Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

The Extra-Relational Affair: A Study in Contrast

When might an affair prove beneficial?

Many of the writers in this forum, myself included, have addressed questions of fidelity, infidelity, polygamous, polyganous and polyamorous relationships -- having done so from a number of different perspectives. Positionality on these topics is rampant, as the topic itself is charged by social convention, ethics, morality and cultural norms. Standing in a place of neutrality, the question that balances the far-flung common wisdom on the topic - "Affairs are bad." -- might be, "Can any good ever come from an affair?"

There would appear to be four main styles of extra-relational affair. The first is what we might call an object affair. This is a situation where the attention of one partner is drawn off the primary relationship because that attention is placed on something outside the relationship, reshuffling the person's priorities relative to the primary relationship. This might be work, a hobby, an activity, an actual object or some other interest.

The second type of affair might be characterized as a sexual affair. This is an extra-relational sexual liaison that is driven purely by physical need, want or desire. It typically bears no resemblance to a "real" relationship, and lacks the markers for what we would generally consider social intimacy. Again, the attention of the partner involved in this affair is drawn off the primary relationship in a negative way.

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The third style of affair might be characterized as an emotional affair. Commentary on this type of affair has been given a lot of play lately, with the increased attention toward what we have chosen to term emotional infidelity [1, 2]. This type of affair is driven primarily by fantasy. It is typically highly romanticized and carried out in venues that, by their very nature, preclude any sort of concrete interaction -- text messages, e-mail and telephone conversations. Once again, the attention of the involved partner is drawn off to negative consequence.

The fourth style of extra-relational affair, and that which we are most interested, amounts to a secondary relationship. This is a social, sexual and interpersonal interaction that carries with it all the trappings of genuine relationship. Individuals involved in this sort of relationship share an authentic connection that involves shared values, common interests and social compatibility, if not friendship. This style of relationship includes all of the rituals, routines, expectations and frictions that we would find in any more conventional romantic liaison or interpersonal interaction.

Woven into this relationship - and this is key -- is the tacit agreement that it is indeed secondary, and cannot or will not replace the primary relationship. Because of its conditional nature, the relationship has the potential to become a container of reflection that stands in contrast to the primary relationship. This is where things get interesting.

Respectfully setting aside the contributions of evolutionary psychology on topics such as polyamorous relationships, polygamy, and polygany for the sake of this particular conversation, common wisdom suggests that the reason that we step outside of our primary relationship is because we are not being completely fulfilled by that relationship. Typically, these unmet needs are reflected in sexuality or emotionality, which leads to the pursuit of an outside liaison that is either sexual or emotional in nature.

When this sexual or emotional affair blossoms into a secondary relationship -- or a long-standing friendship blossoms into an extra-relational affair because of the introduction of a sexual component -- we are confronted with a situation that is, for all intents and purposes, a unique social laboratory. That is because, with respect to the conditional nature of the secondary relationship, we now have an opportunity to see our primary relationship through the lens of the secondary relationship.

Oddly, what this can then provide is a sort of motivation for the revival of the primary relationship. The secondary relationship can become an engine that pushes back against the perceived stagnation of the primary relationship and revitalize the experience of that relationship. Basically, the secondary relationship becomes the spoon that stirs the pot.

Why is this? Well, if we go back to the original premise -- stepping out of our primary relationship because certain needs aren't getting met -- and we are then finding those needs met in a secondary relationship -- the secondary relationship, by its very nature, stands in contrast to the first. By way of comparison, this contrast can prompt a shift in perspective that brings us from a place of seeing what were missing in our primary relationship to a place of recognizing what we have in that relationship. This shift in perspective provides us with a crucible for determining what it is that we actually need in a social relationship to feel satisfied.

Affairs are not like regular or typical relationships for us. When we choose a relationship, we do so based on our perceived needs, our perceived wants and our perceived desires. For that reason, the relationships that we choose tend to be, for good or ill, fairly consistent. What makes affairs different is that they are chosen for the opposite reason; they are chosen not in response to a perceived want, but, rather, in response to a perceived lack. Because of this, they can be in some ways - albeit not necessarily conscious -- a more authentic barometer for what we actually need in our relationships.

None of this is to suggest that for us to revive, revitalize or enliven our primary relationship we should all go out and find a boyfriend or girlfriend or both. What it does suggest is that for those of us currently involved in or contemplating the start of an affair - one that is more than simply sexual or emotional in nature - conscious attention to the situation that exercises a certain degree of both social and emotional intelligence might lead us, not only back to our primary relationship, but to a deeper understanding of both ourselves and our social needs.

And to that point, those of us involved in or contemplating involvement in a purely sexual or emotional affair might also do well to examine our motivations for that choice. Sometimes the answer to such self-inquiry is simple - my wife is too conservative in bed...my husband is never home...my boyfriend isn't affectionate enough to support my need for attention...my girlfriend is emotionally unavailable...etc. That doesn't make an affair a good choice, but it brings the motivation for that choice clear. Sometimes, however, those motivations run to a deeper place.

Why, exactly, are you surfing Internet dating sites? Why, exactly, are you taking 17 unnecessary trips to the copy room to get another look at the receptionist's legs? Why, exactly, do you keep inviting Jan and Bob over for cocktails, knowing that they are "swingers"? Where and what is the lack in you that is driving these choices? And where and what is the failure of emotional intelligence in you that is feeding that drive?

The "good" that might come out of an affair is clearly not the affair or its potential consequences. But, as I often say, everything is material for change. If we look at our choices and examine ourselves in an honest and forthright way, we just might find one of the keys to prompt our own evolution. That evolution might lead us back to a more authentic relationship with our primary relationship, or it might lead us to a more authentic understanding of ourselves that leads us away from that primary relationship. Either way, there is positive growth.

Yes, don't cheat, don't covet, don't be naughty - but, if you are going to do your partner the disservice of stepping outside of your primary relationship, at least draw upon that disservice to prompt growth in both yourself and, potentially, the evolution and progression of that self-same primary relationship.

© 2009 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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