Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Infidelity and Incriminating E-mails

Why do some people recklessly document an illicit affair?

First, let me say that I think the job of a psychiatrist is to be helpful. I want my patients to do well, in a way not dissimilar, I think, from the way someone might feel towards a brother. I am anxious that my patients not get into trouble. I will not, of course, facilitate behavior that I think is frankly illegal or plainly likely to hurt other people; but I try not to sit in judgment. Sometimes, I find myself trying to rescue my patients from the consequences of behavior that I do not necessarily condone. Infidelity falls into this category.

Infidelity causes pain and trouble in a marriage, but to a varying degree. There is an effect, for example, on the unfaithful person, himself/herself, who is thrust into a pattern of lying and deceit which undermines self-respect. There are numerous other effects on other members of the family and, for that matter, on the “other” woman or man. Still, plainly the principal injurious effect is on the deceived spouse. I have seen women who have expressed to me indifference about what their husband does outside of the marriage, usually because the marriage has soured already; but even these women, discovering a husband’s infidelity, are disgusted and embarrassed.  Much more commonly, a deceived spouse feels hurt—sometimes, betrayed. Suppose a woman’s husband cheated on her and she did not find out—would she still be injured?

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Most people would say, I think, that the act of betrayal itself is the cause of the injury, and the deceived spouse would be damaged in some ways even if she never discovered her husband’s deceit. Still, I think most people recognize, also, that making that person aware of a spouse’s infidelity is likely to worsen that injury and do damage that might be irrevocable. For that reason, friends or neighbors, even a family member, will hesitate to tell a woman that they saw her husband out the previous night with another woman.  For that reason, also, I strongly discourage unfaithful husbands, or wives, from confessing an infidelity to a spouse, just to alleviate their feelings of guilt. They are not entitled to make someone else feel worse so they can feel better.

I have seen a number of women— I can think of two off-hand—who expressed to me bitterly the wish that they never learned about these infidelities. One reported sexual encounter had occurred a number of years before on a business trip to Europe. The other was a very brief liaison that took place sometime previously in a hotel room. Neither was described by the respective husband as having any significance. Neither confession would have happened, except that both husbands became depressed for other reasons and then sought to alleviate their depression and guilt by admitting to these acts.  The confessions, themselves, were injurious.

It is with this sort of concern that I find myself often warning patients who are involved in an illicit affair (usually men, but not always) against engaging in certain actions that are likely to prove damaging to them later on. These include recklessly risking that the affair will become public.

Certain affairs are by their very nature dangerous—involvement with a neighbor’s wife or a boss, for instance.  Other times the circumstances virtually guarantee there will be trouble, such as having an affair with the wife of a Mafioso. When I point out these dangers, usually my patient readily agrees, but shrugs.  He is not deterred. Obvious dangers ore overshadowed by the appeal—whatever that appeal may be—of that illicit relationship. To be in such a relationship is to be caught up in it. But often, for obscure reasons, even someone determined to continue that relationship will not take obvious, simple-to-take precautions to prevent being discovered.

Incriminating e-mails.  Everyone knows—one would think—that no one should put in writing any thoughts, or record any behaviors, that would be embarrassing if they came to light. For that reason, teen-agers are told to be careful about what they put up on their Facebook page.  Even if something is deleted, it is still present somewhere in cyber-space and can be revived at any time.  Angry letters should not be dispatched until time has passed to allow second thoughts.  And, certainly, e-mails that document an illicit affair should never be sent.

A conversation with a patient:  “Right now, you’re having an affair at work with somebody who you know has had affairs with two other office workers. There is a good chance that other people will find out about your relationship, as you learned about these other men. But, if you’re determined to see her, obviously you should not be communicating with her by e-mail.  First of all, you don’t know what this woman is likely to feel down the road. Sometimes, ex-lovers are blackmailed. Besides, e-mails are never secret. Often—very often-- I hear about a divorce that was provoked by a spouse reading her husband’s e-mail.”

The patient nodded thoughtfully. A few minutes later he got up to leave. “You’re right,” he said, his hand on the door, “but, you know, I’m going to do it anyway.”

What in the world is going on here? Usually, men and women in this situation seem not to appreciate the risk of such communications. They seem to be foolish, even reckless; but they do not seem perversely and purposely indifferent to their best interests. It looks at first glance as if they just do not understand that they are doing something dangerous—but this patient came out explicitly and said he was knowingly willing to endanger himself. Why?

Why does the head of the C.I.A . set up a special “secret” e-mail account to communicate to his lover, when he, more than anyone else, must know that there are no secret e-mail accounts?

I think it is sort-of easy to understand why someone impetuously engages in a reckless sexual act. I can sort-of understand why someone allows himself to be caught having sexual relations with his secretary on top of his desk. He gets carried away. We have evolved to have sex first and think later on about whether or not it was a good idea. But, surely, writing an e-mail does not have that satisfaction. Why does someone choose to ignore such an obvious danger?

Some clinicians think it is the danger, itself, that is appealing. I do not believe this to be true. I understand that some people engage in sexual acts which have to have an element of danger to make sex interesting, but that is a different matter. I remember a couple who could not have sexual relations successfully unless the act took place in their driveway. Even then, I thought it was mostly the fantasy of being watched that made this situation exciting, rather than the possibility of getting caught. (I report a number of other lurid examples of this sexual impairment in “Come One, Come All.”) But having spoken to many people who have revealed their indiscretions in writing, I do not have the impression that the prospect of being caught was especially titillating. In fact, it usually seems that these individuals, unlike the patient I quote above, were dismissive, or even oblivious, ahead of time to the possibility of being exposed, and are regretful afterwards.

Having seen a great many of these e-mails, written under such circumstances, I have noted some common elements:

  1. Some of these e-mails are frankly erotic. They have the appeal, more or less, of phone sex, that is, they stimulate sexual arousal. They are a distinct part of the sexual affair. Some of the seemingly absurd, sexually explicit, e-mails that are reported in the popular press, usually from a political figure, are of that character. It is particularly striking that the writer does not seem to understand the potential damage of such communications coming to light and ruining a career. The other striking fact about them is that the exhibitionistic aspects of them do not seem to ordinary people to be especially exciting in the first place (Pictures of bare chests or genitals.)
  2. Many of the e-mails seem to reflect romantic feelings that are often not consistent with the surreptitious aspect of the relationship. These people rarely entertain the idea of leaving their spouses to maintain this new relationship; and, yet, they engage in the sort of frequent, romantic communication other couples who are just falling in love might enter into. It is as if they entertain a fantasy—knowing it is a fantasy—of falling in love. They want to communicate with each other all the time, even if they are far apart.
  3. After a while, these e-mails take on the prosaic character of messages couples of long-standing might send to each other. “I miss seeing you,” or “It was really nice being together that weekend.”  These are explicit enough to inform a deceived spouse of what is going on, yet they are not particularly erotic. I think people send such memoranda because previous communications have not been intercepted. If someone engages in risky behavior which has not previously come to light, it becomes easier to believe it will not come to light the next time. More specifically, I think the people who continue to write these incriminating letters no longer imagine that they will be caught.

Why then, did my patient—and others—write incriminating e-mails despite the risk of having them read by the wrong people?  Writing these e-mails is an integral part of the affair. They are not just a way of arranging a time and place for the next meeting; they are important and satisfying in their own right. When I speak as forcibly as I can against writing them, patients usually ignore me. It is as if I asked someone who overeats to count calories, or if I asked a smoker to keep track of the circumstances in which he/she lights up a cigarette. Standing back from their accustomed behavior tends to make it less satisfying; and people resist. They do not want to think about the implications of what they do. Thinking objectively about what they do interferes with their ability to continue their behavior—and they do not wish to stop for the same reasons they entered into the dangerous, or otherwise undesirable, behavior in the first place. (c) Fredric Neuman 2012. Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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