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The paradox of (in)security
Deep closeness and understanding in a good lasting relationship is one of the best experiences in life. On the other side, the idea that we can “own” someone’s emotions, or that we can control life, is unrealistic and absurd. Yet the society often teaches us this is how things are supposed to be. When reality faces us with the opposite of what we were taught was normal and safe, it can be quite a shock to our system.
After so many generations spent (or gave) their lives fighting for safety and stability, it’s a paradox that often relaxing into security can with time cause disturbance and chaos. Not only there is the idea in some collective mind of ours that stable marriages are the key of community survival, but also our individual unconscious minds seek stable close relationships usually as a replacement for the relationship with parents and the safety we had – or didn’t have – with parents.
And this is exactly when we are most likely to neglect a partner’s real personality and try to fit him/her into the box of our fantasy – thus creating more and more frustration and distance within the couple. (Check also: “What Happens When a Love Partner Is a Parental Substitute“.) This is why losing someone’s love provokes such intense emotions – we may feel like losing a parent rather than another adult.
Would you want to force somebody to stay around who is no longer happy with you? In that case, how do you perceive them emotionally? Do you see them as a unique, complex person, or more like some kind of extension of yourself? What would be different if you perceived them as a unique, separate human who has the right to live their own life and make their own decisions?
Would fear of insecurity blind you? Or would the pain of separation remind you of the overwhelming feeling of being abandoned and lonely from some childhood trauma? In both cases, making somebody else responsible for those feelings is not wise.
I believe that not trying to bind someone to yourself leads to more mutual respect and consideration, and therefore to more trust and closeness. More on this in “How To Keep Passion Alive“.
From my perspective, if someone genuinely falls in love with somebody new rather than the current partner, it’s not something anybody should be blamed for. But lies, especially long term deception, is something quite different. A relationship is based on trust, respect and responsibility – lies and manipulation crush all that down, often irreparably. The one who lies also loses some of their sense of integrity and self-esteem, and carries a burden of guilt. It would be nice if people would be raised to not fear honesty and prefer short term discomfort that enables long term happiness, rather than the other way around – and if society would be supportive of that. But neither is common.
If you have been cheated on
If you imagine your partner falling in love with someone else (without lying to you about it), or if you have experienced it, what would be the first thing on your mind? Would you consider your partner’s feelings and perspective, the quality of your relationship and what was missing from it? Or would you feel rage and vindictiveness, would you feel it’s wrong that they don’t “belong” to you anymore and you can’t count on them anymore as if that were your right? The latter suggest that in your mind your partner is more like a parent, somebody you feel has the duty to stay with you and fulfill your needs, than a real person.
What would be the difference if your partner came to you and honestly told you if they fell in love with somebody else, compared to finding out they deceived you and you didn’t know important information? Would you primarily be angry because of the lie, or because they dared to feel differently than you expect them to, thus endangering your sense of stability and security? In the latter case, consider the possibility that the problem might be in you.
Rather than trying to avoid challenges, my advice is to embrace it and perceive it as a great opportunity. If you suddenly lost the ground under your feet, how could you support yourself and fall back on your feet? What ideas and possibilities could such a crisis open up to you, which otherwise you might be scared of and censor within your own head? What could you learn, how could you change and grow through such a crisis, if you perceived it as full of potential, rather than a catastrophe? What would your children learn, if they watched you dealing with pain and change with dignity, boldness and creativity, rather than sinking into despair and blaming, and trying to control and manipulate?
Is being cheated on traumatic?
If we define trauma as dissociating a part of one’s own identity, often combined with creating toxic beliefs, then experience of being cheated on can be traumatic. Whether it happens or not, depends on one’s emotional maturity, previous experience, intensity of disappointment and whether there is healthy self-esteem.
In my experience, in normal circumstances most trauma is created in childhood, when we were dependent of our parents for survival, we were prone to see things in an exaggerated way, we felt powerless and our sense of identity was vague and unstable. If the person in question is grown up and emotionally stable, it’s much more likely that pain from new experience becomes associated with the pain from early trauma of being in some way abandoned or betrayed by a parent. So the new experience of betrayal usually reinforces an already existing trauma and becomes a part of a toxic whole (or “gestalt”).
The emotional pain a person feels when they discover they’ve been cheated on is not always or only feeling abandoned or jealous, even if most people find it easiest to recognize these feelings. Often the core of a relationship trauma is in a deep sense of disappointment and loss of trust, not necessarily in another person, but perhaps even more into our own selves (our ability of judgement), into relationships in general, and our own ideals. But if you manage to preserve or rebuild this kind of trust, you don’t have to suffer long term consequences. Quite the opposite, you might explore new doors opening to you, discover potential you didn’t even know you had within, and start a new life.
Many people who experienced being cheated on say that they felt hurt more by lies, manipulation, feeling they weren’t treated as complete human beings worthy of the truth, than their partner liking somebody else. Respectful truthfulness can mean a lot in such situation, but few people have the courage for that.
Who and why has affairs
Quite a few people are not strictly unhappy in their marriage or long term relationship, but mutual feelings have dwindled due to routine and taking each other for granted. They might still appreciate their partner, but that deep childish need to be seen, accepted and understood doesn’t feel fulfilled anymore, and they feel they won’t receive that kind of love from their partner anymore. If a person comes who fits their unconscious pattern and triggers those childish hopes in the right way, they might fall in love again. Then it can be difficult, if not impossible to go back.
Some people, mostly due to faulty upbringing, but partly due to congenital traits, too, have a great need to prove themselves and get attention. They use affairs to prove their attractiveness and feel powerful and important. As they are essentially empty inside, it’s never enough. They don’t care much about the depth of understanding and closeness they receive from an affair partner, but, like addicts, they crave a temporary surge of endorphins they get when they are successful in seducing somebody.
Some people are simply emotionally shallow, they lack sensitivity and well as emotional intelligence. They might not even be able to imagine or understand the idea of mutual respect, trust, and understanding. They usually get married to feel in control over somebody, or to fulfill societal expectations, but a committed relationship won’t mean much to them.
Some people have an inborn need for adrenaline and exploration, so they simply can’t stay long in the same place or with the same person. They don’t necessarily deserve to be judged, as their exploratory spirit is an important part of human diversity, and human civilization benefits from it. In an open-minded society, such people would feel free to recognize and clearly express what can be expected of them, and whoever likes the idea can come close knowing what will probably follow. A lot of disappointment and blame could be evaded this way. In a society that tries to control intimate relationships, such people can be constantly torn between their own feelings and others’ expectations. Or, if they are also egotistic, might play all kinds of games to fulfill their desires.
Finally, some people are unhappy in their marriages, but for various reasons they don’t dare to tell the truth. Some believe they would irreparably damage their children, or they are afraid of financial losses, or they would feel too guilty if their partner felt bad, or they are afraid of a possible vindictive reaction by their partner. Some of those fears might be realistic, but not insurmountable – a divorce is usually financially draining, and some (ex) spouses try to get their revenge through children. Yet many of those fears are also based on childhood experience and related lack of inner self-support – the ability to wisely guide ourselves through uncomfortable emotions.
If you are tempted
In most cases, falling in love is a result of awakening hopes and needs from childhood. A new relationship might sate those needs temporarily, but will not resolve them (such relics of the past can only be healed from within, not without). Use introspection to check what are your deepest hopes regarding a possible new relationship, and whether they feel more appropriate for childhood or adult age. Any idealizing of the other person or anxiety how they would perceive you are likely signals of a bond originating in childhood. Some others are: the need to “save” the other person, to prove ourselves to them or to “earn” their love.
If you notice such feelings, regardless of what you might finally decide, you should benefit greatly from working through your childhood emotions. First dedicate yourself to that, and only then to the external situation. Once you resolve your childish transference, you might find out your love interest suddenly appears much more “regular” and perhaps less attractive.
Or you might not. Because it’s normal to make mistakes in our youth, and we learn something from each of those mistakes. With some more experience and maturity, our next choice might be led by higher quality values. If you have resolved your transference and childish needs, but still perceive your new love interest as a high quality person and more compatible to your value system, if you feel it would be easy to achieve deep understanding and appreciation in that relationship, which is missing from your current relationship in spite of your honest effort, then the new person might be a better choice.
One way or the other, the key is in honesty – to both your current and potential new partner, as well as to your own self. The truth will truly set you free, in much deeper and more significant ways than religion. But be careful to avoid mistaking strong childish emotions with the deeper truth. A subtle feeling about what is healthy and what represents your integrity better, is more relevant than intensity and pleasure childish hope might bring.
If you had an affair
What if you have had an affair, but you don’t want to separate from your partner or spouse? Demanding forgiveness and trust is not only immature, but irresponsible and manipulative. Trust needs to be earned, not demanded, especially after you have already lied. For true forgiveness to happen, you need to recreate balance. The balance is not necessarily “eye for an eye” – or, in this case, affair for an affair – but finding out what would it mean to your partner and putting active effort in it.
Explore yourself to figure out what motivated you to have an affair. The need for attention or power, boredom, dissatisfaction with your current relationship, or plain sexual drive? If it was about dissatisfaction with your relationship, do you want to stay in it? If yes, how can you contribute to a better relationship in the future (which will, of course, be much more difficult after an affair has been uncovered) and make sure to not take your partner for granted again? If it’s about the other needs I mentioned, how can you deal with them in more constructive ways?
Your partner has the right to make their own decisions, including whether to trust you again or not. They will decide not only based on your affair alone, but many other factors: things you said or didn’t say, personality traits you showed or didn’t show in the long run, the quality of your relationship in general. Whatever your partner decides, your responsibility is to react with respect and dignity. That’s the only way to perhaps start building new foundations for a relationship.
What about children?
Children, of course, are the primary reason why most societies value stable marriages. Of course, if it’s possible to fix a marriage – which requires responsibility, motivation, and a lot of work from both sides – great, everybody got a good example. But if a marriage is not happy, the children will suffer some consequences no matter what you decide. People who’ve decided their marriage can’t be fixed have the following options.
If you decide to ignore your needs, you’ll keep on living a dull existence full of repression, frustration and untruthfulness, in which you won’t grow, but will keep sinking deeper and deeper. Your children might have more security at the surface, but will also receive a bad example of how to approach life and its problems and challenges. They might also learn guilt or emptiness, and will not have much opportunity to learn to connect with their inner selves.
If you stay in a marriage in which you keep fighting your spouse and mutually trying to change and control one another, children will feel both fear and guilt, and will likely try to take some responsibility for the family, which also has long term consequences for their lives. Some such children develop chronic inner conflict, trying to please both parents who teach them different things. Many people who grew up in such circumstances tell me they’d rather had their parents divorce, so that at least there’d have been some peace, than having lived in such atmosphere.
If you divorce, children will suffer some shock and a period of insecurity. What long term consequences will come out of that, depends primarily of how do parents support them through that time. If both parents strive to make the children feel safe and loved, if both pay attention to the emotions of children, and if they spend quality time with them, children can fairly soon stabilize and perhaps learn that life crises can be dealt with and that in life there are more options than just one. It’s especially important at that time that parents treat one another with civility and respect.
There are other possibilities than these most common ones. I know people who decided to divorce, but live very close to each other so they could both take care of their children. Others have decided to keep living together as flatmates and co-parents, but without expecting emotions from each other and giving each other freedom to find love elsewhere. This is more difficult to execute cleanly and without expectations, but if there is enough maturity and cooperation, why not? It wouldn’t surprise me if more freedom and less taking for granted would in time help in rekindling the old flame.
A new perspective
I generally prefer to face temporary discomfort sooner in order to have clarity and freedom in future, than postponing that discomfort, which would mean prolonging suffering and increasing chaos. But some guilt and fears from childhood can be so embedded in us that we might find it difficult to even perceive other possibilities.
In such a case, take time to explore and question your feelings and beliefs rather than letting them run in their old, smooth circles. Consider how much longer do you need to suffer to say, “It’s enough.” Think of what would be the consequences of postponing change? What possibilities you might be afraid of, while secretly desiring them? How can you face your fears? Are there perspectives that might be opposite of what you were taught, yet feel healthier? Give yourself time to recognize and listen to subtler voices in your mind and body, rather than just the automated, ready-made answers.
Many people enter relationships with the idea that their perspective of things is understood, their communication style is understood, and that it’s obvious how a relationship should work. They are often not very interested to explore and understand either their own selves, or human psychology in general, or the person they are starting a relationship with. Then it’s truly not surprising when their relationships fail.