Categories
Couples

The role of affairs in relationships

Your heart is not living until it has experienced pain…the pain of love breaks open the heart, even if it is hard as a rock.

– John Welwood

If you find out your partner has had an affair it can be one of the most devastating experiences possible. The shock, sadness and anger experienced by the betrayed partner are often what bring a couple to therapy.

In couple therapy we need to give a place to these feelings and to acknowledge the hurt and the breakdown in trust the affair has caused.

But, if we are working from a soulful perspective, we also need to look below the surface, at what the affair may be signaling about deeper issues in the relationship.

In a paradoxical way, while not devaluing the pain and damaged trust that an affair can bring, it is possible that exploring the deeper meaning can actually help a couple improve their relationship in the longer term.

Getting to this place is a gradual and often difficult process. It will depend on the betrayer being willing to take responsibility for their actions and the painful consequences. The hurt partner also will need, in time, to look beyond the immediate experience of anger and distress.

At a basic level, one partner having an affair is signaling that something is not working in that relationship. This may be because one partner is feeling, either consciously or unconsciously, neglected.

When a couple has children, for example, many fathers experience feelings of neglect and exclusion, alongside the more acceptable feelings of joy and elation. If they are not fully conscious of the more troubling feelings and not able to talk to their partner or another trusted person about them, they can find themselves caught up in an affair in which they feel ‘special’ again.

Similarly, a woman whose partner seems to be constantly working or disinterested in her may find herself, without consciously intending to, drawn into an affair with someone who attends to that part of her that feels neglected.

At an unconscious level the affair can be a signal by one partner that they want more attention. When the other partner finds out about the affair it can, therefore, is a catalyst to looking at what may be missing in the relationship. But that transformative effect is more likely to happen if the couple is able to work through their feelings in a supportive and non-judgmental environment, such as couple therapy.

It may emerge in explorations of the feelings around the affair that earlier ‘betrayals’ have been re-awakened, such as the anger and despair of a child whose father or mother abandoned the family.

It may transpire that the partner having the affair seeks romance with others as a way of avoiding intimacy with his or her main partner. The couple therapist may ask, what is it about intimacy that this person fears? And what about the other partner, are they colluding in an avoidance of deeper intimacy?

These kinds of questions can help the couple look at their relationship and the expectations, hopes, fears and disappointments that they bring to it. Out of this can, potentially, emerge something different – a new and more authentic way of relating.

Helping both partners get in touch with earlier emotional wounding can shed light on the possible role of the affair and how it can, potentially, help them come to terms with earlier, unresolved pain.

Couple therapists Hal and Sidra Stone argue in their book Embracing Each Other that the partner having the affair is often acting out a deeper unmet need of that individual and of their relationship.

For example, a very responsible family man may find himself in a romance with a very sensual, free woman. He falls for her because, at a deeper level, she allows him to connect with his disowned wildness.

Or a woman who, with her husband’s encouragement, gave up her studies and career plans in order to be a stay-at-home mother, may find herself having an affair with a man who values her intelligence and ambition.

‘There is usually an intense pull to have an affair when something within wishes us to break form and move ahead,” say Hal and Sidra Stone. But an affair can be used either to maintain the status quo or to risk something new – it can shore up a relationship that lacks important elements or it can be a catalyst that releases new energies, ‘and either changes or ends our current relationship’.

But there are rarely clearcut resolutions or complete closure when it comes to affairs.

There is always the possibility that the ‘victim’ partner will be so hurt by the affair that they are unable or unwilling to continue the relationship, even if the other partner is genuinely taking responsibility for their actions and the consequences.

Nevertheless, as psychotherapist and author John Welwood argues, to allow ourselves to truly feel the pain of betrayal can lead to a deeper understanding.

Referring to a male client, whose pattern has been to end relationships by having affairs but who now finds that his partner has had an affair, Welwood writes in Journey of the Heart: “He began to realise that his pain was not just about being betrayed. On a deeper level, it was also a sorrow about never having given himself fully to a relationship. In opening to this sorrow he saw all the ways he had kept himself apart from Sarah, just as he had with women all his life.”

Categories
Discussion Individuals

The need to sometimes disappoint our parents

A common reason people come to therapy is that they are unhappy about living a life that doesn’t feel authentic or meaningful at some profound level. Part of the reason for this is that they have taken on – consciously or unconsciously – their parents’ expectations of what they “should” do and how they “should” be.

The therapist’s role is to help the client get in touch with their deeper needs and wants, even if those conflict with parental expectations.

This process can take time because the messages we get from parents – about the kind of person we should be – may be extremely subtle. Nevertheless, we usually know deep down what will please them, or disappoint them.

The danger is that we either let our lives be lived according to parental expectations and thus devalue our own deeper wishes, or we can go to the other extreme of doing the opposite to what our parents want, in order to punish them.

While rebelling may make us feel we are being independent, it can also be a sign that we are simply defining ourselves in opposition to our parents and are stuck in a kind of adolescence. In this case we are no closer to living an authentic life than the son or daughter who dutifully complies with the family expectations.

There is also the possibility, as Jung pointed out, that we end up living out our parents’ unlived lives. Jungian author James Hollis argues that many women, whose own lives have been frustrated by gender limitations, have sought to live out their squashed ambitions through their sons, which explains the prevalence of the ‘My son, the doctor’ jokes.

But how to find out what we really want and need, as opposed to following parental expectations? One way is to become more aware of the parental voices in our heads. For example, most of us carry around an inner voice that tells us what is ok and not ok to do, and which can be very critical of us if we fail to meet these standards. This  “inner critic” is often derived from one or both parents.

There are other, less critical but usually much softer voices that we can tune into when we make a sustained effort and a soulful approach to therapy involves tapping into that part of ourselves that is compassionate and has genuine wisdom. This part of ourselves often shows itself in what people call intuition. For instance, we may not know why but we just have a strong sense that our parents’ religion, occupation or many of their values are not for us.

For example, we may have been brought up by parents who were uncomfortable with, and judgmental about, anger or sexuality. This can mean that whenever, as adults, we feel angry or sexual it can be accompanied by feelings of guilt. Or our parents may have been left-wing politically and judging of any career that didn’t reflect these values, making our desire of being an entrepreneur feel like a kind of betrayal.

As small children we absorb our parents’ values and expectations. What is not approved of is often disowned and this process continues, as we get older, with the expectations of schoolteachers and peers. As author Robert Bly says in A Little Book on the Human Shadow, a small child is like a running ball of energy: “But one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like, ‘Can’t you be still?’ or, ‘It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.’ Behind us we have an invisible bag and, the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.”

Not disappointing our parents, however, can become a betrayal of ourselves and sometimes that may be the choice – to be true to ourselves and disappoint others or to please others but fail to honour our own journey. It may also be that, if we have the courage to disappoint our parents by finding our own path, we are actually able to develop a more authentic relationship with them in the longer term.

Further reading

A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert  Bly

Under Saturn’s Shadow, James Hollis