David and Gwen perched at opposite ends of the couch the first time they came to my office.
As soon as they sat down, David started talking about Gwen's affair with her co-worker. He fluctuated between outrage and grief as he described his feelings since learning that his wife of two years had been unfaithful.
Gwen said that the affair ended months before David found out and that it "meant nothing to me." She cried, saying that she didn't understand how she got involved in "something so stupid."
David bitterly reminded her that she had broken every promise they made to each other on their wedding day.
Gwen went on to tell me that David was demanding details about the affair, repeatedly asking questions she was not comfortable answering. "He is fixated on the sex; wanting to know how often we were together and what it was like. Yesterday he asked me if Larry was better in bed than he is. I keep trying to explain to him that it was not about sex."
None of which was at all consoling to David. But it's true that for women, affairs have little to do with sexual needs and everything to do with emotional needs.
The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago reports that 25 percent of men and 17 percent of women admit to having affairs while married.
But sex isn't the only symptom of infidelity. Cyber relationships and emotional affairs offer false promises of instant gratification without the guilt or risk of a sexual encounter. These pseudo affairs can be just as damaging to a committed couple, stealing time and energy that intimate relationships require.
Financial and physical hardships can significantly increase the risk of an affair. Stress affects a couple's daily communication and the quality of their intimacy, disrupting the tenuous balance between home, work and play.
Life's daily challenges can undermine each person's ability to focus on a primary relationship and to meet the needs of their partner.
Financial problems and ongoing health issues also make it hard to relax and enjoy time together. Throw in worries about the kids, and you have a long shadow of tension and worry over every aspect of the relationship.
Amid all this turmoil, who can make time for an affair?
The newness of an extramarital relationship excites and distracts people from the mundane routines of life.
Daily obligations and burdens that seemed so consuming no longer matter. Disappointments and dissatisfactions fade into the background.
The pleasure-seeking region of the brain gets excited and activated when a new relationship starts. Norepinephrine and dopamine surge through the body during the attraction phase.
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Why does this matter? Understanding how the body responds to these temptations can help balance the seductive emotional high that follows flirtations with someone new. And it can help you understand why it never lasts for long.
What does last, however, are the guilt and recriminations that follow an affair. Infidelity does not have to mean the end of a marriage, but it should mean the start of a serious re-examination of the relationship. The following tips can help both of you deal with the aftermath of an affair:
Expect waves of extreme emotions. Whether infidelity is a deal-breaker or a chance to rebuild depends on the inner strength and willingness of both parties to explore the true meaning of the affair. There is no shortcut around the grief, rejection and anger inherent to this experience. Try to take one step at a time as you navigate uncharted territory.
Handle the details with caution. Wounded spouses or mates will often demand to learn as much as possible about the affair. But specifics can cause more grief than relief, complicating the healing process. Some information is necessary as the two of you try to rebuild trust and emotional intimacy. Still, an examination of the painful reality that led up to this situation, more than the gory details of the affair itself, becomes the cornerstone of healing.
Reach out for help if either of you starts to feel overwhelmed. Each partner can experience different forms of guilt over the breakdown of the relationship. The betrayal started long before the actual affair as the relationship withered. Intimate relationships become a dance between two people, each responsible for its rhythm and step. Navigating those maneuvers may be easier with a counselor's help.
David moved out to stay with a friend while he tried to deal with the resentment and anger he felt over his wife's affair. He explained to her that everything he held sacred about their relationship was radically changed by Gwen's behavior and he needed time to think that through.
As for Gwen, she realized that she had issues of her own, completely aside from her relationship with David, that led to the infidelity. I referred her to another therapist for help considering those issues.
It's too soon to know yet whether David and Gwen will be able to repair their relationship.
Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. Petersburg and co-author of "Launching: Parenting To College & Beyond,'' available at amazon.com. She can be reached at (727) 418-7882.