How an affair can lead to more pain

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 July, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 July, 1993, 12:00am

MY FRIEND said having an affair may in fact help my marriage.'' Jacky has felt unhappy in her marriage for the past five years. For various reasons she thinks nothing can be done to improve the situation. She feels stuck with her emptiness and pain.

Generally speaking, people in unsatisfactory marriages do not look for an affair. But in such a situation they are vulnerable to extra-marital relationships. Often an affair is used as an escape, distraction, or to help endure an unpleasant situation.

Once an affair is initiated, it alters the marriage. It is not an escape, but rather something that consumes one's life: a never-ending series of secrets, lies, pain and confusion.

The spouse becomes an outsider, kept at arm's length. The marital relationship takes on a lesser role. This discourages individuals from putting any effort into resolving marital problems or from making the marriage work.

The extra-marital relationship is not only a deception toward one's spouse but toward the individual. Such outer and inner deceptions go through stages, like the affair: Euphoria: An individual suddenly seems to find happiness in a new-found relationship. The affair allows them to release pent-up feelings and emotions. They think they have found the piece missing from their life.

People like Jacky will experience temporary relief through a new-found relationship. Her once-repressed emotions now burst out like a flood, as she feels newly-loved and cared for. On the other side of her life, her marriage seems to be less important and more intolerable than ever.

Getting attached: She plans her life around the affair and is willing to risk the marriage to maintain the relationship. However, in most cases the two parties have different degrees of attachment, with one side ready to leave her marriage while the other is happy to maintain his, while merely playing on the side.

Conflict of interest: Looking for commitment and decision. This brings about anxiety from the illicit lovers. One party does not want the affair to disrupt his or her family life, while the other desires to come out in the open to legitimise the relationship.

Agonising: One side waits for the other to ''make the decision'' to end their marriage and commit to the new lover. Usually, the former will put his or her life on hold. Typically, the lover who does not want to end a marriage for the affair, also desires to continue the pleasures of the affair.

This state of limbo can continue for years. Secret pleasure becomes secret pain, and both marriages suffer more.

An extra-marital relationship is not the key to surviving an unhappy marriage. The secrecy and hidden anxiety brought on by the affair will only magnify the unresolved problems in the marriage.

Unfortunately for many individuals an affair does not ease pain but brings on other extensions of misery that affect other people, including children.

An extra-marital relationship only complicates matters and allows people to avoid seeing the problems they need to deal with in their marriage.

When an unhappy or troubled marriage exists, both parties are responsible for doing something to improve it or making a mutual decision to dissolve it. Using an affair to distract from the problem will not make the problem go away, but add more confusion.

It is easier said than done to be rational when one is involved in an affair. But this is what must be done.

Unless Jacky focuses her attention on the problems that led to her having an affair, the consequences of the affair on the marriage, and the genuine likelihood of the affair never resulting in an open, committed relationship, she may not only eventuallylose everything, but face untold misery. The above is not an actual case. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a licensed psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming book Self-help for Foreigners. Her office is at the Vital Life Centre, phone 877-8206.