Will a fling kill your relationship?

As long as there are relationships, there will always be flings, those quickie affairs. Sexual revolution, or not – for instance in surveys 43% of all Germans state that for them a fling is sufficient reason to terminate even a longstanding relationship. And almost two thirds consider it to be the beginning of the end when a partner cheats. The values in other industrial nations are similar. Particularly fascinating considering the fact that since the fifties one figure shows up with stunning regularity (that is to say since Kinsey’s research on this subject): According to studies, at one time or the other, 50% of all long-term relationships are subject to adultery. Men are not always the culprits. They are only the cheaters in 30 – 60% of all cases, while in 20 - 50% the females give in to temptation. The difference is the way in which the situation is being handled: Men enjoy boasting with their adventures while the females keep their mouth shut and indulge in silence. Thus the former are more likely to get caught than the latter.
Looking at it from an evolutionary biological (and –psychological) point of view, the infidelity of either partner represents a considerable threat to both sexes, therefore no wonder that the partner’s cheating generally leaves us anything but cold. After all, for every living being it is the primary (evolutionary) task to preserve its very own gene. Some female spiders even let their offspring eat them alive in order to secure their optimum start into life. Fortunately with us humans things are not that intense. Nevertheless, we also obey the motto: procreate! On the other hand the subliminally running “programs” with males and females in this respect are not entirely identical. Consequently, they also react quite differently to partnership infidelity behavior.

In a survey the American psychologist David Buss demonstrated that above all most men were afraid of their partner’s sexual adventures. On the other hand purely “emotional” infidelity troubled them a lot less. The reason for that – at least that is the suspicion, can be found in the conjecture that men, if they raise children together with a partner, unlike the mother can never be one hundred percent sure that those who smile at them out of the cradle really carry their own genes. What if mom at some point during a weak moment had a tête-à-tête with the postman? In that case the husband would squander all sorts of (financial and other) resources to secure the postman’s genes instead of his own an optimal start in life! The evolutionary mega-disaster from the male point of view, so to speak.

Ergo, men are more concerned with their partner’s sexual fidelity – as long as the fling only happens in the head and is not consummated physically, most of them react relatively sanguinely. According to Buss’ results, women on the other hand, get really panicky when they are afraid that the partner may fall in love with another woman. That presents the real threat that he may just leave her and their children – and invests his (financial and other) resources in that new “little woman” and her children. At least in the distant past the father’s protection was vital to help the gene reach adulthood and not prematurely end up in a sabre tooth tiger’s stomach or starve to death. That would have been the woman’s evolutionary mega-disaster – for many long years having invested in genes condemned to futility while the biological clock inexorably ticks down to the zero hour . . .

Incidentally, worldwide research confirms the results of this study: Both sexes have a vested strong interest in a faithful partner, albeit for the above mentioned different incentives. After all, a few thousand years of evolution cannot simply be ignored. And then there are also those little gnawing narcissists in every one of us who really get their feelings hurt when the partner is attracted to someone else. That especially when the own feeling of self-esteem is already not the sturdiest. Am I not good enough for him/her? How can he/she do that to me knowing all the time that this is going to hurt me? How can I now ever trust him (her) again?

No question, the discovery of an affair probably represents one of the most serious crises befalling a partnership. Slamming doors, screaming, weeping, impulsively packing suitcases and things like that are probably unavoidable (and as long as they are limited to slamming doors and do not culminate in physical violence against the unfaithful partner, I believe they are also certainly permissible as an outlet of the initial emotion). Naturally the conundrum presents itself in what happens after this volcanic eruption? To throw everything away and terminate the relationship? Really!

As strange as it may sound: For some couples a fling can cause the transition to something better. Condition is that both are prepared to understand that something in the existing partnership got the short end of the stick. In my practice I have experienced not just a few couples who managed to exploit the, to all of us thoroughly worn out Chinese wisdom “crisis = opportunity” for their relationship. (To be honest, I also must admit that I encountered a few for whom a solution was simply out of reach. But one should make an effort, no?)

A few years ago the German psychologist Ragnar Beer published the results of a survey involving 2600 heterosexual subjects (male and female) who had been involved in a fling at one time or the other. 80% stated that they loved their partner and actually wanted to be faithful to him/her – and still, they had ended up in bed with someone else. Moreover: 60% of those did not just get involved in the legendary one-night-stand that “just happened somehow”, but definitely had long-term affairs lasting between one and six months. Almost half of those sampled cheated more or less regularly. Even though almost all of them actually did not really want to.

The researchers determined the cause to be sexual boredom and unhappiness with their present relationship. And the inability to talk with the partner about it. In that case preferably a quickie with the hot colleague or the nice neighbor . . .

Among couples researchers and –therapists it is an old truth: Long-term relationships and exiting sex simply don’t get along. The long-term relationship represents security, safety, the familiar, the cuddle factor, the opportunity to let ourselves “go” - relaxation. Existing sex thrives on precariousness, expectations (and expectation anxiety!), suspense, excitement, and curiosity. That is very obviously at odds. Continuously creating sufficient distance in a long-term relationship in order to keep eroticism alive is a tough balancing act. And at the same time not creating too much distance, growing apart and sacrificing the – so important and necessary - sense of security.

Beer’s study also demonstrates the vital role played by communication in the partnership. Many have serious problems talking about sexuality with each other. In the beginning it does not appear to be necessary and later the feeling prevails that it is too late to all of a sudden start talking about it now. For many the fear to hurt the partner’s feelings has grown into too much of an impediment. Granted, with bad timing or bad luck one could initially meet with rejection: “What do you mean, up to now you certainly appeared to have had a good time?!” And who would really be inclined to respond to that with: “True, but I just haven’t had the nerve to say something!” Or, if it really goes wrong and the climate is already a bit on edge: “Am I not good enough for you any longer!”? Thin ice!! – Especially women tend to have a problem with that because they still have been more prudishly raised than men. And those, on the other hand don’t have the nerve to tell their long-term partner their a little less than traditional fantasies.

The underlying thought often is: “I can’t ask that of her, she surely wouldn’t like it!” In the male mind the conundrum of the separation whore – angel still has an important emotional and behavioral impact; and the long time female partners are usually those wearing the halo. At this point I can only recommend initiating the communication on the subject of sex, sexual wishes and fantasies and such as early as possible. The best time for that is when everything is (still) going well, because then it can become part of the erotic banter (one can practice a little “Dirty Talk”!) and at the latest when one catches oneself wistfully peering in the direction of the mystery on the night table while the partner is trying his/her best to get the ball rolling. And then preferably not in the context of reproaches but with wishes, suggestions, questions. That is bound to create an entire new kind of intimacy between the partners that is a far cry from boredom!
Sometimes a triangle relationship can simply be understood as an “attempt to compensate” for an existing imbalance in a partner relationship. For instance, when in some aspect of their life together one of the partners is clearly superior to the other, the other partner frequently attempts to equalize this imbalance with a fling. Issues like money, professional status or who is the major decision maker frequently serve as the catalyst. Also, the disparity on other subjects involving giving and taking can only be endured for a limited period of time. No one can deal with the experience of always feeling to be dependent and needy, a taker or even freeloader – just as it is counterproductive to only be in charge. Therefore an affair can take an emancipating turn from a situation like that; suddenly the deck is totally re-shuffled. In retrospect, an imbalance like that when identified in the relationship and this recognition can well put a different complexion on the affair by showing it in an entirely new light. Now the partners have the opportunity to examine together: What was missing in our relationship, where was the imbalance? What can we do differently in the future to render a relationship outside of the partnership unnecessary?

Or possibly a pending issue: Occasionally from the history of the couple “old issues” - never resolved nor forgiven hurts, old emotional injuries, humiliations, disappointments for which subliminally compensation is still pending. In those cases it may help to reflect together: What could that have been that which subliminally smoldered all this time? Is the relationship account now balanced? Can we now that consider that which happened to be a closed case? What is it that I as well as you - now really - need to do, forgive each other for our reciprocal slights? Which ritual, which gesture can help us? And how can we trust each other again?

This perspective of that which transpired is naturally particularly very difficult to stomach for the cheatee who has to deal with the pain. Of course, all these approaches postulate the acceptance of the assumption that both (!) partners realize to have contributed their share to a fling. For the cheatee very tough to face this fact – because that means that he/she has to relinquish the role of the sacrificial lamb (and that can be very comfortable because here he/she is holding the moral high ground and is the perennial subject of sympathy) and now must face his/her own responsibilities, instead. But also very liberating because being the victim means being passive, powerless. As the old saying goes: I am empowering those whom I hold at fault. The alternate perspective enables to become active: regain control about that which happens to oneself and the relationship. Naturally that can also mean to terminate the relationship – but it doesn’t have to. It is also possible to begin it anew – together!