Affairs of the heart
The dynamics of infidelity
The force is strongSexual energy is the most powerful force in the human experience. Despite poetic ideas to the contrary, the energy source of all human life is a stronger force than love. Dynamics that lead to affairs are fuelled by this force but very often also have their roots in the patterns of the family systems involved. The forces that drive and arise can be very strong as people get caught up in the systems’ search for balance. Affairs are often the product of romantic idealisation and can be expressions of a kind of ‘blind love’. Felt as a deep desire, a fascination or quest it often is just that, but the current object of desire may represent someone or something else completely. Connection through an affair may happen through mutual or generational wounds that can create a blind spot, where all that seems important is the physical connection and that can quickly turn to a sense of having found the ‘ideal lover’ or ‘the one’. The search for romantic attachment or sexual gratification that leads to physical intimacy with someone outside of a couple relationship can often be a reflection of an unconscious search for completion, acknowledgement, belonging and healing. Judging affairs as ‘morally wrong’ offers a very limited view on what may be going on underneath, what is asking to be seen and resolved. Morals, values and judgments will usually simply hide the view of wider system patterns which can often be the source of rich insight. Insight into the underlying systemic dynamics can lead to deep personal growth and the pattern can finally dissolve and resolve.
“It is possible in a couple relationship for there to be meaningful relationships with other people – also sexual relationships. Human life is much too complex to simply judge that out of hand. If the basic loyalty and dependability for the partner remain, and if the personal growth from the additional experiences is brought back into the partner relationship, then it could have a positive effect.
On the other hand loyalty is hampered by an unresolved tie to the family-of-origin. For example if a woman is still tied to her father, she will seek out a father in addition to her husband – usually a lover.
You can’t make simple judgments about it. The question is: how can it be brought into order?
By releasing the tie to her father and standing next to her mother, perhaps she won’t need a lover and will be able to relate to her husband completely as a wife.
The same is naturally true for a man who is tied to his mother. If he can stand by his father, he perhaps won’t need another woman in addition to his wife. When it’s the other way round, when a woman behaves in her marriage as if she were her husband’s mother, and tries to re-educate him, then he may look for another woman in addition to this wife-mother. The lover becomes the wife and the wife becomes a mother.
The same thing happens if a woman has a husband who acts as her father. She may look for another man in addition to this husband-father. The lover becomes the husband and the husband a father.
There are many possible entanglements and it doesn’t do justice to the fullness and complexity of life simply to label these things as faithful or unfaithful, loyal or disloyal.”Extract from ‘Acknowledging What Is’ By Bert Hellinger
“When affairs are not illuminated in the context of the wider system, morals and ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ often keep everyone blind, judgmental and entangled.”John Whittington
“When a woman feels drawn to a romantic attachment or affair but finds it inexplicable or feels as though there’s something wrong with her she may be trying to complete a missing connection with her father, to receive the nurturing and love due to her as a child. If she can see him in his proper place and take her own, the desire for a lover – often older, to represent father – dissipates.”Judy Wilkins-Smith
“Some seek the great freedom: but instead of arriving in a green meadow, they end up in the zoo.”Bert Hellinger
“When someone is suffering deeply within themselves, their suffering spills over and they start making others suffer as well. What they truly need is our help, not punishment.”Thich Nhat Hanh
The urge to confessIn many cases a strong urge to tell the current partner or spouse about a romantic attachment or intimate affair emerges. Most times full or even partial disclosure will lead to the serious bruising if not the destruction of the existing relationship, especially if the romantic urges have led to full physical intimacy. Ending the existing relationship may be the purpose and will often be the outcome, however there may be other intentions and hopes and this is a useful indicator of something else going on, something in the wider system. There may be an intention to highlight what you believe you are missing in your existing marriage or relationship and hope that by describing what you have been thinking about, or doing, will enlighten your existing partner and relight the flame in your relationship. However, there is often less thought given to other possible outcomes – the implications for any children involved, friends and other relatives – and this lack of wider perspective may also be a part of the magical thinking that underpins the search for romantic attachment and affairs in the first place. Very often people are not aware of the root cause of the irresistible draw to a romantic or physical affair. Until this root cause is uncovered, seen and illuminated, it can be unwise to approach a spouse or partner. If you do not know why this is happening or clearly understand the deep desire, you won’t be able to articulate it in a way that makes sense or brings light to it. In such cases the frustration and sadness only deepens and rather than insight, pain is experienced by everyone involved. In particular, the effect on any children is often greater than imagined and in itself starts another systemic trauma that is passed on through the generations. This entangles people and the pattern often repeats.
“There is no growth without guilt ”Bert Hellinger
“When a woman believes that she can safely tell her husband about her lover and that he will understand, then she has usually ‘mis-taken’ her husband as her father.”John Whittington
Telling your partner may appear to offer you a relief from guilt, but burden them in a way that they may find too much to bear. Rather than finding the true cause and solution this can inflict a wound on the partner/spouse who may then feel too angry or not good enough to stay. In such cases further distance and distress may result on both sides.
When the underlying dynamics are truly explored, growth is possible for partners, families and children. There can be more personal growth in the tolerating of the feelings of guilt, the taking of responsibility and the illumination of the dynamics that fuelled the affair.
Spontaneous revelation – where one person tells another that they have been or are tempted to be unfaithful – is sometimes driven by the deep need to be seen, to be acknowledged. It’s as if the person having the affair has mistaken their partner for one of their parents – usually the opposite sex parent – and that in that place, as the child, they feel safe to tell their partner/parent their secret. This is important information in itself and can lead to great insight.
“Rather like forgiveness a request for the partner to understand, places the responsibility on the one who is likely to be most hurt and may be a covert attempt to relieve the one whose responsibility it is. In this situation, there is often much pain and little growth.”
Revelation may also cover a systemic pattern where it feels unsafe to tell the truth and so a confession of a hidden truth takes place. In this situation it may often be that there is another secret in the family system which cannot be spoken and that the secret relationship is fuelled by this, but also covers it up, a kind of systemic distraction.
In these examples it’s very often true that telling the partner or spouse in the hope of resolution is usually too burdensome for them and they feel displaced and so unable to hear what was intended.
In fact the ‘message’ in a disclosure is usually for someone else, in another system. Illuminating this changes everything and the confusion and pain can dissolve. Systemic dynamics like this require systemic intervention.
“Apart, the lovers could neither live nor die, for it was life and death together.
They gazed at one another, but did not know they suffered.”Robert Johnson
“The content of the addiction, whether it be an ingestive addiction or an activity addiction…is an attempt at an intimate relationship.”John Bradshaw
“Someone who rejects their family-of-origin may grow up searching for a relationship in which they feel they can really belong. However with the inner ‘life sentence’: “I reject you and will look elsewhere”, they may repeat the pattern through affairs that, one after the other, appear to be the answer, but are then seen for what they are and also rejected. The path to resolution is, once again, back in the family system.”John Whittington
- Those who give too much in an intimate relationship cause an imbalance. The one who receives too much feels the over-receiving as a burden. It makes them too ‘small’ and the one who is giving too ‘big’ in the relationship. The smaller one feels themselves unable to balance the over-giver and may begin to look for a place where their gifts are appreciated and received. This is a common cause of affairs and so can be seen in part as an attempt to balance the exchange.
“Infidelity may be a means of punishing our partner for what she or he has not done. We feel hurt, wronged, or neglected in some way, but are unable to come to a conscious resolution with our partner. Instead, we make an unconscious attempt to return balance to our relationship.”Jamy & Peter Faust
- When a spouse has an affair and the other simply forgives with no consequences the offending spouse gets ‘smaller’ while the faithful one gets ‘bigger’ and saintlier. In order to ‘find their weight’ again, the offending spouse may well find someone else outside of the marriage or partnership who acknowledges their weight as a man or woman.
- Affairs are sometimes an unconscious balancing for a predecessor who was caught in a loveless relationship but couldn’t escape. A love that was ‘not allowed’ by the family may often show up as an affair in subsequent generations.