Spring, 2020: Social isolation is a way of life in the United States, and in much of the rest of the world. Retail stores are shuttered, movie theaters have gone dark, and restaurants no longer offer seating, if they offer any food at all.
For many marriages, these are trying times—by now you’ve seen the internet lampoons of the man pleading for option “B” rather than shelter with wife and child, or the wife bemoaning her husband's inability to find a spoon in the house. These are lighthearted pokes at the daunting challenge of being in one place—and only one place—with your spouse yesterday, today, tomorrow, and longer. In response, experts, including myself, have weighed in on how couples can rise to the occasion and use this crisis to build a stronger marriage.
Social isolation presents a glitch to another, less venerable, form of intimate relationships: extra-marital affairs. No one is exactly sure of rates of infidelity, but studies suggest between one-quarter to 40 percent of marriages are affected by an affair at some point. At any one time, there may be more than half a million Americans involved in an illicit relationship with a person they are not married to. And one thing all affairs have in common: They are secretive.
In an April 13, 2020 article in Time, journalist John Walcott ruefully notes, “even spies now work from home,” referring to how the usual points of contact for espionage are no longer an option during the pandemic. Of course. With social isolation, one can’t set up clandestine operations at busy restaurants, nor arrange casual conversations sitting at park benches. Even brush-bys or drop-offs are complicated by the empty parks and six-foot perimeter. Now imagine the challenge of two people who, rather than exchange state secrets, wish to share light banter, furtive looks, and meaningful caresses, let alone carnal knowledge.
Typically, extra-marital affairs aren’t born of the same stuff as spycraft. Most (not all) start casually, without any intention of spousal betrayal. But, whether the first harmless contact is a Facebook shout-out to an old friend or a cup of coffee after a conference call, there soon comes the moment when these connections lose their innocence.
The transition from openness to secrecy begins when these two individuals generate feelings of mutual attraction—a kind of emotional connection that you just don’t seem to find [anymore] with your life partner. Anyone who has had an affair knows the moment when the “friendship” changes: It’s when you no longer talk about the person to your spouse, you lie about any meet-ups with him or her, and you delete text messages between you both. And this is before anything sexual happens.
Everything changes, though, once your governor issues stay-at-home orders. That’s because a close connection with another person is central to an affair's mechanics. Daydreaming or fantasizing may contribute somewhat to emotional closeness, but affairs of the mind and heart must at some point be bolstered by making contact with the affair-mate. When a married couple is on lockdown, it’s much more difficult to place a surreptitious phone call or text, let alone arrange a rendezvous with that third person: The most basic elements of sneaking around are now out the window. (And most unfaithful spouses don’t have access to spy satellites or drones as a workaround.)
The logical thing for an unfaithful individual to do is to just give up and shift attention back to his or her life-partner. But logic plays a minimal role when it comes to infidelity. Once the attraction of an affair starts to smolder, it is extremely difficult to extinguish the desire, and that leads to a lot of irrational behavior.
In other publications, I describe “flame addiction” as the obsessive thoughts of that extra-marital “other,” and the compulsion to talk to, see, and hold that person. As the words imply, it’s a kind of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), and a hallmark of OCD is that individuals with the disorder know that their actions and thinking are not rational, yet they struggle to prevent themselves from doing those very same things. People having affairs suffer from the same ailment. That’s why my clients who are unfaithful cannot easily turn off the drive to be with the one whom they know (or ought to know) they should not be with, even if continuing the affair leads to wrecked marriages, estranged children, and/or financial ruin.
Yet ironically, one of the unforeseen effects of social isolation is to bring families back together and push out external forces that may destroy a marriage. Of course, being stuck at home with your spouse every single day can present lots of challenges. Perhaps I’ll address that in a different post. But on the positive side, it does provide an opportunity to break free of the potentially destructive force of a newly forming or full-blown affair. With stores, parks, and restaurants closed down, meeting up with a paramour is virtually impossible. That’s a good thing.
Stressed marriages can be rebuilt, but ending an affair has to be the first step. Social distancing will certainly make that easier. After breaking things off with an affair partner, take the energy that had gone toward that other relationship and turn it back into the marriage. There are obligatory chores to do together, of course—but if you’re creative you can find ways to make them fun, and also honor each other’s strengths. One spouse may be better at tutoring math, and one may be better at managing Skype and Zoom. Play to your strengths and honor your differences.
Being at home is also a chance to play and spend quality time together. Jigsaw puzzles and board games are one way of connecting. Finding shared binge-worthy shows can help people bond through sharing communal stories or events. Maybe it’s time to watch Downton Abbey for the first time, or re-watch Breaking Bad. (And I hear that Tiger King is interesting...). There are many free concerts being shown on YouTube and Twitter. Of course, you won’t be flying anywhere soon on vacation, but unfold your lounge chairs, place some potted plants in strategic locations, pour a couple of glasses of pina colada, and, presto: You can have a romantic getaway at home.
Speaking of recreation, I left out the obvious, and I’ll say it now: If the marriage has been breaking apart, getting things going again in bed is another way to increase bonding. That can be tough, especially if thoughts are drifting toward someone with whom an affair had been brewing. Romance can be nurtured by small gifts, a full body massage, loving acts, or a candlelight dinner. Then, by focusing all energies into the kind of sexual connection—you know, the unbridled lust that brings a couple together in the first place—husband and wife can rekindle a deeply satisfying sex life.
All of us are learning new things about ourselves and our spouses during the pandemic. And as the doors are literally closed on an affair to many who are on lockdown, being away from the source of a flame addiction at first may increase the drive to be with that person. But with time, I believe that those who have considered straying from marriage may use this historic occasion to be a hero in their own home by rededicating themselves to a strong lifetime commitment to their marriage.