What is an affair? It can be broader than sex-outside-the-relationship. Different people have different definitions, which leads to tension within the relationship. Who can we be for our partner? Join Laurie and Tony as they discuss the difficulties of affairs.
Laurie Watson: Hi, it’s time for Foreplay Radio, Sex Therapy with sex therapist, myself, Laurie Watson. And my co-host, psychotherapist, Tony Delmedico on Foreplay Radio, Sex Therapy. It is where we help you get the most out of your sex side and talk about all things sexual and intimate.
Tony Delmedico: You can find us on the web at ForeplayRST.com. Check us out. Tell us what you like and tell us what you would like to hear more about. Sex talk with Laurie and Tony. Laurie, where is Foreplay going to lead us today?
Laurie Watson: Today we are going to talk about affairs and particularly we’re going to talk about what is an affair.
Tony Delmedico: That seems like such an easy question. What’s an affair, Laurie? Everybody knows what an affair is, right?
Laurie Watson: No.
Tony Delmedico: No?
Laurie Watson: I don’t think so.
Tony Delmedico: I think the standard definition is when you have sex with someone else outside a committed relationship. Would you call that an affair?
Laurie Watson: Yeah, I would.
Tony Delmedico: Well, okay.
Laurie Watson: But I don’t think everybody does.
Tony Delmedico: So, what are we going to do for the next 25 minutes? We’ve answered the question.
Laurie Watson: Yeah.
Tony Delmedico: I don’t think it’s that easy either.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. I think in this day and age, particularly with online stuff and chatting and porn, I mean, people have very different standards about what sex is. And I would say even this one, Tony, I’ve talked to lots of people who had sex with somebody else. And they said, you know, it wasn’t emotional. It was just a sexual thing. So, it’s not an affair. I mean, people have different standards so that what fidelity is.
Tony Delmedico: So, if you’re in a relationship and your partner says sleeping around with someone else, I consider that an affair. But you don’t because you didn’t have any emotion around it. Is that still an affair for the couple?
Laurie Watson: Right. And is it still a betrayal if one person says, “You know, I didn’t, I didn’t betray the spirit of our agreement.” And the other person says, “Oh, yes, you did.”
Tony Delmedico: Really interesting question. I mean, we’re, we’re coming at marriage or committed relationships today and in 2016 and the institution of marriage has evolved over the centuries. And it started out where marriages were political moves or financial moves and sex and soulmates and those ideas.
Laurie Watson: Not the arranged partnerships.
Tony Delmedico: Yeah. That never even played in. And some cultures had those things separated out so that it was okay for you to have a paramour or for the man to have a mistress. And that was. That was tolerated. Somehow, they knew there were going to be outlets within the relationship. But here in 2016 we’re talking about marriages having to be everything. You have to be my soul mate, my life partner, my co-parent, my financial partner.
Laurie Watson: Best friend.
Tony Delmedico: Best friend forever.
Laurie Watson: Lover.
Tony Delmedico: For the next 70 years, 80 years. If we get married in our 20s. And I think that was a legitimate deal 200 years ago, if I was getting married at 16 or 17 and dying of scurvy at 30. I could say forever. But we’re going to become two or three people, different people over our lifetimes if we hang around together long enough.
Laurie Watson: So, how do recreate the marriage to have the parts that we need from each other and maybe how do we become realistic about the parts that we can get outside the marriage? I would say that traditionally fidelity means a pledge that I’m only going to be sexual with this other person, one person.
Tony Delmedico: If that’s what you both agree to there. There are many arrangements now that that’s they commit to an open relationship. But we’re talking about an affair as being something where we both say we’re both committed just to each other physically.
Laurie Watson: Right. And I would say fidelity also includes a commitment onto an erotic life. I mean, I have maybe a patient that will come in and you know, perhaps it’s the wife who is in, you know, an uproar. You know, my husband had an affair. Understanding her betrayal and her anguish and how hurtful this is. And I’ll say, you know, “Tell me about how it’s been with each other.” And she’ll say, “Well, we haven’t had sex for four years.” And to me that is also a breach of fidelity. If you are not having sex with your partner for an extended period of time without some good reason, you know, like illness or disease or whatever. I mean to withhold sex for a long period of time is problematic. And I’m not talking about the differentials. You know, he wants sex every day and she only wants it, you know, once every other week. You know, I don’t think that that’s withholding. I think that that’s very workable. But when it’s an extended period of time, and I don’t think that that gives the one partner a right to go out and have an affair. I’m certainly not advocating that. But it certainly says, “You know, look at you to have breached fidelity.”
Tony Delmedico: Well, you’re not taking a vow of celibacy when you stand up to take your marriage vows. You’re saying, “I’m going to be fully physical with you and only with you and to commit to this erotic life together.”
Laurie Watson: My marriage vows said that. My marriage vows were Episcopal, and they were an old version. And they said, “With my body, I thee worship.” I mean, it was very explicit.
Tony Delmedico: Yeah.
Laurie Watson: I made sure of it.
Tony Delmedico: Good for you. Well, and I think, you know, you’re a trained sex therapist and I’m a psychotherapist and I think one of the first things we learn about affairs is oftentimes they are a symptom of other things in the marriage. And for this couple that you’re mentioning that, that hasn’t had sex for four years or three years or two years. The anger and the confusion around the infidelity, I think most therapists would view that as a symptom of something else going on in the marriage.
Laurie Watson: Sure.
Tony Delmedico: As awful as the betrayal is, it’s endemic of other things going on.
Laurie Watson: And we understand. It’s so hurtful because it’s a violation in a very personal, intimate part of the marriage. But it’s also something that I wouldn’t want to go forward and say that it is survivable and that marriages can come out of the aftermath of an affair and be stronger. I mean, if you can sort it through, it takes one person to decide to have an affair. But it takes two people to repair that. And also, to form a marriage. And affairs don’t happen in vacuums. I mean, some people have problems, right? They’re compulsive. They’re going to cheat no matter what. And maybe it’s with multiple partners or whatever. And I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about a person who feels that having an affair as a violation of their own ethics. That person who cheated, who had the affair, and now they’re trying to put the marriage back together.
Tony Delmedico: Right. So, in the instance that you were just talking about an affair wouldn’t necessarily be a symptom of the relationship itself. It may be something within that person who is unable to commit to just one partner.
Laurie Watson: Right, exactly.
Tony Delmedico: And that that relieves the person of any pressure that, you know, they’ve done something to cause the infidelity.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. And it brings us back to that question though. What is an affair? I mean, I’ve certainly had couples come in and he’s looking at pornography. Very few women, of their own, look at pornography, so it’s usually him. And she says, “That’s cheating. That’s it. I’m done.” I’ve had women leave marriages, boom, because their partner looked at pornography. I mean to her that’s him viewing another naked body and other female body. And she feels like that’s a violation.
Tony Delmedico: So how do you work with a couple in that situation?
Laurie Watson: I think it’s tough. I mean, I think that, oftentimes, you know, pornography viewing is ubiquitous in our culture now with men. I mean —
Tony Delmedico: What about 30% of the internet traffic maybe is porn related?
Laurie Watson: Yeah. And does that mean that all these men are cheaters and adulterers. You know, but maybe for, I mean, I think for some women the dividing line is over. Maybe when they enter into a sexual relationship, verbal, by Skype, in a chat room, whether it’s actually a live person on the other end and they’re being sexual. That to me, you know, personally, I think that’s a dividing line in terms of if they’re actually interacting with a live person on the other end, that’s where fidelity ends. And I think, you know, there’s mixed feelings about pornography for many women.
Tony Delmedico: So, you’re talking about an instance where instead of just using the imagery to create excitement within yourself, you’re actually engaging with another person in the sexual arena, whether you’re on the internet or not.
Laurie Watson: Right.
Tony Delmedico: And that’s far more damaging, I think.
Laurie Watson: Right. When you’re entering a relational dynamic with that other person that is sexual, you know, or texting, I mean these days it is everywhere. You know, the ability to be sexual with someone else on some level, even if it’s not physical touching exists. And it’s easy and it’s, it’s out there and you know, and it’s damaging to the marriage oftentimes. Especially if we come into it with a traditional value of fidelity.
Tony Delmedico: Yeah. And I think as we’re talking about it, it used to be that affairs were something that men had at work with the secretary.
Laurie Watson: That’s because men were at work.
Tony Delmedico: Yeah. And there are far more women now. Well there are more women working men now. And I think the research is showing.
Laurie Watson: Yeah, women, I think the research is showing that women have affairs at about the same rates as men do.
Laurie Watson: Right. And I know I’ve given a couple examples here of the man having the affair, but you’re absolutely right. Women have affairs too. And they often have affairs for different reasons. And not everybody has an affair about sex. Even men, it’s not always about sex. I mean, sometimes it’s about opportunity. A sexual opportunity, certainly. And sometimes it’s also though about something that’s missing inside. Sometimes it’s about something that’s missing inside us. You know, sometimes we — an affair is about reaching out for maybe the youth experience, you know, how I felt when I was younger and had that wow of somebody desiring them. You know, I mean, it’s very complicated. It’s between the couple and it’s inside the person in terms of the two reasons people have affairs. And when I tell the person who’s betrayed, you know, the person who comes in betrayed says, “I don’t deserve this. I didn’t deserve this.” And the person who was the person who stepped out of the marriage says, “I’m not a bad person for doing this.” I mean, both of them want that acknowledged and understood. Because these things are complicated. People have affairs for complicated reasons. And I think that the affair for the person who was betrayed is often very devastating. It’s literally like their world is turned on., you know, it’s head. They can get lost on the way to the grocery store because it’s a trauma. You know, the person they loved and trusted is suddenly not there for them and has stepped out sexually. And the world as they knew has gone and they feel swallowed up in it. And the person who had the affair often, you know, that can be an awakening. The discovery moment they say, you know, their partner betrayed partner says, “If I hadn’t discovered it, it would’ve gone on.” And sometimes that’s true because they’re not really awake to what this is meaning for them, for their marriage, for their families. They haven’t analyzed it. They’ve just been swept up in it.
Tony Delmedico: So, this part of them that was empty or is not being that need is not being met is now being met outside. And that’s just gratifying in and of itself.
Laurie Watson: It’s a perfect split. I mean, we need two things. We need excitement in life. And we need stability. And sometimes we divide those needs into two people.
Tony Delmedico: And in a marriage, it’s hard to get both of those over time.
Laurie Watson: It is hard to get both of those continuously in a marriage. I mean, we alternate and toggle in the marriage. And so, sometimes it’s like, “Well, this is just an easier solution. You know? I’ll have all of that excitement out there. And I will then have, you know, my stability at home. And what they don’t know, you know, doesn’t hurt them.”
Tony Delmedico: Well, Laurie, that brings us to the end of the first half of our episode on, What is an Affair? You’re listening to foreplay radio sex therapy with psychotherapist, Tony Delmedico and author and sex therapist, Laurie Watson. We’ll be right back.
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Tony Delmedico: Welcome back to Foreplay Radio, Sex Therapy. I’m with author and sex therapist, Laurie Watson. I’m psychotherapist Tony Delmedico. And today, we have been talking about, what is an affair? And in the first half of our show, Laurie, you left off I think with maybe what may be the seed of the affair itself. Any affair. That is, you had mentioned anytime that someone is seeking some excitement or some pleasure or pay off outside the relationship, I think that leads to the affair. Something that your partner is not aware of that you’re doing. And that’s certainly one way that, that you get to the affair very quickly.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. And I think what you said, your partner is not aware. I mean, one hallmark of the affair, right, is the secrecy. You know, if there’s something about it that you need to keep from your partner, that probably is something that you need to explore inside. Like is this a temptation that is going to draw me away from the relationship and become an affair or is it already an affair? I mean, because I think there are many things that in this culture, there is a line. I think maybe one person feels okay about it, but they’re keeping it secret because they know their partner doesn’t feel okay about it and they haven’t adequately negotiated that.
Tony Delmedico: Right. So, if you’re not talking to your partner about something, you probably should open the flood gates on it and just say, “Hey, I’m going to take a look at this. This is what I’m doing. Are you comfortable with this?” To my mind, I’m coming at it from, if anything that you’re doing that you would feel uncomfortable with your partner walking in on you on, I think is grist for the mill for both of you. And trying to figure out whether that’s an affair, a betrayal of trust, and trying to figure out what those nuances are together. I mean, some couples chide each other, what are you watching on porn these days? Is it massage porn that is turning you on? And they count on that partner.
Laurie Watson: They can talk about it.
Tony Delmedico: Bringing that into the relationship as something that boosts the relationship as opposed to something that drives them apart. But I think what we’re saying is each couple has to negotiate for themselves what an affair is.
Laurie Watson: What the line is.
Tony Delmedico: Yeah.
Laurie Watson: And I think it’s something that we maybe assume, and we don’t negotiate it. And there’s so many things to be talked about. And you said, is this problem that we have keeping in one relationship, both stability and excitement, both closeness and autonomy, all in one thing, and with so many expectations on the relationship because of our long lives now. Is this what is causing an affair? A driver outside? I think that I don’t know if it’s just the need. Because the need has always been there. But I think it’s maybe how we, how we feel about handling that need. You know, sometimes people, good people have affairs. And they have affairs because they haven’t thought of another way. And always their partner says, “Wow, you know, I wish you’d raised a stink, you know, really brought it to my attention how desperate you were about X, Y, and Z. Because I would have shifted and changed without having to go through all this pain and hurt.” But sometimes people who have those affairs, it’s all they can think about. They don’t really know another way to maybe talk better and more effectively. An affair. Let’s say another affair with another person. You know, it’s a big shout out. It’s a big explosion in a marriage or in a committed partnership. It’s saying something. I mean after the initial blast. I think if couples can know that after discovery there is a way through that they can find meaning. I think that’s the good news and something I really again want to say that there is a way through, you can be stronger afterwards. But you have to find meaning. And how do you do that? I think I have four steps that couples need to go through to recover from an affair and to find meaning in it. The first thing I would say, you know the person who had the affair, it really has to come to ground zero. They have to tell their partner. You know the basics of what happened. “Yes, I was with this person this many times at these points in time.” I would say minus the details. I really don’t think even if your partner begs you, that you should say, and I did this and that sexually. Because that almost leaves like a film, a posttraumatic stress film in their head. The betrayed partners had of, “Oh, my gosh, you know, they were, they were actually doing this.” And then every time you go and have sex again with your partner, that film can run through their head. So, I say minus the details. Give them the essence, you know, of what happened. And then I think the person who had the affair has to express remorse for the hurt that was caused, even though they may feel, “Well, I did it because you’ve withheld all this times. And I’m hurt too.” I understand that. And there are often, it’s a two party system. There are often reasons that need to be explored. But in the person who strayed outside sexually, has to offer sincere apologies. And often many more times of an apology than they think is necessary. Because you know, when a couple is recovering from an affair, it’s like a couple of who’s trying to get pregnant. You know, everywhere you go, the elevator work, your best friend, they all get pregnant. And when you’re trying to recover from an affair, everywhere you look, every politician, every movie, everything is about an affair. And so, that’s going to read trigger the person who was left. And the person who did the leaving, needs to know that. Rather than thinking, “Oh, I hope they don’t notice.” You know, reach out, touch them. And say again, “I’m committed to you. I’m sorry that happened and we’re going to find our way through this thing.”
Tony Delmedico: Well, and often with the men and women that I treat individually who have had the affair really find a short leash and they don’t have a lot of patience for this continual going back to the incident. So, if she’s working 10 extra minutes at work and come home and she comes home 10 minutes late. That starts to trigger, “Well, where is she? Is she having the affair again? Let me look at his phone when he gets home. And he gets really upset about being poked and prodded, even if he’s been a good boy scout for the last year and a half.” So, I think if you’re the person that has committed the transgression in the relationship, you have to have tremendous patience. You’ve got to understand at some point, it’s not about the affair, it’s about the betrayal of trust. So, something has been broken. And that repair isn’t done with, it’s typically not done with, “I’m sorry, let’s not talk about it anymore.”
Laurie Watson: Let’s just move past this.
Tony Delmedico: I want to put it as far behind me as possible. And the psyche doesn’t do that. The psyche lives over and over at that spot. And so, if you’ve done this and you’ve subjected your partner to this, I look at it like laying down layers of veneer on the trust. Like every time he or she has, um, a thought that you’re being unfaithful and you just completely open and give them whatever it is they need so that they can feel safe and trust. And to be able to trust you again. You’re letting down a veneer of trust. And it may take 10, 15 years. It may take 2 or 3 years. It may take 6 months. But the person who’s been betrayed is the one that determines when wound has been healed. So, you have to have tremendous patience as you go through this.
Laurie Watson: I had a couple who asked me kind of a Solomon’s choice question. You know, “Should I be able to look at his phone when he cheated?” And he says, “Don’t I still deserve some privacy. I don’t want her rifling through my phone every time.” And I answered and I said, “You should give her the phone and you should not look.” I mean at some point, and I’m not saying early in recovery, but at some point, you know, trust has to happen. And it does come back. And I think the way it comes back is not through vigilance. Checking up and always looking, that vigilance only keeps ramped up in terms of anxiety. The way through to trust is intimacy is deeper intimacy between the couple, which is kind of my last point. Is that recovery includes the couple renewal.
Tony Delmedico: What was the third point?
Laurie Watson: I missed that. But I think that the partner who had the affair has to have a cutoff, a full cutoff with that other person.
Tony Delmedico: Yes. I would agree.
Laurie Watson: They need to stop seeing them. If they’re a work person, they need to figure it out so that they’re not in daily contact with them or email contact or whatever. And oftentimes, there’s ways to do that without jeopardizing your job. You know, sometimes it may mean look at, you know, I slept with my coworker and we’re always going to work together. And that is a really dicey situation. Because many people who have affairs or having affairs with people they work with and so it has to be worked out. But I don’t think the solution is necessarily, just like you said, you know, the one person who had the affair and has moved on saying, “Just get over it.” That that probably won’t work. But a renewal of intimacy, a discovery of why the affair happened, what the marriage was that the affair happened in, what was that marriage? And what marriage do we want to have now? Do we want to have a marriage? Can we get over this? Can we forgive each other for the hurt and indiscretions that we’ve both had perhaps? Maybe the withholding or the, you know, strain or whatever it is. I mean, how do we go forward and have a new marriage that is about us now?
Tony Delmedico: And that’s the fourth part, the couple’s renewal or the revival of the relationship.
Laurie Watson: Right.
Tony Delmedico: And that takes a lot of hard work.
Laurie Watson: It does. It does.
Tony Delmedico: Not easily done.
Laurie Watson: And I think that, you know, people say, why? “Why would I do that? You know, why would I go on and be with this person who has betrayed me?” Because everybody says, you know, “That’s the one thing, that my partner had an affair. I would never ever, I would never be with them anymore.” And so, they often feel like to keep going with them, they feel foolish, and like they went back on their word, and they’re not a very strong person. But that’s not true. You know, our partners are very complicated. And our relationships are very complicated. I mean, I don’t think, and this is kind of dicey to say, but I don’t think that an affair is the worst way to wound a marriage. I mean people say the most cutting ugly things to each other. And I mean there are many ways to hurt the relationship. Sexual affairs certainly being a big one. But it’s not necessarily the worst one I’ve seen.
Tony Delmedico: Yeah, with the violence and the control. Yeah. You know, we’ve got just a couple of minutes left, Laurie. We’ve been talking about sexual infidelity as a definition for affair. But I think that there are also other types of affairs that we see nowadays. You had mentioned, just looking at, not just but looking at porn, but intimate relationships without sex. So, a lot of texting, a lot of work relationships that transcend just the professional boundaries. And some are culturally sanctioned. So, in the old days, if you are a workaholic, you would say, “Well, they’re a good provider. They work really hard.” But he may be having an affair with his work itself.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. That takes all his energy. The work is the real mistress.
Tony Delmedico: Or his golf game or your iPad.
Laurie Watson: Or your Facebook.
Tony Delmedico: You got it. You know, anything that’s drawing energy or erotic energy away from the relationship, libido away from relationship, could be considered an affair.
Laurie Watson: Even sometimes children, I mean, people invest in their children in a way that is more erotic. And I say that in the generic sense, not the sexual sense, you know, then they do in their partnership. You know, for instance, women come in and tell me about their children’s birthday party with more detail than they ever would talk about, you know, a date that they set up with their husband.
Tony Delmedico: I would agree. So, affairs, as you said earlier, we’re very complicated people and I think those types of things, those complications arise and create potential for affairs and all sorts of ways, not just sexual.
Laurie Watson: And my tip of the day, what I want to underscore, is affairs don’t necessarily have to mean the end of the marriage or the end of the long term committed relationship. There’s a way through.
Tony Delmedico: My tip is if your instincts are telling you something’s not quite right with your partner, your instincts are typically right.
Laurie Watson: Pay attention to those.
Tony Delmedico: Follow up on those. Pay attention to your instincts.
Laurie Watson: Ask some questions inside.
Tony Delmedico: You got it. Thank you for tuning in and turning on with us here at Foreplay Radio, Sex Therapy. This is psychotherapist, Tony Delmedico.
Laurie Watson: And sex therapist, Laurie Watson. Thank you for joining us. We look forward to seeing you again with more Foreplay.
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