Anastasia can’t get over her affair despite being in a loving marriage with her husband. Can Healthista therapist Sally Brown help?
I have been married for 17 years and last year, aged 45, I had an illicit affair with a gorgeous man, nine years younger than me, who pursued me, first as a friend and then later, much more. I ended it but I just can’t get him out of my head. I think about him all the time, especially during sex with my husband to help me get turned on enough to climax. I was so sexually attracted to him and so sexually in sync with him and I wonder if I will ever have that again, the excitement and the desire. I love my husband, I really do – he is kind and funny and the most accepting and supportive man, my rock emotionally – but after so many years, the excitement is kind of gone (even though I still enjoy sex with him, just not in the same all-encompassing way).
I told him to never, ever contact me again under any circumstances. Now I am full of regret about what might have been
I can’t help thinking about what might have been with this guy. He was recently back in touch and terrified of my feelings, I told him to never, ever contact me again under any circumstances. Now I am full of regret about what might have been. I miss this guy a lot, even though deep down I guess I know the feelings I have for him are probably childish and silly. Please help me get over this. Not sure if it’s relevant but the feelings get worse when I am under extreme pressure at work – which I am.
Anastasia, 46, London.
A widely held myth about feelings is that they are dangerous, powerful forces that will make us act in a way that is beyond our control. As you say, they can be terrifying. We often grow up with the unconscious message that there’s something shameful about strong feelings – we’re told to ‘stop making a fuss’, or ‘you’re just being silly’ when we’re angry or upset. (And it’s interesting that you use the words ‘childish’ and silly’ to label your feelings – I wonder whose voice that is in your head?). But what if you put the fear and shame to one side for a moment, and replace it with curiosity? Afterall, the feelings are there, and they haven’t killed you, or taken control of your actions, so instead of resisting them (which hasn’t worked so far) it might be more useful to make space for them, and experiment with ‘sitting with them’ and listening to what they are trying to tell you instead.
And recreating the fantasy in your head probably also gives you a hit of dopamine, so it’s effectively a form of self-medication
I think you’ve already started this process by recognising there is a pattern, and the feelings ‘get worse’ when you’re under extreme pressure at work. By that, I’m wondering if you mean that you find yourself fantasising about the affair more often and, as you say, ‘wondering what might have been’? On one level, thinking about this man, and in particular the intensity of the emotions created when you were together, seems to have become a form of escapism for you, a way of numbing the fear and anxiety generated when you feel under pressure at work. Afterall, when you are caught up in excitement and desire, there is little room for any other emotions, or for thoughts about responsibilities, deadlines and pressure. Life, for a little while, is put on hold, and feels intensely wonderful, like you’re really alive. So it’s no wonder that you get cravings for that feeling when you are overwhelmed. And recreating the fantasy in your head probably also gives you a hit of dopamine, so it’s effectively a form of self-medication when you’re stressed. (It’s not a particularly effective one, however, as no doubt the nice feeling is quickly followed by stressful thoughts like ‘Will I regret ending it?’ and ‘Why can’t I get over him?’ that then add to your anixety). But what you can learn from this pattern is that one message these feelings are trying to communicate is ‘I feel overwhelmed.’
Excitement dominates the early stages of a relationship…It typically lasts around six to 18 months and many couples split up when it wears off
You don’t give any details about your job, but I’m guessing that along with the pressure, there are also benefits that go beyond the pay packet, elements of the role that you enjoy, that feel satisfying or that encourage your personal growth. You’re living a very grown-up life, aren’t you? You’ve ticked all the right boxes – marriage to a solid, supportive man, and a challenging career. You don’t say, but I wonder if you have also created a lovely home. I wonder if you have a drive to be ‘good’ at everything you do? But in your fantasy life with your lover, ‘being good’ goes out the window – you are wild, wanton, reckless and irresponsible. What a relief it must be!
But back to those feelings and what they’re trying to tell you. The word that crops up in your description is ‘excitement’. Excitement dominates the early stages of a relationship, a phase psychologists call ‘limerence’, when just thinking about the other person produces physical, skin-tingling, stomach-churning sensations in the body. It typically lasts around six to 18 months and many couples split up when it wears off, as they discover that the ‘excitement’ was all they had in common. If the relationship survives, it moves onto the nesting or attachment phase, focussed on building a life together. After three or four years of this, there is often another crisis point, when one or both partners may seek to establish a separate identity. If the relationship survives this hurdle, there is often a phase of new closeness or collaboration, when the couple may embark on a joint project together, like a house renovation or new business, which renews their feelings of closeness but also brings stress and potential conflict. This phase (which typically occurs between years five and 14) is when most marriages end.
It’s the time when we are most likely to look at our partner and think, ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you.’
So it’s a great achievement, and a testament to the strength of the relationship, that you have got to 17 years, and weathered so many storms. The reward for staying the course is a calmer phase of adapting and acceptance, where you value the friendship, support and stability that the relationship brings to your life. But with acceptance can come complacency, and a feeling that the other person ‘will never change’. It’s the time when we are most likely to look at our partner and think, ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you.’ And the danger point comes when for one partner, that’s not enough. Like you, they want to feel special and desired again, to be back in those heady days of ‘limerance’.
Because you ended the relationship, your ‘illicit affair’ never got past the limerance stage. It’s preserved in your memory as the perfect heady cocktail of desire, risk, and excitement. So when your grown-up life feels too pressured, predictable and mundane, it must seem like the simplest antidote. On one level, you could interpret your inability to get over the affair as a need for more excitement in your life. But I wonder if underneath that, the real message is ‘I need intimacy’? Sex is part of intimacy, but so is open communication (not following a well-worn script), playfulness, and vulnerability.
It’s easy to get caught up in ‘binary thinking’, such as ‘Was I right to end it with my lover?’
Sometimes we can get stuck in specific ‘roles’ in a relationship which may have once served us well, but are now outdated. I was struck by your description of your husband as ‘the most accepting and supportive man, my rock emotionally’. You could have been talking about your dad. I wondered if this was the role your husband played when you married him at age 28 – was he a much-needed grounding force in your life at that time, a source of emotional and practical support? Perhaps part of you still expects him to manage your emotions, and make you feel better? If there’s a ‘parent-child’ dynamic in a relationship and your husband’s role is to ‘look after you’, how can he also be comfortable ripping your clothes off, ravishing you in bed, and pushing the boundaries, in the way that (I am presuming) your lover did? And for you, stuck in an outdated role as ‘child’ – was your affair a subconscious way of rebelling, like a teenager?
You say your husband is ‘the most accepting and supportive man, my rock emotionally’. You could have been talking about your dad.
It’s easy to get caught up in ‘binary thinking’, such as ‘Was I right to end it with my lover?’ but in truth, it’s a form of mental procrastination, a smokescreen that stops you from addressing the real questions: Why do I feel overwhelmed at work? Why is it so hard for me not to be perfect at everything? What needs to change in my relationship with my husband so that I get the intimacy I need? They’re not easy questions to answer, so I would urge you to consider professional help. Couples often avoid going to counselling, because they fear that their partner could not survive hearing how they really feel (there’s that fear of feelings again), but you have come so far. You owe it to the relationship that you and your husband have built over the years to face the fear, and do it anyway.
Sally Brown is Healthista’s resident therapist and agony aunt. She loves finding out what makes people tick and will winkle out your life story if you sit next to her at a dinner party. She feels lucky to make a living from hearing those stories, and helping people make sense of their lives and reach their true potential. Registered with the British Association of Counselors and Psychotherapists, which means she has the qualifications and experience to work safely and effectively, she also writes about emotional and psychological health for the national press.