Advice Goddess

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advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

Q: I’m a married lesbian in my 50s. I blew up my happy marriage by having an affair with somebody I didn’t love and wasn’t even that attracted to. Now my wife, whom I love very much, is divorcing me. Why did I cheat on her? I don’t understand my own behavior.—Lost

A: There are those special people you meet who end up changing your life—though ideally not from happily married person to lonely, middle-aged divorcee living in a mildewy studio.

There’s a widespread assumption that “a happy marriage is insurance against infidelity,” explained the late infidelity researcher Shirley Glass. Even she used to assume that. But, her research (and that of subsequent researchers) finds that even happily married people end up cheating—for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they want better sex or even just different sex. Sometimes they want an ego shine. And sometimes they feel that something’s missing within them. But soul-searching is emotionally grubby, tedious work, so they first look for that missing something in the nearest hot person’s underpants.

It seems inexplicable (and borderline crazy) that you risked everything you care about for somebody you find kind of meh—until you look at this through the lens of “bounded rationality.” “Bounded rationality” is the late Nobel Prize-winning cognitive scientist Herbert Simon’s term for the constraints on our ability to make truly reasoned, rational decisions. These decision-making constraints include having a limited time to make a choice and limited cognitive ability.

We can end up engaging in what psychologists call “framing,” a sort of selecta-vision in which we make decisions based on whichever part of the picture happens to be in mental focus at the time.

For some people, behavior from their spouse that suggests, “Ha-ha … crossed my fingers during that vows thing!” is simply a deal-breaker. But say that your wife still loves you and is mainly leaving because she feels that she can’t trust you. (A partner who inexplicably cheats is a partner there’s no stopping from inexplicably cheating again.)

If you can explain—though not excuse!—your thinking (or nonthinking) at the time, maybe your wife will agree to try couples therapy, at least for a few months. Bounded rationality aside, I suspect that you’re unlikely to cheat again.

Q: How long does it take to get over someone? One friend said it takes half as long as you were together, and another said it takes twice that time.—Recently Dumped

A: Sometimes it takes a while to let go, but sometimes you’re so ready that you’d chase the person off your porch with a shotgun (if you had a porch or a shotgun and weren’t afraid of doing time on a weapons charge).

Your friends, with their precise breakup timetables, are confusing emotional recovery with mass transit. The reality is, people vary—like in how naturally resilient they are—and so do relationships.

Sadness after a breakup can feel like the pointless adult version of getting grounded indefinitely. However, as I’ve written in previous columns, psychiatrist and evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse explains that sadness appears to be “adaptive”— meaning that it has useful functions. For example, the “disengagement” from motivation that accompanies sadness gives us time to process what happened, possibly helping us learn from our mistakes instead of inviting them back in for an eggnog.

Accordingly, a way to heal emotionally is to find meaning within your mistakes—figuring out what you might have seen or done differently, which tells you what you should probably do differently in the future. In other words, think of the sadness holding you down not as your hostage-taker but as your helper. Deliberately using it that way might even help you curb the impatience that leads some to start dating before they’re actually ready. Sure, on a first date, it’s good to give a guy the sense that you’re passionate and emotionally present, but probably not by sobbing uncontrollably when he asks whether you want a latte.

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