Dear Mr Wrong,
I recently discovered that my husband ‘Alan’ has been having an affair with his PA. I had no idea – but apparently it started at the Christmas party more than 2 months ago. He and I are both 42. She is 27. I feel utterly betrayed. I have devoted my life to him for 15 years now, and we have 3 beautiful children (7,8,10), a nice house and so on. From the outside it looks perfect – but I have felt rather taken for granted for a long time. He is busy running a successful Design Agency, and I’ve mainly been ‘Mum’, which is a full time occupation in itself – though I do have evenings at art classes etc. His PA (Mia) is sexy in an obvious sort of way, she doesn’t have children, and I felt worried about her from the start. She actually put on a headband with little ‘Devil’s Horns’ at the party! I just can’t get my head round his behaviour – I have no faith in anyone now. I don’t know where to turn. I found out when he bought an expensive necklace that I thought was going to be a Christmas present for me – far more generous than he’s been for years – but actually it was for her. I got a Joni Mitchell CD. He says he is sorry and wants to come back, but how can I ever trust him after this, let alone sleep with him?
I’m going to stick my neck out and speculate here – if I’m wide of the mark in your case, forgive me, but I do think my guesses have a fairly general application to couples who have been together for a number of years.
So – here’s my guess: I see that you married in your late-20s and had your children in your early 30s – all three of them within 4 years. You were pitched into motherhood and family life and your children became the centre of your life. You were exhausted by the demands of three children under 4 and didn’t have the emotional and physical energy to give ‘Alan’ the same attention as you’d both enjoyed before the children arrived. The family more than doubled in 4 years – the marital dynamics cannot have remained unaffected. You expected him to understand this, and he said it was all OK and that he loved you and the kids. Still he got busier at work. You were concerned that he wasn’t as involved with family life as you’d expected. When he made time, though, he was a great father. But – you may have felt – he wasn’t always a great husband. The physical side of your relationship became an occasional thing. You wanted the intimacy you had always enjoyed, but you just weren’t feeling like the sex goddess you were when you married. After 3 children, your body wasn’t really the same, and your energy and libido levels certainly weren’t. He also seemed less demanding – and you gradually fell out of the habit of regular physical intimacy. Perhaps an awkwardness arose whenever the possibility of sex came up: perhaps you allowed him occasional intimacy, but when it did happen it didn’t have the same abandon and emotional intensity as it once had. He didn’t say anything about it, and neither did you. It did not occur to you that the man to whom you’d given yourself body and soul, devoting your life to make a home for him and the children you’d jointly created, could be willing risk all that just for a bit of nooky on the side with his gold-digging PA.
‘Emma’, there are a great many women, like you, who feel baffled and betrayed when their men stray from the marital bed. In most cases a primary cause is the breakdown in physical intimacy within the marriage. The woman wants to cuddle, but is inclined to minimise the opportunities for intercourse. For the man, whether he’s 25, 45 or 65, the physical intimacy of a cuddle provokes a strong desire to go further, and he would prefer not to become aroused in the first place if his arousal cannot be ‘completed’. Few women understand that a man’s libido is fundamentally different from her own in that the orgasm is, for him, essential. Arousal without completion isn’t just frustrating for a man – it’s a catastrophe. For him, a non-erotic cuddle is possible, but fraught with danger, especially if he is sexually frustrated in the first place. So he, anticipating her reluctance to go further, tends to avoid anything but the most innocuous forms of physical contact; she feels hurt, and even less inclined to allow him real intimacy. So a pattern of perfunctory physical affection grows up, to which they both become habituated. Neither of them are happy with the loss of emotional intimacy, and neither really understands the other’s needs. It saddens her that he no longer seems to find her attractive enough to want to cuddle and be close with her, but she feels that perhaps his libido, like hers, is running at a low ebb with the strains and drains of life. With that flawed analysis, she accepts the situation, and is therefore stunned and confused when her slightly dull, not very libidinous husband suddenly runs off with a floozy and starts rutting like a teenager.
Ironically, it is the best, most sensitive, most ‘understanding’ men who are most likely to continue in heroic, monastic frustration year after year because their wives have ‘gone off’ the physical side of the relationship. The women often have no insight at all into their partners’ daily struggle. It is a sensitive topic on both sides, and silence grows up around it from sheer failure to understand each other’s needs – and with the silence, a distance in the relationship. Eventually ‘Mia’ makes her move, and unless the man is made of steel, he finds her irresistible. Tell me this, ‘Emma’ – how often have you encouraged physical intimacy with ‘Alan’ in the last year? In the last five years? A man’s needs and a woman’s needs have a lot of overlap, but they are not identical. Women who understand that have a much better chance of avoiding an unpleasant shock after years of ‘happy’ marriage.
Verdict: if ‘Alan’ was a Prince when you married him, he’s still a Prince. He loves you, ‘Emma’. Understand him, forgive him, and above all, TALK to him! Mia is a different matter – you know her likely motivations better than I do, and her fate is in your hands.