What is the worst act you’ve ever committed in a relationship…or what was the worst one perpetrated upon you?
I suspect it was infidelity.
Infidelity is a knife to the heart of the relationship. There is not a more powerful way to tear apart a relationship than for one of the partners to have an affair.
One moment everything appears good, the next moment the relationship you had no longer exists.
An affair will either take you and your relationship to a new place or end it.
Dealing with the pain and withheld emotions and owning your part will pull your heart out of your chest. Much of your previous unfelt and expressed emotions come out with the flood of overwhelming emotions of infidelity. The trust we previously had is now gone, and with that goes the way we identify with and know the relationship.
Neither us nor our relationship will ever be the same.
So we can take what we’ve learned from past crises and apply it proactively to our current relationship.
I wished I had with a girlfriend from many years ago. I had neither the courage nor the skills to speak my truth. It was as though someone gagged me.
Like so many people who feel stuck in their relationships, I chose to have an affair.
My pattern of not speaking began soon after the relationship began. Over the course of the relationship, I shut down more and more. In all the places I wasn’t speaking, I was vulnerable to someone else speaking for me. I’m not making excuses—I was weak, I looked for love outside of the relationship rather than risk speaking what I felt and wanted.
What You Can Learn from an Affair
My infidelity launched me on a path to learning how to show up as a man, and set me up for more than twenty years of training men. Often as men we feel stuck, trapped, and dead. Trapped in a model that gives us only two choices, stay the course—grin and bear it—or jump ship and go for the affair. Most of us (men and women) were never taught a model of turning around and addressing the growing separation in the relationship.
In our medical and psychology-dominated society, our misdeeds become pathological behaviors needing treatment. For instance, if you’ve cheated, you have “impulse-control issues.” We assume with cheating that there is something wrong with one or all the parties involved. Rather than taking the family system approach, where one person is acting out the dysfunction of the relationship, we look for the perpetrator to assign full responsibility.
In shifting our perspective from the person to the behavior, we can apply Milton Erickson’s Principle of Utilization (Erickson was the psychiatrist who developed indirect hypnosis), where we use what is present for our good. Behind the act or urge to commit adultery is the urge for change. That is a good urge; infidelity is not the right action.
Esther Perel is a Belgian psychologist who’s known for her work on infidelity. In her recent TEDx talk, she speaks eloquently about how it’s a human to need adventure. We crave excitement, desire, and challenge at the beginning of a relationship. Few of us grew up in a home where that excitement thrived. We see with others that when the spark dies, the relationship dies a slow death. If only unconsciously, we assume we will endure the same fate.
Then one day we are in the middle of an affair, feeling alive once again.
Rather than have your actions speak for you, just speak. Slowly start to talk to your partner about all those little things you don’t talk about, that you don’t want to talk about. When you fell in love, you couldn’t stop talking; now often a grunt is the most you get. Start speaking your feelings, wants, and longings. As Perel says: “Affairs are way less about sex, and a lot more about desire: the desire for attention, desire to feel special, desire to feel important.” Talk to your partner about meeting those needs inside your relationship, instead of outside of it.
Honor those needs. Apply Erickson’ Principle of Utilization to find a more productive expression for adventure. Don’t suppress the urge; express it as part of the new adventure you bring to your relationship. Co-create ways in and out of the relationship where your own needs can be met.
Find things that bring back your passion and share them with your partner—that enthusiasm will bring passion back to the relationship.
Step Out of Your Routine
It’s strange that we are often more likely to risk the pain of an affair than we are to risk speaking our truth to our partners. This is partly because of residual emotional PTSD from all the times we were told, as children, to not express ourselves.
It’s easier to have a stranger wake up our passion than for us to stumble at speaking about the loss of it.
Sit down with your partner regularly to connect with them. Vulnerably express your feelings and wants. Remember that the goal is not necessarily to get the other to accept them; this is about investing in your relationship with the courage to speak.
Start on the edges of your relationship. Speak about how you feel about some simple activity you do together, such as going shopping. Don’t make it a complaint, make it a reveal of a vulnerable feeling or need. For example, you don’t like going to Wal-Mart, not just because of how you feel about the company, but because you feel lost and disconnected in that environment.
Maybe you say how you’d rather walk through the park with your partner.
Let go of what you created up to now. Rather than create an affair to kill the relationship, speak to what needs to die—what is now longer working for you. Then speak to what you want. You don’t need to know how to create it, but you can choose to end what you had. Honor how the old relationship served you, then let go of it. Then start dating your partner, and explore what a new relationship would be.
Invest in the Third Body
As we start really communicating with our partner, we are taking responsibility for what Robert Bly calls the Third Body—the relationship itself. Rather than taking the destructive path of an affair, step up now and be responsible for the relationship. As men, we often drift away from doing this by handing over emotional issues to our partners.
But when we step up to co-create a healthier Third Body, our partner melts.
Another relationship I had ended with her having an affair. I couldn’t get too mad, though, because I was thinking of doing the same thing. I was as responsible for the end of that relationship as she was.
We both stopped investing in the relationship.
Don’t take the easy out: turn in, face the truth, and speak it.
At worst, you’ll end what was going to end, but at least you’ll do it consciously and without regrets of holding back. Far more likely, though, is that you transform yourself and your relationship.
Start speaking what is not being said. Start today. You may discover that the most important thing not being said is how much you love your partner. Your partner is worth the effort. You are worth the effort. Your Third Body is worth the effort. Watch Perel’s TEDx video (below) together to frame what is missing in a new way and start your conversation.
Author: Owen Marcus
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: via fanpop