Susan’s phone softly vibrated in her handbag on the floor at her desk. She reached inside and saw a name flash up-Vicky-but this was really Mike, whom she was having an affair with. She could feel a sudden thrill of excitement, an illicit pulse of desire for…for what exactly?…not for Mike’s kisses, or the furtive caresses in the car, not for the hotel sex every second Tuesday of the month, more so for the feeling of coming alive after existing for 13 years in what she now saw as a dead marriage. This is so wrong, she thought, and, flushed with excitement, answered the phone.
In her recent book The State of Affairs Esther Perel suggests that when one partner in a couple relationship has an affair it breaks a taboo, it’s essentially a transgression, and transgressions are addictive. This can help explain why Susan, whose craving for “Mike” is something that is experienced at the level of addiction, of what Buddhists know as craving and grasping.
According to Buddhists, craving is the one thing that keeps us mired in our attachments. It’s both the key to human suffering and it’s perfectly normal. Do addicts or folk having affairs experience some exaggerated form of craving, or have they just found a unique resolution to a fundamental human problem?
It is said that first comes emptiness or loss, then we see something attractive outside ourselves that promises to fill that emptiness, so we crave. Craving is seen as a universal form of anxiety, focused on a specific goal. So, we crave and crave, and then we grasp — we reach for it. In Susan’s case, for Mike, in Mike’s case, for Susan. Grasping of course leads to getting. Getting reinforces the attachment, and that leads to more emptiness and loss, because the thing we’re attached to is never enough to fill the void.
And round and round we go.
The parallels with addiction are obvious.
We crave, grasp, get, and then run out of the thing we’re addicted to. And then we crave it all the more. The only thing that’s special about addiction is that we keep grasping for the same thing again and again. Each cycle of craving, grasping, and loss leaves its trace on the synaptic architecture of our brain: neurons that fire together, wire together- and the cycle repeats.
But what, in affair are we really craving for? This is the most important question that needs answering, and by answering it well we can help avert thousands of examples of devastation.
In reality Susan is not addicted to Mike at all; rather it is the unlived part of herself that Susan is drawn to, craves and thirsts for, deeply hungers for and longs to have expressed and satisfied and made whole. The reality is that nearly all affairs are about a shadow side us that we have locked away for years-perhaps decades-and suddenly we express and set free; in essence affairs are a cack-handed way of coming alive.
Cack-handed? Yes, because in essence it would be much wiser to fill this emptiness with the real source of what you are seeking: yourself.
As we grow and develop we undergo stages of growth that enable us to reach ever higher levels of potential. But this is a two-edged sword, since part of our psychological and emotional growth involves a kind of Faustian bargain, wherein we “agree” to split off (to assuage our parents, peers, society) the fullness of ourselves and place these parts in what Jungian psychology calls our shadow. Our shadow is the trickster part of us, the unconscious imp that jumps out when we’re drunk, unmindful or caught up in desire; it’s that part of us that hungers for the chocolate cake, just one more slice even though…and it’s that part of us we’ve kept under wraps for so long, our Banner to our Hulk, our Jekyll to our Hyde. The addiction of an affair is our “Hulking out” self that cares little for the devastation it leaves in its wake.
But the attachment that is formed is at heart a substitute attachment, since the real grasping and craving, the real need, the real source is you, the you that breaks out of the shadows and comes alive at long last (that’s why most affairs do not go on to form long lasting relationships: in reality the object of attachment is not the other person, but the you in the desire to come alive and feel whole).
We’ve come to assume that affairs are all about sex, whereas I believe it is time we start to acknowledge that there is much below the surface-so to speak-that drives an affair, and whereas as a couple therapist I would not usually suggest or sanction an affair, we can learn so much about couple relationships, loss and the human drive to wholeness from exploring affairs.