Betrayal: What happens when infidelity and possessiveness ambush a family?
A family therapist on what happens when infidelity and possessiveness ambush a family
Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30
Family law courts hear tragic stories every day. Families are places of solace, comfort and love. But families can be complex, sometimes destructive places too.
This week such a court heard the story of one family where a husband would only allow his unfaithful wife back into the family home if she sold her nice car, gave him €65,000 and saw a psychiatrist.
The marriage has since unravelled further... and the tragic detritus of this sundered family was laid out for the entire nation to read about.
But what does this anonymous case, exceptional though it is, tell us about family? What does it tell us about the love that binds them and the hurt, betrayal, guilt and anger that can destroy them?
We know two things with certainty. People want to marry each other and that marriages regularly break down. The statistics may be pessimistic but people are not.
Despite the tragic stories heard in the family law courts every day, marriage has meaning for people. Whatever love is, people seek it, wish to cement it in marriage, grieve if the marriage ends and are prepared to try it a second time. Saying 'I do' and promising to love 'until death do they part' remains a deep desire for people.
The equality referendum was further confirmation of that - marriage has a powerful meaning for people that includes visible public validation of their relationships.
One of the most common reasons why 'together and forever' becomes 'get out and never return' is when someone in a couple has an extramarital affair.
Research shows that the reasons why men and women have affairs in the first place are radically different and the responses to each other when it happens are equally so. And whether in the 21st century the reason behind our actions and reactions are entirely new or whether, as certain theories suggest, they go back to primitive prehistoric programming is a source of psychological interest and concern.
Certainly evolutionary psychology was been one of the frameworks that provide information about differences between men and women.
A major factor in this relates to primitive 'paternity uncertainty'. In other words, women have always had the advantage of knowing with certainty that they are the parent of their children.
Men have always had to live with that doubt. So for women, long-term protection by the father of their children has always been one of their motivations to remain in partnership; whereas for men, it was proposed that greater promiscuity increased their chances of genetic continuity.
This is often one of the traditional explanations given as to why men, even men who are happy in their marriage, may cheat whereas women either seek protection or seek emotional connection when they have an affair.
In short - women cheat for emotional intimacy; men cheat for sexual intimacy, although whether in the culture of the 21st century either men or women still buy that idea is another story.
There are, in any case, many other reasons proposed as to why people have affairs. Psychologists and family therapists providing therapy to couples hear them all.
They hear the stories of dissatisfaction in the relationship; mid-life crises for reassurance about attractiveness; the male emotional menopause and the female cougar syndrome; alcohol abuse; violence in relationships and the search for the frisson and appreciation that can flag in domesticity.
They hear the details of the infamous retaliatory affair which may be the only way some partners can come to terms with infidelity by having a visible, angry, revenge fling or extreme get-even reactions during which entire wardrobes may be shredded, precious collections shattered, favourite books burnt, vintage wines emptied and whatever vengeful retributions can release the anger of rejection and the impulse for revenge.
But there are other deeper psychological and sad reasons as to why some people engage in affairs. Intimacy avoidance affairs are entered into by those who are fearful of true relationships and who have affairs to avoid closeness to anyone.
Sexual addiction affairs are by those who use sex to numb inner pain and emptiness, and then there are those who gain sexual satisfaction through duplicity, the game of deception and the risk of detection being part of pathological play.
One of the most psychologically strategic of all affairs are what might be called 'exit affairs', affairs that are undertaken by conflict avoiders who have decided to leave the marriage by precipitating a crisis.
And, of course, the quickest route and fastest way to end a marriage is to have an affair.
Partners, particularly women, who become aware of this exit strategy often turn a blind eye to infidelity to retain the marriage, which is yet another example of the extraordinary complexities of human bonding and separating, and how desperately people do not want their marriage to end.
Clinical work often reveals how often the choice of the person with whom to be unfaithful tends to differ between men and women, with women more likely to opt for men who are powerful, wealthy and kind, antidotes to loneliness who can provide protection, validation, fun, nurturance and experiences of being loved no longer available to them in the marriage. They are much less inclined to choose men like their husbands; whereas in long-term affairs, men often choose women who are not unlike their wives.
Whether this is a yearning for the young or more loving version of the person they originally fell in love with, or whether this is because men prefer a particular type of woman and one that is more resistant to change, is not clear. Whatever the reason, the pattern is observable, and so the jealousies of men and women, the shock, denial, anger, yearning and depression that follow finding a partner has had an affair is devastating to behold and there are few winners, and many emotional losers, when marriages break down and primitive desperations emerge.
Amongst the most primitive emotions we experience as humans are jealousy. To return to evolutionary perspective, they indicate that men control women's sexuality and are primed to control women's potential to sexual infidelity with strong possessive jealousy to be certain that her children are theirs.
For women maintaining the emotional tie with her mate is most important, which is why a woman may 'forgive' a man's one-night, but emotional infidelity is intolerable to her because of the loss of long-term love and support of her children. And let us not forget that until relatively recent times, women and children as male possessions was effectively enshrined in law.
With same-sex marriage in Ireland, we have yet to see what stories may in the future find their way to family course but researchers Dr Bevan and Dr Lanutti in the US interestingly propose that heterosexual males are significantly more upset than gay males, lesbians and heterosexual females when it comes to a partner's sexual infidelity, while no differences were found in relation to a partner's emotional infidelity.
Time will tell.
Whatever the times in which we live now, whatever the individual differences and similarities between couples and whatever the history of meeting, mating, hatching and dispatching has been there from the dawn of time, one thing we know - people have hopes and dreams and belief in each other when they start out together.
And despite the pitfalls of marriage, its popularity is not in decline.
Dr Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist, family therapist and author