Affair is such a dirty word. A four letter word, if you will. And such a generic word. It could be applied to almost anything. But the way we use it in our society, to mean infidelity and betrayal and all that goes along with that, makes it a slimy word, a word you never want to apply to yourself. My wife asked me to apply it to myself.
“Research ‘Emotional Affair’ on the internet,” she told me. “And ‘Recovering from an Emotional Affair’ as well.” So I did.
What I found changed the way I think about my friendship with my neighbor. It also changed the way I think about the many friendships my wife has had over the past several years. From what I understand about an emotional affair, we have both been guilty of being untrue to each other. I guess that could explain why our marriage seems so fragile at times.
One of the most interesting things I read about it is that because there is no physical relationship involved, the parties often don’t think they are doing anything wrong, or at least that they haven’t crossed any lines they shouldn’t have. But the real indication of whether it is a friendship or an emotional affair, according to what I read, is whether or not the extent of the relationship has been kept secret from the spouse. I knew she had friends. She knew I had a friend. But neither of us was completely willing to share every detail of our friendships, including how much time we spent communicating or what exactly we talked about.
One article I read gave an interesting insight into the emotional affair. It said that there is usually a window from the friendship into the marriage, and a wall from the marriage to the friendship. And that to recover from the emotional affair, there needs to be a window from the marriage into the friendship and a wall from the friendship to the marriage.
In addition, every article about recovery that I read indicated that the friendship had to be terminated immediately. No backing off little by little. No attempts at preserving an appropriate friendship. Simply cold-turkey cessation of all communication. If the marriage is to survive, the friendship cannot. That’s strong medicine, and difficult to swallow.
One thing I noticed as I read these articles was that they seemed to be Christian-sponsored. I don’t immediately discount them because of that, but I do wonder lately about some things that I’ve always just taken for granted.
First off, what is it about marriage? If marriage is God’s institution for the happiness of man, then yeah, marriage is the most important thing we can work on, and it should be preserved at all costs. But look at the history of marriage, the percentage of failed marriages, and the percentage of “successful” marriages that have been rocked by infidelity. It seems to me that perhaps a better explanation than a divine institution is that marriage is an imperfect attempt to put into practice the very human tendency toward serial monogamy. It seems like human nature to be almost single-mindedly attracted to one mate at a time. The chemistry of love drives us to make intense bonds with a single person. In the midst of that chemistry, it is little wonder that we would desire to express our undying and eternal love for the person to whom we are attracted. Marriage codifies and solemnifies that desire, but does so at the cost of what seems to invariably happen as life passes: our attraction wanes and new attractions spring up. Divorces and affairs attest to that.
Now, I’m not going to argue that just because some people are incapable of the ideal that we should automatically dismiss the ideal. Nor am I taking into account right now the societal benefits of stable relationships and families, especially children reared in a home with a loving and devoted father and mother. But marriage itself, what’s it for? If you really think about it, its purpose must be to keep people miserable. I say that only slightly tongue-in-cheek. If two people are in love, and they want to be together, then what is the purpose of marriage? Very little could keep them apart. It is only later, when the feelings of attraction fade away, that marriage keeps them together. If their love never waned, then they would stick together, marriage or not. Marriage covenants aren’t needed for those who are happily married. The covenant part of marriage is exercised only when there is desire to separate. And then what? Sticking together when you want to separate just causes misery.
But that is what the articles I read advocate. Stick together. Save the marriage. Be miserable. Deny yourself your own selfish desires, and live for something bigger than you: marriage itself, or the children, perhaps.
I was exposed recently to two ideas that I find interesting, and possibly related to this. The first I encountered was the theory of Insufficient Justification. The idea is that if our behavior and our desires are not synchronized, and there is no apparent external source to help us justify our behavior, then we create internal justification to explain away our behavior to ourselves. This happens when we do something that we don’t want to do as well as when we don’t do something that we want to do. An example of this would be a child who wants a cookie, but is told she will be punished if she eats a cookie. If the punishment is severe enough to dissuade the child from eating the cookie, then there is no problem. The child doesn’t eat the cookie and understands why. But if the punishment is too mild and the benefit of eating the cookie outweighs the fear of punishment, and yet the child still doesn’t eat the cookie, then the child will have to explain away her behavior to herself by thinking something like, oh, well, I don’t really like that kind of cookie anyway. She artificially devalues the cookie in her mind to explain why she didn’t eat the cookie in the absence of effective punishment. This happens to all of us.
The second I encountered was the idea of our tendency to synthesize happiness. The theory is that we each have a certain happiness level, and things that we think will make us really happy or things that we think will make us really sad often have negligible impact on our actual happiness as time passes. That is, if tomorrow I won the lottery or if tomorrow I broke my neck, in about three months or so I would be about as happy as I was yesterday. To account for our happiness, we then often invent new ways of looking at things, especially things that we thought would impact our happiness negatively. If we take the example of the child with the cookie, and say that in spite of severe punishment, the child ate the cookie, and received the punishment, even if the punishment was terrible, the child may look back on it and not recognize the punishment’s severity, but instead focus on how good the cookie was.
Do these two ideas explain why we stay in marriages that we don’t want while assuring ourselves and others of the value of marriage? Do they explain why we say, “I had some rough years in my marriage, but I’m sure glad I stuck it out?”
I realize that there are innumerable issues related to marriage and child-rearing, and I don’t want to pretend that you can look at just a few things and make a decision. I know that every marriage is unique, with two individuals that have their own independent and unique values, goals, and needs. I know that what may be right for one couple in one situation may not be right for another couple, even if the situation is almost identical. But I do ask myself questions about marriage. I ask myself questions about friendship. The articles about emotional affairs all looked at the external friendship as something that was without question evil and that it absolutely had to end. But I don’t see my friendship as evil. I see it as one of the most positive aspects of my life. Yes, it was and is damaging to my marriage. But if the marriage is taken out of the picture, that friendship is beautiful. Granted, you can’t just take the marriage out of the picture with a wish. But my point is that the friendship itself isn’t evil. It’s really the expectations of the marriage that make the friendship damaging to the marriage.
Is friendship the problem? Or is marriage the problem? If there were a way to cleanly slice, I would cut away my marriage. But there is no such precision tool available. Dissolving a marriage causes heartbreak, stress, pain, anger, doubt, and many more negative feelings, all of which are concentrated in the hearts of those you love the most. Maybe that’s why marriage is important. Being miserable in a marriage is an easy choice when the alternative is to pierce the hearts of those you love. And then, hey, you can always use insufficient justification and synthesized happiness to live with yourself afterward. We stick with marriage to keep from hurting others, sometimes even regardless of the pain to ourselves.
And if marriage is important, if it’s to be preserved at all costs, then the friendship has to go.