One of the fastest ways to hear someone pass judgment is to talk about an extra-marital affair. Comments like, “It’s never right,” and “There is no excuse,” or “You should just leave,” are the normal and expected reactive comments.
Cheating is a subject on which everyone has a strong opinion that they feel entitled to express, irrespective of knowing any of the circumstances or facts behind the decision. As unpopular as this might be, I agree with the need for some partners to move outside the relationship to gain the intimacy, sex, and connection they are craving.
Here is why.
For many couples in a relationship, sex is something that goes by the wayside. It’s discarded along with the trash one week and no one can be bothered to fish it out.
Sometimes it’s both sides that give up, or certainly put it way down on the importance scale with the exception of birthdays and holidays, the wedding they just went to on the weekend reminds them of how great it used to be.
I get that sex is not important to either party in these marriages and they feel that there are more important things in a marriage. If that is the mutual agreement, then there is nothing wrong with this dynamic as long as any children in the family unit are still being shown a loving, connected, and otherwise intimate relationship between the adults. Children need the role-model of positive relationships between their parents, so the importance of this cannot be undervalued.
Sometimes however, it’s just one person who gives up and leaves the other partner wanting and begging for sexual attention and sexual release. It is in these cases when frustrations can turn to significant hurt, and the honor of the marital vows becomes heavily tested.
In my relationships coaching, what people tell me is that when this is the case they feel constantly tested. The need to continually ask for intimacy, which is then denied, becomes degrading to their self-esteem and causes significant and very real pain which manifests in what appears to be unrelated behaviors such as anger, depression and a distancing from each other. One party at least, starts to feel disconnected from all aspects of the marriage. Arguments creep in and the distance becomes greater.
Adam* is a client who shared with me his experiences of 12 years in an almost sexless marriage. This is just one story, I have heard many similar. Each presents with their own unique relationship issues, but there is one common deficit that led them there.
Adam married his ideal woman. They had a wonderful, active sex life and shared values, visions and dreams. They envisaged a future life together and both assumed it would be as blissful as it currently was. Love in its early years feels so powerful that it’s unimaginable that things will ever change. Yet for Adam, he says it turned out like this:
“As soon as the ring hit the finger, her legs closed.”
The lack of sex was almost instant, and they were off to a rocky start. His wife later suffered from post partum depression after children were born, which led to further problems for each of them. Adam did his very best to support his wife but he felt hopeless and powerless and completely trapped.
Because we see men as ‘strong’ and ‘dependable’ it is in these times that they do their very best to be all that they can be in order to live up to the expectations and their desire and need to support those they love. However the seemingly impossible task to get things right can be crushing to a man’s sense of identity and he can struggle to hold it together.
He begins to question everything about himself. Why am I not enough? What more can I do? Men like Adam who share these stories with me say that they feel desperately alone. They feel it’s not acceptable for them to talk about their needs and desperation with anyone else, and the one they love has retreated from them, so they internalize the pain and confusion.
“We have regularly gone well over a year without sex.”
After around six years of conflict and confusion for Adam, in what was now an almost totally sexless marriage, he took to drinking to cope. He recognizes it was far from an ideal solution, but his frustrations around the lack of intimacy, and the pain of disconnection he felt were such that he needed something that would numb the pain.
The pain that Adam felt was not just the rejection from sex, it was the disconnection he felt from his life. He felt a deep sense of anger, confusion and hurt, which caused him turmoil, because he was lacking intimacy with his wife whom he still adored.
At his suggestion, they tried sourcing and reading books, counseling and communicating more, but his efforts fell flat. His wife told that counseling, “Just wasn’t for her, especially not over something so trivial.”
Her denial of his support and refusal to join him in seeking help, caused more and more frustrations.
“Communication can only go so far, when one person won’t participate. In a total of 12 years of marriage, we’ve been intimate maybe 12 times.”
The one passion they did still share was a commitment to the family unit. Determined to stay together for the sake of the children, Adam pushed through. His wife told him they would never break up the family for something “so trivial as sex.”
But sex and the intimate connection with his wife were not trivial to Adam.
After recognizing the destructive path of his drinking, and that it never dulled the real pain, Adam reached sobriety again. However, the frustrations and anxieties around sex and the intimacy he so strongly craved, returned.
Desperate for deeper level intimacy and connection, Adam eventually chose to break his vow to be faithful to his wife, and took a lover.
“It was a final act of a desperate man.”
It was a conscious decision and one he does not condone.
Interestingly, as if she had some sixth sense and after period of 12 years of refusing her husband’s advances, Adam’s wife began to engage him with sex again. She had no knowledge of the affair he had begun. True to his commitment to her and his family, Adam ended the affair soon after his wife began engaging him intimately again.
It is yet to be determined how long this will last, experience tells me that it may be short-lived, I certainly hope it’s not.
It takes courage to share a story like this publicly. There is always much judgment and criticism with extra-marital affairs, and if you are one such person with strong opinions, this may not change yours.
What I hope, is that the next time you hear of an affair, you consider that sometimes there is far more to the story than you realize. That sometimes, people have done all they can or could. As for me, I have nothing but compassion and empathy for this man’s decisions.
Since Adam felt he had done all he could to communicate his feelings and had even engaged professional help, and his wife had repeatedly told him that he was making too much of something that was trivial to her and refused to participate in counseling or even discuss his concerns with him directly, he believed he was faced with three choices:
- Breaking up his family over something he had been shamed into believing was trivial and unimportant.
- Live a life that was not consistent with what he wanted and needed as a man, also resulting in shame for his ‘needs’ and pain of the internal conflict he felt.
- Having an affair and making him judged as guilty for being a cheat.
Of course, his wife always had the choice to seek counseling, communicate her thoughts, and to validate her husband’s desire for being intimate with her without trivializing his needs.
Ultimately it is to be hoped that they have found a way to connect and continue the sexual intimacy which they have rediscovered.
*This is not every man’s story. This is the story of one man, Adam, (identity changed) who has courageously shared his story with me. There are many scenarios of infidelity, this is just one of them.
Photo: Flickr/Nick Nguyen