You will find all types of opinions about what affairs are and what causes them. As a psychologist and couples therapist for three decades, I've seen all of them.
You will read about different "types" of affairs. Some put the relationship between the married couple front and center, such as the "screw you" revenge affair or the "out the door exit," or the "conflict avoidant" affair.
Some describe the context or length of the affair as an "accidental or one-night stand" that happens briefly or a split self-affair that can last a lifetime.
Some speak strictly about the impulse control or narcissism of the involved partner, using terms like "the sex addict/philanderer affair," "the love addict affair," or the "entitlement affair."
Others focus on the attachment to the affair partner. These are labeled "romantic affairs." The romantic affair can be sexual or strictly a "best work buddy" flavor. In contrast, "online cyber affairs" are the modern version in which you share your words or fantasies, or perhaps your body with masturbation tossed in.
Definition for Infidelity
In truth, we want a definition for infidelity because we're wondering if we just committed it. Or perhaps we have been in an argument about whether we were unfaithful or not.
I love the late Frank Pittman's succinct definition when asked to describe it. He said,
"Ask your spouse."
And in that three-word answer, he summarized the heart and soul of most affairs that aren't narcissistic or compulsive. Forget the labels; affairs are all about loneliness, distance, ambivalence, and a breach of trust.
Our Primary Relationship
I don't see couples who have decided to divorce after discovering an affair. I typically see a faithful spouse (I prefer the term "Hurt" because many are not "faithful" in any sense. Their betrayals just aren't the current focus).
The relationship when an affair is discovered is full of emotional energy. Sometimes nobody sleeps or eats much. We've discovered a "secret life," and it doesn't involve the spouse.
In truth, what the Hurt Partner learns is that no matter how many intimate details s/he extracts from the Involved Partner, it doesn't bring them closer together. Because for many, many of those multiple "types" or descriptors, the infidelity happened because secrets weren't shared within the marriage. Emotional intimacy was painfully absent. And if there were any close friendships at all, it typically didn't involve those in the marriage.
Signs of an Emotional Affair
This may not be true across the board, but for many couples, if the Hurt Partner missed all the signs of an emotional affair, s/he either wasn't paying attention or didn't want to know.
That's not true of the narcissistic entitled affairs because s/he wasn't there EVER in any true emotional sense, but for most others, it is.
Marriage, by its very definition, is the process of sharing emotionally. We meld sexual and emotional attachment into the word "intimacy" because, while some believe that romantic partners are an invention of the troubadours, romantic love has been with us for a long time.
Some cultures discourage it, I've learned. Men and women stay separately in these cultures, and men who prefer the company of a particular woman is scorned mercilessly. It doesn't stop them.
So the first thing to do if you suspect emotional infidelity is to take a deep breath and ask yourself if you feel deeply loved by your spouse. Forget checking phone records, credit card receipts, or condom wrappers.
You have everything you need to know right there in your chest.
The Act of Infidelity
Some will claim that affairs happen because people get sloppy. They argue that men simply don't keep their guard up so they allow themselves to break the rules and develop an inappropriate emotional connection.
You don't hear this argument about women. Somehow women keep a neater internal space, supposedly, so it's not an accident when they decide to live a double life.
I honestly don't think this is true in the vast majority of cases. This might be because I work with very intelligent people. My clients would never get to where they are by being "sloppy."
While affairs can seem sudden and unexpected, they are a series of a thousand decisions. Minor breaches in honest disclosure are justified to ourselves by telling ourselves, "s/he wouldn't understand" or "I don't want to upset her/him."
When we trace back the story of how the affair comes about (and I work with one couple over a weekend, so that's actually possible,) the decisions become obvious.
Double Life Affairs
Don Draper, the character in Mad Men is the perfect example of the type of person who involves themselves in a double life affair. He's truly a man who simply can't integrate his life and has stopped trying.
The split is within him, not in the three wives and 19 mistresses he chooses to engage. Today we might say he was a sex addict, and, like a large percentage of sex addicts, he was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused as a kid. And for most people leading a double life, the split happened early in life.
Typically older, these affairs can last decades. The affair partner gets the cereal, and the wife gets the box. The cereal is messier than the box, but it has 20% more substance. The box is prettier, but only rodents will actually eat it.
Both are necessary to keep it all together. The "proper" wife to bring to social events and college graduations and the mistress to share your inner soul with...or at least as much as he can access.
They are long-term affairs and hard to resolve because his wife has traded her soul, thinking, "this is as good as it gets," and then learns that she's made a devil's bargain. Often the husband wants to be sorry but can't muster it while maintaining integrity. He misses his affair partner and is not all that sure about ending it. If he is really having a true crisis, he can't help but let that show.
In therapy, if the wife is angry, instead of grieving for herself, she's missing an ideal opportunity for valuable introspection. She might have told herself that her husband wasn't capable of more than he was giving her, and now she realizes that it's not true. He's capable of sharing, just not with her.
It is a good sign, I think, if, over a weekend with me, they both are grieving for themselves instead of their marriage. That died a long time ago. After grieving, they might decide to start a new marriage, but that sometimes takes a much longer time to decide.
I find these weekends extremely heartbreaking. For the Hurt Partner, they learn that not only have they been betrayed, but they are being left. Most often, the Involved Partner brings the spouse in to therapy so that they can soften the blow. They know it will be devastating.
They know that they have planned to demolish their marital house while the spouse still lives there. That is the sum of it. That is the plan.
Before the BIG BIG Book, it was a mystery treatment where I was left to figure out if there was any possibility of salvaging the relationship. I'd inquire here and there, and weeks would go by, and at some particular point, with timing I was not privy to, the Involved Partner would announce that the marriage will never work and they are leaving.
Now I can know that after asking 800-1000 questions upfront. If they claim to want couples therapy, I know to be doubtful. I suggest some time spent in Discernment Counseling, where I can learn, while keeping their complete confidence, about the affair partner.
Most of the time, it is clear to everyone that this person is not their "true love." The affair partner is a bookmark.
Guilty but Unashamed
Sometimes, however, I can see that what looks like an Exit Affair is actually a brain on drugs...the drugs that pore in with "falling in love." They want to get out of the marriage, and fast, but there is some reluctance.
Some part of them knows, senses, that they might be married to a decent person who genuinely cares for them. The weekend, for the involved partner, is split between the heartache of a love affair and the nagging spot in the back of their brains that maybe they are blowing up their life. My job is to try to move that tiny spot forward in their skulls.
But, for the vast majority of other Exit Affairs, the Involved Partner is not ambivalent. They are guilty but not ashamed.
The Spouse That's Left
And the Hurt Partner is forced to alternate between wanting to swallow their outrage so that they can try to convince them to stay and embracing the fact that they have been two-timed, in the old-fashioned meaning of the word. They have been double-crossed, not only because of the affair but because they are being left in the ugliest way.
Revenge of the Hurt Partner
Recently, one of my matter-of-fact predictions came true. I told this man, candidly and without malice, that leaving his marriage this way would not end well for him. When it came to pass that, he ignored my efforts and preceded with the divorce; he was shocked to learn the full rath his wife was capable of. He was shocked, but he was warned.
I offer this same advice to those of you considering an exit affair. Do it in the right order: divorce then an affair (that no longer is an affair, it's just a relationship).
Most people who don't make a living in 'heartache' will be pleasantly surprised to learn that many people who seek help from a knowledgeable science-based couples therapist actually benefit.
Most assume it will be a torturous entire weekend full of gnashing teeth and hair-pulling. That is hardly ever the case.
There is the heartache that comes with the business, but now it's felt for a purpose. The couples, no matter what "type" of affair they come in with, can look plainly at the personal side of their lives.
For some Involved Spouses, the pain comes from the damage they have inflicted on their spouses. For others, they recognize the damage that they have done to their own integrity.
As for the Hurt Partners, I'll leave you with the words of one wise woman when I asked her what she needed in order to heal. Her answer stayed with me. She said:
"I don't need the passwords to his phone or social media accounts. I know they can be worked around.
I don't need his promises never to do it again. I've learned what his promise is worth.
I need time, and I need to learn to trust my gut, and my heart and never to allow myself to be misled.
The biggest betrayal I did to myself. I felt as if something was wrong, and I trusted his words instead of my own. That will never happen to me again."
To those of you who ask, "what kind of affair was it" or "how can I tell if s/he was unfaithful?" I'll eco the words of that Hurt Spouse:
Trust your gut, not someone else's words.
How Do You Define Infidelity?