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.
19 thoughts on “Coping With Life”
You know what? I really like this post. I can’t be completely sure that this applies in my situation, but the comparison you make to drinking to escape is the closest thing I’ve read to making sense. In fact, he was also drinking to excess during this time (and we have always had drinks socially, but he was unable to control himself). Anyway, he said that spending time with her was an escape, but not necessarily an exciting or attractive or pleasant one. He didn’t think he was in love with her. He talked himself into thinking he was attracted to her because he did care about what happened to her, and I think his feelings of power and control gave him things he didn’t feel in the routine of our life. But does one get excited about getting drunk? Not exactly. He just picked it to not be in real life. It’s not okay. It’s awful. I was right here begging him to stop drinking and start dealing with real life but I had no idea what was really going on and she was making it easier to hide. Eventually he came back to me and our life. But he chose her to cope – even though he never chose her for good. Like he didn’t think he was going to drink forever – he just did it and didn’t think of the consequences.
I guess what I would be interested in is how that selfish addictive cycle is then broken in order to make sure it doesn’t happen again. How do I make sure he doesn’t want to run away again? I mean, I can’t, can I? What’s the point? I don’t really want a man who wants to run away. How many times does he get to escape? For how long? What if I want to escape? Because times like after finding out I could have used an escape but I chose him. Why couldn’t he just choose me? Do I want someone who didn’t choose me?
It’s all just so complicated…
I find your thoughtfulness really refreshing and I’m curious to see your thoughts as you continue working through this. I don’t have any answers so I’m just trying to learn as much as I can from other people, hoping someone can pull me along a bit. xx
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Lots to digest here.
From your description, it does sound as though he was trying to escape the pressures of life – and he used a number of unhealthy and selfish choices as his release valves.
Often when I’m writing, an initial idea gets a bit bigger than I anticipated and it spills out into multiple posts (hence the number of multi-part posts I do), and I plan on using my next few posts to explore this kind of stuff a bit more.
You make the comment:
“How do I make sure he doesn’t want to run away again? I mean, I can’t, can I? What’s the point? I don’t really want a man who wants to run away. How many times does he get to escape? For how long?”
As you said – you can’t. And more to the point, you shouldn’t have to. A lot of my posts are not only on relationships, but also on personal accountability, and dealing with personal issues (which tend to spill over into our relationships). Sounds to me like your husband has some issues that he needs to deal with. Not necessarily a bad thing, as I’m sure we all have our issues and things we need to deal with.
Unfortunately only he can deal with them. As much as you may want things to change, and to stand with him and help him – it’s on him. He will either change, or he won’t.
I think the only thing you can really do is set boundaries on what is acceptable. Know your worth, and stand up for it. You matter too. What you need in a relationship matters too – don’t ever forget that.
Sometimes when we see our relationships floundering we sublimate ourselves and our needs in order to try to “hold on”. The concept is a noble one, but in the end I think it backfires.
It’s like dealing with a child who has tantrums. If we give in, the child learns that tantrums work. They can misbehave in order to get what we want. If our partners disrespect us and treat us like crap and we accept it, in some ways we are saying it’s alright for them to do that.
It’s a very difficult line to walk between holding onto a relationship that we want, and allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of. And when you are on that line, it’s not easy to decide what to do.
But I think we all deserve to have people in our lives who are with us because they WANT to be with us. And not just with us because it’s comfortable and they are afraid to lose us.
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I’ll be following your posts, because as I said, I find your thoughts and ideas refreshing and insightful and I have found myself drawn to make perspectives. Sometimes because my husband struggles for the words, and sometimes because when he does find them I struggle to believe him anymore.
In any event, what resonates with me is that in my field, a lot of what I do is based on the principles you discuss, though applied differently. Most of what I know about how to evoke behavior changes and how to improve myotivation aligns with what you have said. I have no interest in treating him like a subject – and I don’t want to be taken advantage of. I am firmly consistent with toddlers and children with behavior issues, and like you said, it’s about boundaries and not being taken advantage of. I do worry that he has some OCD and that perhaps his anxiety has settled back in and that me not being around would be a lot of change for him to process (he can’t sleep without being able to touch me, which is funny for a man who cheated on me, right?).
It’s interesting because both affairs and addictions are somewhat similar and are contrary to other behavior principles in terms of reward mechanisms – and while it’s disgusting to think of my husband as addicted to someone else, I do see that he began as feeling guilty and then he has said he used her to escape – which sounds like an addiction. And I can see how I have become addicted to his affair in some ways. It’s been compulsive for me to look her up and go through all of the bits of data. It’s not pleasant but it’s what I have to do. I can’t stop. I have only recently begun to let go, and now I come on here instead. I still feel stuck and like I want him, but that ultimately if he can’t be who I want him to be then he will have the final decision because he will force my hand.
I look forward to more of your posts. I’m glad writing is your way of coping because it helps a lot of us think in a new way. xx
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It’s almost funny. As a kid I loved to write stories, and I had visions of myself one day being an author in the fantasy/sci-fi genre.
It took a troubled personal life and a struggle to understand what exactly had happened before I eventually started taking writing seriously, and this blog has been great for me in that regard.
You mention how the affair has become almost like an addiction for you as well. I’m not sure if you are familiar with the idea of rumination (I have a post on it coming sometime in the future).
Rumination is a destructive form of thought, where you end up focused on something that has already happened and you can’t let it go. Rumination traps you in the past, and doesn’t let you move forward.
I struggled with that for over a year after my life went south, and still do at times.
One thing I have to remind myself is that I can’t change the past. It’s over and done with, and the only way the past can be of benefit to me is if I use it to learn how to move forward. So it’s important to focus on the “why’s” and not the “what’s”.
Details of what happened don’t really help anyone. They keep you stuck. Understanding the why however allows you to move forward.
A post I’ve been unable to finish for a while now is about “doing the right thing” (hopefully I can finally get it to a state I like).
None of us should be taken advantage of. Our partners should treat us well because they want to, and they know it’s the right way to do things – not because they feel compelled to.
But in relationships people struggle with balancing the “we” and the “me”. The two concepts are different, and in most troubled relationships that I see it’s because for one or both members the “we” has broken down and they are focusing far to much on the “me”.
Glad you’re finding something of value here. My hope when I started this long ago was to make people think, and to give them hope.
I still believe in love, and I still believe in marriage.
I think I will throw my two cents in here and answer one of your questions.
“How do I make sure he doesn’t want to run away again? I mean, I can’t, can I? What’s the point? I don’t really want a man who wants to run away. How many times does he get to escape? For how long? What if I want to escape? Because times like after finding out I could have used an escape but I chose him. Why couldn’t he just choose me? Do I want someone who didn’t choose me?”
I believe the answer is actually in the post. It is a two part answer the first part is you as a couple need to learn to separate stresses of daily life being associated with your partner. Instead they should be viewed as obstacles the two of you as a team need to tackle. if you look at behavior modification you will see that positive and negatives are associated to the behaviors you want to encourage or discourage. This association between stress (negative) and your spouse begin to diminish the relationship or at least your view of it.
I believe the trick (I am no expert though) is to allow the escapism. You may think I am crazy but if it is allowed you can get away from the stresses of life. The catch is can you do the escapism together as a couple. Zombiedrew2 already used sex as an example of escapism. I agree that it can be used but it cannot be the only form. It could be weekly dates where you are not allowed to talk about money or kids or your car breaking down. You do something with your partner to escape. You associate this escapism (positive) with your spouse and then your relationship grows because you associate it and your partner with positive thoughts and feelings. The hardest part is setting the boundaries of not allowing the stresses to creep into your time together. That does not mean you ignore your life stresses completely, only when you are on your special time with your spouse.
I would through in one more thought and then I will stop. The things you do together need to be beneficial for both of you and you need to have a chance to connect. If you go to a movie every Friday night, while you are escaping, you are not getting out of it what you really can. Plus what if you go to a movie that only one of you likes, this usually means one of you is escaping and one of you is not. Find things you like to do together and do them. It may be as simple as going for a walk or a bike ride. Maybe it is signing up for pole dancing classes together, all because you know you want to see your husband up on that pole. Hopefully you get what I mean.
Escape with each other, into each other.
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Very, very well said.
I think this is an area that MOST couples fail miserably.
The stresses of life come to be associated with your partner, so your alone time together doesn’t allow you to de-stress.
And when kids are in the mix, often “alone time” is apart from each other while one person watches the kids.
Over time I think what happens is, people find they are less stressed when they are alone. So this reinforces the idea that the stresses are due to the partner, leading someone to question the relationship itself.
Finding time as a couple and making it a priority is the only way out in my opinion. And as mentioned above, you need to use that time to reconnect.
The movie is a perfect example of what DOESN’T work. It’s a passive activity, where you are doing it side by side but not really “together”. How in the world will that help?
Now if you go out to a coffee shop after and talk, and discuss the movie and what you liked/didn’t like etc, then you may be building connection. But the movie itself isn’t going to do much.
Thanks for the comment.
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Yes, this makes a lot of sense. And I think it may take a bit to figure out what it looks like for us – because, for us, I think he didn’t know he was escaping until he looked back at it and that’s how he can explain it. Much like drinking – that’s not how you think of it at the time. I think that’s part of the reason he doesn’t mind be overly accountable to me right now, but I try to explain to him that this phase won’t last for either of us. So we are going to need to find long term ways. And I think allowing escape and escaping with each other is probably critical. It is about changing some unhealthy behaviors but also trusting that we can take the rest. I think we have talked about this before. I just want the chance – and sometimes I think we just did the same thing over and over and didn’t really realize that it wasn’t working until it was completely blown apart. I am thankful that he realized it and he stopped it and he is trying to do things right but he just wants to move on like it never happened and I’m in this place of making sure it never happens again. He is sure it won’t, and I’m not clear on how it did (because it’s not a choice I made, so I can’t control it) so I live in fear of it happens king again. I think it’s worse since it all began and ended without me knowing and I didn’t have any control over it starting or stopping. I just want some control of my life and happiness and he took that away.
I do, however, think he needs to take some pole dancing classes. He has gotten rusty. I’ll go along for moral support. 🙂
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Bingo! No pressure, no responsibilities, no expectations with the AP. I am sure now more than ever that is what my husband liked besides the attention (which is what he told me as his reason) but I suspect there was more but he doesn’t know what it is yet!
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Responsibility, pressure, expectations. They are part of life. We all have them, and always will. Even at your most “free”, you had them. Yet some people seem to believe they can find “freedom”, and find a life without responsibility and pressure.
It doesn’t exist, and it never will. There are always responsibilities, and there are always expectations.
Any escapes from them are always temporary, and never real.
Yet it seems MANY people are more than willing to throw away the good parts of their life, just to have a taste of that freedom – even if it’s just for a moment.
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It is quite sad. Life and people should be cherished always.
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I have little tolerance for overtly selfish behavior, and have little sympathy for people who throw their lives away “in pursuit of their own happiness”.
You’ve been reading for a while now, so you may have picked up on the fact that I think the pursuit of happiness at the expense of others is selfish.
Yes, I’m an individual. But my life is not my own. I am also a father, a husband, a son, a brother, etc.
My choices have impacts on many more people than just me. So I don’t always do what I want, or what seems best for me “in the moment”.
Yes, I’m important. And my happiness is important. And my needs are important.
But in my mind, when I chose to be in a relationship, and become a father, life became about a lot more than just me. I try to take into account how my actions impact those I love.
And if I skip out on something I wanted to do because I saw it as best for my family, I don’t resent them for it. I chose it. I did it because I felt it was right.
If I evaluate where I am and decide that it’s best for me to leave my marriage, I will do that. But I will do it with an understanding of how it impacts all of those around me.
When people have affairs or decide they need to escape from life, it’s generally all about them. There’s no empathy. No understanding or caring about how their actions impact those around them.
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I agree wholeheartedly! Thank you so much for your insight and wisdom.
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This post has got me thinking, is this when a lot of affairs end? After several months / years of “dating” with no responsibility to each other, as soon as the affair gets “serious” with the daily responsibilities, I think one or both suddenly realizes that the affair is just the same as their current situation with the same hassles and problems, and break off the affair / relationship because they cannot cope with the stress and pressure.
The original issue remains though, and that is the person starting the affair cannot handle the stress of daily life and being in a relationship. The affair doesn’t help with resolving their problem in dealing with stress and responsibility.
I take a dim view to destructive coping mechanisms and thinking that affairs are just a type of coping mechanism is a real eye opener. After years of trying to avoid responsibility, I discovered that the only way to cope with stress and responsibility is to tackle it head on and deal with the problems and issues of life. I just hope more people learn this valuable life lesson.
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More and more as I look at this it seems right to me.
Don’t get me wrong, not all affairs are the same. But it does seem that affairs are an escape. A way to go back to the fantasy relationship of the early dating days, when the relationship wasn’t “serious” and there was little to no stress.
From different things I have read, I believe you are right about when affairs end (both physical and emotional). It seems it is often after the illusion of the “perfect” relationship is broken, and there is a realization that the affair partner comes with their own set of issues.
Some times that takes a long time though. I’ve heard of cases where both parties have marriages/families, and they are both using the affair for the same purpose. Sex and an escape. When that happens and there is no pressure from either person to have it develop into more, the affair can go on for years.
What bothers me the most about affairs is, how can someone possibly do that to another person – especially someone they are supposed to love? And beyond doing that to someone else, how can the person having the affair live with themselves?
I want to start by saying I agree completely! Unfortunately the stressors and responsibilities my ex left me with for his affair partner (whom he is no longer with I might add) are truly no different as I was generally left on my own to begin with, therefore creating the chasm to ripen the appeal of the affair. A partnership was something dreamed about and requested from me…my ex didn’t understand why I wasn’t just satisfied with the scraps he gave when it was convenient with him. Some people have affairs just because they’re selfish and think they ‘deserve it’…not just to escape. (Though I do still wholeheartedly agree-it just wasn’t my situation completely. One of my ex’s prevailing ‘excuses’ was because he deserved to be happy…and the kids should see him happy)
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Ah, good old happiness. A dangerous and somewhat subversive concept.
First, I hate the word “deserves”. I’m not sure anyone deserves anything, and when people use the term I always get the feeling that there is a sense of entitlement.
Do we all want to be happy? Of course. Happiness is really hard to define though, and no one is “happy” in all aspect of their life, everyday.
When I hear the “just wanted to be happy” it’s often used as an excuse for very selfish behavior.
You use the term partnership, and I think that’s probably what we all want. We all want someone who isn’t just with us for what they get out of the relationship, but also for what they can add to it.
Ideally we find someone where we each enhance the other and support the other.
Relationships should never just be about what one person is getting out of it. Each persons needs and wants have to be respected and valued by the other, even when they don’t completely match up. There has to be compromise.
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Agreed. No one “deserves” happiness. And I think there are many types of happinesses as well, and often strive to achieve the easiest type or most unhealthy types of happiness.
But I totally agree that no one deserves to be happy at the expense of other people.
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