My esteemed blolleague, Roy Baumeister, raised some compelling points in his recent post Wondering About The Fathers Who Leave Their Families. Coincidently, I had a conversation with an acquaintance just the other day, as well as a few interactions with patients that addressed some related issues. I thought I'd share.
When I talk to addicts, I remind them that their life stopped when they crossed the line from compulsion into addiction. Since that point, they have been living behind a veil. Getting sober means pulling the veil aside, but it leaves you stranded back where you started. So, if you became addicted at, say, 15, your level of social and emotional intelligence, as a sober person, is that of a 15 year old - even if, chronologically, you are 45 - until you "grow into yourself".
I think this notion can be applied to the emotional life of men, and I also think that the metaphorical mid-life crisis (which really has nothing to do with mid-life) is a version of the pulling aside of that veil.
At whatever chronological point a man decides to examine his life and for whatever reason, he exposes the unresolved emotional wounds that brought him to the place that he is now. Because he does not have the tools to cope with those wounds in the moment, he backtracks emotionally to try to fix the past. Because women are better equipped emotionally, they tend not to do this.
I don't have any evidence for this idea, other than 20 years of sitting in the Big Chair listening to both men and women tell me about their affairs and trying to reason through their motivations. My anecdotal experience has shown me, by and large, that just as men backtrack -- concretely or ideally -- women tend not to backtrack; their affairs are more immediate.
Women are far less likely to reconnect with that certain college boyfriend, or hook up at the high school reunion. They get involved with the contractor, or the tennis pro, someone at work, or the tenant in the carriage house. They do this because of the person, the situation and the moment.
Not only do women have practical, concrete affairs, they do not have idealized affairs. They do not pursue the resolution of lost opportunities, but rather envision future possibilities.
Conversely men, by and large, backtrack. Whether it is concrete - looking up a high school girlfriend, hooking up with an old roommate's sister, etc., or idealized - the woman at work who represents the romantic ideal or pushes the "she broke my heart in college" button -- they look for what they left behind because they are stuck at the point where an emotional wound has frozen them, and they are trying to fix it.
With all this in mind, the reasons for the affairs of the two genders (no matter what their sexual orientation), at least in my experience, differs considerably. Women seem to choose an affair that fixes, or at least addresses, an immediate problem in their current relationship, and that problem is usually more social and emotional in nature than it is for a man. Coincidentally, this may account for why a surprising percentage of women with whom I speak on this issue are having affairs with other women.
Men seem to choose affairs for reasons that are more opaque and, for that reason, on the surface more irrational. Women are trying to fill a space or complete a picture, while men are driven to make choices for reasons they themselves can't get their mind around.
From where I sit, in that metaphorical Big Chair, that's a piece of my take on why a father would leave his family. Pulling aside the veil to reveal a state of unresolved emotional immaturity or wounding tosses adult rationality, responsibility and reason right out the window.
All of this sounds like a tidy little psycho-excuse, but it's not. Just as drinking or drugging are only a symptom of a deeper problem of compulsion and addiction, having an affair, for a man, is a symptom of deeper issues of emotional deficit.
All of this aside, a person who steps outside of their marriage or committed relationship, -- whether man or woman -- is still responsible and accountable for both their actions and the consequences of those actions. To bring it full circle, just as they would be within the context of addiction. Karma's a bitch, people, and she doesn't wear a little black dress.
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