I received a voice mail from a 40-something woman, Cynthia, who requested a late-evening session because she worked long hours at her law firm. She said that I was one of the few therapists she had Googled who seemed to have the expertise to help her. In recent years I have noticed that when potential patients Google me, they discover my university faculty profile, where I list as a research interest the psychology of infidelity. They also find a YouTube clip of an interview with me from a documentary on infidelity. Thanks to Google I am getting more patients looking for someone they think of as an infidelity expert.
Cynthia was married to a successful software engineer and they had two children in grade school. She and her husband were both busy professional people who spent all their free time raising their children. They rarely talked to each other one-on-one anymore. Cynthia reported that their sex life had never been all that exciting. She said she used to think that the mediocre sex didn’t matter to her; her husband was still devoted to her and their children.
Cynthia had never thought of herself as the type to have an affair — until she met Neal, a colleague in her firm, also married with young children, with whom she used to go for lunch. As they got to know each other, feelings developed — and they became more than just friends. It turned out to be the best sex of her life and they fell in love.
Neither of them wanted to break up their families. They both felt they “loved” their spouses even if they were no longer “in love” with them. Cynthia and Neal had an understanding that they would let the affair run its course and eventually go their separate ways. Confused and guilt-ridden about living a double life, Cynthia looked forward to a time when the affair would end and she could stop being deceitful.
One day, Cynthia arrived at work to learn that Neal had collapsed on the treadmill during his morning run and died of a heart attack. She was in shock. She felt like sobbing uncontrollably but couldn’t allow herself to; showing her grief might expose the affair.
Months went by and Cynthia’s grief was unabated. She had lost the love of her life and felt she would be forever forlorn. She needed to share her feelings with someone and concluded that only a psychotherapist could possibly be sympathetic to her predicament. This is when she came to me.
My job initially seemed straightforward: to help Cynthia mourn a loss she could share with no other. But as the months passed I found myself strangely unsympathetic. The more I heard about Neal from Cynthia the less I liked him. He was a compulsive womanizer. He was indifferent to the guilt and confusion that Cynthia felt. He proselytized that everyone lied in marriage, that lying was indeed the key to marital happiness. He made Cynthia feel that her misgivings were naïve, moralistic and old-fashioned. He argued that infidelity was the only way to compensate for the sexual boredom that eventually set in during a long-term relationship.
Cynthia didn’t entirely buy Neal’s arguments, but they generated enough doubt to help her justify her behavior to herself. Maybe her guilt was irrational, she thought, and she should just enjoy the ride and hope she didn’t get caught.
Freud claimed that people often split love and lust. It is not uncommon to have great sex with someone who isn’t lovable, or to have a trustworthy loving relationship with someone with whom the sex is boring. Recent empirical research shows that individuals who exhibit high degrees of narcissism, like Neal, have difficulty integrating love and lust in a single relationship. This is also true of individuals, like Cynthia, who are “avoidantly attached” — they can’t tolerate the vulnerability of being intimate with someone on whom they are dependent, and so they create a self-protective distance from their partner.
In the traditional Freudian approach to psychotherapy, I would have kept my negative feelings about Neal to myself. But in the newer, more “relational” approaches to which I subscribe, it is thought to be therapeutic to disclose your true feelings, as doing so brings about a more honest and authentic relationship between therapist and patient. So I shared my thoughts: Neal seemed deficient in empathy, despite his charm, while her husband seemed loyal and caring in comparison.
Cynthia responded defensively. I was being horribly unfair to Neal, she said. He was an exceptionally special person, she insisted, who had been trapped in a relationship with a “bitchy” wife. I asked Cynthia to consider the possibility that Neal’s wife became a “bitch” because she begrudgingly submitted to his perennial philandering to avoid breaking up her family.
This gave Cynthia pause. After a moment, a pained look flashed across her face. She conceded that her own spouse, like Neal’s, had probably intuited the affair. In fact, she recalled, her husband had recently said to her, seemingly out of the blue, that he could understand if she had an affair, given how uninspired their sex life was. In an instant, Cynthia was seeing her husband anew, as the devoted and compassionate man that he was. Rather than angrily confronting her with an accusation, he had subtly indicated that he knew about the affair, expressed his understanding of why it might have happened, and was waiting for her to make the next move. Would Neal have been capable of such restraint, selflessness and care?
Cynthia decided to ask her husband if he would join her for couples therapy (with another therapist), to work on improving their sex life. He agreed, and as Cynthia’s therapeutic focus shifted from Neal to improving the romantic intimacy in her marriage, the work of mourning her lover came to an end.
What do you do when the best sex of your life is outside of marriage, but you still want the emotional security of a stable long-term relationship with someone you love and trust? I’ve worked with a few couples over the years who have been able to make an open marriage work, but most people, even those who think they might want such an arrangement, are too insecure and jealous to do so.
One patient of mine, a committed monogamist who was long married, was shocked to discover that his parents were swingers. He didn’t like to think about his parents’ sex life in general, and he especially didn’t like imagining his mother having sex with men other than his father. Freud claimed that children are emotionally possessive and jealous creatures who don’t like sharing their parents’ affection with anyone else. As a clinician I try to keep an open mind about romantic partner sharing, but when it comes to our spouses, it seems most of us never outgrow being fundamentally childlike in our possessiveness. At our best we learn to refrain from doing things that would make our spouses jealous and insecure, despite our temptations, and when they make us jealous we try to restrain our hostility, despite our hurt.
Lawrence Josephs, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York, is a professor of psychology at Adelphi University.