Psychoanalysts are seeing a sharp rise in extramarital affairs among couples. Why do we really have affairs outside marriage, and is social media making them more prevalent?
DESPITE THE fact that psychoanalysts and psychotherapists spend much of their professional time assessing the meaning of their patients' sex lives and analysing their patients' premarital and extramarital activities, little attention has been given to these phenomena in psychoanalytic literature. Titillating articles about extramarital affairs in the media, meanwhile, give little insight into what causes them.
During our lifetimes, many of us are either subjected to, or witness, infidelity in our close circles. Although we're all curious about affairs we have difficulty understanding the motives behind them and usually end up judging those who cheat on their partners. As a psychoanalyst, I feel judging ourselves, or others, for being unfaithful only puts pressure on us - and generally does nothing to alter the behaviour.
Traditional marriage practices have changed dramatically in the last two decades. Many unmarried couples live together and sex before marriage is now commonly accepted. As a psychotherapist who lived in the UK for twenty years, that is, for most of my adult life, I’ve been able to make comparisons between certain aspects of couples' relationships in Britain and in Turkey. "Swinging", "switching" and "group sex" are not so rare among the couples I see in Turkey these days, for example, although still far less common than in Britain.
Swinging, switching and group sex are not so rare among the couples I see in Turkey these days.
I’ve observed from the couples I see that premarital sex and even extramarital affairs often boost sexual confidence and promote mental health; at the same time, an extramarital affair can completely erode a marriage, leading to a loss of trust in the spouse and the injured party feeling betrayed and unvalued.
Since the early 1900's, psychoanalytic literature has argued that behaviour cannot be fully understood or assessed without a complete psychological analysis taking place. Unless a patient's personal history, the structural elements of their personality, their unconscious dynamics, their personal relationships, their fantasies and other aspects of their complex psyche are considered carefully, the meaning of their behaviour can only be speculated upon.
As a psychodynamically oriented therapist myself, I cannot immediately say that a client’s extramarital affair is "neurotic", “acting out” or maladaptive; nor can I argue it is "mature", "healthy" or adaptive. I believe an extramarital affair has a different unconscious meaning for each unique relationship. In analysis, we aim to look at the unconscious meaning of a behaviour without judging it to be right or wrong.
CAUSING PROBLEMS FOR COUPLES: SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE INTERNET
I have witnessed a sharp rise in the incidence of extramarital affairs in my own practice in recent years. Most of these affairs are with people spouses have met via social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, or through dating websites. It has become very easy to get in touch with old school friends and colleagues. There are numerous opportunities to meet new people through the internet. I think this is making it harder for today's married couples to remain faithful. The internet is constantly beckoning them with promises of a more attentive ear, more comfort and more exciting sexual possibilities than seem to exist in their marriage.
Numerous social media channels stimulate people’s narcissism, feelings of self-aggrandisement and erotic appetites. In addition, alternative sexual arrangements such as “open marriages”, “swinging” and “switching” are easier to engage in thanks to the opportunities offered by social media. No wonder, then, that such practices are becoming more common.
We shouldn’t be surprised that many prefer affairs to the experiences found within the confines of marriage; especially when we compare the excitement, narcissistic pleasure and fulfilment of our need to be admired offered by a guilty liaison, to the delayed gratification, dull routines and reciprocal judgment one finds in marriage.
The primary objective in an affair is the satisfaction of libidinal pleasure, the sexual energy which, according to psychoanalysts, underlies all our actions. This inevitably results in an unconscious conflict. This conflict, which is felt at a conscious level, is the result of a tug-of-war between our judging 'super-ego' and our unconscious - i.e. unperceived - motivation. This then manifests itself as guilt and the desire to be forgiven. For most couples in therapy following infidelity, the primary motivation is guilt and the desire to be forgiven by the injured partner. In most cases, the cheating party feels responsible for their partner’s emotional trauma and expects the therapist to help heal the damage.
Below are some common themes that arise in analytic couples therapy. These couples came for treatment mainly because they were in conflict about an extramarital affair. While the exact unconscious dynamics between partners will differ for every relationship, these are the ones I encounter most often and which I believe help us understand most instances of infidelity.
One of the difficulties of marriage is that in our search for the omnipotent mother or father we come face to face with the incest taboo. When the partner assumes the psychological role of parent, emotionally nourishing, calming, understanding and loving the spouse, it is easy for the spouse to unconsciously become a mother or father substitute. When this happens, the sexual aspect of marriage can assume an incestuous - i.e. forbidden- nature. In such cases, sexually desiring the partner can result in discomfort at the conscious level, which the individual can then perceive as lack of sexual attraction to their partner. Consequently, satisfaction of sexual needs may be sought outside of marriage.
FIGHTING THE JUDGEMENTAL EGO (SUPEREGO)
In connection with the incest taboo, individuals who had or have a relationship with their parents centred around conflict and oppression can keep this conflict alive with their spouse. Their spouse assumes the parental role, and they fight against the oppression. Many people carry “psychological attachment" problems from childhood into their marriages; in particular, attachment problems they experienced with their parents. Just as with their mothers or fathers, they strive to satisfy their partner, in order to obtain the reward of love. However, either when they believe that they have not obtained the reward they rightfully deserve, or when they feel dependent on this love and therefore small, dependent and weak, they may retaliate against the mother or father figure, just like a teenager who feels that his or her autonomy has been compromised. This retaliation against the parent in the unconscious manifests itself as cheating on the spouse. Such patients unconsciously strive to get caught, so that the spouse may punish and thereby liberate them from their feelings of guilt.
SYMBIOTIC UNION (TWO HALVES OF AN APPLE)
In symbiotic relationships - a condition often observed in marriages in Turkey - spouses feel as if they are two halves of an apple and are emotionally “dependent” on each other. They do everything together; their sense of self is highly fragile. Unable to differentiate emotionally, they begin to dominate and control the other person. Such individuals become highly sensitive to criticism and neglect; they feel constantly disrespected and demeaned. A way to break free from the symbiotic bond and feel liberated is to engage in extramarital affairs. However, this does not remove the dependency on the spouse, and results in confession of the guilt and the expectation of forgiveness from the mother/father/spouse, much like a rebellious teenager.
EMOTIONAL OR SEXUAL BISEXUALITY
While we all possess - actively or passively - traits of both genders, in some individuals this conflict is stronger and manifests itself as extramarital affairs during a marriage. The person experiencing a bisexual conflict often needs two partners. For example, he or she may feel more masculine or feminine in one versus the other and may assume a more dominant or passive role in one of the relationships.
To sum up briefly, individuals who experience their partner as an “incestuous person” or the “punitive superego figure", those who experience a “bisexual conflict” or are attempting to break the “symbiotic" bond, externalize these unconscious conflicts by engaging in extramarital affairs. While this article has centered around couples who seek psychoanalytic treatment, it is my hope that it has also provided insights into broader marriage dynamics and extramarital affairs in general.
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