From my column in Body+Soul
Question: "I’ve recently discovered my husband is having an affair. But I’m not upset about it – I’m glad. Glad because I haven’t fancied my husband for years, and this affair means the pressure to have sex has ended. Our love life was good at the start. Three children later though, and the chemistry just isn’t there.
Why don’t I leave him? I like our life together. He makes me laugh, he’s kind, and brilliant with our kids. We live in a nice house and have a buzzing social life. I don’t see why I need to end a perfectly good marriage just because I don’t find him sexually attractive. And I’m not prepared to wreck all our lives for the sake of his bit on the side.
I do feel uneasy though. I’m worried that he might admit his affair (and I’d have no idea how to react), or even worse, fall in love and want to leave the marriage himself. So, what’s my best move here – do I keep looking the other way? Or do I talk to him and work out a new ‘arrangement’ that keeps our marriage solid but our sex lives separate?"
Answer: Your question shows just how more complex the issue of infidelity is than just “you’re a cheater and I’m leaving!”. It’s not that straightforward! I deal with these issues every day in my clinic and every situation is unique.
You say that you have ‘a perfectly good marriage’. I’d like to challenge you on that point. Is a sexless marriage, or one with only ‘dutiful’ sex a good marriage? What is the role of sex in a relationship? And can that part be successfully out-sourced to a third party?
I often describe a good relationship as being like a tripod. It has three legs, and all three legs need to be strong for it to be a steady, useful tripod. If any legs are wobbly, the whole thing is wobbly.
The first leg is the logistical leg – you need to be team-mates in the game of life. You can raise a family, earn money, get the garbage out on time, and manage all those practical matters.
The second leg is the leg of friendship – you need to be friends. This means that you genuinely like each other, you like hanging out together, you have common values and interests, you’re each other’s go to person.
The third leg is the lover leg – you need to be lovers. When I say lovers, I don’t just mean that you have sex occasionally, I mean that you share a unique feeling between you that combines both sex and love. It’s a vital, enlivening feeling that you share all through your life together: in a glance, a touch, in small acts of kindness and flirtation, all the way through to sexual intimacy.
Now here’s the thing, this feeling has to be cultivated or it will wither and die. In the early stages of a relationship you are usually doing all the right things to keep these feelings strong, you’re doing things together, having fun, having both deep and playful connections. But over time complacency sets in and we can feel, as so many of my clients say, that “I love my partner but I’m not in love any more,” with comments like “we just feel like housemates now”. But it’s actually this third leg, you as lovers, that makes you uniquely a couple, that provides the vibrancy and connection that keeps you feeling good about yourself and your partner, and that keeps you secure and loved-up.
Without that, people are prone to straying. It doesn’t excuse deceit by any means, but it does explain it. We love to be loved, and part of that love is to be desired, to have a level of intimacy where we can be totally vulnerable and open, and through that to feel known, cherished, understood. That’s why strong relationships are the greatest predictor of health and wellbeing.
These days some people are exploring positive forms of openness within their relationship. It’s called consensual non-monogamy, or CNM for short. This is where a couple discuss and agree on some level of openness in their relationship. Note the phrase ‘discuss and agree’, to do this you have to have reallygood communication. Which you don’t. Yet.
So, yes, you do need to talk to your husband. Through opening up this conversation, you’ll have to get vulnerable and open and honest and real. Which is scary and challenging and difficult, so you might want to get professional help with the discussion. And, this might mean that you are able to consensually negotiate an open relationship of some kind. Or, and this is the key, developing this level communication may well open you back up to each other…
I’ve worked with countless couples who have ‘fallen out of love’ and ‘drifted apart’. Some don’t manage to reconnect, but the many who do, find their way back to each other through being brave and vulnerable and developing this high level of honest, real communication.