Relationships: Being Attracted to Other People

An ongoing dialog between Deborah Leeds, MFT, and Josh Gressel, PhD., psychotherapists working with couples, changes topic to one initiated by a Patch reader: Attraction Outside Marriage.

Dear Berkeley Patch Readers,

The following is a continuation of an ongoing dialog on relationships, between Deborah Leeds, MFT, and Josh Gressel, PhD. As you will see below, this particular post is all Josh....I will catch you next week!

Hello there Patch readers.  I received an interesting question from a reader (we’ll call her Jane – she asked to remain anonymous).  In today’s post, I blab so much I didn’t leave space for Deborah. So she’ll lead off next week.

Dear Josh:

  I really enjoy your posts each week and always look forward to reading them and having discussions with my friends about the subject matter. 

 I'm still in the early days of my marriage, as are many of my friends (we're all two years or less) and one thing that keeps coming up is how to deal with temptation from people other than our spouses... why does it happen that even though you love your husband/wife, you are still susceptible to feelings for other people? Does it indicate something wrong with the relationship, or you personally, or perhaps both? And what is a constructive way to deal with those things? What can happen when they aren't dealt with? Or become an affair? I feel that the focus of these answers is usually geared toward men, so it would be nice to hear about the women's side of things. 

I just thought it would be a conversation stirrer and something lots of people are interested in, and could perhaps transition into a series on infidelity and temptation. There are plenty of unanswered questions around that topic!

Best wishes,

Jane (not real name)

Hi Jane:

First of all, thank you for the question, and for letting me know that these posts are landing somewhere with some people.  It means a lot to me to know that what Deborah and I are writing stirs thinking and discussion.  It is my intent in these posts to (a) counteract a lot of the romantic claptrap that passes for relationship advice, and (b) do so in a manner which is meaningful but also accessible.

I don’t think it’s possible to address all of your questions in sufficient depth in one post.  I’m therefore going to hold off on affairs entirely for now and get to them later.

So let me start with some preliminary responses before going more in depth on why I think this is such a ubiquitous issue for both sexes:

Being tempted by other people does not mean there is anything wrong with you or your relationship.  It means you have a beating pulse.  Be happy you’re alive.

  1. One constructive way to deal with these feelings is to tell your spouse about them.  I know that’s a challenging suggestion, but truth is a powerful force.  I can’t tell you ahead of time how it will play out, but I can tell you that secrecy is a fuel that amplifies shame, guilt and desire all at once.  That’s a pretty dangerous cocktail.
  2. What can happen when these things aren’t dealt with runs the gamut from “nothing – you continue to fantasize or it peters out” to “worst possible scenario – you act out your fantasies and it destroys your marriage.”

 As I said, I’m going to hold off on dealing with affairs for now, but you’re right – most of the focus on affairs has to do with straying men.

So why is this such an ongoing issue for so many of us?  Well, what would you think if I told you:  “You know Jane, tomorrow I’m going to have a fancy ceremony that costs a lot of money, invite a whole bunch of people there, and publicly proclaim that from that day forward and until the end of my life I will never overeat and will always exercise every day.  Further,  I will never, ever have a fantasy for an extra piece of cheesecake or ever want to sleep in.  And because everyone says I’m supposed to live happily ever after, that means that now I will, exercising every day and eating right at every meal and never wanting anything else.”

Sounds pretty ludicrous, doesn’t it?  Of course we understand that the practice of doing the right thing we consciously want, when it comes to diet or exercise, is a hard won discipline that we have to work at over time.  We learn to forgive ourselves,  both when we backslide and overeat and certainly when we have fantasies for French fries or a day off from the gym.

So why do we have such unrealistic expectations of ourselves when it comes to marriage?  I tell my clients that it actually takes years to get married.  The ceremony only marks the starting point.

A lot of the discomfort we feel when we’re attracted to someone other than our partner comes from the romanticized notions of love, where the first flush of intoxication is translated concretely to “and they both lived happily ever after.”  As if living happily ever after is anywhere near as easy as falling in love. Anything you value and earn requires investment, sacrifice, commitment, maturity, and the ability to delay gratification.  When some hot young thing sidles up to you and compliments you after you’ve just had an argument with your spouse, why wouldn’t you be attracted?  It’s a much easier out.  But so is a donut when you’re hungry and you have to choose between ready (and empty) calories or taking the time to make a healthy meal. 

There are two things I was not told before I got married:  1) how hard it is to stay married, and 2) how good it can be when you put in the work that is required.  My wife and I celebrated our 31st anniversary last week.  I would say we have divorced three times within our marriage.  And while I still have the occasional fantasy, I really do get it that what that means for me now is that I’m just being lazy and not wanting to put in the work that’s necessary for me to stay awake in relationship with my wife.  Most of the time, I enjoy a depth of connection and hard won, real security that I simply could never have with another person. The thought of an actual affair is at this point as foreign as tattooing my body green.  It would be such an incredible violation of the integrity of what we have co-created.

It wasn’t always this way.  It took years of hard work. I can honestly say it is the most important thing I’ve ever given myself to in my life.  That’s what makes me such a passionate advocate for marriage and long term commitment and that’s what makes me push people mercilessly to do the work that’s required to make it work.

Hope that helps.


Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog?  Ask Deborah in the comments below or email her at deborahleeds.com.

Deborah Leeds, MFT, is a couples and individual therapist with offices in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, CA. Visit her website at deborahleeds.com

Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

GeorgeF September 18, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Hi Josh: Your response to Jane's question really resonates with me - I like your candid approach to this issue and how you obviously cherish your marriage. I too cherish a committed relationship, understand that it takes a lot of hard work, and believe that it is worth the effort. However, as a person that has experienced divorce (a very painful experience, to be sure), and given these issues a considerable amount of thought, I can't help sharing some my perspective. Ultimately, my experience tells me that relationships take more than just hard work. They also require a compatibility that allows the relationship to grow and mature as a result of that hard work. I was in a relationship for 13 years, nine of which were married, and two wonderful children resulted. There was definitely a fair amount of compatibility between my ex and I - we have similar professional backgrounds, share interest in a variety of issues, like similar types of entertainment, etc. - and I was dedicated to making the relationship work. There were some issues that came up early in the relationship that gave me cause for concern (my ex could be extremely jealous, insecure, untrusting, and judgmental), but instead of giving up on the relationship I tried to talk through the issues. Although I felt tempted by other people on a variety of occasions, I firmly avoided infidelity. As the years passed, we got married, finished our schooling, got jobs, and had children. ... (see part II)
GeorgeF September 18, 2012 at 06:08 PM
Part II Life kept moving, but I did not feel like the problems in our relationship were getting resolved. We started arguing a lot, particularly after the birth of our first daughter. The arguments gradually became worse and, at times, would end with my ex saying it was a mistake to get married and she didn’t love me anymore. I suggested marriage counseling, but my suggestions were dismissed. Eventually, I was extremely depressed and withdrawn from social interactions. After a particularly heated and pointless argument, I finally decided I couldn’t go any further and told my ex that I wanted a divorce. I moved out a couple months later. That was a few years ago. Looking back at everything that happened, I firmly believe that my marriage ended because my ex and I didn’t share a common view as to how our life together should proceed. Although divorce was a very painful experience, I feel it was the right thing to do. To get back to Jane’s question, while I agree that it’s natural to have thoughts/daydreams about other people, I can’t help feeling that the fact that I such thoughts didn’t diminish for me over time was a sign that my marriage wasn’t able to mature and grow stronger in the manner I desired. I’ve been in a new relationship for the past 1.5 years and, while it’s not always easy, I feel much better about my future.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D. September 19, 2012 at 04:57 AM
Hi George: Thank you very much for your heartfelt response. I'm sorry your first marriage didn't work for you. What's especially painful to witness in such situations are the "What ifs?" What if your ex had agreed to couple's counseling and you found someone to help you through your bumps? Maybe I engage in magical thinking, but I honestly believe there is a "rightness of fit" in our choices. People don't wake up in the morning and think to themselves: "How can I screw up my life? I've got it! I'll marry the wrong person." The kind of struggles you describe are an inevitable part of a marriage. The only difference between what you're describing and what I went through is that I was blessed with a wife who not only was open to counseling, but who beat me over the head until I was too. And that is something I don't have an answer for: why are some people willing to do the work and others not?
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