Throwing caution to the wind, women who cheat risk a lot. They risk hurting their partners, hurting their children, and losing the relationship.

But why risk so much? If you think that women who cheat are morally flawed, decadent, or self-centered, think again. The women in my practice exhibit none of those traits. Engaging in an affair may not be a prudent choice, or a thoughtful choice, perhaps a misguided one, but it is not a moral flaw or a sin. I don’t condone or condemn fidelity but I try to help my patients mine meaning.

Affairs are reactions to what seems like unsolvable problems in the relationship. For a number of reasons, women who cheat have failed to communicate their needs and desires to their partners in ways to get them met. They feel stifled, unfulfilled, frustrated, helpless, and desperate. As such, the affairs are desperate pleas for help and catalysts for change. The change that is needed is a creative solution to repair the woman or the failing relationship.

Take the example of Talia who erred and learned to repair.

Dark curly hair framed Talia’s oval shaped face. With tears streaming down her face, she looked down and cried, “Dr. Fran, I feel so ashamed of myself. I was having an affair and my husband found out and he is furious. He’s threatening to take my kids away and throw me out on the street.”

“That’s terrible.” I commiserated.

Still crying she said, “This is so not like me, I’m a good woman. It just happened.”

I then asked, “How did it happen?”

Sniffling Talia explained. “Our kids play soccer together and Don and I were friends for quite a while before anything happened. He recently lost his wife in a car accident and he’s raising his son alone, so I felt sorry for him. We got to talking and one thing led to another.”

“How would you describe your marriage?” I asked.

She said, “Len makes a good living and I lack nothing financially. But, he’s controlling and critical; I can’t do anything right. He’s got this bad temper.”

“How bad is his temper?” I asked.

“He curses me, and called me the C word.” She whimpered.

“How do you react to such treatment?” I asked.

Looking forlorn, she said, “He keeps saying he takes me to expensive places and great trips, that he gives me everything I want, jewelry, designer clothes, so why am I complaining. It’s no use; no matter what I say, he’s always right. I can’t reach him.”

“How does this all make you feel?” I inquired.

“I feel insignificant, sad, angry, and helpless. Len has all the power.” She explained.

“And with Don?” I asked.

She confirmed my suspicions and amplified them. “With Don I felt important and happy. You see, Don is soft spoken, gentle, and he listens to me. I have a voice with him, whereas, with Len his is the only voice. I felt emotionally fulfilled with Don and emotionally starved with Len. I was feeling powerless to get my needs met by Len, so I gave up.”

“By stepping outside of the marriage you took the first step to empowerment and it was daring. What’s still more daring is your decision to come into therapy.”

Are you still seeing Don?”

“No, I ended it.”

Smiling I said, “That means we have some serious work to do.”

Talia made good progress in therapy. Her new found insight was refreshing as she told me, “I think Don opened my eyes to my unhappy marriage. I also feel as though Don just lost his wife and he is lonely and needy but not necessarily in love with me. I don’t really know what Don is really like on a day- to- day basis. As for Len, he loves me and I know what I’m getting.” She explained.

“You’ve done a lot of thinking.” I said.

“I’ve done nothing but think ever since I began therapy. The best news is that Len said he wanted to change. He’s agreed to come into therapy with me. I finally found my voice with him.”

I beamed and dug deeper. “Do you still love Len?”

“I love him but I don’t like him. He is so full of himself and hot headed. But then again, he says he’ll do anything to change his behavior. So I want to give it a chance and see if we can save the marriage.”

Talia’s self- esteem had eroded in this unequal power relationship, so in therapy we worked on building her self- esteem. It is not as though Talia’s self- esteem was ever stellar. Her parents were divorced when she was young and she was raised by her mother. Although her mother was loving she was also intrusive, controlling, and critical. Early on, Talia learned that love was coupled with criticism and emotional abuse. All too often, we find comfort in the familiar and find partners to play out the old dramas as Talia did with Len. Like new wine in old bottles, the new relationship is influenced by old patterns of interacting. Her father on the other hand was loving, kind, and encouraging. Unfortunately she rarely saw him; in therapy she expressed concerns that might have happened with Don.

Optimal parenting leads to the task of self-mastery. Alas, with her intrusive critical mother, Talia did not experience self-mastery and she grew up feeling inadequate and incompetent. She felt powerless as a child to get her needs met and powerless in her marriage to get her needs met.

Contrary to his bigger- than -life persona, Len had his own insecurities. His father abandoned the family when he was five and his mother struggled financially in order to raise her six children alone. There was scant time for his beleaguered mother to nurture, attend, or to play with her children. And so Len was emotionally neglected, not out of lack of love, but out of the necessities of the life of a single working mom. As a child he was unable to comprehend that. Instead, he internalized that his mother’s lack of attention or love was because he was unlovable and did not merit attention.

As a teenager, Len was hustling to make money and take care of his mother. He worked in construction and, on the side, sold fake watches and dealt in drugs. He was a tough guy, who lived on the streets: but not for long. Gifted with innate intelligence and street smarts, Len opened his own construction company which he built up to a financially rewarding business.

Len, the boss, controlled his workmen with an iron fist which did wonders to compensate for his inner feelings of insecurity. His newly found success provided him with a sense of gravitas. He was able to take care of his workers, his mother, and Talia financially.

In his business he was the boss who called all the shots. At home, however, his behavior was not working. Based on his financial accomplishments− on what he did rather than who he was− his self- esteem was still shaky. The affair dealt a severe blow to his fragile self-esteem and he ranted and raved in pain.

Len wanted to know every dirty detail which only added to his suffering. He read and reread the texts in which Talia said she loved Don, that the marriage was over, and that he was the best lover she ever had. It seems Talia was so desperate for the attention that Don gave her, that she told him what she thought he wanted to hear. Len’s pain was so excruciating that he broke down in tears and sobbed inconsolably.

Talia recognized how she had hurt Len and she felt truly sad, remorseful, and guilty. In crisis mode, we worked on her guilt and Len’s hurt feelings. She was also able to express the desperation that gave rise to her infidelity. We then worked on forgiveness and healing and how each person could change. Some of the steps to repair this marriage entailed communication, empathy, forgiveness, rekindling the flame, equal power relationship, mutuality and reciprocity as I have written in my book, The New Science of Love: How Understanding the Brain’s Wiring Can Help Rekindle Your Relationship (Sourcebooks, Casablanca, 2011).

Talia, like many other women who feel unfulfilled and powerless in their marriages do not possess the tools to be recognized and heard by their spouses. Childhood patterns of behavior tend to persist in adult love relationships so that people marry one of their parents or they adopt the role of one of their parents. Every time we repeat these unhealthy interactions they become more deeply lodged in the brain. The good news is that positive new interactions can dislodge the old negative ones. And that’s because our brains are plastic: when we create change we change our brains.

Does any of this resonate with you? Email me your thoughts, stories, and questions.

You have just read Talia’s story who is one of many people who have affairs. To read another story, listen to Laura’s story, on Tales from the Couch, on ITunes.

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About the Author

Frances Cohen Praver, Ph.D.

Frances Cohen Praver, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and relational psychoanalyst and author.

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