The Rational Basis® of Happiness Podcast

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What is an "affair" and why are they so tempting? A short interview with Dr. Tiffany Kisler.

(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)


Movie clip       

Female:           But we don’t know if he’s having an affair. I mean, he could just be involved with, um, I don’t know, people who get together to invest things and the place that they invest things is filled with potpourri and that’s why his shirts smell so sweet when he comes home. It’s possible.

Male:               Yeah, it’s possible. It’s possible. It’s possible we could find your husband neck-deep in potpourri, investing things.


Dr. Kenner:      And that’s from the movie Shall We Dance? You can see what that woman is doing. She’s trying to talk herself out of that nagging thought in her mind, “My husband is having an affair. He’s smelling like potpourri. He’s coming home, not around as often as he used to be. What’s going on? I don’t want to believe he’s having an affair, but could it be possible that he’s cheating on me?” And of course, if you watch the movie, Shall We Dance? he is not cheating on her. He is learning how to dance. And I’m Dr. Ellen Kenner. The show is The Rational Basis of Happiness. With me today to discuss the very painful topic of affairs is Dr. Tiffany Kissler. She is an assistant professor of marriage and family therapy, or couple and family therapy, at the University of Rhode Island. And Dr. Kissler teaches courses in couple and family relationships and in sexuality and sex therapy. She has published and presented at national and international conferences on her clinical research, which includes sexual functioning, relational and sexual satisfaction – that’s what we all want – and sexual therapy techniques. Dr. Kissler is the co-founder of Psychological Centers for Sexual Health in Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome to the show Dr. Tiffany Kissler.


Dr. Kissler:      Thank you very much for having me.


Dr. Kenner:      Now what is an affair? I have many couples come in to my office and say, “I think my husband is cheating on me.” What constitutes an affair?


Dr. Kissler:      This is a really interesting question that comes up frequently, both inside and outside of the therapy room. Ultimately, what constitutes an affair is really determined by each couple individually. This can range from aspects of physical non-monogamy to emotional non-monogamy. For example, some individuals might even have differences within the couple, where any type of physical contact, even if it’s of a non-sexual nature but with some tone or hint of sexual intimacy, can be constituted or viewed as a violation of the relationship and considered an affair. Whereas, others it can be as much as emotional intimacy that results in secrecy and some sort of sexual chemistry. It’s a tricky answer to this question.


Dr. Kenner:      Okay, because what I hear, Tiffany, is that people will come in. “My husband is in the chat rooms and he’s talking for business, but that feels like an affair.” Or, “You know what? My husband is on the websites” – and I’m picking on husbands here – “looking at porn. Our sex life, I don’t even want to make love to him anymore, because he’s cheating on me. He’s looking at all these beautiful women’s bodies and I can never look at like at the age of 46 and I just feel like when he looks at me, he looks at me as a sex object.” Or, “He says he has a right to have female friends, but they’re not just friends. They talk about us. They talk about our relationship and that’s not fair.” Or, “I just don’t trust him. He’s away.” What constitutes an affair? Maybe they never had intercourse in any of these cases, maybe the husband never cheated, or the wife if you want to flip it.


Dr. Kissler:      Right. It sounds like here that either an implicit or explicit kind of expectation for the relationship has been violated to that partner concerned, whether it be a wife or a husband, that this type of behavior is occurring outside of the relationship. The internet, chat room, whatnot. If the person in the relationship feels it’s a violation of some sort, they may classify it as an affair. Now, that can cause a problem for the couple and ultimately get them in the therapy room if they have different beliefs about what this means and what it takes to actually qualify as an affair.


Dr. Kenner:      In that case, it sounds like the standard is that, I can look at my husband, you are all I want and we have an exclusivity together, an emotional exclusivity. We only share our deepest, richest thoughts with one another, and we have intimacy only with one another. We’re sexual only with one another. And when you feel that’s violated, whether you see your husband or wife holding hands or patting someone on the back or brushing their hair out of their face on someone else, it just feels like they’ve violated that standard.


Dr. Kissler:      Absolutely. I think sometimes it’s helpful to think about it as a sense of betrayal, or a feeling of violation, of the assumptions you hold for your marriage or your union in some way, rather than talking about affairs specifically.


Dr. Kenner:      And the point I think we’re making is that it’s so unique. It’s so personal to each couple what constitutes an affair. Is it an emotional betrayal, that incredible emotional intimacy that couples feel when they first meet dissipates? Because you see that partner doing the same thing he or she did to court you, with someone else? So it sounds like that is huge. Now I have another question though. What makes affairs so tempting in long-term marriages?


Dr. Kissler:      One of the things that contributes to making affairs so tempting is that they really are a protected relationship. So they’re free from the hassles of day-to-day life. Handling kids, managing household responsibilities, paying bills, trying to negotiate the day-to-day aspects of a busy life. With an affair, there’s more novelty. There’s newness. There’s excitement. You don’t know your partner in the same way in most cases, and so also, you’re not as vulnerable. You can be who you want to be. There’s a stronger element, a fantasy here, because the reality of day-to-day life isn’t as present in affair situations.


Dr. Kenner:      So you make it, it’s almost like you can put in a bubble a romantic relationship and you don’t have to integrate it with screaming kids and bills to be paid and I think you mentioned when I heard you speak once, it’s like strawberries and chocolate with a new, exciting, sexy person!


Dr. Kissler:      Exactly.


Dr. Kenner:      How can a wife or husband or partner compete with that?


Dr. Kissler:      Absolutely.


Dr. Kenner:      It’s just so tempting. So you talk about a three-stage model, and I know we only have a minute left – tell me about that.


Dr. Kissler:      I think there’s a lot of great work on working with affair couples that was created by Donald Baucom, Douglas Snyder and Kristina Gordon, and they have two books. One book for actual couples and one for the clinician. The books are called Helping Couples Get Past the Affair and Getting Past the Affair, a program to help you cope, heal and move on together or apart. They speak of three stages, which I employ in my work with couples. Stage one is absorbing the blow. Here, you’re doing damage control and trying to restore equilibrium and order. As you move into stage two, you’re giving meaning and establishing new assumptions. Here’s a deeper understanding of what contributed to the affair, reactions, recovering trust and intimacy and reestablishing some security. And then as you move in stage three, this is called moving forward. Where you try to move beyond the event and no longer allow it to control your life, so you work with issues of forgiveness, developing realistic and balanced views of the relationship, and try to make a decision about the nature of the relationship, if it’s a healthy decision to continue or not.


Dr. Kenner:      That’s a wonderful outline. Thank you so much. This is Dr. Tiffany Kissler and she is the co-founder of Psychological Center for Sexual Health in Providence, Rhode Island. Thank you Tiffany.


Dr. Kissler:      Thank you very much for having me.


Dr. Kenner:      You can visit my website