Affairs of the heart

When individuals partner through marriage or in other ways they usually make a deep personal commitment to the relationship. However, as time passes and the pressures of life, work and children – or the lack of them – emerge, priorities and energies may shift. Millions of people who had previously felt fully committed to a relationship find themselves drawn out of it, many of those feel inextricably pulled by powerful but inexplicit dynamics.

If the searching leads to physical intimacy and even when it doesn’t, it can cause waves of confusing emotions and challenging relationship dynamics. Questions and guilt arise about morality and values which, when coupled with religious, cultural or personal judgments, can lead to more confusion and sadness.

This article explores just some of the many systemic dynamics behind affairs and offers fresh paths to insight, understanding and resolution.

The force is strong

Sexual energy is the most powerful force in the human experience. Despite poetic ideas to the contrary, the energy source of all human life is a stronger force than love. Dynamics that lead to affairs are fuelled by this force but very often also have their roots in the patterns of the family systems involved. The forces that drive and arise can be very strong as people get caught up in the systems’ search for balance.

Affairs are often the product of romantic idealisation and can be expressions of a kind of  ‘blind love’. Felt as a deep desire, a fascination or quest it often is just that, but the current object of desire may represent someone or something else completely. Connection through an affair may happen through mutual or generational wounds that can create a blind spot, where all that seems important is the physical connection and that can quickly turn to a sense of having found the ‘ideal lover’ or ‘the one’.

The search for romantic attachment or sexual gratification that leads to physical intimacy with someone outside of a couple relationship can often be a reflection of an unconscious search for completion, acknowledgement, belonging and healing. Judging affairs as ‘morally wrong’ offers a very limited view on what may be going on underneath, what is asking to be seen and resolved. Morals, values and judgments will usually simply hide the view of wider system patterns which can often be the source of rich insight. Insight into the underlying systemic dynamics can lead to deep personal growth and the pattern can finally dissolve and resolve.

“It is possible in a couple relationship for there to be meaningful relationships with other people – also sexual relationships. Human life is much too complex to simply judge that out of hand. If the basic loyalty and dependability for the partner remain, and if the personal growth from the additional experiences is brought back into the partner relationship, then it could have a positive effect.
On the other hand loyalty is hampered by an unresolved tie to the family-of-origin. For example if a woman is still tied to her father, she will seek out a father in addition to her husband – usually a lover.
You can’t make simple judgments about it. The question is: how can it be brought into order?
By releasing the tie to her father and standing next to her mother, perhaps she won’t need a lover and will be able to relate to her husband completely as a wife.
The same is naturally true for a man who is tied to his mother. If he can stand by his father, he perhaps won’t need another woman in addition to his wife. When it’s the other way round, when a woman behaves in her marriage as if she were her husband’s mother, and tries to re-educate him, then he may look for another woman in addition to this wife-mother. The lover becomes the wife and the wife becomes a mother.
The same thing happens if a woman has a husband who acts as her father. She may look for another man in addition to this husband-father. The lover becomes the husband and the husband a father.
There are many possible entanglements and it doesn’t do justice to the fullness and complexity of life simply to label these things as faithful or unfaithful, loyal or disloyal.”

Extract from ‘Acknowledging What Is’
By Bert Hellinger

“When affairs are not illuminated in the context of the wider system, morals and ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ often keep everyone blind, judgmental and entangled.”

John Whittington

“When a woman feels drawn to a romantic attachment or affair but finds it inexplicable or feels as though there’s something wrong with her she may be trying to complete a missing connection with her father, to receive the nurturing and love due to her as a child. If she can see him in his proper place and take her own, the desire for a lover – often older, to represent father – dissipates.”

Judy Wilkins-Smith

The hidden dynamics

There can be many and overlapping dynamics behind an affair

Some are identified below, as unconscious ‘Life Sentences’, others are detailed in this article on romanticism.

✣ Caught in life/death dynamics
“Dear Mum/Dad you were ill most of my life and then you died. I will do anything to feel alive. This affair makes me feel alive (but dead inside – so we are still connected.)”

✣ A loyalty to a behaviour before you
“My father and/or mother had affairs, I will too. So I know that I belong in this family”  / “I’ll be just like you. Doing this will prove I belong and surface a pattern that is asking to be seen so it can be changed”

✣ A yearning to be taken care of in a way that is missed or not present
“Please take care of me in ways my partner cannot” / (Which is really ‘Please take care of me dear parent who was missing / not emotionally available’)

✣ Caught in sphere of influence of parent
“I am my father’s daughter and I use intimacy to feel connected to him..”
“I am my mother’s son and I still search for that connection to the feminine…”

✣ Connection through wounding
Two people who believe that if they unite, they will be the perfect lovers/couple: “Together we will right the wrongs (of our childhoods) and it will all be perfect” and/or “You see me in ways that they (parents) couldn’t…”

✣ Caught in rescuing dynamics
“I tried to help you (opposite sex parent) as a child, now I’ll fix other men/women until they are better…”  “I’m strong enough to fix everybody / ‘good’ enough to help / only I can make them smile again….”

✣ Caught in a repeating pattern
“I’ll keep secrets, just like you had to… that will keep us close.”  For example a woman whose father had got caught up in keeping secrets about a loss, a death or something else that was seen as shameful and had to be kept a secret. She is drawn towards creating secretes so she can keep them and feel loyal, feel she belongs in the family and its pattern. 

✣ A rejection of parents becomes rejection of partner and coupledom
“I rejected you Mum and Dad. I didn’t want you to be together so I can’t stay loyal/together to/with my partner. I wanted ‘better’ parents so I’ll always look for a better partner until I accept you.”

✣ An interrupted ‘first love’ bond with a parent who disappeared or became absent expressed through an affair
“If you leave me Mum/Dad I will die” becomes:  “If you leave me (secret lover) I will die” or  “This time I will get it right and be good enough for you to stay”

✣ Child caught in-between their parents
“This is a pattern I know, between a pair of others. I will find this again and again until I see and resolve it…even though it hurts” Or: “Dear father/mother I wanted you to be free of my mother/father. So I will liberate other men/women from their ‘coupledom’…”

✣ A hidden, unconscious loyalty
“Dear Mum/Dad you lost your partner early. You couldn’t complete your primary relationship so I will sabotage mine to stay loyal” or “You weren’t allowed to have the love of your life. So I will leave (or have) mine.”

✣ As a result of a tragedy where a spouse is lost
This is internalised by the child and becomes a ‘life sentence’ carried as an adult like: “It’s dangerous to invest your heart in one person, they may leave you or die. So I will keep moving on.”

✣ As a result of an attempt to bring a secret to light
“Mum/Dad you had an affair, so I will too, to show you I know” or  “I will look at what won’t be looked at or spoken. I will bring this back into the family system, so it’s acknowledged and seen. At any cost.” Or “I judged you for having an affair and so lost our connection. Now I will do things just like you did and so will feel connected again.”

If you are struggling with the many dynamics around an affair you may also be the one who is key to changing this into a pattern of completion, fulfilment and expansion in yourself and in the wider system.

“Some seek the great freedom: but instead of arriving in a green meadow, they end up in the zoo.”

Bert Hellinger

“When someone is suffering deeply within themselves, their suffering spills over and they start making others suffer as well. What they truly need is our help, not punishment.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The urge to confess

In many cases a strong urge to tell the current partner or spouse about a romantic attachment or intimate affair emerges. Most times full or even partial disclosure will lead to the serious bruising if not the destruction of the existing relationship, especially if the romantic urges have led to full physical intimacy. Ending the existing relationship may be the purpose and will often be the outcome, however there may be other intentions and hopes and this is a useful indicator of something else going on, something in the wider system.

There may be an intention to highlight what you believe you are missing in your existing marriage or relationship and hope that by describing what you have been thinking about, or doing, will enlighten your existing partner and relight the flame in your relationship. However, there is often less thought given to other possible outcomes – the implications for any children involved, friends and other relatives –  and this lack of wider perspective may also be a part of the magical thinking that underpins the search for romantic attachment and affairs in the first place.

Very often people are not aware of the root cause of the irresistible draw to a romantic or physical affair. Until this root cause is uncovered, seen and illuminated, it can be unwise to approach a spouse or partner. If you do not know why this is happening or clearly understand the deep desire, you won’t be able to articulate it in a way that makes sense or brings light to it. In such cases the frustration and sadness only deepens and rather than insight, pain is experienced by everyone involved.

In particular, the effect on any children is often greater than imagined and in itself starts another systemic trauma that is passed on through the generations. This entangles people and the pattern often repeats.

“There is no growth without guilt ”

Bert Hellinger

‘Doing the right thing’ by being honest may seem like you are taking the moral high ground but moral judgments of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are never helpful or useful but only lead to more judgment and exclusion.

“When a woman believes that she can safely tell her husband about her lover and that he will understand, then she has usually ‘mis-taken’ her husband for her father.”

John Whittington

Telling your partner may appear to offer you a relief from guilt, but burden them in a way that they may find too much to bear. Rather than finding the true cause and solution this can inflict a wound on the partner/spouse who may then feel too angry or not good enough to stay. In such cases further distance and distress may result on both sides.

When the underlying dynamics are truly explored, growth is possible for partners, families and children. There can be more personal growth in the tolerating of the feelings of guilt, the taking of responsibility and the illumination of the dynamics that fuelled the affair.

Spontaneous revelation – where one person tells another that they have been or are tempted to be unfaithful – is sometimes driven by the deep need to be seen, to be acknowledged.  It’s as if the person having the affair has mistaken their partner for one of their parents – usually the opposite sex parent – and that in that place, as the child, they feel safe to tell their partner/parent their secret. This is important information in itself and can lead to great insight.

“Rather like forgiveness a request for the partner to understand, places the responsibility on the one who is likely to be most hurt and may be a covert attempt to relieve the one whose responsibility it is.  In this situation, there is often much pain and little growth.”

John Whittington

Revelation may also cover a systemic pattern where it feels unsafe to tell the truth and so a confession of a hidden truth takes place. In this situation it may often be that there is another secret in the family system which cannot be spoken and that the secret relationship is fuelled by this, but also covers it up, a kind of systemic distraction.

In these examples it’s very often true that telling the partner or spouse in the hope of resolution is usually too burdensome for them and they feel displaced and so unable to hear what was intended.

In fact the ‘message’ in a disclosure is usually for someone else, in another system. Illuminating this changes everything and the confusion and pain can dissolve. Systemic dynamics like this require systemic intervention. 

“Apart, the lovers could neither live nor die, for it was life and death together.

They gazed at one another, but did not know they suffered.”

Robert Johnson

“The content of the addiction, whether it be an ingestive addiction or an activity addiction…is an attempt at an intimate relationship.”

John Bradshaw

“Someone who rejects their family-of-origin may grow up searching for a relationship in which they feel they can really belong. However with the inner ‘life sentence’: “I reject you and will look elsewhere”, they may repeat the pattern through affairs that, one after the other, appear to be the answer, but are then seen for what they are and also rejected. The path to resolution is, once again, back in the family system.”

John Whittington


An affair is not only a sign of an imbalance in a relationship system but also causes one.

  • Those who give too much in an intimate relationship cause an imbalance. The one who receives too much feels the over-receiving as a burden. It makes them too ‘small’ and the one who is giving too ‘big’ in the relationship. The smaller one feels themselves unable to balance the over-giver and may begin to look for a place where their gifts are appreciated and received. This is a common cause of affairs and so can be seen in part as an attempt to balance the exchange.

“Infidelity may be a means of punishing our partner for what she or he has not done. We feel hurt, wronged, or neglected in some way, but are unable to come to a conscious resolution with our partner. Instead, we make an unconscious attempt to return balance to our relationship.”

Jamy & Peter Faust

  • When a spouse has an affair and the other simply forgives with no consequences the offending spouse gets ‘smaller’ while the faithful one gets ‘bigger’ and saintlier. In order to ‘find their weight’ again, the offending spouse may well find someone else outside of the marriage or partnership who acknowledges their weight as a man or woman.
  • Affairs are sometimes an unconscious balancing for a predecessor who was caught in a loveless relationship but couldn’t escape. A love that was ‘not allowed’ by the family may often show up as an affair in subsequent generations.

“Here in the southern states of the USA some men seem to be caught up in a blind loyalty to their ancestors who were slave owners and may have had many women. In this way southern women may find themselves feeling used in identification with the slaves.”

Judy Wilkins-Smith

‘Every child needs to be loved unconditionally – at least in the beginning. Without the mirroring eyes of a non-judgmental parent or care-taker, a child has no way of knowing who he is. Every one of us was a we before an I. We needed a mirroring face to reflect every part of ourselves. We needed to know that we mattered, that we were taken seriously, and that every part of us was lovable and acceptable. We also needed to know that our caretakers’ love could be depended on. These were our healthy narcissistic needs. If we did not get them met, our sense of I AM was damaged.
The narcissistically deprived child contaminates the adult with an insatiable craving for love, attention, and affection. The child’s demands will sabotage his adult relationships, because no matter how much love is forthcoming, it’s never enough. The narcissistically deprived adult child cannot get his needs filled because they are actually a child’s need. And children need their parents all the time. They are needy by nature, not by choice. A child’s needs are dependency needs, that is, needs that depend upon another to be filled.
Only grieving the loss will provide healing. Until that is done, the insatiable child will voraciously seek the love and esteem he or she did not get in childhood.
The needs of the narcissistically deprived adult children take various forms:
✣ They are disappointed in one relationship after another
✣ They are always looking for the perfect lover who will fill all their needs
✣ They become addicts (addictions are an attempt to fill the hole in one’s psyche)
✣ They seek material things and money to give them a sense of worth
✣ They become performers (actors, athletes etc) because they need the continuous adulation and admiration
✣ They use their own children to meet their narcissistic needs. (In their fantasy, their children will never leave them and will always love, respect and admire them). They try to get from their children the love and special admiration they could not get from their own parents.

Extract from ‘Home Coming’
By John Bradshaw


The root cause of an affair is very often found in old patterns in family systems, patterns that are held at deep levels. In this way affairs can be viewed as an indication that there is a hidden dynamic in the system that wants to be seen, to change and complete. Embedded and embodied patterns wanting to finally come to rest.

When we choose to see affairs as information, as clues and requests for belonging or healing, more is possible. Rather than destroying relationships they can allow something deeper to be resolved. When affairs are not systemically illuminated, morals, ethics and ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ can keep everyone blind, judgmental and entangled.

Crisis and apparent disaster offer opportunities for exploration, insight and growth.

“In Relationship to the sex of the other: Instead of wanting to possess it, honour it.”

Bert Hellinger
This article was authored by John Whittington in consultation with Judy Wilkins-Smith.
The articles in this series do not offer specific advice but stimulus for your own reflections. They provide only an introduction into what’s possible in a systemic coaching or workshop constellations process. This way of looking and working can be combined with others to give an understanding of the human condition. The writing is always a work in progress as the authors continue to observe and articulate the dynamics in human relationship systems.
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