Why An Affair Can Be Psychologically Healthy

Affairs usually reflect something about a person's existing relationship that's not being faced. Nevertheless, affairs can be psychologically healthy for some people.
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Some time ago I described six different kinds of affairs people have today, and mentioned that an affair could be psychologically healthy. Many readers have asked me to explain that more, so I'm doing that here.

Previously, I described the psychology of six kinds of affairs: the "It's Only Lust" Affair, the "I'll-Show-You" Affair, the "Just-In-The-Head" Affair, the "All-In-The-Family" Affair, the "It's-Not-Really-An-Affair" Affair, and the "Mind-Body" Affair.

I described their psychological motives and consequences, neither advocating nor condemning them. However, affairs usually reflect something about a person's existing relationship that's not being faced. Easy to do in today's culture, where surveys indicate that adultery is no longer the major reason for divorce, and it's increasingly accepted. Nevertheless, affairs can be psychologically healthy for some people. Here are four examples:

A Marriage In The Dead Zone
Some suffer in a dead relationship, beyond repair. Research shows that an unhappy marriage, marked by daily conflict, damages your physical and emotional health. Yet, some settle into just accepting it, becoming numb and depressed without hope for change. Here, an affair can be a healthy act. It may reflect an unconscious or semi-conscious awareness of a desire to become more alive, to grow. That is, an affair can provide feelings of affirmation and restore vitality, and can activate courage to leave the marriage when doing so is the healthiest path. The affair can generate greater emotional honesty and mature behavior.

Dead relationships exist among both men and women. For example, a man in his 70s felt starved for intimacy and sex within his long-dead marriage. He believed he and his wife loved each other, but they'd existed like roommates for years, despite efforts to rekindle things. He was depressed; resigned to living out his life this way, although he was physically active and engaged in a successful career. His attraction to someone he met through work slowly blossomed into an affair. It helped him realize that there could be more to life -- more emotional, spiritual and sexual connection. That spurred him to explain to his wife that he needed more, but without blame or criticism. She acknowledged that they loved each other but wanted different things at this point in their lives. They parted, remaining friends.

A woman in her 40s tried couples therapy and workshops to improve communication and intimacy with her husband. He participated but remained closed off, inattentive and indifferent. She became aware of how damaged her self-esteem had become when she became friendly with a co-worker. She began to feel wanted, attractive and alive again. Soon they began an affair. She felt guilty; the affair didn't last very long, but it catapulted her towards greater self-confidence and sense of new possibilities. She concluded, sadly, that the marriage wouldn't resuscitate. She decided to leave her husband, without regrets but feeling stronger.

A man in a 25-year marriage had lived for years without emotional or sexual connection with his wife. He wanted them to get help, but his wife declined, saying that things were fine as they were; that he was expecting "too much" from marriage. Increasingly lonely, he eventually began an affair. From it he realized that a relationship could and should be more engaged and mutually loving. He decided to leave the marriage.

Another person had accepted a secondary role in her relationship, and felt little hope for change. Along the way she had an affair, and it opened her eyes to understanding how and why she'd become diminished and subordinate in her marriage to a dominating, suffocating husband. She decided to acknowledge responsibility for unfaithfulness to him. They divorced, and she eventually remarried. Years later she said that the affair taught her that she needed to learn more about herself and grow towards greater independence; that her affair opened the way to healthier development and a healthier relationship.

An Abusive Relationship
Most often it's women who are married to a physically or emotionally abusive partner. Their psychological issues -- unmet emotional needs, deep-seated conflicts, and damaged self-image -- often render them unable to free themselves, even if they gain insight into how and why they became drawn into the relationship to begin with. They can't summon the courage or strategy for leaving. Financial and children issues may also deepen their sense of entrapment and hopelessness.

For some, an affair provides a shot of courage, a propellant for leaving. Feeling loved and affirmed -- even if ephemeral -- can activate the emotional strengths for leaving an abusive partner; and determination to seek a better life, despite fears or logistical problems.

One person within an abusive relationship described having felt caught; too frightened to confront her husband. When she had tried, he erupted in anger and refused to get help, individually or as a couple. She began an affair, and that awakened her to what a healthy relationship could be like. She saw that she had tolerated -- and participated in -- a destructive relationship. That helped her build the courage to leave. Another found that her affair enabled her to no longer feel she was alone. It gave her the strength and courage to leave her emotionally abusive husband. Another person said that the affair helped "change my life, grow and become a much better and stronger person, a better mother, a more authentic person."

An Incapacitated Spouse
Here, one's partner is permanently incapacitated, mentally and/or physically. For example, a woman's husband had a massive stroke, from which there will be minimal recovery. She takes care of him, manages the household, and pursues her career. After about five years she realized how much she yearned for emotional and sexual intimacy. That was no longer possible with her husband. She struggled with this for some time, and sought help to understand her feelings and needs. She loved her husband, but felt very lonely. Eventually she began a relationship with someone she had known for years, himself a widower who understood her situation and ambivalence. She decided that a relationship with him was right for her. Now she felt more alive, understanding that some might condemn her choice.

An Affair Rekindles Your Marriage
An unanticipated consequence to some affairs is that it leads to revitalizing your marriage. Sometimes a mutual decision to separate and pursue independent lives spurs the reconnection. Or, a clandestine affair has the same consequence. For example, one man in an affair found himself arguing with his lover, one day. He had been feeling the same dissatisfactions he felt towards his wife. Reexamining everything, he realized that he really wanted the experience of an affair, but with his wife. "I want my wife and lover to be the same person," he said. He decided to confront his marital problems and work on what he and his wife needed to do to rekindle it. Similarly, a woman's affair made her feel more confident and self-assured; more engaged and alive. She realized that she wanted to feel that way with her husband. Her affair created new determination to deal with the issues that had drained energy from her marriage.

People don't set out to have a "healthy affair." But the above situations show that some affairs can open the door to a psychologically healthier life.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.

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