A few weeks back I had a post chronicling one guys story as his marriage broke down and he started an affair.
It’s a common story. A couple in a long term relationship gets in “a rut”. Their relationship feels stagnant, and one or both parties don’t feel particularly appreciated or valued. Then someone else shows up on the scene who shows an interest in them, and the attention feels great.
They feel valued.
They feel “alive” again.
So they start to spend more time and energy on this new person while simultaneously emotionally pulling out of their relationship.
It’s easy to see how it happens. And it seems the obvious solution to prevent this from happening is to take care of your own relationship.
But for some reason, it doesn’t seem that easy. Why can it be so hard to turn around your relationship when it’s in a bad spot?
As I was thinking about this, I had one of those “aha” moments, where it feels like a bunch of disparate pieces of a puzzle have come together in a way that I had never seen before.
Here’s my theory:
In the vast majority of cases, relationship problems and affairs are not about the relationships at all!!! Rather, they are about coping mechanism.
Let me explain…
Here’s the thing. Life sucks.
Alright, not really. Life doesn’t suck – but a lot of the *stuff* we need to do sucks. Jobs, groceries, chores, bills, diapers, whatever. This is no surprise, and is something I’ve talked about before.
My idea at the time was that we get so caught up in day to day life that we stop making time for the relationship; so OF COURSE the relationship will suffer.
To turn things around, it stands to reason that you just need to start making time for each other and start having fun together again. Doing this should let people rebuild, while also strengthening the relationship against future breakdown.
It seems like it should be, but for some reason it isn’t. Many couples get caught up in negative momentum, and have a hard time digging out.
You loved each other once. How hard should it really be to nurture that love?
Harder than it seem it should be.
Let’s think about drinking for a moment.
Why do people get drunk? I’m not exactly an expert on being drunk, but I can ask questions and do Google searches just as well as the next guy.
There are all sorts of reasons people give for getting drunk, but here are a few:
- I like how it makes me feel
- It makes me feel confident
- It’s fun
- I feel carefree
- There’s no stress
- It makes me feel like anything is possible
Looking at those answers, it seems pretty clear that getting drunk is a form of escapism. It’s a way of forgetting your worries and the stresses of everyday life. It’s a temporary escape from the real world and a way of coping with life (though perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a way of not coping).
There are all sorts of things people do to cope with and escape from the stresses of everyday life.
Some people get drunk. Some self-medicate. Some work out, play an instrument, a sport. Some of us read and write blogs.
We all do something. It’s just that:
- people have different amounts of stress in their lives
- we are different in how well we manage the stresses we do have
- some ways of coping with those stresses are healthier than others
Which brings me back to affairs…
In many ways affairs perplex me.
Getting attention from someone feels good. I get that. Sex feels good. I get that too.
But when you read stats on affairs you hear things like he/she didn’t find the other person more attractive. They are often someone completely different from their partner – often in ways the cheater professes they do not prefer. And oh yeah, the person who cheated often still loves their spouse.
So why have an affair?
While reading the comments section of another blog recently I read the following:
Does the affair partner really listen more? Value our spouse more? I really don’t think so. I think it is the illusion of a new, illicit relationship. Two broken people, feeding each others’ egos. Sharing stories with fresh ears that haven’t heard it a dozen times already or more. Their relationship exists in an artificial bubble. They steal time from us, and when they are together with the affair partner, there is no pressure, no responsibility
Note that last bit – no pressure. No responsibility.
I think that’s the key.
Previously I thought that affairs were all about the “excitement of the new”. And I’m sure that IS part of it, but I suspect it’s really the escape from reality that is the biggest part.
Like other escapes, it’s a way to temporarily get away from the problems of life. Work, bills, the kids, all of it.
Thing is, like getting drunk affairs are illusions. They are temporary escapes. They are ways of escaping to an imaginary world where love is all about passion, your emotional and physical needs are being met, and you don’t have to deal with the “hard parts” of life.
And while they may give you a temporary escape from your troubles into the arms (and bed) of another, they sure as hell aren’t going to do anything to reduce the levels of stress that someone is trying to escape from.
Maybe I’m crazy here, but I’m pretty sure they are going to make someones stress levels worse.
A lot worse.
Long Term Love
Long term relationships are about a hell of a lot more than just love. They aren’t just going on dates and having fun together.
They include other fun things such as managing a household, balancing a budget, and potentially raising kids. All of these things add responsibility and are potential sources of stress.
One thing about stress – it breaks down empathy. When people are stressed it is a natural defense mechanism to turn inward, and focus on “me”, instead of “we”.
When relationships run into issues I think it’s frequently the responsibility and stress (and how it is managed by each person) that is the problem, and not really the relationship itself.
The problem is, over time is becomes very difficult to separate the two.
An increased focus on “me” just accentuates the stress when you are together as a “we”. So like Pavlov’s dog, your partner comes to represent all these other things. Your partner is seen as the source of responsibility and stress, instead of being seen as a person who is also dealing with the same stresses with you.
What would really happen if you took them out of the equation? Would the stress actually decrease? Would you have less responsibility?
If you constantly fight about *how* to deal with the stresses in life, then sure, that type of conflict would be removed. You would now be able to deal with the stresses of life in whatever way you felt was appropriate.
But the responsibilities and stresses remain.
Actually, one could argue that they would now increase – because instead of having someone there to offload some of the stress onto when you need, you would now have to manage it entirely on your own.
For those having or contemplating affairs, guess what. The other person seems “perfect” because the person you are seeing isn’t real. If the relationship were to ever become serious and long term, you would have all the same responsibilities with the new person.
Well, unless they are completely rich and you are having your every whim catered to. Then maybe there’s less stress. Of course if you’re doing that you’re pretty shallow. And you’re also just putting a nice diamond and gold encrusted band-aid on a difficulty in dealing with the stresses of life. But you can always just pay someone to deal with your problems for you, so I suppose there’s that.
As a side note – I think maybe this is one of the real purposes of sex. It’s a release valve from the regular stresses of life and a way for a couple to have a temporary “escape” from the pressures of life, in a way that they can only do together.
Lets face it. Life is full of highs and lows. It can get really busy and stressful, and it sucks sometimes. But that’s life. You deal with it. You do your best to get by.
To me that’s actually one of the strengths of a relationship. You aren’t doing it alone anymore. You have someone with you, and side by side you are going to support each other and help each other get through these hard times.
In good times and in bad.
So one of the best ways to improve your relationship is to try and reduce your stress levels, while simultaneously improving your ability to cope with the stress you do have.
Additionally, try to separate the stresses in life from your partner.
It can be hard to realize it sometimes, but try to ask yourself if the problems are really due to your partner. If they were replaced with a newer shinier model, would things really be better? Or would most of the same problems exist?
I think this notion of associating the responsibilities and stresses of life with the other person is probably one of the biggest contributors to unhappiness in relationships.
If you can accept that it’s often NOT the other person, try to remember that your partner is in the same situation you are.
Try to bring back the idea of “us”. And try to support each other and cope with things together.