Chapter 3.Relationships: Affairs


How To Spot A Couple That Might Be Headed For An Affair

Having arguments does not, in itself, say very much about the likelihood of a relationship disintegrating. What matters is how arguments are interpreted, conducted and resolved. The fragile unions aren’t necessarily the ones in which people shout, insist that this is finally it, call the other a ninny and slam the door; they are the ones in which emotional disconnection and rupture are not correctly identified, examined and repaired.

A number of qualities are required to ensure that a couple know how to argue well. There is, first and foremost, the need for each party to be able to pinpoint sources of discomfort in themselves early and accurately: to know how to recognise what they are unhappy about and what they need in order to flourish in the couple. This is not necessarily as obvious as one might imagine. It can take time and psychological insight to know that it was actually the missing phone call or the request to move the date of the holiday that is really the source of anger.

Then there is the equally vital quality of feeling that one has the right to speak, that one isn’t duty bound to be ‘good’ and not cause trouble, that it is acceptable to say when one is miserable and when something – however small it might appear – is troubling one; that it is better to spoil a few evenings than ruin a marriage.

©Flickr/J Stimp

It can help to have a sanguine assessment of how human relationships tend to go: to accept that a bit of disappointment and some friction belong to the necessary ingredients of good enough love, that it isn’t a disaster to be cross at points and seemingly convinced that this should be the end.

A subsidiary talent is the skill of knowing how to speak up. It might not be exactly the moment the problem appears; diplomatic skills matter. One might need to wait until some of the surface tension has dissipated; perhaps the next morning can do just as well. One needs a background confidence not to have to blurt out every objection in a panicked diatribe or shout a wounded feeling across the room when the other is themselves too upset to hear it. One needs to know how to formulate one’s complaints into a convincing, perhaps even comedically-framed point that has a chance of winning over its target.

It matters in all this that one both feel attached to the partner and, at the same time, have an active impression that one could walk away from them were matters ever truly to escalate. Feeling that one has options does not therefore have to cling and deserves good treatment ensures that one’s voice can be measured and that the status quo will remain manageable.

None of these factors tend to be present in those unfortunate couples who do not just argue but lack the gift of arguing well. A range of inner obstacles prevents them from dealing effectively with their emotional disconnection and anger:

Over-optimism about Relationships

Fragile couples tend, paradoxically, to be very hopeful about love. They associate happiness with conflict-free unions. They do not expect, once they have found the person they unwisely see as The One, ever to need to squabble, storm out of a room or feel unhappy for the afternoon. When trouble emerges, as it inevitably does, they do not greet it as a sign that love is progressing as it should; rather as alarming evidence that their relationship may be illegitimate and fundamentally flawed. Their hopes tire them for the patient tasks of diplomatic negotiation and routine maintenance.

©Flickr/Russell James Smith

Out of touch with Pain

Fragile couples tend not to be good detectives of their own sufferings. They may be both unhappy and yet unsure as to the actual causes of their dissatisfactions; they know that something is wrong in their unions, but they can’t easily trace the catalysts. They can’t zero in on the way that it was the lack of trust in them around money that rankles or that it has been their behaviour towards a demanding youngest child that has been hurting. They lash out in vague or inaccurate directions, their attacks either unfairly general or unconvincingly specific.

Shame

A shamed person has fundamental doubts about their right to exist: somewhere in the past, they have been imbued with an impression that they do not matter very much, that their feelings should be ignored, that their happiness is not a priority, that their words do not count. Once they are in a couple, shamed people hurt like anyone else, but their capacity to turn their hurt into something another person can understand, and be touched by, is recklessly weak. Shamed people will sulk rather than speak, hide rather than divulge, feel secretly wretched rather than candidly complain. It is frequently very late, far too late, by the time shamed people finally let their lover know more about the nature of their desperation.

Excessive Anxiety

Complaining well requires an impression that not everything depends on the complaint being heard perfectly. Were the lesson to go wrong, were the other to prove intransigent, one could survive and take one’s love elsewhere. Not everything is at stake in an argument. The other hasn’t ruined one’s life. One therefore doesn’t need to scream, hector, insist or nag. One can deliver a complaint with some of the nonchalance of a calm teacher who wants an audience to learn but can bear it if they don’t; one could always say what one has on one’s minds tomorrow, or the next day.

Excessive Pride

It takes an inner dignity not to mind too much about having to level complaints around things that could sound laughably ‘small’ or that leave one open to being described as petty or needy. With too much pride and fear, it can become unbearable to admit that one has been upset since lunch because they didn’t take one’s hand on a walk, or that one wishes so much that they would be readier to hug one last thing at night. One has to feel quite grown up inside not to be offended by one’s own more childlike appetites for reassurance and comfort. It is an achievement to know how to be strong about one’s vulnerability. One may have said, rather too many times, from behind a slammed door, in a defensive tone, ‘No, nothing is wrong whatsoever. Go away’, when secretly longing to be comforted and understood like a weepy, upset child.

©Flickr/afunkydamsel

Hopelessness about Dialogue

Fragile couples often come together with few positive childhood memories of conversations working out: early role models may simply have screamed and then despaired of one another. They may never have witnessed disagreements eventually morphing into mutual understanding and sympathy. They would deeply love to be understood, but they can bring precious few resources to the task of making themselves so.

None of these factors mean there will have to be an affair, but they are generators of the states of emotional disconnection that contribute to an all important affair-ready state. Outwardly, things may seemingly be well. A couple may have an interesting social life, some lovely children, a new apartment. But a more judicious analysis will reveal an unexpected degree of risk: an affair won’t in the circumstances, whatever it may later seem, be just an idle self-indulgence or a momentary lack of self-control. It will be the result of identifiable long-term resentments that a couple, otherwise blessed and committed, lacked the inner resources and courage to investigate.

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