Intimate Partners

An examination of the underlying architecture of love relationships—the influence of the past, the causes of infidelity, and the systems that couples create  

Themes of Early Life

The tendency that people have to replicate the themes of early life or of previous generations in the context of later, intimate relationships has long been commented upon many marital theorists and therapists. As the social worker Lily Pincus, founder of the Tavistock Institute for Marital Studies, and the family therapist Dr. Christopher Dare have observed:

All of us have a tendency to get into repetitive patterns that are motivated by the persistence of wishes in unconscious fantasy form and derived from the way earlier needs were satisfied. Sometimes, in marriage, the repetitive aspect of sequences of partnership is remarkably literal, as when a woman whose childhood was damaged by her father's alcoholism finds herself marrying a man who turns out to be an alcoholic, divorces him and then gets herself into the same situation once more. Or, a man whose childhood was dominated by his mother's heart disease may marry a woman with congenital heart trouble.

The partners in such repetitive sequences, usually unaware that their problem is a resurrection of one that exists earlier and elsewhere in the extended system, are startled when they come to see that particular charged issue standing out in high relief. I will cite two such examples—situations in which a family problem had been resurrected and worked upon in a blatant and dramatic way, while the partners involved were oblivious of any connection between patterns of the past and the present.

In the first instance, the couple were, at the time of our interviews, in the midst of a full-blown marital crisis and were maintaining their emotionally fragile connection for reasons that seemed to have more to do with mutual hostile dependence than with anything relating to love, satisfaction, or caring. They behaved toward each other, by and large, like an angry mother and a truculent child. He was her incorrigibly bad boy of a spouse.

The wife had had a father whom she loved very much but who had made his family's life insecure and difficult. He was a man who kept shifting jobs, changing careers, owing either to restlessness and dissatisfaction on his part or to dissatisfaction on that of his employers. He had been a musician at one time and a teacher of music at another. He had run a community organization (and gotten into difficulties with the board), tried to start a school, and also worked at a number of other, very different sorts of occupations. The emotional turmoil surrounding this issue—because each job that her father lost or decided to leave tended to involve a move to a new community—had been a painful part of this woman's entire growing-up experience. When we talked, she was forty-three years old; she and her husband, a business executive, had been married for eighteen years.

He had had a solid professional training when she married him: a master's degree in business administration. He was moving rapidly up the corporate ladder in a large financial institution. At a conscious level the wife had done everything possible to avoid a repetition of her earlier difficulties: she'd found a partner who was not only prepared for a stable, well-remunerated career but also interested in the things that he was doing professionally.

But, as became evident during the course of the interviews, this pair had duplicated in their own lives what had happened earlier in the wife's family. Some five years before our conversations got under way, the husband had begun feeling restless in his job, like a cog in a large industrial wheel. He'd felt, as he put it, "trapped on the company's organizational chart" and had decided to start a new business of his own. The venture wasn't working out, and recently it had become clear that this effort (in a field that had nothing to do with his former occupation) was destined for failure. He was now, as he described himself, "in the midst of a male menopause," a crisis of middle life. At a time when their oldest daughter was on the verge of entering college, he had used up much of the family's savings and had no income. Had the wife, at some level, required that the past repeat itself in this fashion?

One couldn't know. This particular wife, like her mother before her, surely knew from her past how to be a powerful and competent woman who is in a relationship with an immature, incompetent man. At the time of our conversations the family (which consisted of two adults and two adolescent children) was being supported by the wife's fairly ill paying job. This, too, was a repetition of a past set of circumstances—her own family had been supported by her mother's secretarial salary. So here she was in the middle years of her adulthood dealing with the same painful problem that had preoccupied her throughout her childhood.

This restaging of a toxic family situation, in its entirety, seems to defy rational explanation. But far eerier are the replications of problems by couples who have no knowledge of a particular problem's previous existence in their families. I encountered a replication of this sort in a set of interviews that I had with a couple in their fifties (he was fifty-five at the time, and his wife was fifty). These partners had begun their marriage, now in its thirty-second year, by running off and eloping. It was not until many years later that the husband learned that his own parents had done the same thing.

The couple that I talked with had decided to marry secretly because they were certain that her family would never give their approval. Her parents would consider her too young for marriage—she was then eighteen and a freshman in college—and they would view him as insufficiently ambitious, because he was not preparing for a lucrative profession.

It was not until after both his mother and father had died that the husband learned that his oldest sister was illegitimate: his parents had run off and gotten married because his mother was already pregnant. This information had come to him by chance; he had simply stumbled across the dates of his parents' wedding and his oldest sister's birth when he was going through some family papers. Then he had realized what had occurred.

What had been told to him, as part of the family lore, was that his mother's people had initially disapproved of her suitor; they'd viewed their daughter as too young for marriage and they had considered her suitor unambitious, not sufficiently upwardly mobile. (His father, a shopkeeper, wasn't considered to be the equal of the men in his mother's family, who were all academics and clergymen.) His suspicion, confirmed in retrospect by many odd bits of information that he'd hitherto overlooked, was that his parents had eloped without his mother's family's consent because his mother was already well along in her pregnancy. But he could not recollect having heard any such story in his childhood, and thus was puzzled that he himself had eventually done something similar.

And it is puzzling: how could it have come about that a secret marriage, made without parental blessings or consent, was repeated in a subsequent generation without the young couple's being aware that such an event had occurred before? The answers to such questions aren't obvious. Do we imbibe our families' psychological issues and concerns along with the mother's milk that we drink?

This is, most probably, about as close to the truth as one can possibly come. Families are such affect-laden little social systems that people who live in them can "know" each other's truths in ways that are almost magical; they know them without ever being told. Because they are first truths of existence to which each of us is exposed, our families' truths are embedded within us, and in our lives these truths struggle to make themselves known.

To some degree, when we become adults, most of us have not put away our childish things. In the very process of choosing our mates, and of being chosen and then, in elaborating upon our separate, past lives in the life we create together we are deeply influenced by the patterns for being that we observed and learned about very early in life, and that live on inside our heads. The possibility that there may be other options, other systems for being in an intimate relationship, often doesn't occur to us, because we don't realize that we are operating from within a system, one that was internalized in our original families. What has been, and what we've known, seems to be "the way of the world"; it is reality itself.

Perhaps this is why the way it was feels, to so many people, like the way it has to be. Perhaps this is why one stumbles across so many coincidences in the lives of families. And certainly, when encountering them, one wonders, is it coincidental that a man whose mother was hypochondriacal and depressed married a woman who was warm and outgoing, and then, a decade later, finds himself the disgruntled husband of a seriously depressed and somewhat suicidal wife? Is that bad luck, or is it the present bending to the will of the past?

It may be that the tendency "to get into repetitive patterns of relationships" (to quote Pincus and Dare again) is based more than anything else upon our need to remain in a relational world with which we are familiar.

The case that Pincus and Dare cited, for instance—the daughter of an alcoholic who marries an alcoholic—can be understood in terms of that woman's staying in the only kind of world that she knows. She knows what life is like when you live with an alcoholic. What she doesn't know is what it's like when you don't. When it comes to dealing with a mate with a drinking problem, she knows how to behave; she is dealing with the devil she knows.

What she does know may not be pleasant, and may be frankly undesirable at a conscious level; but what she doesn't know (so goes the unconscious reasoning) is alien, and might be far more threatening in ways she can't realize. It is for these sorts of reasons—plus the fact that repeating the past is a way of remaining psychologically connected to the past—that people will remain in uncomfortable yet familiar kinds of emotional scenarios.

I don't mean to suggest that each generation is a carbon copy of the preceding one. This is obviously not the case. My point is that there is a tremendous affectivity within families and that the interconnectedness of generations is often insufficiently appreciated.

Emotional Triangles: Infidelity

In the late 1940s and early 1950s when Kinsey and his co-workers published their landmark findings (in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female), the statistics on adultery took most people by surprise. In that era of "family togetherness" well before the development of relatively safe and effective contraceptive procedures, the sexual revolution, and the women's liberation movement—extramarital experiences were, apparently, not at all uncommon. Kinsey's data indicated that a full 50 percent of husbands had engaged in sex with an outside partner before the age of forty. And so had 26 percent of wives.

In the decades following the publication of Kinsey's data, not only have rates of infidelity among males risen slightly but also rates of infidelity among females have risen significantly. In a recent overview of the research on extramarital sex the psychologist Anthony P. Thompson observed that while the incidence of extramarital sex appeared to be "at least 50 percent for married men," the "figure for married women is rapidly approaching the same level."

All estimates of extramarital sexual activity tend, moreover, to be on the conservative side. Statistics on marital infidelity are notoriously difficult to gather, given the secretive nature of adulterous behavior. Most experts, however, consider the "educated guess" of the sex researchers G. D. Nass, R. W. Libby, and M. P. Fisher—that today some 50 to 65 percent of husbands and 45 to 55 percent of wives become extramaritally involved by the age of forty—to be a relatively sound and reasonable one. Considering that in many cases only one of the partners is a philanderer, the number of marital relationships affected by infidelity is clearly enormous—on the order of two out of every three marriages, at a minimum.

Despite the remarkably high incidence of marital infidelity, the discovery by one partner that the other is involved in an affair is usually experienced as a totally unexpected and catastrophic event. It is a disaster, like a death—which in an important sense it is. It is the death of that marriage's innocence.

The vows of emotional and sexual exclusivity have been broken, and the reactions on the part of the betrayed mate are shock, anger, panic, and incredulity. The marriage as he or she knew and understood it no longer exists, and suddenly the "haven in a heartless world" feels frighteningly insecure and exposed. The stress experienced during such a crisis can, according to Anthony Thompson, result in "behavioral and physical changes ... daily living and work routines may be disrupted; some sleep and appetite disturbances may occur ... [and] depression and suicide can be a risk for fragile personalities."

We may in this culture have experienced a revolution in our sexual mores, but most spouses continue to feel intensely afflicted and distressed by a partner's violation of the boundaries around the marital relationship. This is true even in situations in which the deceived mate has been a deceiver at an earlier time in the relationship. One husband who had had a long affair several years before he discovered that his wife was extramaritally involved described his reactions this way: "I felt furious, betrayed. I felt as if I couldn't trust her! I felt that there was someone else out there who knew all about me, and who had, for that reason, triumphed! He had—even though I didn't know who he was—bested me, taken away something that was mine, exclusively!"

This man was angrier at the unknown lover than he was at his wife. He felt as if he'd been defeated in a contest with the other man. His reaction was by no means atypical. For, as a study carried out by J. L. Francis demonstrates, men tend to associate their jealous, angry feelings with the rival male in the emotional triangle. Women, on the other hand, tend to associate their feelings of jealousy with a more global, generalized sense of loss—the loss of the partner's attention and caring

The very existence of an affair, plainly, transforms a couple's relationship from a two-person into a three-person system—and this triangle is affected by pressures emanating from the third person who has entered the marriage and become part of it.

An extremely difficult issue that a couple has to deal with when the infidelity of a partner becomes known is what actually "caused" the affair. Did it have to happen, and if it did, which spouse is the one who is truly to blame? The reasons offered by adulterous spouses in explanation of their behavior are bewildering in their multiplicity and variety. They may range, as the sexual researcher Frederick Humphrey has reported, from "conquest" to "rebellion" to "combatting depression" to "getting promoted" to "being drunk or otherwise under the influence of drugs" to "creating jealousy and gaining attention"—to name just some of the many rationales for marital infidelity that have been offered.

Among the multitude of causes cited, however, certain themes predominate. In a retrospective study of 750 case histories the clinicians Bernard L. Greene, Ronald R. Lee, and Noel Lustig found that sexual frustration, curiosity, revenge, boredom, and the need for acceptance and recognition were the reasons for the affair most frequently given.

And Anthony Thompson, in his elegant overview of the literature on extramarital sex, condenses the explanation for marital infidelity even further. The major findings in the field, he observes, consistently demonstrate that the lower the satisfaction with the marriage, and the lower the frequency and quality of marital intercourse, the more likely the development of an affair. There is as well, he comments, far more fantasizing about extramarital involvements among those people who are dissatisfied with their marital relationships.

"It is possible that marital satisfaction and coital satisfaction are the two major variables and that the influence of many secondary marital characteristics are incorporated in these broader evaluations," Thompson concludes. In short, if sex is to be viewed as an important medium of emotional exchange in the relationship, then finding another sexual partner is a way of devaluing the spouse's currency and perhaps even rendering it worthless. This is what the dissatisfied partner does by going outside the relationship—for adultery is a form of communication. It is a way of acting out a message in the language of behavior, and that message is: "For me, this marriage isn't working."

An affair may be thought of as an emotional distance-regulator. The presence of a third person in the marital system indicates that the couple is having trouble handling problems of separateness and closeness. According to the clinical psychologist Betsy Stone, it is generally the case that in a marriage in which one partner is having an outside relationship, the other partner has at least been fantasizing about becoming involved extramaritally.

This view implies that sometimes there is no real "innocent victim" and "vile offender," and that who happens to go outside the marriage first has to do with matters of opportunity and timing. Both members of the couple are at least dreaming of other partners, because both are feeling profoundly alienated and disappointed.

In this sense, an affair is not something that happens to somebody; it is something that happens between two people. And often it is the weaker spouse who acts first; he or she makes a strengthening move by getting into a coalition with the extramarital partner. For this person, becoming involved in an outside relationship is an adaptive maneuver—a way of dealing with the problems in the relationship. The affair is a symptom of a global marital disturbance; it is not the disturbance itself.

Someone is frightened about getting too close, or someone is frustrated—hungering for an intimacy that is lacking. By intimacy I don't mean candlelight, a table for two in a bistro, a violinist playing gypsy melodies as the absorbed couple engaged in mutually fascinating, intensely romantic conversation. What I mean by intimacy in this context is something closer to each person's ordinary reality. Intimacy is, in the sense intended, a person's ordinary reality. Intimacy is, in the sense intended, a person's ability to talk about who he really is, and to say what he wants and needs, and to be heard by the intimate partner.

This involves, for instance, a person's being able to tell his mate about how rotten and defeated he happens to be feeling, rather than having always to pretend to be masterly and adequate. Or, to take another example, it involves being able to make his sexual needs and friendship choices explicit, rather than remaining inarticulate about them—and then feeling exploited by and angry at the spouse.

If, however, the fear of getting too close (so close that the mate will see and condemn his weaknesses and failings) is the husband's problem, an affair provides a pseudo-solution. For if he has another, secret partner, he is not so close to his wife as he feared he was becoming; there is something important about who he really is that she does not know. The furtiveness, secrecy, and time constraints upon the outside relationship, moreover, set certain limits upon the degree of intimacy that can be achieved in it.

When, on the other hand, it is the wife who is extramaritally involved, it is usually—though not always—owing to a hunger for emotional intimacy rather than a wish to avoid it. The wife, hopelessly outdistanced in her emotional pursuit has given up the chase and gone outside the marriage to find what the husband will not give her—acceptance, validation of her worth, a willingness to listen to her talk about who she is and to learn about what she needs and wants. When intimacy in a marriage is impossible—when talking about one's fears, needs, desires, sexual requests, and so forth, to the partner is out of the question—the unheard person begins feeling powerless, resigned, alienated. The extramarital affair develops as a way of finding a comforter and ally.