Sunday, August 18, 2013

How Could He Have Done This to Me?

Most every hurt spouse has asked this question upon discovering their spouse's affair. It is often one of the first questions one asks themselves and next, asks the unfaithful spouse. It is also one question that is the hardest to answer, and often never gets answered in some cases. Or the answers given don't satisfy.

Does this mean it is a pointless question? It can seem that way. To the unfaithful spouse, they often don't know why they did it. It just seemed to happen, and they can't put a finger on why they did it. Other times, the unfaithful spouse, looking to shift the blame, puts the why on their spouse's actions or lack of actions. For the hurt spouse, it seems as if no reason could ever make sense or justify what happened.

Yet, it is still a question worth asking. However, for the right reasons. Not to establish blame. Not to avoid blame. Not to boast or tear down your self-esteem. Rather, to make the necessary changes to learn from the experience. Both to avoid a repeat performance, and for each spouse to grow personally and together.

For that reason, it is worth delving into the why. But first we must add, don't expect a "rational" explanation. The reasons for affairs are many and varied. Most involve complex emotional interactions rather than rational thought processes. We like to isolate one cause and point to it and say, "There! That's why he had an affair." However, it is often more complicated than one single facet and they frequently overlap. Following are four non-exhaustive list of reasons to consider by both spouses as to what brought about the affair.

1) Loose morals.

Society's message to young teens is too often to "sow your wild oats" before settling down in a marriage. Many teens get the following messages:

  • Sex is a recreational activity to enjoy with someone, hopefully someone you like.
  • There is nothing wrong with premarital sex. Everyone does it.
  • You're not expected to be exclusive with anyone until you commit yourself, so have fun.
  • You're not part of the "in" group if you are a virgin until married.

So is it any wonder, after however many years of freely having sex with whoever one wants to, that men and women have trouble turning off that mindset when they say, "I do?" First marital spat or denial of a need can have them resorting to old habits. Throw in a common expectation among some groups that it is okay to cheat, as long as you don't get caught, and some people simply don't think there is anything wrong with some outside relief from the daily grind of their marriage.

For those who have affairs for this reason, they will have a hard time adjusting to a more productive marital outlook. Not only do they need to mentally realize the damage they do to themselves, those they have sex with, their spouses, and their family, but they will need to make significant behavioral modifications that shifts them away from risky behaviors and attitudes.

Even for someone dedicated to accomplishing that, they will have an uphill battle. But many will not even admit they are wrong. They've convinced themselves they are right, and the loss they would feel at giving that up is too great to admit they've lived their life by a wrong moral code.

2) Narcissistic personalities.

Narcissist have a lot of trouble considering the feelings and needs of others. All they tend to think about is what they want and need. Everyone else is a tool for them to use to meet their needs. This isn't simply someone who exhibits selfish tendencies, but who doesn't feel others matter except as a means to their own ends.

While they certainly overlaps with the first reason, they don't believe they deserve to have an affair merely because they see nothing wrong with it, but rather simply because they want it. Whether it is wrong or right has little to do with it. If their ego needs the affirmation, then they should have it.

This is probably the hardest person to change. To do so requires the person to completely change their worldview, their personality, and their life. By design, a narcissist is adverse to even considering that as an option. Even if they did, that would be a massive, but not impossible, undertaking.

3) Relational need-based affairs.

This one is a bit more tricky. We all have needs, and often in relationships, those needs are met in the early dating and marriage days by devoting so much time and attention to each other. But as the relationship moves forward, those needs tend to go unfulfilled for a variety of reasons. When that happens for a prolonged period of time, it opens the door to a spouse fulfilling those outside the marriage.

While some spouses identify these needs and intentionally seek out an affair to meet them when they've given up hope their spouse ever will, it is more common that the unfaithful spouse isn't consciously aware of the needs driving him, or if he is vaguely aware, doesn't think it is anything that would lead to an affair. No marriage is perfect? Right? So little effort is made to address the empty hole by either spouse, and when opportunity comes knocking, the hungry spouse latches onto it out of desire rather than a rational accounting of the consequences.

This basis can lead someone into the quicksand of an affair who is morally opposed to them. Often they never imagined that they would ever do such a thing and will feel guilt over it. The good news for these affairs is it is easier, with a little digging, to uncover what the needs not being met are, and how to meet them, either by the spouse or adjustment of expectations by the unfaithful spouse. More of these will tend to be one-time affairs than serial cheaters.

This is in large part where my wife's affair landed. We found going through the book, His Needs, Her Needs, by Willard F. Harley, to help us in identifying each other's romantic needs and how we can best meet them. The basic message each other wants to hear from the other is, "You're the most important person in the world to me." Failing to meet each other's needs sets up a vulnerability in the relationship when someone else comes along and meets that need.

Note: this isn't suggesting that the affair is justified or the hurt spouse is to blame for the affair if she failed to meet these needs. However, it is a reason that a spouse becomes vulnerable to an affair when opportunity meets demand. Still, the decision to have the affair rests with the unfaithful spouse, not the hurt one.

4) Personal needs-based affairs.

Some affairs happen not from failing to meet relationship needs, but failing to meet personal needs, either by the relationship or otherwise. These can overlap with relationship needs, because so often they are intertwined with them. But unlike the marital "You're the most important person in the world to me," a personal need simply says, "I'm liked and desired to be with."

My wife is a key example of how these interplay. Growing up in a blended family, youngest of three from her mother and father, but in the lower-middle of nine with step-siblings and half-siblings, she didn't get a lot of attention. She found out her mother didn't want her when she became pregnant, and rode roller coasters while pregnant in an attempt to abort her. By the time I met her as a teen, she wanted people to like her. She craved attention and often tried too hard to get it. This became a personal need of hers, to feel she was liked, wanted, and appreciated.

When we started dating, I filled that need for her, and to the degree I did, it became part of our marital romantic needs, that I pay attention to her. As we had kids, however, she shifted the source of meeting that personal need to them, and I didn't feel as needed for that purpose. Over time we spent less and less time together. For her, I no longer met that needs. That sufficed for many years. Until the kids started growing up and moving away. By then, she realized I either wouldn't or couldn't meet that need, and with the kids leaving, she saw loneliness ahead. So when a man started pursuing her, it was too tempting for her to resist.

Often these needs are created through the growing up years, and become personal issues. They almost always center around self-esteem issues in one way or another. People want validation, and will tend to seek it in others rather than within themselves. This opens the door to the temptation of an affair to meet those needs rather than to seek valid means of fulfilling them or adjusting them if excessive.

This basis for an affair may be more difficult to overcome than relationship-based needs for the simple reason that often it isn't merely a matter of learning what needs to met, but through counseling, learn why the person has these needs, whether they are unrealistic, and behavior modifications to learn how to meet valid needs constructively rather than destructively.

Keep in mind that many good marriages fall prey to affairs. Likewise, spouses in bad marriages frequently avoid affairs in addressing their needs. Sometimes people assume that if a spouse had an affair, it was because the other spouse wasn't doing what they should. This is wrong thinking. They may have contributed to the vulnerability and temptation to cheat, but one spouse cannot stop or cause the other spouse to decide to seek or allow an affair to happen.

But if we approach these with the mindset of how did it happen so we can know how to reduce the risk of a future occurrence and make the relationship better, then the task is worth the effort. As I state in our book, Healing Infidelity, while looking at the condition of the marriage is not justifying the affair, it is part of the solution to fixing the affair. None of these reasons ever justify the infidelity, but they can give us clues on what actions we need to take to rebuild to a stronger and more secure relationship.

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