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Monday Apr 29, 2024

“At our core, as human beings, is the longing for connection and being able to feel safe enough to share our hopes, dreams, fears and disappointments with someone with whom we can feel safe and secure.” From John Bowlby

The discovery of an affair can be devasting. Trust and secure connection are the foundation of emotional and sexual intimacy and usually are what all couples strive to achieve.  But after the discovery of an affair, this foundation can be shaken to its core. As the offended partner, your world crashes down around you and everything you thought you believed to be true about your partner (and yourself) comes into question. As the partner who has turned away from the marriage and toward another, you’re experiencing confusion, fear, shame, and a fall from grace.

Common factors that contribute to an affair

The most common cause of an affair is the loss of emotional and sexual intimacy. When one or both partners feel alone and are unable to fulfill the longing for the intimacy they once enjoyed, it’s possible they may turn to another to fulfill the need. Bowlby’s work helps us understand that while having an affair can be very destructive when we can understand why it happens, we may be able to heal and recreate the emotional and sexual closeness we once enjoyed and all long for as human beings.

John Bowlby’s Attachment theory

It’s important to know that having an affair is a symptom of a deeper issue that may lie within the partner that has turned away, the relationship itself, or both.

Attachment theory helps to understand these symptoms. The theory suggests that the initial bond that children form with parents and/or caretakers has a significant influence on future social and intimate relationships. This bond creates a template for how one builds and interprets adult relationships.

Babies, young children, and teenagers rely on their parents for nurturing, comfort, reassurance, and support. When parents are sensitive to their children’s needs and can provide a loving and supportive atmosphere for them to thrive, these youngsters develop trust in themselves and their world, including their relationships with adults. Consequently, they can navigate relationships with confidence and security.

Conversely, when parents struggle to respond to their children’s needs, this can often result in the child’s inability to trust in themselves and the world around them. Thus, it becomes even more challenging to navigate relationships with confidence and security. [Note, it’s important to acknowledge that parents’ inability to meet their child’s needs might not be intentional. Many other events — e.g. an alcoholic family member, an ill child, an ill parent, depression, or anxiety — can limit a parent’s ability to respond.]

Either of the above experiences may manifest themselves as insecure attachment styles. For example, anxious attachment behaviors can be characterized by a persistent fear of abandonment, need for reassurance, emotional instability, and challenges in trusting others. Alternatively, avoidant attachment behaviors display avoidant attachment behaviors, and can manifest themselves as emotional detachment, dismissive attitudes, struggles with intimacy, and distrust towards others.

How attachment styles may predict the likelihood of an affair?

Individuals with anxious attachment styles, who don’t feel reassured and validated by their partners, may not intentionally seek attention and affection from another; but when experienced, the feeling of having those longings met can be powerful and lead to emotional or physical infidelity.

Individuals with avoidant attachment styles tend to prioritize independence and may feel uncomfortable with emotional intimacy. If they perceive their partner as too needy or demanding, they may withdraw emotionally and seek emotional or physical connections that feel far less intense. They may also interpret their partner’s anxious attachment style as their never being able to fulfill their partner’s needs. This can often lead to feelings of inadequacy. For an avoidant attachment style, this will lead to shutting down emotionally … until someone else comes along that makes them feel emotionally safe again.

Is an affair intentional or unintentional?

While conventional wisdom may suggest that affairs are intentional, anecdotal evidence suggests that unless one is dealing with a chronic philanderer (where there may be other deeper-rooted issues, e.g., sex addiction, substance abuse, etc.) affairs develop out of the need to escape the emotional pain one is experiencing. As one or both partners long for the unrequited love and connection they had when they first met, feelings of loneliness and not feeling valued may open them up to the potential for an affair.

Healing after the affair

Healing after an affair is a process that takes time. The goal is to recreate trust and safe connection. Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT) provides a foundation for healing and reconnection. Through the EFCT process, couples can not only survive an affair, but they can thrive after one. The EFCT therapist works with the couple helping them to engage in meaningful conversations, with the goal of continuing to deepen each partner’s personal experience and the experience of their partner.  These conversations help to facilitate an understanding of the affair, in a non-judgmental and non-critical way. In other words,  the therapist holds both partners’ experiences in a safe and nurturing way, as the couple works towards appreciating and valuing each other’s hurt and pain.