After an Emotional Affair…Do we Have an Intimacy Doomsday?
If you told me that you couldn’t forgive your spouse after an emotional affair, I might offer that the bulk of humanity might tend to disappoint as well.
New research on emotional infidelity is quite sobering.
A vast study involving 90,000 male and female subjects found that at some point in their lives nearly 80% of men (78.6% to be precise) have engaged in an emotional affair.
And women tended to normalize emotional affairs even more so.
Nearly 92% (91.6%) of the women in the study admitted that at some point in their lives, that they also were engaged in an emotional affair.
New research shows that there are sex differences when it comes to emotional infidelity. Unfaithful wives are more likely to tell their affair partner that they are married or in an otherwise committed relationship than men.
Seems that the partner in her head shows up in every relationship doesn’t it?
Women are more likely to frankly disclose their marital status with their affair partner. While errant husbands are more likely to conceal their relational status.
When intimacy fails, psychologist Mark Borg seems to be blaming the partner in your head.
“The epidemic of emotional affairs coincides with a tendency that we have noticed for people in long-term relationships to defend themselves psychologically…that is, ironically protect themselves from anxiety-provoking aspects of love.” Psychologist Mark Borg
The surprising findings come from a group of experts conducting ongoing research on how men and women lie, cheat, and deceive their husbands and wives. It’s sometimes because the Affair Partner in your head feels like your soulmate by comparison.
What makes this huge study on emotional affairs so incredibly compelling is that our awareness of the epidemic of emotional infidelity is unfolding in real-time.
The raw data for a battery of ongoing surveys covering compulsive deception, betrayal-mindsets, and infidelity are publicly available on their website. The researchers use a Quiz which they aptly call the “Cheating Spouse.”
They have almost 100,000 ongoing respondents. Two-thirds are women.
This is a vibrant, ongoing, self-reporting piece of research that is revealing uncomfortable truths about the perils of learning intimacy with an old brain.
If Not Forgiveness…a Realistic Acceptance?
If 80% to 92% of us tend to fail to keep full-time faith with our partners…it might be easier to accept than to forgive.
I’m not saying that these findings are necessarily applicable to the larger population. The site attracts unfaithful partners seeking to offload guilt anonymously.
In other words, if emotional infidelity has not been an issue in your marriage, why would you spend time on such a website in the first place?
But it does beg an intriguing question. How likely is some degree of emotional infidelity over the long haul of any given intimate relationship?
A reasonable approach to any notion of forgiving your spouse after an emotional affair is to ponder three options; how can I change this situation? Should I walk away from it, or accept it?
A Hurt Partner has to mourn what might have been. If nearly all of us have Intimacy Fails (IF’s)…can acceptance be easier than forgiveness?
Can you accept the notion that regardless of who you paired off with, you would more than likely experience being on the receiving end of emotional infidelity anyway?
Some folks have an agenda and argue that this sobering fact is an endorsement of Polyamory. But what if the notion of intimacy is merely a necessary developmental hurdle for our species?
Is to Forgive Your Spouse After an Emotional Affair the Only Best Option?
Many Hurt Partners are burdened by a “should” impulse to forgive, then feel their intense inner resistance to forgive, and proceed to remain stuck. To forgive your spouse after an emotional affair is a challenging endeavor, to say the least.
There is no such thing as “forgive and forget” Because you won’t forget.
Forgiveness is letting go of a grievance while still being in the prison of memory. Some spouses struggle mightily with the notion of forgiveness.
They are embedded in a “Grievance Story” (Luskin, 2002) about the partner in their head.
Fred Luskin is a researcher and the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. Luskin’s research is fascinating.
He is a leading thinker in explaining how “hurt” people move on from profound betrayals.
He studied subjects who experienced runaway wives, childhood sexual or emotional abuse, and most famously, he studied mothers in Northern Ireland who lost children as collateral damage during the “Troubles.”
Luskin’s work is solid trauma work. Forgiving can be a scary process. It threatens to upend powerful ideas such as identity, safety, trust, and a sense of fair play. Inconsolability and emotional infidelity are two sides of the same coin. They’re the easily indulged external motivations.
People have come to me with a whole host of problems, and the essence of all of them is: I didn’t get something I wanted. I got “no.” I wanted my partner to be faithful; they weren’t faithful. I got “no.” I wanted somebody to tell the truth; they told a lie. I got “no.” I wanted to be loved as a child; I wasn‘t loved in a way that I felt good about. I got “no.”
It’s so important to be able to understand the universal experience of this—of objecting to the way life is and trying to substitute the way you want it to be, then getting upset when your substitution doesn’t take.
The essence of forgiveness is being resilient when things don’t go the way you want—to be at peace with “no,” be at peace with what is, be at peace with the vulnerability inherent in human life. Then you have to move forward and live your life without prejudice.
It’s the absence of prejudice that informs forgiveness. You realize that nobody owes you, that you don’t have to take the hurt you suffered and pay it forward to someone else.
Just because your last partner was unkind to you doesn’t mean you always have to give your new partner the third degree. With an open heart, you move forward and accept what is, without prejudice.
You don’t just accept it because life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it—though that may be true—but you accept it in a way that leaves you willing to give the next moment a chance. Fred Luskin
Accept Your Spouse After an Emotional Affair?
How do you become a team again …if you can’t forgive your spouse for an emotional affair? What are the building blocks of acceptance, and how can we get there if for cultural, family-of-origin, or mental health reasons we find that we can not forgive?
Here’s a TEAM Approach for Developing Acceptance:
In Science-Based Couples Therapy, here I would tuck all the skills of softened start-up, effective trigger management, and repair attempts. The couple has to entirely excavate all of their interlocking resistance and reluctance. A couple well-trained in handling transference issues can recognize “were doing it again” and consciously de-escalate. These couples accept the fact that they both have Vagus nerves and manage them with skill.
Empathy is the bedrock of marital satisfaction. It’s an uncomfortable realization that we are virtually all sinners in emotional infidelity… can we have empathy for the predicament that leaves us in as human beings (Romans 3:23).
Not forgiving or accepting the prevalence of emotional infidelity is maladaptive in the extreme.
Acceptance of Bozo Status, Self, and Others
Limerence fades. And nature abandons us with our old brain to manage a fresh, intimate aspiration.
If we can be mature about accepting disappointments and human frailty, and create emotional space for profound imperfection, we might hack our way into deeper intimacy. Remember…we are all Bozos on this Bus.
Real intimacy is facilitated by an observing self. It is best if there is always a part of us that can watch emotions arise, and external motivations and rigid expectations crowd our personal preferences. Intimacy is a choice. Reactivity is an inheritance. Few couples exit a Negative Sentiment Override and cross the threshold into Positive Sentiment Override without mindfulness.
Some folks never succumb to a full and heavy sorrow, and some people remain in grief for too long, complicating their grief in the process.
The Stoics remind us that grief and suffering because are unavoidable dimensions of human experience. The experience informs. The experience has power.
But to access the power of the experience, we can choose to acknowledge our wounds and that we have been diminished in some way.
What do you do with your grief?
Or perhaps use it as a blunt instrument in all your intimate interactions.
You could also cling to it like flotsam for dear life, lest you surrender your identity as a “survivor.”
Luskin says that a deep human being is one with idiosyncratic internal motivation. They can accept the possibility in the next moment with openness and curiosity.
We have a popular notion of the five stages of grief. But this notion is more poetry than clinical research. On the other hand, Luskin’s research demonstrates three phases of grief that are essential to forgive your spouse after an emotional affair:
Acknowledge the Harm
Luskin says that the first step is to fully acknowledge the harm done. Acknowledgment trumps role. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Involved Partner or the Hurt Partner. Seeing “what is” is unavoidably painful work.
Feel the Harm
Meaningful Suffering. You have to suffer to let it move through you. But when you forgive, you render suffering optional. It happened. But your emotional response may be informed by your Inner Motivation.
Share the Story of the Harm
If you keep grief to yourself, you are doing it the hard way. It’s bad for your health, and it may kill you.
That said, the people who tell everybody about their grievance have the next poorest outcomes.
The sweet spot in the Resilience Research shows that what you need for a healthy response to difficulty is to share your problem with a few select, carefully chosen, caring people over time. Those are the hurt partners who possess the best chance to forgive their spouse after an emotional affair.
Grief and Forgiveness
Luskin says that before you can forgive your spouse after an emotional affair, you will have to grieve.
Forgiveness is a natural integration process of traumatic experience that concurrently exists on a continuum with grief.
Luskin understands the relationship between forgiveness and grief in this way:
When you’re violated, injured, or hurt, the natural human response is grief. All of those problems can be seen as a loss—whether we lose affection or a human being or a dream—and when we lose something, human beings have a natural reintegration process, which we call grief. Then forgiveness is the resolution of grief. Fred Luskin