Infidelity and Feeling Alive, Part II
An inevitable cycle?
I could provide many more examples of experiences of “aliveness” after infidelity from interviewees, my own and those of other researchers or therapists, from film, literature, anecdotes and stories. Such experiences take on added layers of meaning in a social context characterized by doubt about whether our relationships will last forever. In some ways, the stakes are lowered. An “awakening” from the deadness of marriage into an affair is no longer a tragedy culminating in death on the train track, the ingestion of arsenic, or a march into the rising tides because there are no other options. On the other hand, because there are so many options, the risks are more diffuse, permeating even a text message with the potential for betrayal.
Some psychoanalysts view the gradual replacement of intense and consuming passion with affectionate companionship as a natural and superior development—“mature sexual love” (see Kernberg 1995). After all, it is not possible or desirable, to live at a constant pitch of sexual and emotional intensity. However, relational psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell views romance as producing important feelings of aliveness—providing purpose and excitement to life, and the “feeling that one’s life is worth not only living but also cultivating and savoring” (2002: 25). Mitchell found that for his patients who had affairs, particularly affairs that made them feel intense danger and excitement, sex with long-term lovers became experienced as predictable and dull in contrast. Yet he doesn’t believe that this process is developmentally intrinsic to love. Instead, he argues that we fool ourselves into thinking that the partner, and the relationship, is safe and predictable. When these relationships break apart, partners are often shocked to discover that they had been making incorrect assumptions about each other.
This fantasy of stability fulfills a psychological need to protect against the vulnerability of romantic love”—needing a particular person—and is a consequence of the way that we learn to love in a contrived safety created by our parents in childhood (2002: 45). The desire for such a safe psychological space is replayed in later relationships:
“One of the motives for monogamous commitments is always, surely, the effort to make the relationship more secure, a hedge against the vulnerabilities and risks of love. Yet, since respectable monogamous commitment in our times tends to be reciprocal, the selection of only one partner for love dramatically increases one’s dependency upon that partner, making love more dangerous and efforts to guarantee that love even more compelling. So we pretend to ourselves that we have, somehow, minimized our risks and guaranteed our safety—thereby undermining the preconditions of desire, which requires robust imagination to breathe and thrive.” (47).
Stability in intimate relationships, then, is not actually opposed by the adventure and excitement of transgression. Stability doesn’t even exist. So, who are the real adventurers? And what can anyone do, if danger and risk lie on both sides of the equation? Mitchell leaves us with little solid advice on how to overcome this tendency to collusion with long-term partners besides to engage in self-reflection and to approach relationships in more flexible ways, with both commitment and spontaneity in mind, with a “dedication to process in the face of uncertainty” (2002: 199). There is no easy answer, even in the suggestions of self-help books; rather, like many others who write about relationships, he believes that we need to recognize that the tension between safety and danger will never finally be resolved.
Perhaps that is why some of us repeat the cycle, over and over. We awaken, wonderfully alive with passion, then strive to make the relationship more secure so we do not lose what we have found. Yet, as lovers become more familiar to us, they are no longer idealized. As we settle into routines, feelings of ordinariness eventually dull what was once experienced as a magical connection.
The emotional intensity generated by passionate relationships should be taken seriously. Do we drain ourselves—and our partners—of vitality because of how narrowly we think of marriage? What is the role of sexual exclusivity in both maintaining intimate commitments and in contributing to feelings of being caged? Where is the “play,” literally or figuratively? Is there a way to creatively use the inevitable tension between safety and danger that Mitchell is describing?
Are there ways to experience feelings of aliveness in long term relationships that do not involve betrayal?
Continued in Part III