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After the Honeymoon is Over

As we continue with our segment on betrayals in couples, today we are taking a deeper look at affairs that occur within the context of an "unhappy" relationship. One could argue that “scandal” is the word that sums up 2018. While these scandals vary in their transgressive flavor, affairs are at the top of the list. It seems like we cannot turn on the news or log on to our social media accounts without hearing about who is the newest “cheater”.  This trend is reflected not only in celebrities but also in a large majority of couples who are seeking therapy. In the world of couple’s therapy, affairs are at the top of the list of partner’s concerns. There is an ongoing debate regarding whether the number of affairs has increased or are partners simply getting caught in the act more often? After all, one no longer must sneak out of the house to communicate with their hidden lover when they can simply send a text or an email during a quick bathroom break. The debate gets even more complex when people express their opinions on why people cheat. “Cheating is a sign of unhappiness in the marriage.” “Cheating is for the weak.” “Once a cheater always a cheater.” “A good sex life can prevent a partner from straying.” “If you don’t have sex with your partner they’ll find it elsewhere.” The list goes on and on with judgments being cast against both the “cheater” and the “injured partner”. Instead of continuing to have the same old conversation about the morality of affairs, it is much more beneficial to take a deeper look at why they often occur. This can be viewed through two lenses that each contain a great deal of complexities within themselves. Today we will be exploring the first lens which posits that affairs are a sign of deeper problems within the relationship. Some people may be reading this and saying, “Isn’t that always why affairs occur?” The simple answer to that is NO but that is a conversation for the next blog post. After the Honeymoon There is a very interesting phenomenon that has been found to occur in romantic relationships. This phenomenon has shown that a large majority of couples begin to experience dissatisfaction and increased conflict about two years into the relationship. That is why we often refer to those first two years as “the honeymoon phase”. Once this phase is over couples begin to see their partners in a whole new light. Instead of being the object of my obsession I now see you as an actual person! Why exactly does this shift occur? A variety of reasons have been hypothesized that range from hormones decreasing to partners letting their guards down and showing their true selves to pure boredom. Whatever the reason is, we typically see two types of couples that exist after this phase is over. Couple number one finds excitement in the next phase of their relationship. They begin to build a solid foundation as far as communicating their expectations, values, and wants to one another. This couple is nourishing their emotional bond which allows for the necessary safety both partners must feel to communicate these things. Their sex life may be different than it was in the beginning. However, they are aware that this is a normal part of the process and know they must continue to work to maintain the excitement. In the words of world renowned couples therapist Esther Perel, “desire needs mystery.” They begin to build a life together and plan for their future. Sure they might have some bumps along the way and have to work at their relationship (as all relationships take work) but they find their way back to one another and maintain a sense of hopefulness. Trouble in Paradise We then have another type of couples who exist past the honeymoon stage. Couple number two may start off okay. They aren’t fully sure if this is “the one” but they feel okay about it for now and start planning for the future. However, little signs of trouble in paradise begin to pop up. For a variety of reasons, that necessary foundation that couple number one built is not being constructed by couple number two. Maybe they are spending more time fighting than getting along. Maybe one partner tries to break this cycle and wants to connect but the other isn’t very open to that idea so things get swept under the rug. Perhaps sex isn’t as exciting as it used to be and both partners are unaware that that is typically normal. Whatever the reason may be, one or both partners begin to view each other and the relationship as a whole in a very negative light. Instead of feeling hopeful they feel hopeless. The Perfect Storm This is a pivotal point in the relationship. Often times what ends up happening is one or both partners have tried to convey their unhappiness and unmet needs to one another but the couple is too caught up in their cycle of conflict to hear one another out. If couples are not equipped with the necessary communication tools and do not feel emotionally safe in the relationship, the cycle will continue. The same fight happens over and over leaving one or both partners feeling defeated and resentful. The destruction that occurs during this perfect storm often includes affairs. While one or both partners may not plan on having an affair, they find themselves presented with the opportunity and pursue it. Maybe it starts out innocently in talking to a co-worker about problems in the relationship and then come to find out the co-worker is going through the same thing. Maybe one partner starts to distance themselves and is spending a lot more time online. Perhaps one of the partners is out with their friends and is approached by another individual and they end up kissing (or more). While there are a variety of ways that this can occur, a few things are for certain. Affairs wreak havoc on a relationship and are a source of overwhelming betrayal. The betrayed is left experiencing extreme anger, sadness, anxiety, and grief while the person who had the affair is left feeling ashamed, angry, helpless, and grief as well. It’s Not Too Late While couple number two’s story is a common one, it does not have to be. When couples find themselves in couple’s therapy it is often much later than they should have originally come. While the story of couple number two is summed up in a few paragraphs, their dynamic is one that can last years before an affair occurs. Hence why the affair is not the sole focus of my work with couples, even if that is what has caused them to seek help. Sure it is a huge part of our work together but so is assessing all aspects of the relationship and building upon those. After all, an affair is one snapshot out of an entire relationship. While it may be a long snapshot, as we can see, many things occurred leading up to that affair. I often tell people that while therapy is typically utilized in moments of crisis, it does not have to be. We go to our medical doctor for routine check-ups for our physical health but rarely do we do the same for our mental health. We must begin to be proactive in our relationships instead of being reactive. Whether you are in the beginning of your relationship or in the midst of a crisis it is never too late or too early to invite a therapist in to help you and your partner navigate the unfamiliar territory of a romantic relationship. Whether that is myself or a referral I can provide you, please do not hesitate to ask for help! Next week we will take a deeper look at when affairs occur as a result of more individual than relational issues.