What Do Vacations and Affairs Have in Common?
Therapy clients don’t spend a lot of time talking about how relaxed they feel. Except in mid-August when many DC dwellers return from vacations. I heard the words calm, chill and relaxed more often this week than I have all year.
Interestingly, the relaxation that transpires following summer holidays seems more authentic than the sensations described after winter break. Maybe it is because many Christmas holidays are spent with extended family so this adds layers of conscious and unconscious drama? Perhaps it feels less emotionally complex to vacation during a time not associated with religious celebration? Maybe the summertime post-holiday glow shimmers because the weather is still warm and the traffic is still thin? I am not exactly sure why, but the month of August is the time of year when I rarely hear expressions of anxiety or find myself discussing strategies to manage stress.
An overwhelmed couple glances longingly at each other in the afterglow of a week in the Outer Banks. A law firm partner questioning his career choices is tan and smiling, and he has a beard! An executive deciding whether to stay in a complicated marriage is all smiles and describes the most enjoyable week she has experienced with her husband in years.
My job is so easy!
Everyone is doing so well!
I should retire! And travel!
The looming dilemma is that vacations are not real life. And real life inside the Beltway is about to descend with a vengeance and claim its rightful presence. Traffic, back-to-school nights, travel soccer, deadlines, snow delays. With each glimmer of reality, the vacation afterglow will dim.
It occurs to me that vacations are a little bit like affairs. From a psychological perspective, both vacations and extra-marital trysts involve a substantial departure from reality. Both experiences can illuminate features of a personality that grew dormant through the demands of daily routines.
A chubby accountant smiles and admits to liking himself better on vacation:
“I was friendlier and had time to ask people more questions. I chatted with strangers in the hotel lobby, by the pool, wherever! It’s the simplest change, but my curiosity made every experience so much more pleasant. It made ME more pleasant.”
A stylish but overworked mother of three sounds similar describing herself during her affair:
“We always made eye contact when we spoke. Each utterance mattered. It felt thrilling to be connected through these glances, and I will miss that level of attention. I don’t want him; I want my husband. But I long for that rush of vitality.”
Many married individuals who have strayed want desperately to stay in their marriage. And yet they often grieve the end of their affair. Even if they feel more attracted to their spouse and even if they are in love with their spouse.
When digging into the meaning of many affairs, spouses who stray often describe the sensation of liking themselves better in the context of the new relationship. Just as many travelers will realize they like themselves better on the road. With affairs, it feels rejuvenating to receive lots of compliments or have someone see you through new eyes. It feels good to escape the financial pressures of a bad business investment that has adversely affected the family. It feels affirming to avoid the pain associated with all of the times that sex was initiated with a spouse who wasn’t in the mood. It feels intoxicating to be immersed in new experiences.
When I work with couples hoping to rebuild their marriage in the aftermath of infidelity, it is often useful to acknowledge the ways that an extra-marital affair typically necessitates profound a departure from reality. Rarely do couples in affairs socialize with others. If they do socialize in groups, this is usually because they work together, and rarely do they share the romantic nature of the relationship with their colleagues (even if the colleagues sense the chemistry). Couples in affairs rarely share mundane experiences like dish washing, food shopping, meal planning, bill paying, budgeting or carpooling. Couples in affairs rarely spend long stretches of time together; instead they make the very most of what little time they can steal. Just as many vacationers will make the most of their time on holiday, secret lovers savor each moment of their stolen, precious time. Most couples on vacation have much more sex, and better sex, enjoying the sensual allure of their new environment. Most couples in affairs also have more sex and better sex, enjoying the enticement of the forbidden.
In order to salvage a marriage in the aftermath of an affair, the spouse who strayed typically must put a lot of love and care into a process of re-building trust to help the betrayed spouse to heal. This dimension of rebuilding is common knowledge. But what is less known about the trajectory of rekindling a marital love life post-affair is how often the spouse who strayed works through grief by cultivating more of their affair-based self within their marriage. Often, a key to strengthening a marriage, post-affair, involves a process of integrating positive parts of one’s self that surfaced during an affair, and re-introducing these traits in the marriage. If eye contact felt intoxicating in an affair, make it a priority in the marriage. If a spouse who strayed observed an appealing willingness to try new experiences with their affair partner, it can help to push this sense of adventure into the marriage.
These same lessons are relevant in protecting the sensations of satisfaction and serenity that are the hallmarks of travel. Vacations are not real life, but if curiosity about other people, places and things animate a holiday, it is important to make time for curiosity in daily life. Perhaps vacations are necessary affairs with one’s self and one’s life, so it helps to integrate glimmers of the vacation self into the reality.