When a marriage is going through challenging times, it is extremely common to become consumed with thoughts about how there must be something out there that is better. These ideas can feel especially powerful if there is someone else in the picture. As one of my therapy clients recently described:
"At home I can't do anything right, I get grief for how I load the dishwasher. Every interaction is fraught with such tension. I can't wait to get to work and interact with someone who actually takes an interest in how I am and who I am."
Whether the energy between you and that other person is physical, emotional, or both, it is common to imagine that life with this other person would be much better. Indeed, for those who act on these ideas, things often DO seem a lot better with that other person, especially while the relationship is new. But as time passes, many people end up facing the same or similar challenges with the new person that they faced in their marriage. Plus, especially if children are involved, they must face these same old struggles while also navigating the aftermath of a divorce.
Clients contemplating infidelity or engaged in an affair often describe the powerful sensation of feeling like themselves again. By exploring this sensation further, we often find is that whatever sense of self they have lost in their marriage is at the heart of the problem. While not everyone wants to hear it, a new relationship on its own will most likely only provide a temporary fix. As renowned couples and sex therapist Esther Perel described last weekend in the The New York Times:
"Sometimes you go elsewhere not because you are not liking the one you are with; you are not liking the person you have become."
If two married people still care for each other (especially if they have children) it is worth cutting off all contact with anyone who is contributing to fantasies about how great life could be in a new relationship. Not that it is easy, but try directing the energy that was going to that other person toward seeing if your marriage can be saved. Tell your spouse that you are unhappy and that things have to change. Consider telling them that you have developed feelings for someone else that remind you of feelings you once had for them, and that you would like to get those feelings back again. Give your marriage six months in couples therapy with no contact with that other person. Spend time working hard on yourself and on your marriage.
There are many wonderful resources out there that can complement your efforts. Read infidelity expert Dr. Shirley Glass' book NOT "Just Friends". Read sexuality expert Esther Perel's Mating in Captivity and watch her TED talk. Together with your spouse, complete the exercises in John Gottman's The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Read Elizabeth Gilbert's comprehensive and engaging study on marriage: Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage. Watch brilliant writer and director's Sarah Polley's spot-on film Take This Waltz. (If your spouse is not aware of your feelings for someone else, watch this film privately. Likewise with regard to the book NOT "Just Friends"!) This may sound like a lot of effort, but anyone who has been through a divorce will tell you that the effort that goes into navigating the reality of divorce far outweighs the steps you can take to see if your marriage can be salvaged.
If both partners are willing to make the effort, your flirtatious experience with someone outside the the marriage can actually become a wake up call and a catalyst for tremendous change and improvement. Many couples who have come close to the brink of divorce are able to find their way back to each other and feel stronger and closer because of that journey. Unfortunately, not all marriages can be saved. If this is the case, at least you will know, for the love of your family, that you tried.
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