Split-self affair: Living parallel lives
There have been many names given to Split-Self Affairs in the research literature; Double-Life affairs, Divided-Self affairs, etc. This is an archetypal extramarital affair that has roots in the family of origin.
The Split-Self Affair has an Involved Partner with little emotional investment in their spouse of record. They live a double life that they want to be kept secret.
Even more so than the Conflict-Avoidant Couple Affair, these marriages function as an "as if" relationship. They operate more like a business firm than a family.
In the Split-Self Affair, the marriage must work for the sake of appearances, and appearance is everything. These unions seamlessly function because they avoid the challenging work of nurturing a loving, emotional connection.
So, what about emotional needs, romance, or eroticism? These are separated parts that are shown in relationships that aim to be long-lasting, close, and organized into different sections.
Lies and deception abound in the Split-Self Affair. The Involved Partner derives benefit from the pseudo-stability of their marriage and the deficits that are satisfied by the affair partner.
Life in balance.
Everyone, within reason, the Involved Partner argues, is "happy." So why rock the boat? This kind of thinking prevents them from ever attempting to leave their spouse.
The unhappiness they endure might be a very low grade. Dull. Superficial. Too convenient to move on and way too empty to stay.
Research Typology of Split-Self Affairs
Split-Self Affairs can often occur at work, and men seem to be the Involved Partner more often than women. It often begins as an intense friendship with a younger woman. While typically high-risk affairs, they are typically serial if there are multiple affairs.
The relationship becomes a safe container for all of the Involved Partner's emotional needs and denied aspects of self. His failure to work on his marriage results in faint despair which grows over time, while his new friend is attractive, erotic, and compelling.
It is important to recognize that the illicit couple often functions in a bubble, as they lead a double life. The Involved Partner, who had previously struggled with mild depression, can now leave his anxiety and depression at home and be born again at work with his affair partner.
Emotional Affairs, a type of affair which I have written about earlier can be thought of as a developmental stage of the Split-Self Affair.
There is often a noticeable power differential between the partners in the workplace.
In the Split-Self Affair, the Involved Partner has arranged his life so that he needs both partners, but for different reasons. His spouse is responsible for maintaining his social standing, reputation, and sense of orderliness. His affair partner offers love, intimacy, eroticism, and a restoration of his vitality.
Timing of Split-Self Affairs...Mid- to Late Life
The Split-Self Affair is a mid-to-late life phenomenon. Split-Self Affairs occur in the '40s through '60s. Here there are typically the resources to lead double lives.
It is not an affair type of young married couples. After children leave home, many spouses begin to take stock, evaluating options, and constructing convenient arrangements.
It's not often discussed, but male power and patriarchy make Split-Self Affairs possible. The lack of investment in addressing marital concerns, emotional disconnection over time, and a refusal to choose to keep these men stuck in a fragmented self that can last for decades with serial long-term affair partners.
Research tells us that men trapped in Split-Self Affairs grew up in as-if families. Like the passive-aggressive, they had to let go of their wants and needs, and that pattern of benign neglect became what they expected from life.
They often had parents who were so chaotic that they fixated on having a "perfect" life. Over time, their adult selves stuffed so many feelings down that they "split" into two parts: the perfect family man, and the perfect beloved.
Emotional Honesty and Infidelity
At least in the Exit Affair, there is an immature attempt to discuss feelings. That is not the case here. The essential characteristic of the Split-Self Affair is a value for a secret life and a withholding stance. Therapy is often the result of a crisis of anxiety or third-party disclosure.
In working with these couples, it's not unusual to find decades of resentment. The Split-Self Affair can look superficially like an Exit Affair in that the Hurt Partner seeks to enlist the therapist to help the straying partner to stay. We often recognize these couples as "mixed agenda" couples who are not ready to do couples therapy.
Discernment Counseling is often the first step in working with the Split-Self Affair. Our friend, Dr. Bill Doherty, creator of Discernment Counseling, reports that these men require two discernments in their lives; one for their legal spouse and one for their affair partner. The IP is often frozen in the disclosure of the Discernment Counseling process. They want their marital cake, and they want their affair partner as well.
Integrating the Split-Self
The therapeutic task is for the Involved Partner to clarify their agenda. They benefit from owning their decision to stay or go.
In Discernment Counseling, they come to fully appreciate the sacrifices that their decision requires. If they decide to leave, they honor the feelings of their spouse and are open to hearing their pain and grief, and also offer clarity and transparency to their partner.
While I am not typically a fan of therapeutic separation, researcher Lee Raffell (1999) suggests that a controlled "two weeks on two weeks off" separation offers clinical and emotional space for these couples to sort out their situation.
Both partners benefit from experiencing how living alone feels.
If the Involved Partner decides to stay and work on their marriage, they often benefit from concurrent individual therapy, particularly in processing their grief in losing their affair partner.
Split-Self Affairs and Personal Growth
Men are in a bind around their Split-Self stance. Integrity and honesty are virtues that resonate with a healthy masculine self-image.
The Split-Self Involved Partner is fraught with turmoil, self-loathing, and fear of discovery. Some are so anxious they present alone in individual therapy. Convenience has a price, and neglect takes a toll on intimate relationships. Split-Self Affairs are challenging to recover from, but they offer a tremendous opportunity for growth and self-development.
Raffel, L. (1999). Should I Stay Or Go. : How Controlled Separation (CS) Can Save Your Marriage. Raffel, Lee. Chicago: Contemporary Books.