Cheating on Your Spouse Might Just Save Your Marriage

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 5 2013 11:15 AM

The Upside of Infidelity

Can an affair save your marriage?

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Now the focus is less on blame and more on the underlying emotions exposed by an affair. One common philosophy views adult relationships under the “attachment” model used to explain the bonds between mothers and infants; when it ruptures both people feel profoundly unmoored and insecure, and therapists, rather than placing blame, need to help patients deal with those insecurities. Another common model draws from PTSD literature. Affairs are treated as a trauma that causes obsessive behavior and upends a person’s basic sense of security in the world. Brown’s approach, outlined in several books and articles, is decidedly more practical. Her main innovation is to parse out different types of couples and their relative likelihood of recovering from an affair.

In her “Catalyst” essay, Brown divides affairs into six different types. A “conflict avoidance” affair generally happens among younger couples. The affair is brief and not all that emotionally entangling. The betrayer feels guilty and the betrayed is “angry but extra nice,” at least on the surface, to avoid any conflict. An “intimacy avoidance” affair, by contrast, generally happens among screamers. They yell and fight but never connect. Their dynamic is “angry and chaotic” but skirts the real issues. Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? captures these two types well. The self-effacing Nick and Honey are the conflict avoiders, and George and Martha are the screamers.

The “split-self” affair is an older model although still shows up now and again. It’s generally a man living a double life, who values the comfort and appearance of a long-term marriage but also has a mistress, maybe even another family. Brown gives a “poor” prognosis for resolving issues that come out of these affairs, but a “low” probability of divorce—perhaps the most depressing combination. Then there are the sex addicts, a dysfunctional category of their own, and “exit affairs”—ones in which the affair is an excuse for getting out of the marriage, and generally works. Her newest category is “entitlement affairs,” a byproduct of Brown living so close to Washington, D.C. for so long and being interviewed by the press about the affairs of John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Nicolas Sarkozy—men who are hard working and successful and used to getting what they want.

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Now, back to that couple on the couch, the military husband and wife, classic “conflict avoiders.” In stage one, Brown gets them to acknowledge and articulate basic emotions. The method is not that dissimilar from what a child psychologist would use with an autistic boy who does not easily express the full range of human expression: Where in your body do you feel the tension? You look scrunched up. What’s the emotion that goes along with that? The therapist is teaching them, from scratch, how to feel and express their emotions. With the intimacy avoiders—the screamers, she has to unteach them the bad habits first. But with the reserved couples, it’s like teaching a baby how to walk. This blankness is what gives the conflict avoiders the best prognosis for recovery, Brown says.

Next, Brown has to quickly move the affair off center stage and get to the underlying issues. This is the tricky part, because opening the box of emotions means risking rage and helplessness and crippling guilt and obsessing over details of the affair. But Brown tries to delicately reframe the affair as a situation not just created by the wife but also something the husband allowed to happen.

Eventually the feelings start to shake loose. The wife talks about how alone she feels when he goes away. She has no friends here, and no one to talk to. He says he understands that she feels lonely, but has trouble comprehending why she would turn to another man. This is progress—he is reaching out, asking her a question instead of just blaming her. In the end game, Brown will try to get the husband to acknowledge his wife’s genuine pain at having hurt him. She does not want the marriage to end, and neither does he. Forgiveness, in this method, comes last, not first. If they can both give it, their marriage has a shot at being stronger than it was before the affair. In other words, affairs can be good.