Can Adultery Be Healthy? 6 Kinds of Sexual Affairs and How They Can Be Good for You
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Have affairs become part of the "new normal?" It sure looks that way: Hardly a day goes by without learning that a politician, celebrity -- or someone you personally know -- has been having an affair. And Ashley Madison, the internet site for people seeking affairs, has gone mainstream with TV advertisements and $25 million offer to buy naming rights to the new Meadowlands stadium.
Of course the public always enjoys being titillated with stories of public figures' affairs, especially when hypocrisy is exposed. But cultural attitudes have clearly shifted towards greater acceptance of affairs, and being open to them. Reflecting on that brought to mind George, who had consulted me about how to deal with the "logistics" his new affair had created. "She was standing off by herself during a conference break, leaning against a wall, sipping coffee," George said. "As I walked by, our eyes met and I felt a sudden jolt -- a rush of energy, real connection. Suddenly we found ourselves talking, feeling like we had known each other for years." The affair "just "happened," he added, casually.
That's a common explanation I hear these days. Another one -- sounding a bit more "strategic" -- came from Jan, a 41 year-old lawyer. She called her affair a "marriage stabilizer....safe and discreet, a perfect solution for me." She decided it was a rational alternative to the disruption of divorce.
People increasingly view an affair as a life-style choice; an option for men and women yearning for excitement or intimacy that's lacking or has dulled during their marriage. Given that new reality, it's worth understanding the psychology of affairs -- their meaning and their consequences -- from a non-judgmental perspective.
I find six different kinds of affairs in today's culture. Learning what they are can help people deal with them with greater awareness and responsibility. Here they are:
1. The "It's-Only-Lust " Affair. The most common, it's mostly about sex. It can feel really intense, but it's also the quickest to flame out. John and Kim met through work, and felt a strong physical attraction. John was separated; Kim, married. They felt powerless to resist the pull. "It was inevitable. We ended up in bed, as well as a lot of other places! It was wonderful," John added, with a big grin. The liberating and compelling feeling from this kind of affair, though, can mask hidden emotional conflicts.
An example is the person who's able to feel sexually alive and free only in a secret relationship, hidden from the imagined hovering, inhibiting eye of one's parent - which the person may experience unconsciously with his or her spouse. The lust affair is often short-lived, and passion can slide downhill pretty fast as the excitement declines or underground emotional issues surface again. It can also fade if the lovers discover that there wasn't much connecting them beyond sex. As John later told me, "As great as the sex was, we didn't really have much to say to each other. Eventually, that became a turn-off."
2. The "I'll-Show-You" Affair. Rachel began realizing the depth of her anger and resentment towards her husband after years of an unhappy marriage. She had long felt unaffirmed, ignored, and disregarded by him. His adamant refusal to go to couples therapy pushed her into acting upon her anger. Rachel told me that a previous therapy had helped her recognize her collusion in becoming so subordinate in the marriage. But she couldn't create a solution, nor figure out how to deal with her desire for revenge.
She knew that "getting back" at her husband wasn't going to produce empowerment or healing, but nevertheless began a disastrous affair. She subsequently discovered that the man was only interested in a narcissistic conquest, and he quickly dumped her. Eventually, she realized that beneath her anger was a desire for a man who would really recognize her, who could "see" her, as her father never did. But before that awakening occurred, she suffered, and she still had to deal with the reality of her marriage and how to heal her own trauma.