You are currently viewing Episode 220: Affairs — The Different Reasons Pursuers/Withdrawers Cheat

Episode 220: Affairs — The Different Reasons Pursuers/Withdrawers Cheat

Why would a withdrawer have an affair when their partner is begging them for more connection? How can a pursuer get over their shame to see their partner’s pain?  George and Laurie use attachment theory to add understanding that helps answer the question… “why, did you do this?”

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Laurie Watson: George, we’ve had a lot of response about our affair episode, and we want to go a little further with that and talk about withdrawers and pursuers and their differences with affairs. Welcome to Foreplay Radio Couples and Sex Therapy. I’m Laurie Watson, your sex therapist.

George Faller: And I’m George Faller, your couples therapist.

Laurie Watson: And we are passionate about talking about sex and helping you develop a way to talk to each other.

George Faller: Our mission is to help our audience develop a healthier relationship to sex that integrates the mind, the heart, and the body.

Laurie Watson: Hey, check out with the coupon “foreplay.” With your support, this really helps us keep delivering free content to you.

George Faller: All right. I do love these, the feedback that we’re getting through the mailbag. I mean, it challenges us to get clearer and more specific. It’s so rich when people are letting us into their lives and just wanting to get clearer.

Laurie Watson: I agree. I mean, I think this helps shape where we need to go as a podcast. What’s burning in people’s hearts, what they want to hear, what they’re needing to hear. We thank you. We don’t get back to everybody, but we try to at least acknowledge that you’ve sent us a question or a problem or just shared your hearts with us. Again, thank you for your encouragement. We often get a lot of letters like that too. We’re just talking into a mic. We don’t see how it hits people until we hear from you. Thank you.

George Faller: The question around… I mean, I like to zoom out always and say, “Hey, pursue. What you are are both human. Hey, we have the same emotions, the same needs.” When our partner who’s promised to love us betrays that love, it causes hurt and sadness and doubt and mistrust, right? But there are some important nuances in kind of the moves that we have. If we start off the withdrawer, let’s say the withdrawer, is the one who is the offender and withdrawers tend to be more likely to be a person who initiates the affair out of the two.

Laurie Watson: This is really hard to get because I think the pursuer is wanting more and sometimes they are sexual pursuers too and their withdrawing partner still acts out and has the affair. It’s a little incomprehensible I think to their partner like, “I’m begging for you. I need more from you. Why would you go into the arms of someone else when I’m wanting you?” It’s just so hard for them to understand. Could you talk, G, about why a withdrawer would think about an affair as a solution in what they’re going through?

George Faller: It’s great to just understand their overall response to emotions and vulnerability because they want to get things right and they want to perform well. They’re trained from the earliest age to hide their fears, to hide their vulnerabilities, right? But we know that the walls we put up to keep out the bad also start to keep out the good.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.

George Faller: The levels of engagement start to go down and withdrawers start to find themselves kind of working really hard, but not really enjoying the fruits of a lot of that work.

Laurie Watson: They’re working on keeping their partner happy, not necessarily perhaps do they have the skills to work on becoming vulnerable with their partner.

George Faller: Right. Because they don’t have those skills and they want to avoid conflict, the success and vulnerability starts to decrease as the years unfold.

Laurie Watson: Yes.

George Faller: There’s a numbness that happens. There’s a hardening of their hearts, and it’s not intentional. It’s just a byproduct of the environment that they’re in.

Laurie Watson: It’s a byproduct of how their defense mechanisms when they grew up that this was how they survived by turning off vulnerability. Everything in them is not going to open up with vulnerability. That doesn’t make any sense to them.

George Faller: Right. That’s why they tend to like an environment like work better because they know the rules. It’s clear what’s expected of them. They don’t need to be vulnerable, or they got a lot of affirmation for turning off their feelings. Then when they come home, they’re hearing all this criticism and these messages that they’re not doing it right, so they start to shut down more and more and more at home, which makes them more open to somebody else coming along that’s engaging and interesting. They’re good at compartmentalizing. It’s like, “You know what? I’m not going to focus on what’s not going right. I’m going to block that out. I’m going to put my energy towards things that feel like they could be successful that could work with.”

Laurie Watson: I think with withdrawers too, one of my concerns has always been that because they’re blocked off and compartmentalizing, as you said, they often don’t kind of see it coming. They don’t see the innuendo. They don’t see the approach from their colleague or whatever. They just are kind of cut off from their feelings and that seems more dangerous to me.

George Faller: Exactly. That is the root of the problem. Because they’re cut off, even when they do have the affair, they often really don’t know why they had an affair, which is the number one question they’re going to get asked like, “Why did you do this?”

Laurie Watson: How could you do this to me?

George Faller: They look at you and they say, “I don’t know.” Then the partner says, “You’re lying. You just don’t want to tell me.” It’s like no, they actually a lot of times don’t really know. Because to know, you’d have to be pretty articulate about your inner world and it tends to not be on their radar screen. They tend to be focused on what they’re doing, not what they’re feeling,

Laurie Watson: Right. Not their skill set when they’re asked that question, like, “I can’t answer that.”

George Faller: That’s why the process of forgiveness and healing has to take into account how do I… Even though this withdrawer has made a horrible mistake, how did they feel making that mistake? I mean, the sad part about this setup is their biggest fear is that they’re failing or there’s something wrong with them and here they are something that proves their worst fear, but they don’t feel entitled to be able to talk about their hurt or pain because they are the offender and the bad guy, a bad lady in this scenario. They just, again, have to hide their vulnerability, right?

Laurie Watson: Right.

George Faller: What we know is in the hiding is making it more likely that these things happen again.

Laurie Watson: Right. It’s unsafe. How do we help them? How do we reach the withdrawer?

George Faller: I think you have to calm the pursuer down. The pursuer has to feel held and ask that we understand how their world has been turned upside down. Here they are doing everything to sacrifice for this relationship and the person who seems to be doing less work is now the person going outside their relationship. I mean, it is mind-blowing. I know you’ve talked about this in another episode. I think when we regulate that and we contain that and people start to feel safe, they’re more expansive to see a different perspective.

Laurie Watson: A different perspective than my partner is just selfish. I mean, I’m thinking of a case that I’ve worked with and he was actually very traumatized in childhood and so compartmentalize things. He had a really stable relationship with his partner, but they didn’t share things emotionally. They were just raising kids. They were both working, and he was using prostitutes regularly. He just didn’t really think about it. It wasn’t part of his moral frame. He didn’t think it was right. He never thought it was right, but he just couldn’t conceptualize another way of being with his partner where he literally shared his desire, his sexual needs, his emotional needs. That just was not a part of who he was.

George Faller: That’s so hard for a pursuer to relate to that because they could never separate themselves that way. It’s very common for withdrawers because they can compartmentalize. They can do something physically and not doing emotionally. They’re used to doing that all the time, so sex becomes the same thing where it’s about the orgasm in the act, even though their heart and their body is not really part of that process.

Laurie Watson: Right, and which in this case was so convenient to use prostitutes because there was absolutely no heart involvement. It was just a physical act and that worked great as far as that solution. Of course, it didn’t work real great in the marriage, but.

George Faller: Well, what most people, most therapists are trying to do is they would try to coach this guy in this situation how to perform better to regain his wife’s trust, right? That’s important. He has to be able to do that.

Laurie Watson: Eventually.

George Faller: Eventually. But what is also going to be important if they want to have a different relationship is what do you think it is like for this man to not know who he is and to find himself doing an act multiple times that’s so devastates his wife. What do you think he would feel?

Laurie Watson: Yeah. I think he was lost. He wasn’t sure how he got to that place.

George Faller: Because he did something bad doesn’t mean he deserves to be left alone in those negative feelings of being lost, feeling like a failure, feeling unworthy of love.

Laurie Watson: And so much shame.

George Faller: And so much shame, right? The antidote to shame is connection, and yet this man has had a history of never letting people into these places. This is the opportunity in an affair. Even though he was the offender, it still brings about this brokenness and this pain and this hurt. The timing has to be right. But when he can kind of let himself in and let his pother in, then that responsiveness in those dark places, it starts to redefine the world in a very different way for that person. I had a client tell me… The wife was the one that was betrayed and she wanted to punish her husband. She was hoping that the anger and the resentment can motivate him to not do this again, but what that is actually-

Laurie Watson: Make it so painful for him he’ll never do that again.

George Faller: Right. What we know is it’s not the greatest motivator.

Laurie Watson: Probably not.

George Faller: What is the greatest motivator?

Laurie Watson: I think love is a much better motivator.

George Faller: Right. My job when the timing was right to get her to see that actually what gets him into this problem in the first place is that he doesn’t know how to let people in because nobody ever shows up in the brokenness for him. That, yes, this is really tough because he did something horrible. But if she doesn’t help him with it, we are leaving hand to the same old solutions he’s had around his pain and his fear. Once the wife got that, she said, “George, what you’re asking me feels like I have to crawl over glass to actually be there for him.” I said, “Well, you know what? What’s the alternative?”

Laurie Watson: Yeah.

George Faller: After that session, she sends me an email of Rumi’s quote, “Beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” She said 30 years of marriage, it felt like the first time she met her husband in that place.

Laurie Watson: That’s beautiful. That is beautiful. Thank you. Well, let’s come back and talk also about pursuers who have affairs.

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George Faller: Hey, listen, man, Uberlube is a good thing. If it helps your partner, it helps you.

Laurie Watson: Hey, I want to let you guys know all about George. He’s written and contributed to several books, and I’d especially like to draw your attention to his book, Sacred Stress: A Radically Different Approach to Using Life’s Challenges for Positive Change. His book is about a mission on how you adopt new strategies and turn stresses into a positive force in your life, and who among us doesn’t live with a lot of stress these days? We’ll keep you posted as to all he’s doing, but George and other EFT therapists all around the country and the world hold couples retreats called Hold Me Tight, which is developed by Sue Johnson, and it helps secure your own relationship. If you’d like therapy with George, find him at Okay.

Laurie Watson: We’re back with pursuers having affairs and why that happens and what that is all about. The pursuer generally wants their partner. By the time they get to a solution as somebody else, something is going on for them, right? For me, I think about it that they have given up at that point. They have all these needs. They begged and pleaded for their partner to meet them, whether it’s sexual needs or sexual and emotional needs, or even just emotional needs, right? Sometimes the crazy thing is is the person who acts out has been sexually withdrawn in the marriage, but they wanted as a pursuer more emotional connection and they didn’t get it. Like you said, it’s a similar sort of thing. Somebody comes along or maybe they look for that someone just to be connected.

Laurie Watson: I would say most people who have affairs are good people. Having an affair is outside their moral standard and yet they do and it’s because something inside, a need is so compelling that they weigh those choices or they instinctually just act, but the choices, this pressing need I have is more important. I’m thinking about a woman who-

George Faller: Can I just jump in with that?

Laurie Watson: Yeah, jump in.

George Faller: I want to just provide balance because you’re 100% right. There is really good reasons why both withdrawers and pursuers go down this slippery slope. I mean, what is worse, that withdrawer who doesn’t say what they need or the pursuer who asks for what they need and don’t get it? Both of them are not getting what they need, right? When you don’t get what you need, you’re more likely to look elsewhere. That’s just pretty human. That’s not saying it’s okay because it’s about the most vicious wicked thing we can do in a relationship a lot at a time. Now we’re trying to explore in your example of what happens for that person who wants more and communicates it and doesn’t get it.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. They feel I think so rejected and convinced that their partner will never come their way. The attention of another is incredibly seductive. I mean, it’s so powerful to get attention when you’ve been starving for a long time. It’s like, “Wow, It feels so good.”

George Faller: You’re putting words to the pole. How do you help them after they’ve taken responsibility for that horrible mistake? How do they repair and build trust?

Laurie Watson: Right. I think that as a pursuer, they’re going to feel so much shame because I think pursuers are ambivalent about their needs to begin with. Then when they do something that is against the marriage, against fidelity, I mean, they often have such a difficult time coming back to how their partner might be feeling because they’re just sunk in that shame place. I’m a bad person. Now you’ll never love me. I’ve made it worse. You’ll never be able to trust me again. The difficulty is helping them kind of deal with that internally or with another therapist or with a friend so that they can begin to see the pain that their partner has gone through in this, they’re withdrawing partner.

Laurie Watson: Also, I think that in some ways we need to say to them, “Your need is legitimate. The need that you had for sexual attention or just attention period is legitimate. That is what a marriage is made of.” I think that-

George Faller: Well, you’re holding both truths. The need is legitimate, but the choice to cross the line and break your vows is not okay, right? You can hold both of them.

Laurie Watson: Right. I think that pursuers have difficulty and tell themselves, “I just need too much.” It’s hard for them to hold onto that. I’m thinking of one person in particular. She was not a scathing blaming pursuer. She actually respected her husband a lot. Thought he did so much to provide for the family and loved him and talked about her sexual needs. He thought she was attractive, but he just never initiated. He had sexual desire. He just had trouble acting on that. Eventually, of course, she found herself in an affair and she didn’t know if what she needed was appropriate for a marriage to meet. Once he was angry with her for what she did, it was just very confusing.

George Faller: Sure. I think this is the conundrum that most couples find themselves in after an affair. But here’s this pursuer who the root of her problem is feeling broken and ashamed and unlovable, and yet she doesn’t feel entitled to share that because she’s made a mistake, which means she has nowhere to go with her moments of greatest need with her partner. This is how couples miss each other in trying to heal. She’ll try to hide those places in herself, and she’ll try to prove that she’s committed and loyal and promise not to do it again. But to do that, she feels the best way is to hide herself, right? What I’m trying to get both people, it doesn’t matter if it’s the offender or the offendee, both of them get broken through the process.

George Faller: Both of them really need these places of insecurity have grown because of the devastation of what just happened. When both partners can kind of go to those places in themselves and when the safety is there and the trust is starting to rebuild to ask their partner’s help, the bond never becomes stronger. I mean, it’s one thing to be loved when we’re getting it right. It’s another to be loved when we’re getting it wrong.

Laurie Watson: Let’s do that. I want you to be the pursuer. What would you have them say to their partner that says, “Okay, yeah.” How are they going to show that vulnerability of fear of needing too much and being broken, defective, not lovable?

George Faller: Well, the first thing, you have to get the withdrawer to see the value of showing up for their pardon in a way no one really ever does before.

Laurie Watson: I think that’s hard because withdrawing partners when they’re walled off, sometimes they have difficulties seeing how they contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. They don’t want to see that. It’s too painful to look at that. They sometimes are moralistic and say, “I have a bad partner. A partner that is untrustworthy, that’s immoral.”

George Faller: I hope our audience is picking up on some themes that we’re weaving out. When either partner’s strategy is to avoid the emotional signals, the vulnerability, the fear, the pain for really good reasons, it makes it really hard for that protection not to grow in the relationship. Right. I have to get to withdrawer to see the value in coming up with a different move, right? Oftentimes, the withdrawer has to experience some success in their feeling of feeling betrayed and their vulnerability. If the pursuer can keep the focus and help that withdrawer feel like they’re being seen and it was worthwhile to share that, that’s usually the first step.

George Faller: But the second step, which is often left out, is because this pursuer feels so unlovable, they don’t want to share their places of greatest need with our partner. I don’t want them to take that risk unless I’m confident that withdrawer is to respond to it, but you’re asking what would it look like? Imagine a pursuer saying, “Because I did something so horrible, it just confirms in me this feeling I’ve always had, that in these dark places I feel unlovable. I’m broken and ugly and fat and stupid and all these tapes play. I don’t let people into those places because I don’t want people to use that against me and reject me.” Right? The ask is saying, “No one has ever loved me here. I don’t love me here. Could you love me here?”

Laurie Watson: That is so vulnerable, especially after the exposure of an affair and their partner has been angry, it’s like then to show and reveal the darkest place, their sense of unlovableness, really uncertain that their partner will be able to reach back to them and give them that love. We ask a lot from people.

George Faller: We do, but what’s the alternative?

Laurie Watson: The alternative is the family breaks up. The children are scarred and wounded.

George Faller: The alternative is not to ask, but to not to ask means she will always face those demons alone, right? It’s safe. We want her to take that ultimate risk, yes, because when she’s responded to with a yes, I want to be there. I want to show you that you’re lovable even when you don’t believe it yourself. When you get that kind of positive responsiveness from your partner, there is no stronger love than that.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. When they get the love of their partner like that in their deepest, most unworthy places, that holds them in the relationship.

George Faller: There’s no better battle testing of a marriage. When you’re loved in these places, why would you want to go elsewhere?

Laurie Watson: Right. Yeah. You don’t need that.

George Faller: You don’t need it. I appreciate this conversation as we’re just trying to understand. Withdrawers and pursuers, they might have different moves, but both of them share this common insecure place that they want to hide, right? It don’t matter if they’re the offender or the offendee, the order matters and how we create safety. But ultimately to have true healing, both sides need to be able to risk kind of letting their partner in and receiving comfort where they usually only get avoidance. That restructures their relationship as safe and secure.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. Again, we want to reiterate that we think relationships can be repaired and can deepen after something even as bad as an affair. People can have more. I think the fear is like, well, if this happened once, can I ever trust again? I think that, yeah, trust is found in deep intimacy. Once you have deep intimacy, you’re not checking their phones or their Facebook or anything. You feel safe again.

George Faller: Both people deserve love even though they’ve made a mistake.

Laurie Watson: Absolutely.

George Faller: If a partner is not willing to give that love… I mean, you can give them some time and some patience to find their way, but ultimately why couples don’t heal from this is because one partner is not willing to take those risks, right? Then that means that low levels of engagement and the distance is just going to take that relationship over.

Laurie Watson: We’re not saying that it’s just the party that was betrayed not willing to take the risk. Sometimes it’s the person who acted out not willing to take the risks to go deeper and reveal those places that feel unlovable and feel so vulnerable. I mean, it’s either side.

George Faller: Precisely. Well, again, we want to end on the good news here that as scary as this is, that as traumatizing as this is, that there is really a clear map and plan on how to help couples have conversations that can find themselves on the other side and the other side needs a relationship that’s stronger than probably before the affair happened.

Laurie Watson: Absolutely. George, we’re going to offer an intensive on May 14th in Raleigh to two couples. We have two two-hour slots and we would love to get a couple to come in who has sexual problems, and you’ll be able to work with George and I. Right, George?

George Faller: That’s right. What a great opportunity to just open up some space to hang out and see if we can make some progress in these areas we’re stuck in.

Laurie Watson: You can just reach us on Foreplay Radio by email and let us know if you’re interested. There is a cost for both George and I and we are videotaping this for our trainings that only are shown to students.

George Faller: We look forward to seeing you there.

Laurie Watson: Thanks for listening to Foreplay Radio. Keep it hot.

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