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On the last track, we discussed five conflicting aspects of the unfaithful partner’s response to the disclosure of the affair. These five conflicting aspects of the unfaithful partner’s response are relief, impatience, absence of guilt, isolation, and self-disgust.
On this track, we will discuss three gender differences in the unfaithful partner’s emotional response to an affair. The three gender differences we will focus on are what kind of partner is sought, what justifies an affair, and what internal tensions the affair causes.
As we discussed on Track 3, good current research indicates that there tend to be differences in how men and women respond to an affair. These differences occur both in the hurt and unfaithful partner. Of course, these differences are far from exact, and I encourage my clients to realize that their feelings are normal even if they are ‘typical’ of the opposite gender.
In my practice, I explain these gender differences to both the hurt and unfaithful partner as a way for each partner to add a layer of understanding to his or her behavior. I also find that explaining these differences can help each partner understand each other. Often, this leads to a useful discussion about the meaning of the affair and the deficiencies in the marital relationship.
Gender Difference # 1 - Women seek Soulmates, Men seek Playmates
As sex therapists point out, a woman’s arousal generally begins outside of the bedroom. Suzy had been married to her husband Jack for ten years, and described feeling as though Jack never tried to understand her emotions. Suzy stated, "I was friends with Raj long before we slept together. We shared meaningful conversations, and he was always supportive of my feelings. We were really close friends. One day I just realized how sexually attracted I was to Raj. I had finally found someone I could open up to!"
Dennis had also been married for ten years. Dennis stated, "with two kids, my wife Angie was always too tired to have sex. Then I met Shizuka. I admit, it was her body that drew me initially. She was fun to have sex with. Angie didn’t have time to share my hobbies with me anymore, but Shizuka always had time for a game of tennis or a night at the bar. She was just fun." As you can see, emotional intimacy was more important to Suzy, while physical intimacy was more important to Dennis. Would you agree that these perspectives are generally typical of men and women?
I encouraged both Suzy and Dennis to use their new understanding of their gendered response patterns as a form of damage control. I asked Suzy to consider how directly she had conveyed her emotional needs and dissatisfaction in the relationship to Jack. I also advised her to think about exactly what she needed to restore her intimacy with Jack.
I also encouraged Dennis to consider why he got involved with Shizuka, and how unhappy he was in his relationship with Angie at the time he began seeing Shizuka. Dennis stated, "I guess the fun I was having with Shizuka made me feel like things at home were worse than they really were. Things with Angie weren’t that bad, really, they just needed some work."
As you know, many hurt partners, both male and female, lament that they were never given a chance to address their spouse’s complaints. I feel that discussing these gender differences in what men and women are seeking in an extramarital relationship can help spark a meaningful discussion on what is missing in the marriage.
Gender Difference # 2 - Reasons for Justification
Dennis stated, "I don’t really see why hooking up with Shizuka was wrong. I never loved her. I love my wife!" Like Dennis, men generally see extramarital sex as acceptable, even condoned by society, as long as it is ‘just a fling’. Many men see a sexual tryst as an inconsequential event or an accident. Women, conversely, tend to attach themselves more deeply to their lovers emotionally and sexually. Clearly, this is one reason why women’s extramarital affairs lead to divorce more often.
Gender Difference # 3 - Women Anguish, Men Enjoy
Researcher Carol Botwin found that women in general are not as liberated by affairs as men, experience more guilt, become more dissatisfied with their marriages, and become more dependent on their lovers. I explained to Suzy that her emotional investment in Raj may have led her to attribute more love and specialness to her affair than it warranted. I also asked Suzy to consider that her guilt over her affair may have led her to magnify her love for Raj in order to feel justified in seeing him.
Dennis stated, "Shizuka and I had fun, but I never felt she was a central part of my life. It’s not like I had these emotional commitments to her or anything, so I didn’t think about her much when I had something else to do." Researchers partly attribute this gender difference in the unfaithful partner’s response to an affair to the fact that men are more easily aroused in a vacuum. This makes men, in general, more able to enjoy sexual interactions with an anonymous partner.
Dennis described enjoying his relationship because it was simple, "no strings attached". This made the affair liberating for him. However, despite Dennis’ belief that he could keep things simple, Shizuka began to need more and more emotional commitment from him. Dennis stated, "I was so wrapped up in believing things with Shizuka were free and easy, I didn’t realize at first that I wasn’t getting the feelings of freedom and enhancement from our relationship any more."
Would your Suzy or Dennis benefit from discussing these three gender differences in the unfaithful partner’s emotional response to an affair? Would playing this track in your next session be a useful starting point for a discussion about the marital relationship?
On this track, we have discussed three gender differences in the unfaithful partner’s emotional response to an affair. The three gender differences we focused on were what kind of partner is sought, what justifies an affair, and what internal tensions the affair causes.
On the next track we will discuss five keys aspects concerning exploring ideas about love and reasons for affairs with couples dealing with infidelity. The five key aspects concerning ideas about love are unrequited love, romantic love, confronting unrealistic expectations, the disenchantment process, and determining where ideas about love come from.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Leone, R. M., Jarnecke, A. M., Back, S. E., Brady, K. T., & Flanagan, J. C. (2020). The moderating role of infidelity on the relation between oxytocin and conflict behaviors among substance misusing couples. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 28(3), 251–257
Negash, S., Carlson, S. H., & Linder, J. N. (2018). Emotionally focused therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: An integrated treatment to heal the trauma of infidelity. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 7(3-4), 143–157.
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