This is the second part of a blog about the origins or causes of affairs and how we become vulnerable to one. In this part we look at the actual real life factors that make us susceptible to having an affair.
Now we come to the highly charged aspect of looking at what causes affairs. How are these intimacy deficits created? This is a rather complicated subject; in light of that I am going to provide only a basic principled look at that question.
As I see it there are these five major causal factors for affairs:
- Our past, our cultural upbringing, our current environment, our spouse and our character.
When I say our past, I am referring to all the experiences we had as we were growing up and how they affected our intimacy needs. Let’s look at some major examples.
Some of us were abandoned, abused or neglected. These kinds of experiences create warped views of what intimacy looks like. For example an abused person may not even know what comfort feels like; this creates a comfort deficit, and they may also have a high need for security. An abandoned person might have a high need for affirmation because they live with an underlying sense of rejection.
A girl who doesn’t get appropriate affection from her father might struggle to understand what real affection looks like and seeks it relentlessly even to point of having affairs. A boy might never know what a mother’s approval looks like and so he starts to go to men for it, eventually becoming a sexual partner of another male.
There are many experiences that can be had in our society which create intimacy deficits. And these set us up for difficulty later.
Our Cultural Upbringing
By this I mostly mean our family of origin, but it does include our extended family, neighbors and other influential people in our lives. Together they create the culture we grew up in.
This is not the same as the past. The past refers to our experiences whereas our cultural upbringing refers to the principles, ideas and attitudes we grew up with.
Some of us learned that it was acceptable to get our intimacy needs met in illegitimate ways. We learned that certain behaviors made us feel better, or in the context here, met our intimacy needs. An example of this might be that we manipulated a person, gained some power over them and felt respected; this could be true for men or women and an affair is one place it can show up. In some cultures women are valued as less than men, so when a man dominates a woman, as in a power-centered affair, he feels affirmed. There are myriads of examples of culturally based ways that intimacy needs are met, and I’m sure any reader can think of some from their own culture.
One thing that needs to be stated, in case it is not obvious, is that intimacy needs are present in all humans no matter what their culture. Intimacy needs are basic parts of our psychological design; this supersedes culture.
Our Current Environment
The current environment refers to the social system we actually live in. This may be the one we grew up in or may not be. For example I grew up in the UK but live in the US.
Our current social situation affects us in the sense that it provides a framework for getting our intimacy needs met. An example is that we have men and women working together in everyday work roles. It has not always been this way, and some social systems still keep women and men apart. As men and women interact it is far more likely that two people with unmet intimacy needs will find each other and develop the connection necessary to begin an affair.
Some environments are conducive to the development of affairs and some are less so. The normal social situation in the US is very conducive to getting intimacy needs met in illegitimate ways. As we have seen God pushed out of our everyday consciousness we have seen more affairs. Every illegitimate child is conceived from an affair. Part of the pick-up in divorce is due to more affairs. Each of these examples is due to not meeting legitimate intimacy needs in appropriate ways although you’ll never see that on a birth certificate or in a divorce decree.
The accepted values, beliefs and attitudes of our social system, our current environment is a factor in the rise of affairs in this country.
How does a spouse contribute to his or her partner starting and maintaining an affair? This is a thorny question because in most of the affairs that I’ve looked at there is a part of the story that is recognizable as belonging to the “innocent” spouse. And if it is brought up as a item of concern the innocent spouse typically denies and rejects that they had anything to do with it. Sometimes they’ll fire their counselor or push away a long time friend who points this out. This is unfortunate because the innocent spouse is still not to blame for the poor choices of the guilty spouse. Let me show how one spouse can be part of the choice of their partner to go astray.
Imagine that we have a woman who is critical of her husband; she is the opposite of an encourager, she is a discourager. After a few years of being put down through discouragement the husband talks to a female co-worker who encourages him in some aspect of his work. They click, and develop a friendship. At home the man feels put down, nothing he does ever seems right, but at work his new friend is full of words that build him up. An affair eventually develops.
In this example the husband is still 100% to blame for having the affair. But, the wife is also 100% to blame for her part which is to not do what she reasonably can to meet his intimacy need of encouragement. Most wives in this scenario will reject this message so counselors will rarely bring it up, they’ll work the issue another way.
This scenario provides us a simple yet powerful example of how when we don’t pay sufficient or reasonable attention to the intimacy needs of our partner we contribute to their vulnerability to an affair.
There are some individuals in the helping professions that might reject this message, but that is a mistake. The innocent spouse is much better served if they have to answer the following two questions, when they are emotionally ready:
- Is there any way I could have met my partner’s intimacy needs and didn’t?
- Have I been doing the opposite of meeting my partner’s intimacy needs?
These are both areas where an innocent spouse has control and the guilty partner does not. With the first question a spouse can address how well they have loved their partner by addressing their intimacy needs. This is not something we do automatically; it requires work on an ongoing basis. The second addresses the actual behaviors of the innocent spouse. Our example above shows where one spouse actively pushed their husband away through discouragement.
In his book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” Dr. John Gottman tells us that from his research there are four behaviors we engage in within a marriage that are likely to lead to trouble. He calls them the four horseman:
- Criticism, Contempt, Stonewalling and Defensiveness.
These are all opposites of intimacy needs (Encouragement, Respect, Attention and Support).
Spouses and how they behave are important to look at when trying to unravel why an affair takes place.
If we are the spouse that has had an affair we have a big challenge in front of us because we haven’t been operating as designed. We are made to be married to one person of the opposite gender and be intimate, living in fidelity with them as long as we are on this planet. So our question is, “What is inside me that made me vulnerable to an affair?”
All of the factors we’ve looked at so far provide part of the answer, but the biggest is part of the anatomy of an affair is discovered through introspection, looking internally at our character.
Character is the set of moral qualities that a person possesses. In this context the word “moral” is important. Moral means, “In accord with standards of what is right and just in behavior.” And it is God who explains to us in His word what is just and right. Here is my primary selection on where to look for some scriptural definition of what is right and just:
2 Peter 1:5-8 – For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. ESV
This scripture promises us that if we are diligent in practicing and applying these things we would be protected from becoming immoral. In the context of an affair, instead of succumbing to the meeting of our intimacy needs outside our marriage, if we practiced virtue and self-control and brotherly affection wouldn’t we be much less likely to look outside the marriage for intimacy?
So then, for the wandering spouse the challenge is to look inside. My suggestion is to seek the help of other godly people who can be trusted to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:25). Ask questions such as, “What must I be believing to do such a thing?” and “What values am I actually living by to an affair?” or, “What attitudes am I displaying through my actions?” Comparing these inner things to God’s word will help clarify what we have done and where we need to work to not be vulnerable again to having an affair.
Summarizing It All
The core of this 2 part blog revolves around the simple idea that we are designed with a need for intimacy, and when our intimacy needs are not met we become vulnerable to an affair.
Each of us is responsible for getting our own intimacy needs met in appropriate ways. Primarily this is through a spouse if we are married and also through God, and in some situations through other godly people. Each of us is also responsible for doing what we can to help meet our spouse’s intimacy needs, and where we fall short, to encourage them to seek God or other safe people for those deficits.
Resources mentioned in this blog.
Emotional Prisons – Prisons, by Ken Gross
The Top Ten Intimacy Needs, By David and Teresa Ferguson
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by Dr. John Gottman