156: Nurturing a Long-Term Affair (Part 2)

Aug 29, 2023

Dr. Marie Murphy is back to answer the question of how to nurture a long-term affair when both parties never intend to leave their primary relationships. Even if your situation isn’t an exact match for the one described, this episode and the series will still offer you valuable insights into the intricacies of dealing with your infidelity situation.

Last week, you learned about everything for which you can take responsibility in your affair relationship. As promised, this week Marie is going in-depth on the things for which you and your affair partner need to take collective responsibility, and the things your affair partner has to take sole responsibility for themselves.

While it’s always more powerful to focus on what you are responsible for in your relationships, tune in this week to discover the areas where you and your affair partner need to be on the same page. You’ll learn about communication regarding what each party wants, and the significant issues that can arise from relying on rigid agreements in an affair relationship.

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with Dr. Marie Murphy by clicking here!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why it’s always more powerful to focus most on what you can be responsible for in your relationships.

  • What a conversation with your affair partner about nurturing your affair could look like.

  • Why reaching an agreement doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will uphold that agreement.

  • How you might react when you feel like the other person isn’t upholding their end of an agreement.

  • The mindset that leads to overinterpretation of your affair partner’s behavior.

  • Why your affair partner has their own life to live, and how you can consider and respect that when assessing the agreements the two of you have.

  • How to think about your affair partner’s behavior in a way that actually helps you sustain and nurture the relationship.

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

You are listening to Your Secret Is Safe With Me, non-judgmental talk about infidelity with Dr. Marie Murphy. If you’re looking for new perspectives on complicated relationship issues, you’ve come to the right place. 

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy.  I’m a relationship coach and I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do.  No shame, no blame, no judgments.  I help people who are dealing with all kinds of different infidelity situations, and all kinds of different questions about their infidelity situations to deal with situations, and address their questions, in ways that they feel good about.  There’s a lot of very prescriptive, very dogmatic advice out there on the internet and elsewhere for people who are cheating on their partners, and a lot of it boils down to “what you’re doing is bad, so just stop it right now,” but that is not my perspective, and that’s not what I’m doing to tell you what to do.  My goal is to help you resolve your questions and decide what you want to do with your situation so that you can live out your love life in a way that you feel great about, and still have plenty of time and energy left over for the other important things in your life.  Infidelity situations can be really exciting, but they can also be stressful, and exhausting, and they can eat up a lot of our bandwidth.  So part of the point of working with me and resolving your infidelity situation in a way that’s truly right for you and in a reasonably efficient manner is to get the rest of your life back!  If your infidelity situation has been taking up a lot of your focus for a while, you probably don’t want it to continue to be something you focus so much time and energy on forever.  Because you’ve got other important things to do!  So when you’re ready to get to make some choices and changes, let’s get to work.  You can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, and you can learn more about the coaching packages I offer new clients after that initial session on the services page of my website.  Mariemurphyphd.com.

Okay, today we’re going to continue talking about how you can nurture and sustain a long-term affair.  I started talking about this topic last week, and as I said last week, I got a bunch of questions from listeners about how to sustain a long-term affair when both members of the affair couple are married and have no plans to leave their marriage.  Given the questions I got from folks in that kind of a situation, in today’s episode I’m going to operate with that example situation in mind.  But what I talk about will be relevant to you even if you aren’t in exactly that kind of a situation.

Last time we talked about how long-term affairs are very much like other relationships insofar as in any relationship, there are things that you and your partner can do together, or agree on together – or try to agree on together – there are things that only your partner can do, and there are things that only you can do.  And last week we talked about some of the things you can take responsibility for, and why it can be so very beneficial to do that.  Last week I also said that we’d talk more about what you and your partner can do together for the relationship, and what only your partner can do for the relationship, and we are going to do that today.

But, spoiler alert, as we do this, I’m going to emphasize just how powerful it is to focus more on what you are responsible for in your relationship than you focus on what your partner is responsible for, and what you think the two of you need to do together.

Last week I talked about how one of the things you can do to nurture and sustain a long-term affair relationship is to get really clear on whether you’re willing to participate in long-term infidelity or not.  And when you listened to me talk about that, you might have been thinking, well, I know I’M clear on what I’m willing to do – doesn’t my affair partner need to be willing to participate in the affair, too?  And the answer to that question is probably yes!  Theoretically, anyway, with a relationship of any kind, whether it’s an affair or not, both parties have to agree that they’re willing to participate in the relationship in order for it to work.  And this is where we get into the intersection between what you and your partner can do together in a relationship, what only you can do for or in the relationship, and what only your partner can do for or in the relationship.  And, as we shall see, things get interesting really fast.

It is entirely possible that if you’re involved in an affair that’s been going on for a while, you and your affair partner have had conversations about what you’re doing.  You may have had a lot of conversations about what you’re doing.  You may have, at various points, agreed to do certain things with your affair partner, and not do certain things with them.  And, indeed, you may have talked with them about your willingness to participate in a long-term affair, and their willingness to participate in a long-term affair.  And theoretically, the two of you may have said something like, “Yes, we are each willing to do this, under such and such terms and conditions, or under such and such parameters,” or whatever.

And if you haven’t had conversations like this with your affair partner yet, you could start having them now, and talking with them about their willingness to do what you’re doing together and your willingness to do what you’re doing together is probably a great idea.  

I am absolutely in favor of communicating with your partner – whether they’re your affair partner or any other kind of partner.  I’m all in favor of you and your partner talking about where you stand in regards to the relationship.  And I’m all in favor of attempting to forge agreements with your partner about key aspects of the relationship, or, perhaps, to agree to disagree with your partner on matters you consider important.  I really do believe that doing these things, or at least attempting to do these things, has value.

But, as you may have guessed, here comes the paradox.  Even though we can agree to do things with our partner, those agreements are dependent on the parties involved.  The agreements themselves are not are not independent entities that have an objective existence of their own, OR power over the parties to that agreement.  To put it in really blunt terms, just because we make an agreement with someone doesn’t mean that either of us will necessarily uphold our agreement.

Case in point, many people, when they get married, or commit to a monogamous relationship, agree with their partner that neither of them will do certain things with other people.  But as we all know, just because two people agree to not cheat on each other doesn’t mean that’s any guarantee that neither of them will ever cheat.  Right?

And some people think that this is a really big problem, and by “this” I mean the fact that the agreements we make with other people do not guarantee future outcomes.  Sometimes we think that the fact that agreements don’t guarantee future outcomes is a problem, and we think that in order to solve this problem, we need to a) make better, or stronger, or more binding agreements with our partner, so that they are somehow more compelled to do whatever they agree to do, and/or b) find ways of ensuring that our partner lives up to their end of the agreements they make with us.  And although I think it’s completely understandable that many of us tend to think in these ways, I think that these kinds of approaches to relationships only lead to a lot of suffering.

Let’s talk about what this can look like in long-term affairs.  A dynamic that comes up somewhat regularly in these kinds of relationships is this.  Two people who are both in committed, ostensibly monogamous relationships with other people, will get involved, and form an affair relationship.  And they’ll decide on some things they want to do to make their relationship good, and how they want to navigate the constraints that come with having a secret affair.  And the affair couple might, for example, agree that they’re always going to be honest with each other about what they’re thinking and feeling about keeping the affair going.  They promise each other that if the affair is starting to stress them out, or starting to seem like more trouble than it’s worth, they’re going discuss that with each other.

And both members of the couple may earnestly agree to do this!  They may each really believe, when they’re making the agreement, that this is a good thing to agree to.  And for a while, each of them may do this in ways that the other considers satisfactory.  For a while, they both may initiate check-ins about the status of the affair relationship.  They each may volunteer information about how they’re feeling about keeping the affair going, and they may each think that the other person is holding up their end of the agreement, and they may both think that all of this is really great.  And it is great!

But here’s what happens a lot, and what can easily start to happen.  One member of the couple may start to think that their affair partner isn’t really fulfilling their end of the agreement.  That person may even become fixated on the extent to which their affair partner is fulfilling their end of that agreement!  And they may feel really justified in being very concerned with this matter.  Because for a while, their affair partner communicated particular things to them, in a particular way, and with a particular frequency.  And they really LIKED IT when their affair partner was doing that.  

And now, so they think, anyway, their affair partner’s behavior has obviously changed, and obviously for the worse.  They may think that it is an objectively verifiable fact that their affair partner is NOT sharing their feelings about keeping the affair going, and they may believe that this is obviously an indication that they are pulling away from the relationship.  They may be SURE that their affair partner is withholding information from them that they have the right to be informed of, because their affair partner AGREED to share how they were thinking and feeling about the relationship!  They PROMISED they would always share what was on their mind, and now that they aren’t, the aggrieved party is sure that they KNOW that means that they’re losing interest in the relationship with them.  And although the aggrieved party doesn’t like that idea one bit, they think they would be okay as long as their affair partner would just hurry up and tell them everything that’s on their mind. 

But one member of the affair couple just isn’t telling the other party what’s on their mind.  For whatever reasons, they simply aren’t doing what their affair partner wants them to do.

And so the member of the couple who is convinced there’s something wrong may ask affair partner what’s going on with them.  And they might say that everything’s fine, and their partner might not believe them.  And from there, one member of the couple may start badgering the other to tell them what’s going on.  They might remind their partner that they AGREED to be honest about how they are feeling about the affair, and they might tell them that they know that something is wrong, and that they expect to know all of the details about what’s going on with them immediately.

Or something to that effect.  This is just an example, but it’s a real one - dynamics LIKE this happen all the time, and I know that some of you listening are shaking your heads in recognition as you hear me talk about this.  And when this kind of dynamic develops, it can be really unpleasant for both parties involved.  It’s not fun to think that somebody is pulling away from you, and not sharing things they promised to share with you, and not living up to their end of a bargain they made with you.  Believing all of that stuff usually doesn’t feel nice.  To put it mildly.  And, it’s also not all that fun to have someone you really care about pestering you to tell them what you are thinking, and accusing you of withholding important information, and telling you they’re sure they know something is wrong on your end, and that they’ll be satisfied as long as you TELL THEM WHAT’S GOING ON RIGHT NOW.

The kind of dynamic I’m describing can happen in non-affair relationships, of course – not just in affair relationships.  But the kind of thing I’m describing can seem extra-hard to deal with when it’s happening within the context of an affair relationship, for all kinds of reasons, including these three:  

Number one: In an affair relationship, you may be dealing with limits on your time together and limits on your opportunities to communicate, and thus it may seem like your time together is a scarce commodity.  There may be a lot of times when you really want to talk to your affair partner, or really want to see them, and you can’t – or perhaps more accurately, you choose not to.  So for instance, let’s say you are well aware of where your affair partner lives.  If you really want to see them, and you know they’re at home, you could always just stop by and say hello.  If you think you desperately need to talk to them, you could show up at their doorstep and demand a meeting.  Doing that might totally violate the terms and conditions of your relationship agreements, but you COULD do it.  Anyway, when there are limits on your time together, this can start to seem like a really big deal.  And not having enough time together can seem like a big deal in different ways, but to continue with the example I’ve been talking about, if you think your affair partner is pulling away from you, and not telling you important things that they promised to share with you, you thinking that you don’t have enough time with them to pull all of the information that you want from them out of them may start to seem like an emergency of epic proportions.

Number two: Sometimes, people in affair relationships believe that circumstances beyond their control are dictating the terms and conditions of their relationship with their affair partner.  And people’s beliefs about this run the gamut from thinking that they don’t get to see their affair partner as often as they want to because their affair partner’s spouse is really controlling, to believing that FATE ITSELF is working against them.  And when we believe that circumstances beyond our control are dictating our lives, we may feel powerless, or indignant, or constrained, and it’s pretty hard to create the kinds of experiences in our relationships that we want to have when we’re feeling those kinds of feelings.

Number three: folks in affair relationships sometimes believe that it is incumbent upon them to view their affair partner’s actions in a particular way BECAUSE they are in an affair relationship, rather than a non-secret, non-illicit relationship.  And although this sort of perspective can be employed to helpful ends – and I will say more about that later - what people sometimes do is completely over-interpret their affair partner’s behavior, and that usually doesn’t end up being very helpful at all.  For instance, sometimes we get really stuck on thinking that our affair partner wouldn’t be behaving the way they’re behaving if we were in a “normal” relationship with them.  And that line of thinking is unlikely to help us clearly evaluate what we want to do in relation to our partner’s behavior.

Instead of indulging in these kinds of lines of thinking, what we have the opportunity to recognize is that we can make agreements with our partner, and we can do our best to honor them.  And if we think our affair partner isn’t honoring agreements they’re made to us, we get to decide what we want to do about that.  So often we try to get people to change their behavior when we don’t like it, instead of deciding what we want to do in response to their behavior.  There may be times when we want to tolerate other people’s behavior that we don’t like, or adjust our thinking about other people’s behavior that we don’t like – or we may want to engage in the relationship differently.  But so often, we try to get our partner to do what we want them to do instead.  And this may work sometimes, or get us what we want temporarily sometimes, but it won’t always work!  Because if our partner is being their full human self, we might not always like what they’re doing!  And if our partner is being their full human self, they may not always be able to do whatever they’ve agreed to do with us.  So our agreements only take us so far.  And our efforts to manage other people’s behavior will only take us so far.

To return to the example I’ve been talking about, if you and your affair partner have agreed to communicate about certain things in a certain way, and they stop doing that, any number of things may be going on with them, or within them.  They may be freaking out about their relationship with you and withdrawing from you, intentionally or unintentionally.  It IS possible that that’s happening.  And it’s also possible that they just aren’t as focused on their relationship with you as they may have been at other points in time.  Sometimes, talking to you about certain things may seem like the most important thing in the world to them.  And sometimes it might not – and the reasons why it doesn’t might not really have anything to do with you, as far as they are concerned.

The idea of your affair partner being less-than-focused on their relationship with you for reasons that have nothing to do with you might seem like a problem.  Sometimes we want our person – and that could be our affair partner, but this happens outside of affair relationships too – to always be super excited about us, and always up for being totally present and engaged with us, and, perhaps, always up for discussing the details of our relationship.  And it may seem to us that because our time with our affair partner is scarce, they should be up for maximizing every moment with us, without exception.

But here’s the thing.  Love, as Esther Perel famously said, is not a permanent state of enthusiasm.  We often want our special someones to be a continuous source of happiness and excitement and love and lust and connection and good stuff for us.  And often, we kinda treat our partners like vending machines of happiness, or better yet, Pez dispensers of happiness.  With a vending machine, you at least have to put some money in to get the whatever it is out.  But with a Pez dispenser, you don’t even have to put money into a machine.  You just pop back the head of the candy dispenser, and you get your treat.  Some of kinda treat our relationships like this!  And if you think, oh yeah, I’ve kinda been doing this myself, you need not be ashamed!  There are many messages in our society that prompt us to think about relationships as if they are, or should be, vending machines of happiness.  Or Pez dispensers of happiness.  And interestingly, we may be especially inclined to think of our affair relationships as Pez dispensers of happiness, or vending machines of happiness, because their secret nature may make them extra exciting.  If we only get limited time with our affair partner, we may be extra excited to see them.  And so we may start to associate the relationship with especially intense good feelings, and we may expect that the relationship, or our partner, will continue to provide those extra-good feelings for us.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying that to pathologize affair relationships.  The sort of thing that I’m describing can happen in non-affair relationships, too, and it isn’t an entirely terrible thing when it does happen.  If we didn’t experience such intensely great emotions in relationships, we might not bother with them at all!  So it’s not a bad thing to experience really good highs with our affair partner.  We just want to relate to these highs as consciously as possible, and that, I would recommend, can include recognizing that our affair partner is a person.  They have their own life to live, and although we may be an important part of it, that doesn’t mean that they exist exclusively for the purpose of making you happy.  And you may be thinking, well, I don’t expect THAT, I don’t expect them to be EXCLUSIVELY devoted to my happiness!

And to that I say, your job is to remember that in the moments that you think they aren’t living up to agreements they made with you.  You may think, “I don’t expect my affair partner to be exclusively devoted to my happiness, I just expect them to communicate with me about our relationship in the ways they said they would!”  It’s fine to want that.  But the question is, what are you going to do in the service of nurturing and sustaining a long-term affair when your affair partner doesn’t do the things you want them to do.  Including the things that they said they would do! 

I want to encourage you to consider that in any given moment that someone doesn’t live up to an agreement they’ve made, or do what they’ve said they would do, they may have pretty human reasons for that.  And if what you want is the long-term viability of the relationship, there may be times when you get a lot more out of prioritizing recognizing your partner’s humanity over insisting that they honor agreements they’ve made to you.  Again, agreements in relationships are great.  No question.  But there may be times when we simply don’t have it in us to do whatever it is we said we would do.  If your affair partner isn’t communicating with you about how they feel about the state of your relationship, they have some reason why they’re not doing that – and that reason, even if you don’t like it, is totally human.  And therefore, totally legitimate, at least from a certain standpoint.

So when your affair partner does not do things they agreed to do, instead of letting your mind take you on a wild ride to nowhere great, you may want to think intentionally about their failure to live up to what the two of you agreed on.  Here are some things you might find it helpful to think about their behavior:

Affairs can be challenging and stressful sometimes.

My partner may be freaking out.

Even if we promised to tell each other certain things, there may be times when they just aren’t able to do that… and I may not really understand why, but I don’t have to understand why.

My affair partner is human, and they’re doing the best they can.

Their job is to be them – NOT to do everything I want them to do because I have made my emotional state dependent on their behavior.

One of the weird and wild features – and this definitely is a feature, not a bug – of romantic relationships of any kind is that pretty much by definition, if we want to be open to feeling great with our partner, we have to be open to feeling NOT great with our partner.  Nobody tells us this, though.  This should be common knowledge, but for some reason, it isn’t.  It should be, though, and here’s a short quote that speaks to what I’m talking about:

If you wish to be a warrior, prepare to be broken.

If you wish to be an explorer, prepare to be lost.

If you wish to be a lover, prepare to be both.

-Daniel Saint

You might find that nurturing and sustaining a long-term affair requires you to be a special kind of warrior and a special kind of explorer and a special kind of lover.  And you might decide that it’s totally worth it.

After all, there can be exquisite benefits to engaging in a long-term affair.  For one thing, you may get to enjoy the amazing human that your affair partner is – without having to rearrange other aspects of your life that you also value.  You may get to have a really wonderful experience of having a relationship with someone that doesn’t come with all of the normal life stuff.  Put differently, you may enjoy having a relationship that exists within the so-called affair bubble for a long time.  That might be pretty great, and you’re allowed to want that and appreciate having that.

But, you may also find that engaging in a long-term affair is challenging in a lot of ways – AND engaging with your affair partner as they grapple with various stresses and doubts about the nature of your relationship may well be one of those challenges. 

You can manage the discomfort YOU feel when you witness your affair partner grappling with the stresses of engaging in a long-term affair, but you can’t relieve them of their stresses.  Only they can deal with their experience of being in the relationship.  Only they can manage whatever stress or anxiety or guilt or doubt they may feel about participating in their relationship with you.  

And letting them do this does mean that they could repeatedly not live up to agreements they’ve made, or otherwise do things that you don’t like.  But how could it be any other way?  If you attempt to manage their behavior, that won’t work – or at least, it won’t entirely work – so why not just allow them to be their perfectly wonderful human selves?  You can then take responsibility for both enjoying them, and for exercising your discretion about how you want to engage with them, or IF you want to continue engaging with them.

Now I’m saying all of this as if it’s simple, and it IS simple.  But it also may be very different from what we’re used to doing.  I can teach you HOW to take responsibility for what you have the power to control in your relationship.  This is a really simple concept, but putting this approach into practice in your own life takes a bit of willingness and effort and practice.  Differentiating between what’s yours to deal with and what isn’t is a skill that I can help you cultivate.  Actually taking responsibility for what you have the power to take responsibility for, instead of saying, yeah, I see how it’s my job to deal with that, but I’m still going to try to manage my partner’s behavior instead of taking responsibility for my own experience of this relationship, is also a skill I can help you cultivate.  Learning how to let your partner deal with the things that only they can deal with is a skill that I can help you cultivate too.  

This might sound strange but most of us never learned how to approach our romantic relationships in a way that enables us to enjoy them to the fullest extent possible.  Now I’m not saying that no one enjoys their relationships.  I know people absolutely enjoy their relationships, BUT I see a lot of people enjoying their relationships when their person is doing the things they like, or doing the things they want them to do.  I see a lot of people making their happiness contingent upon the extent to which their relationships are going the way they want them to.  

Taking responsibility for what you have the power to manage or control is the foundation of nurturing and sustaining a long-term affair.  Does other stuff go into it, too?  Yes, of course.  But this is the essential ingredient, without which all others matter a lot less.  

If you’re interested in taking responsibility for how you nurture and sustain your long-term affair, I can help you do it.  When you’re ready to talk, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, so we can work together no matter where you’re located.

All right everyone!  Thank you all so much for listening.  Have a great week.  Bye for now.


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