Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action

A roundup of psychoanalytic points of view

Read This Before Having an Affair

We can get easily lost in the “Bermuda Triangle of Love”

By David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D.

When tempted by an affair, we are better off doing some soul searching or going into therapy to find out what is not working for us with our partner. When we make the move to pursue an affair, we risk entering the Bermuda Triangle of Love: once we have had two lovers, we may feel we need both.

In the intoxicating excitement of a new affair, we might think we are just going to have a quickie and satisfy an urge. We have been with our partner for some time and feel we have been missing out on the variety of experiences our single friends are having. We might rationalize that this has nothing to do with our feelings for our partner.

The affair might turn out to be a one-off thing, and then we just have to contend with our guilty conscience. But sometimes we fall in love with our lover. After all, we have different experiences of our selves with different people, and no one partner is perfect. Now we want both our partner and our lover. This can feel like being trapped in the Bermuda Triangle.

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Love Triangles

Triangles are inherently stable structures. Take an example from the physical world: tall radio or television antennae often have stays, which are wires that run at an angle away from the antennae and are anchored some distance away. Stays secure the otherwise unsteady pole that sticks straight up out of the ground. This is also true in relationships. In families, children or maybe even pets regularly provide a third to steady the romantic relationship between two people.  

A third person allows us to be separate from our primary relationship without having to contend with being alone. In every partnership, there is a struggle between maintaining a connection and simultaneously retaining our sense of individuality.

We have conflicting desires for togetherness and separateness. We need to be a part of the relationship and also be apart from it, as individuals. For example: we can be away from our spouses, but not alone, because we are with our children. In romantic triangles, we get to experience our selves as separate from our partners and yet not alone by being with our lover.

No Easy Way Out

The obvious problems arise when our partner or lover finds out about the other. Or we grow tired of maintaining the lies and the sneaking around. Or our guilt gets the better of us, and we feel like we need to make a decision. 

How do we decide which when we feel we need both?

When we think of ending the affair, we realize that our primary relationship most likely hasn’t changed. Whatever problem led us to look outside of it is probably still there, if not worse. If it feels better, we have no way of knowing whether it would continue to feel that way if we break off with our lover. In any case, we don’t want to lose what we are getting from our lover.

So, we think of leaving our partner. But then we realize we don’t know what it is like to be with our lover without also having a partner. If our lover doesn’t know we have a partner, we have been keeping a big secret from them and are afraid our lover would not accept us for who we really are. If the lover knows we are cheating, then we might not respect them because they are complicit. So, we return to considering ending the affair.

What To Do

This obsessive cycle has no end. We go back and forth trying to make the “right” decision. We are stuck in a vortex of uncertainty while hurting those closest to us.

These triangles can go on for years. Most often, the triangle is resolved when either our partner or the lover decides that they have had enough and leaves. Then we are left with the one that has tolerated our cheating. We may devalue this person. We might think something must be wrong with them if they are willing to put up with us. This can result in our feeling we are left with second best, and longing for the one who got away.

When we find ourselves getting into one of these triangles, or if we are already in one, we need to talk to someone who cares about us. When pursuing an affair, we are looking for a connection we are not getting with our partner.  So, connecting with a close friend or family member regarding the affair might help. Sometimes just talking to someone else can help sort out where we are going wrong. If we don’t have someone we think will understand, it is worthwhile to consider finding a therapist with whom to meet.

David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D., is a Candidate at The William Alanson White Institute. He has lectured at the NYU School of Social Work and written on relationships. He is in private practice in Manhattan.

Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action, edited by Susan Kolod, Ph.D., and Melissa Ritter, Ph.D, is under the auspices of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, the journal of the William Alanson White Institute.

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