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Jun 24 2011

Affairs That Initiate a Midlife Crisis: What’s Going On, Why They Work and Why, Eventually, They Usually Don’t Work.

Published by at 12:00 pm under Knowing Relationships BLOG


She had an “emotional affair” that lasted many years. They were never lovers. They talked constantly and told each other their stories. They said they would leave their marriages. He left his. She didn’t leave hers. She went into therapy instead.
The chances that an affair which ends a marriage can become a happy marriage are very, very slim.  We’ll look at why that is, at what happens in an affair, and at how to make the best of the mess that’s left afterwards.   The woman who had the “emotional  affair,”  had it with a man she’s met in a pottery class. There was a part of her that longed to be creative and artistic.  She and her husband had joined together to work hard, build a family, build a family business. By her late thirties, children off in college, she felt utterly suffocated by the very success she’d worked so hard to build. Her husband wanted them to double the size of their business and all she could see was another fifteen years of being a slave to that business. Yet she felt she couldn’t refuse her husband because, she felt she’d committed to a certain kind of life with him. So she began her affair.
Now I’ll give you a male version of that story. The man was a doctor and an excellent one. He’d come from a family where the adults and older children were pretty selfish and self involved.  He basically raised himself and cared for the older people.  Since he had a good heart and was smart, he was good at it. He knew how to care for others. What he had suppressed was his ability to allow others to care for him. You can see where this story is going and why, at 45, he began an affair with a very sweet young woman who was a nurse in his practice. You can see what their time alone was like, and why he said to her so often, “When I am with you and our clothes are off, one of greatest happy feelings for me  is that, finally, I’m not being a doctor.”
What’s going on?
Most of us, except those of us who really are very superficial, have a suppressed, or hidden side.  There is almost always a part of our potential that, for a number of good reasons, we refuse to develop.  The mark of the young adult is his or her focus on becoming a certain kind of adult.  Often the first marriage is an expression of that healthy intention.
But often, unless you were graced by exceptionally loving, generous and supportive parents, your vision of what you can be is too narrow.  At midlife you discover in many ways that you are both a better and more complex person than you thought you were, and a worse one.
There is a suppressed part of you that wants its time on the stage of your life.  And if you don’t trust your marriage partner to allow that part of you to appear, you will find someone who will nurture it. You will fall in love with that person. It’s a very old joke. The man says to his secret love, “My wife doesn’t understand me.”
People in these relationships, when they get into them, are often pleased, surprised, relieved, or thrilled to find that, in this affair, they show up as a very different person than the person they seem to be  in their marriage. They are funnier, sexier, smarter, more compassionate, wiser, kinder, something more wonderful, fulfilling and pleasing to themselves than they ever thought they were, or always wished they were.
But there is no integrity to the relationship  when it’s a secret and there is another party being excluded. How can there be? The relationship which is an affair,  is no more stable than the one that isn’t.  In both relationships, the one who is having the affair is showing up with only part of her or his true self.
So the affair starts out as being a way to become more real, more whole, as a way of trying to live with more integrity, and ends because, in the context of the affair, it’s impossible to become more real and more whole while having an affair, impossible to love with integrity. And this is the lesson everyone learns over and over and over again.
Here is how things sometimes resolve. The woman who wanted to do pottery had to learn to say, in a generous way, “no” to her husband. Instead of helping him open an additional store, she set up a studio in a loft building where there were several other artists.  She replaced her “emotional affair” with a community of friends.
The Doctor went into therapy and ended the affair.  Of course he had to ask the nurse to find a new position because he couldn’t have her in the office anymore. They managed that with some grace and a heavy severance package.  If the pottery woman had to learn to start saying “no,” the doctor had to learn to stop saying “no.” He had to learn to allow his wife to care for him and that wasn’t easy for either of them, but in the end, it was a transition they were both grateful for.
Sometimes the affair that ends the marriage survives the divorce, but usually it doesn’t. In one situation, as soon as the man left his wife, all the unpleasant ways he’d been as a husband started showing up in his new relationship. His new love stopped being the good woman in contrast to the “bad” woman at home and became, to him, a woman of ordinary complexity. He couldn’t handle it and in some respects, neither could she. As their relationship got weird, she became convinced that he was cheating on her with another woman just as he had cheated on his wife with her. And she was right. At some level she intuited the dual personality aspect of men who have affairs. The poet, Stanley Kunitz, said, “We have to invent and reinvent who we are until we arrive at a self we can bear to live with and die with.”  People who are drawn to affairs are often in a chaotic research project to discover what parts of their inner self they need to invite into their daily lives.  There are ways to create this integrity without doing something that also violates integrity.  But life is filled with such lessons.

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10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Affairs That Initiate a Midlife Crisis: What’s Going On, Why They Work and Why, Eventually, They Usually Don’t Work.”

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  4. LDDiamondon 16 Aug 2011 at 11:27 am

    I find the similarities in the above described person who is having an affair very like a person who is very single, and very recently divorced, or out of a long relationship. To quote “People in these relationships, when they get into them, are often pleased, surprised, relieved, or thrilled to find that, in this affair, they show up as a very different person than the person they seem to be in their marriage. They are funnier, sexier, smarter, more compassionate, wiser, kinder, something more wonderful, fulfilling and pleasing to themselves than they ever thought they were, or always wished they were.” My husband was right out of a marriage when we met. Looking back, I would say that the above paragraph describes him perfectly. At times I actually feel a bit defrauded, since the person I live with now after 10 years seems to be a pixelated version of the one I met. The pixels just don’t line up. The words don’t match the actions. So, the resemblance to me is striking, and it makes me wonder how one can really expect to meet a “whole” single person either. It seems many are half-absent, whether they are in an affair, or dating after a marriage.

  5. drbeloveon 17 Aug 2011 at 6:20 am

    Nice reply. Very thoughtful and observant. Thank you.
    I agree. People who are very very single and also dating around, in and out of relationships have are also not yet figured out how to get all the various parts of themselves to show in an intimate relationship. For some the “half-absence” is habitual and not very conscious. For others, it’s a deliberate strategy. Also, Not everyone wants that kind of intimacy.
    Finally, I think, a good intimate relationship really does give us a chance to know the most about who we really are. But the unfolding can take time. The pixilated effect could be the emergence of others of other personnae, other ways of being in the world…maybe for both of you.
    When I hear the “words don’t match the actions” comment I think about those distant solar systems where the planets don’t move as they should and then, on closer examination,, there is a second, hidden sun, a dark star at the core of the system, invisible in the normal spectrum, and when that is identified, then the pattern of movement make sense. It sounds like you see the new pattern, but can’t yet find an organizing principle.
    I hope this isn’t too nerdy an explanation. I’ll be curious to hear your response.

    Philip Alan

  6. Ashland13on 21 Mar 2013 at 8:45 am

    Thank you, these articles and responses are very helpful.

    My husband is leaving our marriage for his other woman and I am tyring to come to terms with the whole thing, am pregnant and suffer the bereavement stage. It only came to light two months ago, though he has been gone from our home for a long while.

    He acts very much like the articles and replies and has destroyed his whole life. He is giving up the house we built and not seeming to care and giving up so much else. I am working very hard not to care about him any more and detatach again, but it’s been 20 years -my whole adulthood that I’ve been with him-and I was very codependent.

    I am working on letting that part of myself go and learning to force my mind to remember that he is not the same person. Some boundaries have helped, but any advice would be appreciated. Some boundaries he is not keeping, for he is extremely narcissistic, but also does not believe he should have any boundaries, like the rest of us.

    He was very serious much of the time before, though we joked and had many, many good times. Now whenever I do have to hear him or hear him and our daughter, he is so juvenile it’s like someone else. His appeance is changing as well-much weight gain and hair loss, baggy and bulging eyes.

    It’s very strange, because-to a point-he will still help me with things or the house-but it has to be his terms and I cannot ask directly. It’s a horrible game. I have stopped asking, but he will still insert himself. I suspect a few things-guilt and a way to keep a handle on the house and make himself think I need him? I am learning to just let things go instead of ask him for a darn thing.

    Again many thanks. Anything like these pages I can find to read seem to push the grief aside, briefly.

  7. evanson 24 Jul 2013 at 9:08 am

    my husband of 31years left me to be with a woman work. He filed for divorce as he felt guilty of living with an alien and her children and still being married. I am having the best time of my life because i have never been spoilt by him as i am being spoilt now

  8. drbeloveon 30 Jul 2013 at 9:40 am

    Amazing and fascinating story. I’ve heard similar. I would love to hear more and would be happy to call for the rest of the story. Let me know.

  9. Sallyon 25 Sep 2013 at 3:45 am

    Dear Dr Belove,
    Can you give me insight into my husband? He started an affair a year ago. I understand why and have continued to love him but his behaviour has been bizarre. I know the woman is part of the problem as she is terrified of losing him and will do anything to keep him. What I dont understand is why he started to tell me every day for 10 weeks that he loved me and was going to try to come back. It almost broke me because in the end he only managed 10 days away from her. Now he just says he does love me but can’t give up whatever it is she has given him. We have 4 children and have been together for 30 years….. I am told I am still very attractive. Should I remain ‘loving from afar’ and patient or should I try to turn my back?

  10. drbeloveon 05 Apr 2014 at 7:37 am

    Hi Sally. I’d need to know more. Write me at