Infidelity as a Symptom of Another Problem
Although some sexual straying outside a marriage, particularly when someone indulges in a one-night stand, can be viewed as a biological response to an opportunity presenting itself, an extramarital relationship of any duration is often a reflection of something askew in the emotional health of the primary relationship. Communication between the two partners has almost certainly broken down. Sexuality may also be unsatisfactory to one or both.
People often lack insight into their own behavior. If a man does understand why he cheated on his wife, he may not want to disclose this information to her; he may think that doing so will only cause more problems. However, if she already knows about the affair, and the underlying issues are not identified, the emotional health of the marriage will only deteriorate further and faster if he doesn't come clean with what he knows about his own feelings and motivations. Quite often, marriage counseling is the best way to identify the underlying problems and begin to attack them.
Should You Tell?
This brings up the often controversial question of whether telling a spouse that you had an extramarital affair (particularly a brief one) is always the best way to go. The underlying question is whether keeping this secret undermines the relationship any more or less than spilling the beans might. In Stephen Martin's view, although honesty is the best approach, if the man or woman who strayed stops all contact with the other person, and decides to remain in and work on his marriage, therapy can sometimes better address the underlying problems in a marriage without the added drama caused by the confession of an affair.
In fact, there are times when such confessions can be self-indulgent on the part of the unfaithful spouse, more designed to relieve guilt than improve the marriage. Marriage therapists and experts differ widely on this issue. Ultimately, whether or not to confess an affair, or the temptation to enter one, is an individual decision to be made in your own heart and mind.
Dealing with Emotional Infidelity
In the murkier area of what some call nonsexual infidelity, it is similarly difficult to definitively spell out right or wrong except on an individualized basis. When it comes to friendships with members of the opposite sex outside of marriage, there is only what feels right and what works for the two people who are married to each other. This is something the two of you can only arrive at through communication and negotiation.
Once again, therapists and marriage experts differ on this issue. Some hold that any and all flirting or socializing with a member of the opposite sex constitutes a threat to marriage and should be discouraged. Stephen Martin points out that how comfortable or distressed one partner becomes as a result of the other's social behaviors often depends on how secure she feels about herself and her marriage. On the other hand, he says, if the distressed partner feels her partner is giving or getting from a third party what she feels is missing from their own relationship, for example an emotional closeness that used to be present, that is solid ground from which to confront a partner and ask that his attentions be turned back homeward.
This set of issues underscores the need for partners to agree upon the amount of togetherness and separateness that works for both individuals in the marriage. It also relates to the absolute need for clear emotional boundaries to exist between two married people — in other words, what each of them needs emotionally from the other. This area is explored more thoroughly in Chapter 11.
When infidelity brings up violent feelings of jealousy in a spouse, there is often within this intense reaction a fear of abandonment similar to the reaction of a baby who instinctively fears being left by his mother. Before the marital problems exposed by infidelity can be dealt with, it's sometimes necessary for the spouse who's been left behind to deal with her own overpowering feelings, including abandonment. When someone looks closely at emotions, his own and those of others, he often finds that much human behavior stems unconsciously from the fear of abandonment, which is in turn rooted in early childhood experiences.
The truth is that all people have these dark feelings to manage. Like greed, lust, and the other negative feelings, jealousy can express itself in self-destructive ways. To cope with these feelings it is best to look them straight in the eye. Do not run from them. Understand them. Learn how to manage them, and accept that all humans have a fear of abandonment and loneliness to deal with, and often these feelings are hard to work through.