Empty nests breed infidelity
With the children gone middle aged couples are roaming outside their marriages and relationships...
'IT'S a new phenomenon that 50-plus people are stepping outside their marriage or relationship," says Eithne Bacuzzi, relationships counsellor and psycho-sexual therapist.
Sometimes, she explains, the caring and friendship that's crucial to a happy relationship has become eroded during the frenetic early years, and now that life has become slower and quieter, cracks may start appearing.
Infidelity among the over-50s is not as uncommon as you might assume – research shows that nearly a third of people in this age category have claimed to be having an affair.
"They feel they have invested in their children, their husband or their wife – and now they want a bit of fun, they want a lightening of their life," explains Bacuzzi.
In fact, older people actually tend to be more likely to be tempted into infidelity than the young.
According to the British Sexual Fantasy Research Project, it seems that after enduring the drudge-work involved in running a family and maintaining a marriage or long-term relationship for decades, many middle-aged people find it hard to resist what appears to be their last shot at self-fulfilment.
However, there usually has to be something wrong with the existing relationship for this to happen.
Bacuzzi explains: "I don't think people step out easily. Not very many people do it consciously or deliberately. If a relationship is working well it never happens.
"If you're happy enough in a relationship and it's a good friendship, and you're both on the same page, I don't think someone will walk out and do this. It comes from something."
Most people don't automatically hit a rough patch once they pass the age of 50 – a serious relationship problem at this stage may have roots reaching back 20 years, explains therapist Austin Prior.
A man may have felt ignored or even sidelined by his wife or partner's preoccupation with growing children, Prior explains.
As a result, he suggests, a 'drift' could have begun as far back as when a couple were in their 30s and 40s.
"Some damage has been done and it makes them more open to infidelity because there's not enough in the relationship to hold them together.
"They may have been focused on the children, education and other things and they may have drifted far away from each other over the decades.
"Because there was so much else going on they may not have noticed it happening," says Prior, a former deputy director of the Rutland Centre.
"Men may need the reassurance of a younger person's adoration – and that kick-starts it – but I believe there's a basic insecurity under the surface."
However, the current situation can also play a part – by the mid-50s, the focus in life can change as the house literally empties out, says Feargal Rooney, a senior psychologist and coordinator of the psychological services for healthy relationships and sexuality at St John of God's Hospital in Stillorgan, Co Dublin.
In the aftermath of a busy lifestyle full of concerns about work and child-rearing, he says, things become quieter and suddenly a couple's focus changes. Rooney says: "They look at each other and say 'who are you?'
"We're starting to get a bit older and want to feel attractive or virile."
People may start looking for affirmation to prove to themselves that they still have 'it' he says. "People have time, money and an impetus to seize the day while they can – and the demands of work and family are decreasing."
With the children now gone, adds Prior, a woman has more time on her hands and may find herself 'detaching' and starting to look outward.
"Sometimes the women who have been focused on family and children see freedom and a whole world out there," he says.
"They may decide 'I need to do something'."
A new relationship may develop, perhaps with a work colleague or with somebody at a club they have joined, says Bacuzzi, and it goes on from there. A lot of couples separate at this point in their lives, observes Rooney – they may have struggled along for years, developing new interests or hobbies outside the home and there may be "less commonality," he warns.
Couples can become so "disconnected" and disinterested in each other or have drifted so far apart over the years, says Bacuzzi, that they miss the clues when a partner is unfaithful – and they're stunned when they discover it.
Signs of infidelity in this age group are not subtle – they can include staying out late, the purchase of new underwear by the female in the relationship, text messages, emails, emotional distancing and lack of interest in sex with their long-term partner.
It's important to realise that both partners contribute to the failure of a relationship, warns Prior – although, he acknowledges, the unfaithful partner must take responsibility for their infidelity. "In my experience men try to explain it away by saying that after the kids came along the wife let herself go or was not available," he says, adding that he often finds that "it is very much the men who wander".
Couples need help in finding their way back to the relationship – there may be betrayal, hurt, anger over a severe breach of trust, he says.
"There is a lot of hurt that will need to be addressed. It's easy to point the finger at the wandering spouse but there may be genuine feelings of loneliness and rejection."
But can a relationship be rekindled after such a trauma? It's possible, says Bacuzzi, but it's also slow and painful, and often very difficult.
"Usually people who have a strong fulfilling early relationship with a solid friendship, affection and sex are more successful," says Bacuzzi.
"I have witnessed the re-launch of such a relationship. "You need two willing partners who will reinvest in the relationship.
"Patience, forgiveness and understanding are required.
"An enormous amount of work goes into it because you are rebuilding something that has gone to ashes."
The person who has had the affair must let it go totally and reinvest in their original relationship.
The other partner must be willing to forgive and to understand – but it takes a lot of time.
However, she says, if they do get back together, it can be an even better relationship because they are ready to put energy into it and redefine it.
Says Rooney: "I think it comes down to the will and the resolve to do it and if they were to do it they will have to graft and work together to make it happen.
"The willingness makes it easier but it does not guarantee that it will recover the relationship."
Once the relationship has been rekindled, he says, the couples must "consciously and actively" work on it – finding a common interest that they can do together, such as hill-walking, can be helpful.
Also discovering one parent has been unfaithful can be devastating for adult children who may not have had any inkling of the poor relationship between their parents, says Rooney, and if parents separate it can be quite traumatic for them too.
And, in a word of warning to those considering indulging in what they perceive as a "short-lived" affair or a fling while outwardly remaining in their long-term relationship or marriage, he says that sometimes the damage can be irreversible.
"I have seen where people are just too tired to try and pick up the pieces of the relationship and may give in quite early," says Rooney.
"I've seen situations where it could have crumbled so much that it is beyond repair and they may not have the emotional or mental energy required to build it up again."
What does it take to successfully rekindle a broken relationship?
* A strong desire to repair the relationship:
"It comes down to the will and the resolve to do it. They will have to graft and work together to make it happen," says Rooney.
However, he warns: "The willingness makes it easier but it doesn't guarantee that they will recover the relationship."
* Both partners must be prepared to reinvest heavily:
"Patience and understanding are required. An enormous amount of work goes into it because you are rebuilding something that has gone to ashes," warns Bacuzzi.
* Accept responsibility:
"A sincere willingness by the unfaithful partner to take responsibility for his or her infidelity – and not to blame it on his spouse is crucial," says Prior.
"If people are trying to work it out, the person who has been unfaithful must accept their responsibility and not blame the other person, by saying, for example, they were too busy with the children."
He says there must be a recognition that both partners have contributed to this.
There must be forgiveness on the part of the betrayed partner, says Bacuzzi.
A couple must "consciously and actively spend more time together," work on their communication with one another, and find a common interest that they can do together, says Rooney.
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