Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

How Finding out About a Spouse’s Affair is Like a Death

finger wife cryingTears.  Lots of them.  “I am just so tired of hurting.  I want the pain to go away.”  As usual, my heart was breaking for the spouse sitting across from me who had recently discovered that her partner had an extramarital affair.  Like many spouses before, she declared, “Of all the things I thought I knew in the world, I was certain that my spouse would never in a million years be unfaithful and now I don’t know which way is up.  I can’t count on anything anymore.  All my safety is just completely washed away.”  “I am so sorry that this is so painful,” I offered, “I wish I could make that better for you—I really do, but the truth is that it is going to hurt for a long time.  Eventually, it won’t hurt as much, but when I say eventually, I mean that a year is short in affair healing time.”  Even though I’ve been doing therapy for a long time, the emotions still impact me.

I hate seeing people in pain.  I feel things deeply and enduringly, which is what drew me to the therapeutic profession.  I wanted to alleviate emotional suffering for people.  However, there are certain types of pain which need to be healed over the course of time, and sometimes tender emotional scars never go away.  Some of the deepest emotional pain I witness occurs in cases of grief and loss in which relationships with people are ended or intensely damaged.  The loss of human relationships through death, divorce or other means just hurts.  A lot.

Infidelity and Intense Grief

In cases of betrayal, sometimes people don’t understand the principles of grief and loss that are at play which complicate recovery.  Here is a typical presentation I’ll encounter maybe three months after the disclosure of an affair:

Betrayed partner:  “He couldn’t understand why I was still crying about the affair, and I tried to explain that it still hurts and he just got mad and asked why I couldn’t see that he was sorry and just focus on our future.  I don’t know why it’s still hurting so bad.  I’m embarrassed that it is still making me cry.  I don’t want to make him mad, but it hurts.”

Oh dear.

People who have betrayed their spouses don’t like to witness the pain they have caused because it makes them feel shame, which is uncomfortable.  They also commonly feel fear that this might be the emotional episode in which the spouse decides to leave.  Frequently, they get defensive and upset with their spouses for not healing fast enough.  Men in particular, as a general rule, have an aversion to tears and emotional pain resulting from something they have done in relationships.  They want to run from it, regardless of the cause or validity of the emotion.  They feel almost panicky and search for ways to “fix,” the emotion, which means make it stop.  I think it’s because they get so socialized out of feeling vulnerable emotion themselves that they literally have no idea what to do with it when their spouses display strong vulnerable emotion, at least in many instances.

How Infidelity is a Loss Issue

In cases like these, I normalize the intensity of emotional pain for both partners, but also try to help them understand the deep grief.  I have explained to many husbands, “This is a loss issue, and loss is always painful.”  “What do you mean loss?  I’m still here.  Why can’t she see that I’m trying to fix it and I’m sorry,” the husbands fire back.  I’ll explain, “She can see you, but first of all, she has no idea who you really are because you’re not who she thought you were, so she needs time and safe experiences with you to be able to even think about trusting you.  Second of all, she is still grieving the marriage she thought she had but doesn’t have and will never get back—the marriage in which her partner stayed faithful to her.  She married you with that expectation and has lost that dream.  She needs time to be sad over losing that marriage.”

When I explain this, partners can be a little more tolerant of the deep expression of emotions.  However, for some reason when it comes to emotional injuries, we want people to be better faster than is reasonable to expect—mostly because we don’t like feeling our own uncomfortable emotions when seeing emotional pain.

Physical Pain as a Metaphor for Emotional Pain

Sometimes if I compare the wound of infidelity to a physical injury, partners understand a little better.  “What if you had run over her with your car and she ended up in a body cast?  Would you be getting upset that she wasn’t walking in a week?  No, you wouldn’t, because you would know that the injury takes time to heal.  If while she was in a body cast she told you her pain was flaring up, would you say, ‘It’s been 6 weeks since I ran over you.  Why do you insist on focusing on the pain instead of looking ahead to the future?’  No, you wouldn’t, because you would realize that sometimes pain flares up.  Emotional injuries are the same.  You don’t get to argue with her about whether she is in pain.  Your job is to move toward her and say, ‘Show me where it hurts,’ as if it were a physical injury.  You can’t fix this for her, but you can just be with her and ask if there is anything you can to do reassure her or help her feel more comfortable or safe.  If there isn’t, you just sit with it.  If you want, you can talk about how uncomfortable and sad it is for you to see the pain you caused, but you can’t argue about whether the pain is valid or demand that she heals right away.”

Relationship loss is searing, no matter the type, and infidelity is a type of relationship loss.  Partners need time to grieve and be sad.  Most importantly, they need to be validated and comforted in their pain.  As long as it takes.

Again, people always want emotional pain from infidelity to heal faster than it does—both the betrayed partner and the offending partner.  My experience is that in affair time, it’s not uncommon to see people have deep emotional triggers regularly for at least two years.

If your partner betrayed you, know that the disorientation, fear and hurt are normal.  Give yourself time to grieve the loss of the marriage you thought you had, just like you would give yourself time to grieve the death of a loved one or a lost relationship.  Eventually, grief diminishes in intensity, but if grief is criticized and shut down by a partner instead of honored and respected, it will last longer.  Clinically, I tell people to write when they are experiencing episodes of grief.  Articulating pain through writing is a way to manage emotional intensity.  Intentional self-care and deep breathing and meditation can also be helpful.

You’re not crazy if you’re in intense pain months after discovering a spouse’s infidelity—you’re just a human with a big attachment injury.  I don’t know if time heals all wounds, because some wounds can persist for decades, but usually time does decrease emotional intensity.

Photo: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

Why Friending Your Ex on Facebook May be More Hazardous to Your Marriage Than You Think

32041547 - strong addiction to the internet at night*While this article is focused on Facebook use, because it’s such a popular medium for online connection, this really applies to any connection, technology-assisted or otherwise.

About a decade ago, when Facebook was still new and Apple was just rolling out its first iphone, I was among the group of people who thought it was fun to be able to reconnect with old friends.  I saw no harm in reaching out online to catch up with people I had not seen in a few decades, including a few I had dated.  I viewed it as a high school reunion of sorts, and we have high school reunions all the time, right?  I was in a happy marriage and had no intentions of crossing any boundaries.  I was excited about sharing Christmas cards with my high school and college friends over the internet.  To be honest, it was fun…

…and then I started practicing marriage therapy again after a hiatus of several years.  I had a front row seat to the utter destruction these types of connections have had and are having on marriages and families.  Now, research statistics corroborate that social media use can have a negative impact on marital happiness and stability.   I don’t think any voice of warning is too strong in this instance, and people seem oblivious to the potential corrosive influence of online connections.  Reconnecting in any way with a former love interest is risky, especially if that individual is considered a “first love,” which I will explain later.

I don’t want to seem all cray cray, and I do think some people can manage Facebook relationships with former flings—my husband has a few in his friends list right now.  Lest any of those people happen to be reading this and think I’m calling them out, I don’t find that threatening in my case.  He has little interest in Facebook, but a great deal of interest in his family.  My son’s recent verbal observation was, “Mom, you have to admit you got so lucky with dad because you have him totally whipped,” and while I don’t know about the “whipped,” part, because he’s not necessarily a pushover, he is very loyal.  However, spouses need to understand the general risk these contacts impose, because too many people are surprised when they are entangled in an emotional mess.

It’s not uncommon for people who have ended up in affairs with Facebook friends to ask, “How did this happen?  I had no idea I would feel these strong emotions.  It doesn’t make sense.”  I’ll explain why it does make sense.  Most people are ignorant to how quickly dormant emotions can be awakened.

The Unique Risk of First Love 

As mentioned, connecting with a “first love,” is by far the riskiest move, and most people don’t realize the intensity of emotions that can arise from these circumstances. The relationships are sticky.  While people sometimes minimize “adolescent love,” or even “young adult love,” the truth is that these are very impassioned experiences for people and are imprinted in memory.  Nancy Kalish, a qualitative researcher of rekindled love relationships who headed up a study with 2000 participants, explained that men and women told her that their first loves became “the standard for all the rest,” and they don’t forget.

Here is a list of reasons why these relationships can make sparks:

  1. It is familiar. There is shared history and experiences. Bottom line:  It feels comfortable instantly.  Kalish put it this way, “The emotionally loaded memories of attachment were still there, but the person was not.  When they reunited, the sight, smell, touch, and sound of the long-lost love activated these stored emotional memories.  Like the key to a lock, the first love matched the memories, and everything felt right.”  She added that early relationships can be only a few months long and still have the same explosive effect.  This is important because people often assume that because they have had a longer-term relationship with someone else, they can’t be easily influenced by a comparatively short-term connection.
  1. It is formative. Love relationships in one’s late teens or early 20’s are associated with high levels of bonding hormones and sexual fervor, “forged in the fire of the teenage brain,” in Kalish’s words.  This unique attachment pairing sets the stage for a lifetime association.
  1. Our brains are excellent at recalling memories with sensory triggers. My son recently has taken an interest in the song, “I Melt with You,” by Modern English.  Every time he plays that song, I’m immediately transported to a scene in my high school boyfriend’s Porsche when he was teaching me to drive a stick shift, and I was laughing hysterically at what a disaster I was at first.  I can hear him saying, “I can’t wait to play you this new song I found that made me think of you.”  I don’t even remember him with fondness.  Our relationship was burned to a crisp after the 5 year period of on-again, off-again drama.  Regardless of the fact that my memories of him are emotionally neutral, my brain recalls that scene every single time I hear it. Contact with a former love will elicit sensory triggers.  Online conversation patterns with an ex can create sensory recall, and you can and will be transported in time.
  1. We usually remember positive emotional experiences with first loves more than negative experiences. Contrast that with a spouse who may have annoyed you five minutes ago.  First loves are associated with the nostalgia for youthful days—with emotional higher hopes and more energy.
  1. People don’t usually alter requirements in a partner, so if they were appealing once, they will be appealing again.  Romantic love researcher Helen Fisher explained that our partner preferences don’t really change all that much.  She said, “Romantic love is like a sleeping cat and can be awakened at any minute.  If it can be awakened once, it can probably be awakened a second time.”
  1. Love relationships in one’s late teens/early adulthood are often ended with ambiguity and If you started a relationship that was never fully realized, it’s easy to pick up right where you left off.  I had never heard this articulated until I read Kalish’s book.  Kalish pointed out that the “lost love,” relationships with the most intensity occurred after an ambiguous break-up, e.g. the couple’s relationship dissipated because of distance, interfering parents, or other circumstances unrelated to the couple’s formally ending it.  It’s common for people to think if they contact a previous love interest they will get closure for this ambiguity.  That logically seems to make sense, and yet it doesn’t work.  Kalish said, “closure is a myth (because) the old feelings come back.”  Most people are unaware of this and don’t expect it.
  1. The years of separation can make the heart grow fonder.  Helen Fisher used the term, “frustration attraction,” to explain that barriers to a relationship can increase yearning and feelings of ardor. She explained that passionate love stimulates dopamine-producing neurons which make people want to seek out that person.  She posited that our brain cells prolong their activities if the lover associated with those chemicals is unavailable, increasing potency of the fond feelings.

But what if my Facebook friend and I only went on a few dates?  We weren’t even romantically involved.

It’s probably easy to see why an intense early love relationship could be quickly reignited, but many individuals are surprised at the affairs that develop from “someone I just dated a few times,” or “someone I thought was cute but never went out with—we were just friends.”  There are several reasons why it’s still easy to become romantically attached to an old friend.

  1. Most affairs start with a platonic relationship.  People think if they aren’t already romantically involved, it’s safe.  There is a natural progression from initial familiarity to deeper emotional sharing to bonding, which people underestimate as fertile ground for affairs.
  1. Our brains respond to novelty, and it’s a new rediscovery.  Whether the person is a former love interest or not, it’s new, which begs attention.
  1. We disclose emotions more quickly and deeply online than in person.  That emotional sharing is a bonding experience.
  1. If you start hiding your communication from your spouse, the hiding alone fuels feel-good hormones.  For example, adrenaline.
  1. Connecting with anyone from the past reminds us of when we were young and had more energy and our whole lives ahead of us. That individual becomes associated with those emotions—there is a cohort effect of sorts.
  1. Carrying on an online relationship is fragmented and lacks the mundane aspects of daily life. Getting immediate responses from a partner far away while your spouse may be ignoring you may beget an illusion that the online partner is more responsive.
  1. Communicating online with anyone in a private conversation provides a natural close, shared intimate experience. It may be more surprising when affairs DON’T develop from these relationships than when they do.
  1. The nature of fantasy.  It’s amazing how many of these relationships are experienced in the minds of the individuals instead of in actual physical contact.  That can generate persistent emotions.

The Unexpected Dark Side

According to Kalish, people rekindle first romances all the time, and if they are both unmarried, they often create stable relationships.  However, she warned that many people she interviewed were in happy marriages and were shocked when they felt feelings for former lovers.  In some instances, they destroyed their marriages and hurt their spouses and children.  In other cases, some reported an increase in unhappiness and emotional pain and yearning for their past partners.   Individuals often tell me that they are having more dreams about the lost love, which creates guilt.

Energy that is going into the online relationship is energy being sucked out of the marital relationship. Sharing that’s happening online is sharing that’s not happening with a spouse. Sometimes, the spouse becomes the enemy, preventing the extramarital connection.

You think there’s a time limit, but there’s not

Some people think, “That was decades ago when I was a teenager…I’m a completely different person now and too old to have an affair.”  I was surprised at how many couples in Kalish’s study had not seen each other in more than 50 years and still reported the same chemistry that they experienced in their late teens.  In one case, a couple who were both in their 90’s and hadn’t seen each other in over 70 years rekindled a former romance.  This is important to know because sometimes people think they are old enough that they won’t have extreme emotions.  False.

I am certain that there are tens of thousands if not millions of people engaging in clandestine Facebook affairs with old lovers and friends as I type.  I’m not saying that you can’t ever friend an ex on Facebook, but it’s a good idea to be aware of the potential dangers before you do….along with shared passwords with your spouse.

Here are some references and further reading:

Why We Love:  The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher.  2005, Holt Paperbacks.

The Lost Love Chronicles: Reunions & Memories of First Love by Nancy Kalish.  2013, Dr. Nancy Kalish published.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sticky-bonds/201204/in-the-time-machine-lost-love-vs-spouse

https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200607/lost-love-guess-whos-back

https://qz.com/578395/the-psychology-of-why-rekindled-romances-are-so-intense/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sticky-bonds/201310/10-points-about-lost-loves-might-surprise-you

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214001563

Photo credit: Copyright: bialasiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

One Simple Thing You Can do to Protect Your Marriage

54955635 - woman checking her mobile phone while embracing a man at home

I was on a hike with another couple a few nights ago, and the husband asked me to identify the number one thing I would tell people to keep their marriages strong.  I’m not usually asked to reduce marital tips down to one dimension, but I was intrigued by the challenge.  I thought for a minute and realized I had a definite answer, informed by the cases I have had over the last 5 years.

“I would say,” I replied, “To realize that when you are texting someone, you are in essence entering a private room with that person.”  I’m expanding on the image here.  The room has no windows.  The social response is in real time, so it is as if you are right next to the person having an actual conversation.  If you text daily, you are entering that room daily.  If you text on and off all day long, you are in that room most of the day.  Everyday.

I see a lot of infidelity cases.  One hundred percent of them in the last few years have all developed through texting.  In most cases, a romantic interest did not precede the texting relationship.  Most of them started in a benign way between co-workers, church members working together on projects, neighbors and best friends of the couple.  Here’s the typical developmental course (IMHO):

  1. Begin texting to communicate practical information.
  2. Increase frequency of texting, still to communicate practical information.
  3. Add a joke to your text, making it more conversational in nature.
  4. Get a response to your joke, and continue the playful banter.
  5. Feel a positive chemical boost after a text exchange.
  6. Find yourself checking your phone to see if the person texted.
  7. Realize that you are starting to look forward to getting texts from that person.
  8. Tell yourself that since you aren’t seeing that person face-to-face, you are fine and not being disloyal to your spouse.
  9. Increase casual and playful texting.
  10. Shift from playful banter to deeper emotional disclosures.
  11. Experience an increase in the euphoric chemical boost.
  12. Find yourself hiding your phone from your spouse, because you don’t want the texts to be “misinterpreted.”  (ALERT: Tipping Point)
  13. Continue to tell yourself that nothing is going to happen, because you still aren’t in this person’s physical presence, so you are still in control.
  14. Realize you have an emotional yearning for this individual.
  15. As you increase the need to hide your texts, begin to see your spouse as the enemy.
  16. Find yourself disconnecting from your spouse to find a place to text this person more often and privately.
  17. Hide more.
  18. Declare your deepest feelings and yearnings for this person and plan to meet in a private location.
  19. Engage in physical affection.
  20. Bam!
  21. Feel as if you have “fallen,” in love with this person and want him/her more than your spouse.
  22. Tell yourself this is your true love connection…otherwise you wouldn’t have “fallen,” in love, and you wouldn’t have these feelings.
  23. See your spouse as the one thing standing between you and true love and happiness.
  24. Destabilize your family.
  25. Make an appointment with me.

This may sound harsh to some readers…definitely to those who see themselves somewhere on this continuum.  I’m not changing my story.  If you would not repeatedly enter a private room with someone without a window where someone can see in, frequently enough that you start to share feelings with someone that you wouldn’t share with your spouse, don’t do it on a cell phone.

Here’s one more thing that should not surprise you:  If your texting partner is an old boyfriend or girlfriend, you can expect to immediately resurrect the same emotions you felt when you were dating that person.  You will exaggerate all the good memories you had and minimize the negative memories you had from that relationship.  That’s not unique.  Your texting affair is not unique, and the effect is as if you are on drugs.  I’ve written this before, and I stand by it.

Lastly, realize that no matter how great you think your marriage is, this can happen to you.  It is the failure to be watchful and set boundaries that gets people into trouble.  If you think you could never end up having an affair, you’re kidding yourself—FWIW.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_wavebreakmediamicro’>wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Marital Betrayal: Forgiveness 101

couple turned toward each other

Who is this person I thought I knew and what else are they lying about?

This is one of the most common questions a partner has after finding out they have been betrayed by someone in a committed relationship.  It is a disorienting experience that is regularly described as “having the rug pulled out from under me,” “having my entire world fall apart,” “having the wind knocked out of me,” “having my whole world collapse around me,” “falling into a dark pit,” and other catastrophic scenarios illustrating the subsequent emotional devastation.

One of the biggest challenges couples face is how to attain forgiveness in the relationship when a serious betrayal has occurred.  Finding out your partner has been hiding behavior from you feels dangerous, whether it is an affair, an addiction, or spending all the money in the 401K.  Suddenly, you are living with someone who is supposed to have your back, and you have the sense that you don’t even know who this person is or what else they might be hiding.  It is devastating and dark, and comes with a lot of emotion which is constantly shifting in intensity.  There are no hard and fast rules for how emotion is expressed after a betrayal has been uncovered.  Betrayed partners commonly swing between anxious clinging responses and angry detaching responses.  It is terrifying to be betrayed by someone previously thought to be trustworthy.  Emotional roller-coaster is not an understatement.

Studies show that forgiveness is a critical component to heal major transgressions, and that it is one of the most important things in a marriage contributing to marital stability and quality.  How then, does a spouse go about the work of forgiving with a partner who has betrayed trust and suddenly feels dangerous?

2 Parts of Forgiveness:

There are two facets of forgiveness: intrapsychic and interpersonal.  The intrapsychic part describes the inner peace a person can attain individually; it’s not uncommon to see clients who feel a sense of peace and calm, and an absence of malice towards a partner after exercising individual forgiveness.  However, they can feel forgiving and still not want to get close to the person who caused harm.

The interpersonal part of forgiveness can be more challenging because it requires trusting a partner enough to want to engage with them again.  When a spouse has been dangerous and unpredictable, it is necessary to have new trust-building experiences with the individual who caused the betrayal in order to feel safe enough to move forward again with that person.  The safe experiences also must happen over time.  A year after a betrayal is short in the life of a committed relationship, and many partners need longer than that to really feel like they can trust again.  Some partners take that long just to be able to even begin risking with an offending partner again.

Markers of Forgiveness

There are two main markers of forgiveness, which denote some kind of change: 1) a decrease in negative emotion toward the partner and 2) an increase in positive, conciliatory behavior.  Many people will take a while to decrease negative emotion toward a spouse, because they need time to make sure that the spouse really understands how painful the experience has been so the betrayal isn’t repeated.  Then, it usually takes quite a bit longer to start trusting the person enough to continue moving forward with any connection.

Some Important Things to Remember After a Betrayal has Happened:

  1. Offending partners should expect lots of unpredictable emotion and their partners can be triggered at any time.  Triggers happen unexpectedly and can cause explosive reactions.  It’s impossible to completely control triggering events but you can learn what to do with emotion when it happens.
  2. Transparency, transparency, transparency!
  3. Offending partners must seek to understand their spouse’s pain by asking questions about how hurt they are rather than becoming defensive or withdrawing.
  4. Healing is non-linear, so everything can seem okay one day and terrible the next.
  5. It’s normal for a wounded partner to feel ambivalent about continuing the marriage until they have had time to process emotion and make sense out of the betrayal.
  6. Repetition in discussing details helps wounded partners gain some kind of predictability over time—the couple can set boundaries for times the betrayal isn’t discussed, since it can fatigue the offending partner, but telling the wounded partner to just not ask questions isn’t fair. If they are going to move forward with someone, they need to know what they are dealing with to make sense out of it.  Repetition can actually help because if they get the same answers over time, they can start feeling safer because the person feels reliable in responding.
  7. Even though anger (and rage) are common, expressing the hurt and fear to a partner helps them understand the pain in a way that they can help heal it more effectively. Unfortunately, even though anger protects the person expressing it, it tends to push away the person at whom it is aimed, and that is why even though a person may be entitled to their anger and rage, it ends up impeding healing if the softer feelings aren’t expressed.
  8. Because of the unpredictable nature of healing, patience is more important than ever!

Questions for an offending partner to ask:

A huge problem with betrayal is that the offending partner can get defensive quickly because they don’t like to be reminded of their own treacherous behaviors, and in the face of overwhelming emotion from the hurt partner, they feel helpless about fixing it and want to withdraw.  Sometimes they end up reinjuring their partners in the process because by withdrawing from an emotional partner, that partner often ends up feeling abandoned.  Here are a few ideas for offending partners to ask:

  1. Can you tell me more about how hurt you are? (It seems counter-intuitive because you may not want to “stir the pot,” but if your spouse thinks you really want to know how much you hurt them, they are more likely to trust that you understand enough that they can start trusting again).
  2. What do you think I still might not understand about how you feel?
  3. What can I do in this moment—I wasn’t there for you then—I am here now so what can I do right now?
  4. Even though I don’t know what to do with all the emotion, I want to fix it—does it help for me to be here listening to you now?
  5. Is there anything else you need to know?

I’m not going to lie—this is very rough.  Words just don’t capture the pain.  I have had betraying husbands call me and ask me what to expect for a trajectory of healing after they revealed extra-marital affairs, and this is what I said in essence:

  1. Roller coaster emotion is the norm.
  2. Trying to heal can be disorienting for your spouse because she has to heal this with someone who created the pain—that is a confusing, dark place for a spouse to be, and yet, building trust with the person who caused the betrayal is the only way to move forward.
  3. You are going to be fatigued from talking about the betrayal WAY before she is done talking about the betrayal, and a year is not long in betrayal time.
  4. Asking questions from you and getting predictable responses over time is one of the ways she can start trusting again.
  5. In order to heal, the betrayed partner has to make sense out of how this could have happened and has to feel some kind of shift in the relationship to have reassurance that it won’t happen again—something has to feel better and more secure than it did before the betrayal.
  6. Transparency is one of the only ways she can start trusting again.

These aren’t gender specific.  Both genders betray partners, and both genders are similar in trajectories of healing.  I don’t think one blog post does this justice because it is so hard, so reading a book about healing betrayals may be indicated as well as seeking professional help in therapy.

On the bright side, some of my best cases have involved healing from serious betrayals.  Couples are forced to scrutinize their marriages and rebuild new foundations of trust.  They really can build up closer, better marriage than before.  They figure out where they went wrong and they fix it and appreciate each other more in the process.  It’s important to know that the last sentence usually describes years of rebuilding.

Lastly, if you have been betrayed by your partner, please know that you are not alone, and that marriages do recover from this tragedy.

Reference:

Fincham, F. D., Hall, J. & Beach, S. R. H. (2006).  Forgiveness in marriage: Current status and future directions. Family Relations, 55(4), 415-427.

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding information immediately.

However, the most common cases I see in couples therapy right now are those in which: 1) pornography use is hurting the marriage (accessed most often now through technology), and those in which 2) emotional affairs are hurting the marriage (most often perpetuated through technology).  Both of these presentations existed before the internet, but they are exponentially more common than they were prior to 1992, when I graduated with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

In short, technology can expose marriages to more intrusive forces.  There is so much more availability to corrosive materials and to relationships with people outside the marriage, that people who want to stay in committed relationships need to realize the risks and set intentional boundaries in a boundless world. 

This applies to both spouses.  I would say that clinically I see more men using pornography and more women having emotional affairs, but there are women who use pornography excessively, and there are definitely men having emotional affairs.  I might see more women show up in therapy for emotional affairs because they are perhaps more emotionally invested than their male technological affair partners, but that’s just one guess; I have seen men who are deeply embedded in emotional affairs, ready to dump their marriages to chase the alternative digital connections.

The Problem with Pornography

Wendy Maltz, co-author of The Porn Trap, is another therapist who has been a witness to how technology has disrupted marriages with pornography.  She admitted that early in her career, she had sometimes recommended pornography use for couples wanting to address sexual concerns in their marriage, such as low sexual desire.  However, she confessed that after her clients began accessing pornography on the internet in a broad and immediate way, she realized how potentially harmful it was.

She pointed out that most internet pornography invites the user to have a relationship with it (the computer porn), rather than with their partners.  In this way, it was actually diminishing rather than enhancing her couples’ sexual relationships.  Additionally, many spouses feel betrayed and violated by their spouses’ porn use and experience it as an infidelity.  In fact, in many cases, the porn becomes preferable to the spouse, entirely fracturing the committed relationship.  It can diminish sexual performance and sexual quality as well.  She wrote her book in part to clarify the reversal of her opinion in the age of technology, and to try to mitigate some of the effects of pornography.  I agree with her observations about how internet pornography is negatively impacting marriages.

The Trouble with Emotional Affairs and Technology

Besides porn, I see a HUGE problem with emotional affairs maintained through digital technology.  I remember the very first time a couple came in and the issue was related to cell phone texting.  The wife had her old boyfriend’s cell phone number programmed into her cell phone from when she was dating him a few years earlier.  After she was married, when she was unhappy with her husband, she would text her old boyfriend.  She didn’t see the harm in just finding out how he was doing.  The problem was that over time, she began texting him more and more, and since texting is such an immediate form of communication, she had access to him 24/7.  I recall recognizing in that moment the reality that technological access had profoundly shifted the playing field for boundaries in  marriages.   The natural boundaries that existed when I got married that prevented association with previous love interests had disappeared.   I accurately predicted that many more marriages would be affected by this lack of boundaries.

Texting is a low investment but  high response form of communicating, meaning that it takes very little effort to respond to someone with texting, but it can be perceived as highly responsive.  The couple began exchanging texts essentially all day long, and that relationship started to become more real to her than her daily interactions with her husband, which were often colored by the daily stressors and realities of life.  In many ways her real life partner couldn’t compete with the seeming emotional responsiveness of her texting boyfriend.

As she disclosed her complaints about her husband, her old boyfriend “validated her feelings,” that she didn’t deserve to be treated like that, and he shallowly declared that he would “never treat her that way.”  He continued to look like the hero by doing essentially nothing but moving his fingers, while her husband was trying to meet the demands of real-life experiences that inevitably arise when you live with someone.  The comparison was unfair.

The emotions experienced in these low-investment, high response relationships are very real.  People also emotionally disclose faster and more deeply with technology than with face-to-face interaction, so the relationships are often characterized by high emotional sharing, and the result is that the people involved experience heightened emotional closeness.  The emotions are linked with physiological responses, some of which are very rewarding and powerful.  People in emotional affairs experience a dopamine rush just like people in physical affairs, and they become confused by the experiences.  Because the emotions are real, the relationships feel “real,” even though they are in fact extremely limited in nature.

Most emotional affairs are relationship fragments—users are in essence taking the best part of the romantic relationship without having to invest or sacrifice like they would to maintain a real long-term committed relationship.  When people pursue dopamine-induced emotional affairs over their real relationships, the real relationships become casualties.  Let’s say the partner then pursues the emotional affair by developing a real relationship with that person.  Over time it becomes as predictably mundane as the original relationship (usually after about 18 months to 2 years).  This is often when a new emotional affair is started and the whole cycle repeats, damaging people in the process.

Your Affair is not Unique

As you read this from an outside perspective, I have no doubt that you can see the problem.  However, when people are caught up in emotional affairs, they think their emotions mean that their relationships are “special.”  Even though I point out to people repeatedly that their affairs are not unique from the other hundreds of affairs I have seen in my practice, they don’t believe me.  That’s because they are feeling such powerful emotions.  Sometimes they also mistakenly think they aren’t harming the marriage if they aren’t meeting with the affair partner in ongoing face-to-face contact.  Ongoing emotional affairs are in many ways more challenging than in dealing with pornography in a marriage.  I have seen women openly expressing true love and the desire to run off with an old boyfriend on Facebook while criticizing their husbands for looking at online pornography, which I find confusing and hypocritical.

Many people cling to their emotional affairs and refuse to set boundaries.  Many are dishonest about how much the distant but powerful contact with others is hurting the marriage.  Many unfairly expect their spouses to be ok with their casual contact with potential affair partners because they “aren’t seeing them in person, so what’s the big deal?”

In the example cited above with the cell phone texting, I asked the wife if she had any boundaries about texting other men.  She defensively inquired, “Are you telling me that I have to stop texting my old boyfriend completely even if I know that I’m not going to start a real relationship with him?”  I responded, “Neither I nor anyone else can tell you that you have to do anything.  However, if your spouse says it is hurting him, and you knowingly engage in behavior that you know is hurting your spouse, it is unreasonable to expect that this won’t chip away at the relationship over time, so you are putting your marriage at risk.  The question is, ‘Do you want to put your marriage at risk for divorce or not?’”  Sometimes also I have to point this out when a husband thinks his wife should just be okay with his pornography use.

You Must Set Boundaries to Preserve the Marriage

If you want to build a long-term, high quality and stable relationship, build a sturdy fence.  Protect your relationship.  No one can make you.  You can hide just about anything in this day and age at some level, but if you are, you are injuring yourself and your relationship the most.  Set boundaries intentionally.  In short, if you are engaged in a conversation you wouldn’t want your spouse reading over your shoulder (commonly texting, Facebook, chat rooms, messaging capabilities through your online game, etc.), you are making your relationship vulnerable to eventual decay. It’s a risky choice.

Remember, if you build a fence around your relationship now, you are less likely to need an ambulance later. 

References:

An Ambulance Down in the Valley, poem by Joseph Malins (1895).

The Pornography Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography by Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz (2009), William Morrow Paperbacks.