Letting go

Letting go

A clean break is perhaps the best way to end an affair with a married lover

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 04/02/2014

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Dear Patti,
I’m single, 28 and deeply in love with my co-worker who recently transferred to a different department in the same building. We thought that if we saw each other less at work we might gradually be able to break off the affair we’ve been having for the past three years. She tells me that she has never loved anyone as much as she loves me, but that it would be impossible for her to ever leave her husband because he’d demand custody of their two little kids and it would destroy her if he did that. I can understand because my own parents split when I was in second grade. My dad never paid attention to me anyway and my mom neglected me and my brothers.
I’d really like to start a family with this woman and it makes me sad and angry that it’s never going to happen. I tried a couple times to break things off, but she cries and buys me presents and we go right back to where we were. Her husband is taking her to Paris next week, but she swears she’ll be thinking of me the whole time.
I have a job interview while she’s gone (I haven’t told her yet) and if I get it (which I think I will), it means moving to a different state. As much as I love her, I have to end it and move on because I want more for myself than this. What I need is advice on how to let go. 

— Todd

Dear Todd,
I completely understand. On the one hand, it’s hard to let go because it’s hard to imagine that you could ever feel this level of passion again. On the other hand, this relationship has put your life on hold and recreated your childhood feelings of neglect, abandonment and being unloved. Your desire to have a family of your own is at an all-time high, so in order to successfully move forward, you must come to terms with your actions and any guilt you’re carrying and understand that you deserve a more fulfilling life or else risk serious damage to your self-respect and self-esteem.  
In any situation, it’s hard to let go of someone with whom you have forged such a deep and intimate connection. Love has been rare in your life and the decision to walk away from this relationship is going to be extremely painful. As explained in attachment theory, a bond that feels familial and irreplaceable is hard to get over, even if the object of one’s affections is flawed or, in this case, unavailable. Likewise, jumping back into the dating pool when you’re still emotionally “attached” to your married lover will invite comparisons that put the newcomer at a disadvantage. 
Although it’s going to take time to detach — and even feel like it will take forever — the best way to accomplish this is to cut off all communication with no reinforcement whatsoever. Pretend for a moment that you’re in a science lab with two little wooden mazes before you, each containing a mouse being trained to complete the course. Mouse No. 1 gets a sugar reward each time he finishes the maze. Mouse No. 2 gets sugar only some of the time. Which mouse is better trained? Surprisingly it’s more often than not that the intermittent reinforcement Mouse No. 2 receives is more powerful in influencing its behavior. 

Getting love sporadically can also be very powerful, which makes it difficult to permanently exit. This is especially true for people with histories of trauma or interruptions in parental attachments. Just about the time you’re over the relationship, she might call and try to start things up again; hence, the intermittent reinforcement resumes. 
You’ll need to grieve over this relationship as well as other relationships that have disappointed you. It would be beneficial to seek professional counseling to understand why you have normalized insecure attachments that make you feel simultaneously loved and abandoned. Ultimately, it’s up to you to insist on being with someone who loves you and only you.  

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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