children would thrive.

Wallerstein noticed that kids weren’t thriving; that their parents’ marriage had mattered to them, and that their parents’ divorce continued mattering.  This was partly because many parents kept fighting after the divorce.  But it was also because kids were exposed to so much new chaos through their parents’ new relationships:

The idea that kids just get over one divorce “is a very important myth.  It’s not one divorce from which the child recovers.  That probably would happen.  Of my hundred children, only seven children had a mother and a father, both of whom had one, happy, stable remarriage.  For most of the children in this study, and for most children, it’s not one episode.  It’s not that easy in the middle of your life for two adults to put their lives together in remarriage…..In real life, the second marriage collapsed faster.  Men married much faster than women.  So the children saw their father remarried, and then that second marriage collapsed, and there was a third marriage.  So all along, the child had to get used to a stepmother, and then another stepmother.  Only half of the women in my group remarried.  Many of them re-divorced, but even those who didn’t remarry had lots of boyfriends, their lovers.  These people aren’t children; they’re adults.  They’re looking for a good sex life.  They’re looking for intimacy.  They’re looking for friendship.  They all dread loneliness.

“So I’ve called the post-divorce family porous.  The walls of the family are not as clearly closed.  More people come and go and life is different and harder to adjust to for the child of divorce, not only at the time of the breakup but all through.  Now, where you have a really good remarriage, that child recovers.  But it’s not that common a situation for it to be a good remarriage for the mom which also includes the child in the orbit.  Many of the kids say to me that, “He’s really good for my mom, but it doesn’t matter for me.””  (From pp. 96-97 of Marriage, Just a Piece of Paper?   Edited book; quote from Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D.)

 

Thank you for the reminder to consider the kids when couples have children.

 

From Carelle:

Duana, you are amazingly gifted at having compassion for people whom others would judge very harshly (including me). I don’t have that gift…maybe you could give me lessons? Hahaha

I feel for this man who has no clue that his marriage is a joke.

 

From Julia:

It’s not a very nice thing to do to someone you claim to love, who loves you. Is love just the thrill of another sexual partner? Is love just about not feeling lonely? Would you want your children to learn of your betrayal? How would it make them feel about the way you love them? It seems to come easily to this woman to speak of feelings of love. Is love just a feeling? Or is it about keeping a promise to someone you love, even when things are rough? It’s easy to cut and run when things are not wonderful – it takes commitment to stick around and fix things. There are some relationships which are better severed than saved, but we only know one side of this story. As long as the distraction remains, she may never know either.

 

From Leslie:

“And no matter what choice you make, once you make it, it will be easier than where you are right now.”

Duana, you are spot on here!  As hard as it probably is to believe when you’re in the thick of it, the above is absolutely true!  When you are a person for whom infidelity feels like a betrayal, not just of your spouse, but also of the other partner, and of yourself, you are never, EVER at peace in your own, “headspace.”  Or in your heart.  Finding the courage to really examine your desires, and the realities of your options is key.  At some point, you have to make a choice, because you’ll never be happy until you do.

 

From Dan:

I wonder if the husband isn’t having an affair as well.  I know what it’s like to be with the same person for years and wake up one day to realize that…well…she’s just not into it.  The rejections are so continuous that you just don’t even feel like asking any longer.  While everything else is hunky-dory, lack of intimacy is devastating, but it may not be worth it to cut your whole life in half because your partner doesn’t put out more than once every month or two, and that’s what it amounts to, when you look at leaving them for someone else.

In that kind of marriage, is someone who cheats really doing something wrong?  If years of telling someone that you’re lonely and being rejected isn’t enough of a warning, perhaps it would be prudent to issue an ultimatum.  “I’m lonely.  Unless you’re willing to make some serious changes with me, I am going to actively seek out a relationship on the side.”

But even then, one risks carving one’s entire life up over lack of attention.  And like Carelle pointed out, society will judge anyone saying or doing that very harshly.

 

From Cynthia:

Awesome response Duana. I  do think keeping her  secret is unhealthy as  stress  and guilt mixed with jealousy  can  be a recipe for disaster. .Affairs are  often a quick fix solution for boredom  and a  release for an adrenalin junky. I suggest she work on steps to  end the affair  ( only  because  she is not happy sharing ) and  work on finding new things to do.  Then if she decided to end the  marriage its  on her terms as well.  It does not make sense to be in  two  relationships  which neither is  fulfilling.I would love to  see this gal  work on  her communication skills. If you are not getting what you  need at home  tell your partner and  allow him to  be part of the solution.   I will  admit that I am  speaking from personal experience. Ending an affair on your own terms is best in my book.

 

Duana’s response:

Carelle, Julia, Leslie, Dan, and Cynthia~ Thank you for your honesty and comments.  Affairs and fidelity are hot topics even for the uninvolved.  And I think Jessica’s question could have been interpreted many ways—as your answers show too.

I know at least one Wise Reader has taken me to task on another site for starting this letter with my personal opinion.  Frankly, I felt it would be irresponsible not to.  All facts come with a point of view, and this is such a passionate issue for nearly everyone—from those who embrace monogamy to those who favor open marriage, to those who see nothing wrong in affairs—that I felt it was important to start with my bias.

Another reader felt that I didn’t answer the root question of whether it is possible to have an affair and be a good mate.  I think the answer to that question is: It depends.  Some people do have open marriages, and for some of them, that is what works.

And as Leslie noted in another note to me, an affair is distinct from an open marriage; the affair is secret and involves lies of either commission or omission, but an open marriage is an agreed arrangement between both committed partners; it’s honest.

Speaking of which, I used to work with Dr. Bill Marelich at Cal State Fullerton, who had studied jealousy and swinging.  I asked him whether there was any research into what becomes of open marriages.  He told me that per his and others’ studies, open marriages usually resolve themselves in one of two ways: either the couple divorces, or they return to monogamy with one another.  Very few, he maintained, kept their marriage open for as many as five years.

LoveScience is about what science shows works for most of the people, most of the time.  For most, it is keeping our values and behavior aligned, and having agreement with our partner about what the relationship involves—and whether it involves other people.  There are definitely exceptions where an open marriage happens, and works.

But this particular woman did not seem to be asking about such a situation.  She’s in pain.  I hope I have accurately and adequately addressed her and her needs.

 

From Anonymous:

 

Wise Readers,

I leave you with this letter from ‘anonymous’.  For those of you who have been longtime LoveScience readers, you’ll see here a moving, living example of much of the science of why women have affairs, and how recovery happens:

“I am a woman who had an affair on her husband.  Loneliness takes many forms. A woman can stop having sex with her husband because she’s lonely in her heart and has a hard time responding sexually…and she can continue to have sex with her husband out of choice and a decision to be faithful and also still be lonely in her heart.

“But when you make a choice to be disloyal to your spouse you don’t fix this problem, as stated….you only make it more complicated.  You may assuage some pain but you actually create more pain in the end.  And you not only keep the pain to yourself and in your own life, you create pain in all the members of the family.

“Men, your woman needs your intimacy in a way that touches her heart.  She may be physically intimate with you out of loyalty, out of commitment, out of a sense of duty…don’t dismiss this sacrifice in her.  If you are unwilling to touch her soul and treat her as a treasure and yet still expect her to fulfill your sexual needs, you do her a disservice.  She will feel used if you don’t regularly remind her that you adore her. For her to continue being physically vulnerable when she feels taken for granted is very difficult for her and almost feels abusive.

“Women, when you refuse to give your body to your husband you make it hard for him to feel your love.  To expect him to adore you while you selfishly withhold your body from him, is not treating him with the respect he has fostered with you. Your body is not yours alone, it is also his.

“Our bodies and our hearts are not separate from each other.  When we give one to our spouse without giving the other we are a disjointed union.

“All of this usually happens BEFORE any affair.  It weakens the bond and makes an affair easier.

“ I decided to tell my husband of my affair.  I knew it was wrong.  I felt bad about it.  I still had all kinds of very passionate and strong feelings for this guy!  It took a while to break free from my own crazy wants and desires and my husband had terrible pain finding out that I talked to him again and again.  Luckily, physical contact with this man was not a convenient choice.   But even from a distance, it was incredibly difficult for me.  He talked with me.  He listened to me and my stories and was truly interested in what I had to say. He spent time with me daily….and I loved every minute of it!!!   That was ALL that I needed from him for me to be interested in him.  (Do you hear this, men?  Do you listen to your wife?  If you don’t, she will be sorely tempted with a man who WILL listen to her.)

“At any rate, I knew that I needed help breaking free from this affair so I found a counselor and told her everything.  But first I told my husband because I knew I needed some kind of help, even from him, to hold me accountable.  Maybe it wasn’t fair for me to need that from him, but I decided to take a chance and tell him and ask for his forgiveness and for his help.  It was not an easy road and took a while for me to get through this.  But in the end, it was the right choice to tell him. Having to live with the pain I saw him go through was the help I needed to help me break things off for good.  That may sound strange, because you would think that I would know this at the beginning of the affair.  But knowing in my head and having to witness it is another story.

“We are still married.  We are not perfect,  I get angry with him and he gets angry with me.  For a while he would bring up my affair as a way to hurt me and remind me of my wrongdoing (in an argument that wasn’t even about that subject) and as a way to share that he is still hurt.  But he doesn’t do that anymore.  And there were times that we would fight and I would be tempted to contact my lover.  I’m not tempted by that anymore, either.  Forgiveness is a process.  It takes time.  He could use the power to hurt me with it if he wanted to but he doesn’t.   I could also threaten to contact my lover during a fight, but I don’t do that, either.

“(It was very hard for me to forgive myself enough to endure that time he went through, but I’m thankful that I did.)

“When I look back and realize what I almost did to my family….that I almost made a terrible mistake in leaving my husband of 20+ years…  And when I realize that he could have left me for betraying him…and when I realize what a risk I took in telling him…and I realize what could have happened to our kids and what they would have to deal with….my head spins. I can’t believe that was me!

“Our kids are doing well…and I am so proud of our family…My husband and I still have our problems, but I think we always will, in a way.  To keep trying to work through them, to keep choosing to connect even when we’re hurt or upset…those are the day to day choices that keep a marriage together. What we do to keep the marriage together defines us far more than the affair ever will.

“People may disagree with me.  But I think God sees us and is proud that we didn’t let our own feelings and mistakes make us make even more selfish and destructive decisions…we got back on the path and are going in the right direction.”

Thank you for putting your heart on the line to share, Anonymous.

 

Cheers,

Duana

 

 All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., and LoveScience Media, 2014

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Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do, coming in January, 2015. She also contributes at Psychology Today and teaches psychology at Austin-area universities. Get a free chapter of Love Factually!

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