The BBC Drama Dr Foster has catapulted affairs back to the top of the editor’s pile and coffee shop conversation. If you’ve not managed to catch it yet then the basic premise is man has affair, splits from wife, sets up home/has baby with affair girl, has sex with ex wife again, new partner leaves him and he’s left on his own. So is he still in love with his wife or is he addicted to sex or affairs?
The stereotypical affair places sexual flirtation and passionate sex at its heart. TV dramas and soaps do little to distill this idea. But in our experience it is rarely the case. Yes, there are the drunken mistakes, the one night stands but many of the clients we see put sex way down the list of things that lured them into the affair in the first place.
In order to understand more we asked current clients to use one word to describe sex within their affair. Yes we had the obvious “mind-blowing”, “amazing”, and “adventurous” but more than half provided words with more of a negative connotation such as “disappointing”, “clumsy” and “embarrassing”.
So if it’s not about the sex, then what is it about?
From over a decade of meeting individuals and couples where affairs have affected lives the number one factor is usually emotional intimacy. But what does that actually mean? And there lies the problem. It can be defined in many ways and mean different things to different people at different times in their lives. So we asked our clients to tell us what they meant by emotional intimacy and how they found it through an affair.
Most agree that feeling close to a partner doesn’t have to be about sex. To have conversations daily, to discuss things, to share their day can all make a couple feel close. An interesting observation to emerge from some of our couple sessions is that our clients often found it “hard to find the time for conversation”, but strangely manage to find the time for an affair. Once couples get out of the habit of talking properly to one another it can be difficult to recapture it and all the more alluring when you find someone else to fill that gap.
Understanding and acceptance
For relationships to work each partner needs to at least try to understand each other. The feeling that somebody knows you can create an intimate bond that cements a partnership. A few clients told us that when they weren’t being heard they felt misunderstood and the cracks began to form.
One told us “I’ve never been easy, but he really knew what made me tick. However, after the children were born, I felt like I was just becoming annoying to him and that hurt. The affair only started when somebody else began to take an interest in me as a person and really listened”.
Another said “What I first thought was an encouraging partner then became a pushy one. The affair began when I realised someone accepted me for who I am, not what she hoped I would become”.
Our clients find this one hard to quantify but they “know it when they feel it”. It’s difficult to pinpoint the specific words and actions that give us a feeling of being looked after but it is all part of being emotionally intimate. Again, it usually comes back to communication. To hear it is to feel it. The individuality of how we feel means we can only know what our partner needs by ongoing communication and an understanding of each other that has the capacity to evolve as we do.
A recent client told us “I now know that my husband really loves and cares about me but it’s taken us to come to therapy for me to really believe it. My self-esteem issues have meant that I’ve never felt cared for and it took an affair and therapy to truly understand that I am”.
At the heart of feeling cared for is being able to be vulnerable with one another. Without this, it is incredibly difficult to demonstrate the types and level of care that is needed. Vulnerability can be emotionally difficult to show, especially when other parts of the intimacy puzzle are missing.
We heard “I always felt like my husband and I were in competition with one another. We wanted to get the best job, be the best parent and keep our independent streak. It’s made the relationship hard. I found equality through my affair and my new partner and I can be vulnerable and support the other one when we need it. I know longer feel like I’m battling every day”.
Everyone likes to be appreciated. Not necessarily through big demonstrations but to have an inner comfort that what we are happy with who we are. A partnership should be exactly that, two people who work together for the good of them both. As with all the other elements of emotional intimacy, it is nearly impossible to quantify how we get to that feeling but we need to feel our partner appreciates us.
“My job was busy and stressful but I got recognition for what I did. When I went home we only ever talked about what I didn’t do. I can understand how the affair started. My boss really appreciated my contribution and I felt like I was doing something to please someone at last”.
So for us then the media portrayal of affairs is incredibly sensationalised. For most of our clients, even if that were the dream, it rarely is the reality.
We’ve talked before about how so called “surveys” in the field of affairs are generally very misleading. A recent one caught our eye. Apparently nearly three quarters of us wouldn’t have an affair unless it included oral sex. I’m sure that is the hope of many of those polled but our experience is very different!
Back in the real world affairs can start for many reasons and in a whole host of circumstances but long term affairs tend to be rooted much deeper than a physical relationship, even if not initially recognised by even those involved. We advocate that a lack of emotional intimacy lies at the heart of the majority of affairs but that doesn’t always make for great TV!
The Affair Clinic provides a specialised counselling service to individuals and couples where an affair, or the suspicion of an affair, is affecting their lives or relationship. Clients seek to obtain some clarity amongst the confusion in a secure and confidential environment by talking to an experienced, uninvolved and neutral third party.
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