Split-Self Affairs… a Familiar Pattern in Popular Culture

Human mood and emotion disorder concept as a tree shaped as two human faces with one half full of leaves and the opposite side empty branches as a medical metaphor for psychological contrast in feelings.

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 affair that has roots in the family of origin.

It is also a staple of movie and television drama. Split-Self Affair has an Involved Partner (IP) with little emotional investment in their spouse of record. 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? Those are the split-off parts that find their expression in affairs that often strive to be long-term, intimate, and highly compartmentalized.

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 IP argues, is “happy.” So why rock the boat? This kind of thinking prevents them from ever efforting 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.

Split-Self Affairs are Secret

Unlike the Exit Affair or the Conflict Avoidant Couple Affair, the IP in the Split-Self Affair is invested in total secrecy.

I remember reading about the famous television journalist Charles Kuralt. He successfully hid a Split-Self Affair with a woman he met in 1968 until his death in 1997. His legal wife had the stress of dealing with his sudden premature death and discovering his secret life at the same time.

A few months before he died, Charles attempted to deed his Montana love-nest cabin and 20 acres to his paramour, and with a final letter, which he intended to be a will, expressed his desire that his affair partner also would inherit the surrounding land.

Montana courts frowned on this arrangement and decided that Kuralt’s letter did not constitute a will. Kuralt’s legal spouse won her case against his affair partner. The publicity around Kuralt’s Split-Self Affair was unfortunate for his family.

Research Typology of Split-Self Affairs

The 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.

The relationship becomes a safe container for all of the IP’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.


The illicit couple often functions in a bubble. 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, which I have written about earlier can be thought of as a developmental stage of the Split-Self Affair.

Involved Partners in Emotional Affairs have a protective, paternal aspect to them as well, as there is often a noticeable power differential between the partners in the workplace.

The key idea of the Split-Self Affair is that the Involved Partner has arranged his life so that he needs both partners, but there is a distinct division of labor.

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

Two business people having an affair in a hotel room

The term “mid-life crisis” has entered popular culture. The Split-Self Affair is a mid-to-late life phenomenon. Split-Self Affairs occur in the ’40s through ’60s.

It is not an affair type of young marrieds. Empty nests are a fertile breeding ground for taking stock, evaluating options, and frankly, 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 (because you really don’t have to) keep these men stuck in a fragmented self that can last for decades with serial long-term affair partners.

It’s also important to note that patriarchy hurts men too. 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 secrecy 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 a 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 life; 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. I once conducted a couples retreat where the Involved Partner was integrated into his affair partner’s family and was a father-figure to her son from a previous marriage. He was also a secret heroin addict.

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.

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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    1. Hi MJ. thanks for asking this question. I agree with you that women may also go through a mid-life crisis and find themselves living a double life. But it’s a pattern of infideity which is more prevalent with men.

  1. Wow! The amount of clarity your article offered is greater than I have received in 15 years of marriage counseling as well as working with my spouse’s cognitive behavioral therapist. His CBT was an absolute waste of time because she had no idea how to deal with my spouse, therefore she just gave him the benefit of the doubt in all things causing even more trauma to me. I haven’t been able to let go of my spouse even though I know he has a “double lifel and will forever be unwilling to admit it. Upon reading your article (the first I’ve found that is spot on), I now feel it’s not just me making these attributes up in my head and have come to realize I really am a “tool” in his pathological narcissist’s toolbox and will never be free until I let go. He never will as I fulfill the social image side of his two lives. Thank you, thank you for helping me come to the realization I knew to be true but no one has ever articulated it or reaffirmed my fear before.

  2. How and can EFT help someone in a split self affair who has chosen to work on marriage despite still having strong feelings for the affair partner but has no contact with her?

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