Chapter 3.Relationships: Affairs


How to Reduce the Risk of Affairs

The traditional way to try to reduce the chances of someone having an affair is to focus on controlling their actions and outward movements: not letting them go to social events without us, calling them at random times or reducing their access to social media.

But people don’t have affairs because they are able to meet attractive others, they have affairs because they feel emotionally disconnected from their partners. The best way to stop them being tempted to sleep with someone else is not, therefore, to reduce their opportunities for contact; it is to leave them free to wander the world while ensuring that they feel heard by and reconciled with their partners. It is emotional closeness, not curfews, that guarantees the integrity of couples.

© Flickr/super_sue

At a practical level, the route to closeness requires us to ensure that the two main sources of distance – resentment and loneliness – are correctly identified and regularly purged. The more we can tell our partners what we are annoyed and disappointed about, what we long for and are made by anxious by and the more we can feel heard for doing so, the less we will bear grudges, take our distance and seek revenge by stripping naked with someone else. Few things are more properly Romantic (in the true sense of the word, meaning conducive to love) than highly honest conversations in which we have an opportunity to lay bare the particular ways in which our partners have disappointed us. Nothing may so endear us to someone as a chance to tell them why they have let us down.

To guide us in our restorative complaints, we might follow a range of questions and prompts:

I sometimes feel frustrated with you when….

It sounds like a nasty theme – but, when handled correctly, it is the gateway to great tenderness and closeness. It provides us with an opportunity to do something very rare: level criticism without anger. And it’s a chance to hear criticism as more than an attack, to interpret it for what it may truly be: a desire to learn how to live together with less occasion for anger.

I’d love you to realise that you hurt me when…

We’re carrying around wounds that we have found it, understandably and inevitably, hard to articulate. Perhaps the complaints sounded too petty or humiliating to mention at the time. The problem is that when they fester, the currents of affection start to get blocked – and soon, we may find ourselves flinching when the partner tries to touch us. This question provides a safe moment in which to reveal a set of – typically entirely unintentional – hurts. Maybe last week there was something around work, or their mother, or the way they responded to a fairly innocent enquiry in the kitchen before a run. It’s vital that the partner doesn’t step in and deny that the hurt took place. There is no such thing as a hurt that is too small to matter when emotional closeness is at stake.

One of the hardest things for you to understand about me is…

We end up lonely because there is something important about who we are that the other appears not to grasp – and so, we can end up assuming, does not even want to take on board. But this lack of interest is rarely malevolent; it is usually more the case that there hasn’t been a proper occasion for exploration. The feeling that one person knows another is the constant enemy of long-term couples. Our partners may understand us well – but we still need patiently and diplomatically to keep explaining things that remain unclear between us. We are changing all the time, we’re no longer who we were last month, and we can struggle to explain our own evolutions and needs even to ourselves. We must never be furious with our beloveds for not grasping facets of our identity we haven’t yet properly managed to share with them.

© Flickr/mrhayata

What I’d love you to appreciate about me is…

We don’t want untrammelled praise, merely the odd moment when we can tell them what we feel is worthy of appreciation, maybe a little more appreciation than we have until now spontaneously received. We might want to draw attention to our best intentions (even when they didn’t entirely work out); to the sweeter aspects of our character; or to the good things about us which have quietly removed conflicts that would otherwise have emerged in the background. We’re reminding ourselves and the other that there are reasons for us to deserve love.

Where I’m unfulfilled in my life…

It need not always be the fault of a lover that we are dissatisfied and restless. The longing for an affair can arise from a sense that the world more generally has not heard us, that we have been abandoned with career anxieties or lag behind our peers in terms of achievement and assets. Day to day, we tend not to explain the origins of these distressed moods very well. Our partner is the witness to them but can’t easily recognise where the unhappiness is coming from. So they make the next most obvious move and start to assume that we are simply mean or bad tempered. This is a chance to explain the background existential fear and professional ennui responsible for some of our most acute day to day irritations and withdrawn states; a chance to demonstrate that we are not bad, merely longing for their reassurance and support to battle our impression of insignificance and failure.

We also need, in order to be close and resist the lure of an affair, to be able to speak with unusual candour about our sexual aspirations. Nothing more quickly reduces the need to act out a fantasy than the ability to speak about it – and be heard with sympathy, tolerance and curiosity. Here are some of the prompts that might induce the right sort of conversation about sex:

Something I’m really inhibited about sexually is…

I would love it if you could understand that sometimes I want…

What I wish I could change about me and sex is….

What I wish I could change about you and sex is…

No questions can guarantee that an affair will never happen but these could at least help to diagnose and repair the feelings of resentful distance or erotic loneliness that are the hidden drivers of the desire to wander off with someone else. We should dare to spend less time banning our partners from having lunch with strangers or travelling alone; and more time ensuring that they feel understood for their flaws and confusions – and appreciated for their virtues.

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