Hello Patch readers. Last week I hogged all the space with my own response to a reader's query about being attracted to someone other than your partner. Today Deborah leads off in response to the same letter, with more comments by me at the end. Thank you to those who are sending in questions and commenting, because it makes the forum much more vital.
This is, indeed, a huge subject. To begin to explore it, I re-read the questions Jane posed about attraction to people outside one's marriage.
"...why does it happen that even though you love your husband/wife, you are still susceptible to feelings for other people? Does it indicate something wrong with the relationship, or you personally, or perhaps both?"
What comes to mind is the role of projection, and some questions that might be useful if one finds oneself attracted to someone outside their relationship.
This is a personal anecdote that captures something about projection. In the past I attended lengthy silent Vipassana meditation retreats. (Vipassana is a Buddhist meditation practice.) Did I say SILENT? For as long as eighteen days! No conversation with anyone. None. The meditation teachers caught onto something they affectionately called "The Vipassana Romance". They described the tendency of participants to "get involved with" another person in the group. Given the fact that there was no relating, no eye contact, no conversation, no "hooking up", what could that "involvement" mean? It meant that it is a tendency of mind to create any and every kind of projection onto other people, and to weave every kind of story mentally. In this setting the point was irrefutable: Here were perhaps 25 people in a room, not looking at each other, not talking to one another. And yet, someone could sit, and imagine an entire relationship: the getting to know one another, the sparks, the getting together….perhaps moving in, marriage, pets, children….the whole shebang….without ever having spoken to one another. So, when we are attracted to someone....how much of what grabs us is projection? A lot: "…That guy with the beard….He seems so calm! I bet he's really charming and deep….I wonder if he likes horses….Or Breaking Bad? I can see us having lunch after a good ride….I could make those sandwiches with the aioli dressing….."
And...Why does that particular person, feeling, or experience grab us?
I think for women, the sense of attraction is more emotional. One consideration is that it can appear as The Road Not Taken. As such, it reflects a lot about how we feel about ourselves, both in our relationships, and internally, separate and apart from our relationships. "What it would be like if I was with someone who was more outgoing? Or more of an intellectual? Or more spiritual? Who relates to things more the way I do? Who else could I be? What parts of me are dormant? Or emerging? Who am I when I relate to this person, that is different than who I am when I am with my partner?"
I agree with you, Josh, that being attracted to others is a normal part of being the relational creatures that we are. We will always bump into people who either evoke our likes or our dislikes. I think that it takes a lot of self-awareness and trust between partners to be able to talk about the "likes". The sense of danger can loom so large, especially if — as Jane asked — there is the sense that it means there is something wrong with the individual or the relationship.
We both know that building safety and trust in relationship is the foundation for honesty, which grows more connection and hence more closeness. This kind of "confession" would seem so threatening to that. How do you see partners being able to talk about it?
I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this.
It’s so interesting to me to hear a woman’s projections onto men. So that’s what’s going on in your heads! Aioli dressing. Alas, I’m afraid men’s projections are usually more carnal in nature.
But you ask an important question: how can partners talk about their attractions?
The first, and simplest response is: you simply speak your truth. As in “I want to tell you this because I think it’s important for the sanctity of our marriage that I keep you in the loop. I found myself attracted to Person X. I don’t want to act on this, I don’t know what it really means, but I do know that the safest way to protect what we have is to come to you with it rather than keep it as a secret.”
Now because there are a lot of people reading these words, and everyone has their own situation, I don’t want to promise that in each and every situation this level of honesty will “work,” whatever that means. But I do want to challenge each and every person reading this to ask themselves this question: if you’re not talking openly to your partner, who are you protecting: yourself or your partner? I believe the vast majority of instances where we keep silent, telling ourselves “he wouldn’t know how to handle it” or “she would freak out and no good would come of it,” are rationalizations to protect ourselves, not our partner. If you do try it and your partner really does freak out or not know how to handle it, get some outside help. In my office, I cannot remember an instance of the truth not being the best path.
Most of us have Sunday school notions for why we should tell the truth, internalized concrete principles that are two-dimensional “shoulds.” Few of us have come to appreciate that truth is a spiritual force, and that aligning ourselves with truth is the surest way to protect ourselves because truth creates right outcome. We cannot predict it or control it. But I do believe we can trust it. If you behave as if you can’t trust your partner with the truth of who you are and how you feel, you set in cycle a process of an ever shrinking safety zone, where less and less becomes okay to talk about and your relationship loses more and more of its vitality. Then you really will be prone to acting on your attraction to someone else, because the aliveness you feel in that other person’s presence is infinitely more attractive than the deadness your relationship has become.
I am preaching here a doctrine of truth and trust. Trust the truth of who you are. Trust that you really did choose the right person to be with and if you share yourself fully with him or her, you and your relationship will grow as a result.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deborah Leeds, MFT, is a couples and individual therapist with offices in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, CA. Visit her website at deborahleeds.com
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.