Magnetic Partners

What pulled you together maybe pulling you apart.

Why Your Lover Is Just Like Your Spouse

You did it again.

There's a pile of professional literature on "everything you've ever wanted to know about extramarital affairs," most notably from Emily Brown to Shirley Glass to Frank Pittman to Janis Abrams Spring, and little of it supports the notion of having one. There are a few brave souls who believe that an affair could actually be good for a relationship: spice it up a bit; meet a need that'll never be met in the primary relationship; create an existential crisis to get a relationship back on track. Radical I admit, but I have my own take on affairs: I've found that people choose lovers who are just like the spouses they're dissatisfied with; they just haven't spent enough time with them to realize it. Sure, the spouse and lover might not look alike: one might be thinner, taller, shorter, smarter, or richer, but on an underlying level--the level that caused marital problems to begin with--chances are great. You've done it again Magoo, you're no better than Peggy Sue; you've basically chosen the same person again.

Each of us have an internal conflict—the master conflict—-that draws us to someone with the very same conflict. No matter how hard we might try to choose differently, we're compelled to find the same person time and again. Without knowledge of, and control over our master conflict, if I put you in a room with 100 potential partners, you'll choose an individual with your same conflict—-every time.

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What is a master conflict? Think of it as an unconscious struggle (or duality) within yourself between two sides of an issue and you can't seem to choose which side to take. Some liken it to a seesaw with an issue at each end. For example, you may want to be powerful or in control in your relationship (this would be on one side of the seesaw), but the other side of you may not want to take on the responsibility of being in charge (this would be on the other side). How can such a conflict dictate who we choose to spend our lives with? How can the very same conflict that draws us together, pull us apart? To avoid choosing one side of the conflict over the other (something we try to avoid because we want to have it all and we don't relish the anxiety that comes with change) we need to find someone with the same conflict. Using the previous example, if a person with a power conflict chooses someone who is primarily passive, the master conflict or seesaw will be too off balance and create severe relationship symptoms. If this same individual chooses someone who wants full-time power, then an ongoing war might reflect the relationship and create the same unbalance. Finding someone with the same conflict-someone who gets us—-will give us some leeway on both ends of the seesaw. And, as long as the seesaw is balanced (I'll take some both power and passivity and you do the same) things will move along swimmingly. The following is an example of how the master conflict plays out in the context of mate choice and subsequently, an affair.

A man was referred to me because he was stuck between choosing his cold, unsupportive wife or his seemingly affectionate, empathetic and supportive lover. While my client swore up and down that these two women were as different as night and day, I took the position that they were in fact, twins—at least in the way that was most important to consider. I agreed that his wife seemed unsupportive of his hopes and dreams for success. For example, she was critical of his ideas and she blocked him from investing in himself financially and otherwise. (Ironically, or should I say conveniently, the wife's attitude also served to sabotage her own success vicariously by downing her husband.) But I also pointed out that while my client's lover appeared to be emotionally and verbally supportive, she too would block his achievement. Even though she was single and childless, she refused to relocate—a move that was vital to the progression of my client's career. I'm not suggesting that the lover shouldn't have stayed put. My point is that if my client would've chosen his lover over his wife he would have would've ended up in the same dilemma. All three participants in this triangle suffered from a success vs. sabotage master conflict. All players were stuck in suspended animation with no sign of success in site.

Again, affairs are not only painful and traumatic, but most provide only a temporary respite from the stresses and strains of a dysfunctional primary relationship. Without knowing one's master conflict, players will only be condemned to repeat their mating mistakes.

Stephen J. Betchen, D.S.W., is the author of the book Magnetic Partners.

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