October 28, 2018

Affairs in the Time of Loneliness: Why we Seek Connection Outside of Marriage.

“Almost everywhere people marry, monogamy is the official norm and infidelity the clandestine one.” ~ Esther Perel


“It was actually so nice…that we decided to spend the night together!”

My married friend tells me how she hooked up with a married man she never met before while they were both on a business trip.

She tells me how they had a “real connection” and it was comfortable and tender to spend the night together. In the morning she left and they never spoke again.

This is how some married people in our day and age get to connect: they go outside of their marriage. What made an impression on me was that a single evening consisting of a meal, a sex act, and a sleep with a stranger qualified as “a really nice connection.”

How lonely and disconnected are we?

Studies indicate that roughly 20 percent of the general population suffer from chronic loneliness at any given time, and among older adults, 62.5 percent of people who reported being lonely were married and living with their partner.

Most of us believe that marriage is an insurance against loneliness, but that is obviously not the case. It is not just sharing living space with someone that creates a connection, it is the quality of our relationships, based on honest communication, freedom for self-expression, and compassion.

Humans are inherently responsive and relational beings, born with the desire to live in relationships. In fact, our tendency toward cooperation is now recognized among the key factors in our survival as a species.

However, our nature is in conflict with the culture we have constructed. Patriarchal ideologies over many generations have privileged stereotypically masculine qualities over those deemed feminine: we value self over relationships, individual success over the common good, the mind over the body, and thinking over feeling, which brings us to the crisis of connection we are experiencing today.

Most of us learn early in life to fear our emotions and to control or stifle their expression, which eventually brings us to disconnection from ourselves.

Interestingly, through conversations I have had with men I have discovered that expressing words of love to a woman represents a huge responsibility. Apparently, they feel that saying, “I love you,” will cause an expectation that he will have to “put a ring on it” sooner or later, or will somehow become responsible for her well-being, which feels like a heavy load. The desire to express a feeling that overwhelms the heart in the moment is suppressed by the mind, fearing projected future complications.

For women, hearing the words, “I love you,” is also loaded with expectations. These most precious, most desired words in the human language somehow do not seem as poignant if they are not supported by some sort of material “proof,” a promise of future security. Moreover, the verbal expression of love often gets entangled in power plays within a relationship, as we stifle authentic self-expression to avoid seeming too emotionally involved, weak, or needy.

We are no longer capable of living in the moment and expressing our feelings just because we feel them. Our perfect middle-class society leaves no room for simple human interaction. Everything we do is part of a carefully brainstormed plan toward a specific goal, a step in a well coached strategy that most likely includes a vision board.

We seem to have evolved past the need for intimate connection as a prerequisite for a committed relationship. Moreover, we have lost the understanding of what a connection actually means. Much of our relating is focused on surface and appearances.

There is so much pressure around what a happy and successful life should look like—few of us are actually able to live up to that.

As a result, we constantly feel like we are failing at something. The more we feel like failures, the more effort we put in to further polish our exterior protective shell, hiding our soft spots and painful wounds inside it. Even though others may not see our suppressed suffering, we know it is there and we carry that weight with us everywhere we go. The more painful the wounds, the bigger our smiles—the more disconnected we become from ourselves.

We rarely attain the level of material success we are conditioned to dream of, because it is a constantly moving target. When we live in competition with others, no matter how well we succeed, there is always someone else who is doing better. Moreover, the actual amount of dollars in the bank only marginally eases our overall sense of safety and security. Thus very few of us ever attain that peaceful sense of having enough.

The majority of women I speak to feel that they can never attain the desired level of comfort without the contribution of a man, which translates into competing with other women in the ambitious project to catch a well-heeled partner. Often, this compels us to work twice as hard on our packaging, which hides the insecure, wounded, aging person inside.

No matter how much we strive to be supermen and superwomen, every single one of us is walking around hiding some sort of painful vulnerability inside, something that in a world demanding perfection, we will never dare show anyone. Often, even we are unaware of the magnitude of what lurks within, we prefer to stay busy or addicted in our never-ending need to escape confronting our own feelings.

But even if, in rare moments of softness, we do dare lower our guard to show that spot that bleeds inside to someone with whom we share a life and children, we realize that not everyone is ready to see that side of us. To realize that the superman or the superwoman we thought we married is actually a flawed human being just like us, with their own scary wounds and pain is too much for many to bear—especially when everyone else’s marriage looks perfect. We fear we may have picked the wrong apple, the one that looked so perfect when we bought it, but had bruises hiding under a picturesque leaf.

Gradually, whatever authentic self-expression may have been present in the beginning of a marriage gets replaced by conversations that become purely transactional or focused exclusively on parenting. In addition, our addiction to busyness and workaholism pushes us into daily routines that allow little time together, further fostering emotional distance.

Loneliness in marriage often happens slowly and the resulting disconnection gradually increases over the years.

Loneliness harms our relationships because it distorts how we see other people: as less caring, less interested, and less committed than they actually are. As a result, we judge our relationships to be weaker and less satisfying than they may really be. To protect ourselves from additional emotional hurt, we become hyperalert to any signs of rejection from others, overly defensive, and seemingly detached, aloof, or even hostile, which only pushes them further away.

We end up so starved for intimacy, that encounters with strangers are what brings relief.

Strangers married to someone else meet for a single night to get a dose of intimacy, a gulp of fresh air before they return to their carefully constructed, tightly controlled, and demanding lives. Not many of us will have the courage to question what is wrong with that scenario. Most of us prefer to preserve the familiar status quo out of the fear of being lonely. As we nourish ourselves from superficial illicit encounters, it becomes even more impossible to have the difficult conversations with people at home, further dooming ourselves to the very loneliness we are trying to avoid.

Research in psychology, sociology, and the health sciences shows increasing disconnection from ourselves and each other, as seen in declining levels of trust and empathy, rising indices of depression and anxiety, and increasing levels of loneliness and social isolation around the world.

However, additional research also shows that the human potential resists disconnection.

When we become disconnected at home, we seek connection elsewhere—it is simply human nature.

Ultimately, love is the solution for more authentic relating at home. Not a selfless, anemic kind of love, nor a narcissistic, self-absorbed kind of love, but a love that includes the self. Self-love means self-respect and respect of other, which fosters clear and compassionate communication and the willingness to invest personal resources for the common good.

As we rise up and reject the patriarchal system’s focus on money, appearances, and competition, we have the capacity to build a new system rooted in justice, compassion, and a sense of common humanity.

It is our lack of self-love that compels us to negate our own needs and stifles our ability to communicate them to our partners. When we practice self-love, we free ourselves for authentic self-expression. As we become accepting of our own humanity, we are capable of listening to our partners without projection, guilt, and blame. Then each conversation, even the most difficult one, becomes a lesson and an opportunity for growth, which ultimately leads to greater intimacy and security.

As we rebuild connection, trust, and empathy at home, we will see it start to spill over in our communities, in our countries, and into the world beyond.

Perhaps, therefore, we should amend Mother Theresa’s famous quote to remind ourselves of where real connection truly begins:

“If you want to change the world, go home and love (yourself and) your family.”



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