There are different ways to understand infidelity and the conditions that lead someone to become affair-prone. In trying to make sense of why people cheat, you can use this information to strengthen your relationship or marriage, rather than assume you’re immune to the slippery slope of infidelity. The attitude “this can never happen to me” is a major hurdle to the necessary examination of how and why vulnerabilities creep into even apparently healthy relationships.
Please note that attempting to understand why someone has an affair is by no means a justification for infidelity and the emotional upheaval that results. The reality is that infidelity is emotionally devastating, and healing from an affair isn’t a simple, straight-forward process.
1) An affair As a Reaction to an Ailing Relationship/Marriage
In these cases, one partner may have been trying to get his/her emotional and physical needs met, but to no avail. Feelings of isolation and loneliness intensify, repetitive attempts at communication fail to bring a much-needed change, and one or both partners/spouses become increasingly susceptible to looking outside the relationship to get their intimacy needs met.
Here emotional distress is the motivator for an affair. The following questions arise in these instances: Did the partner who cheated clearly communicate his/her needs and express the level of despair that subsequently would drive him/her into the arms of another? Or were fleeting, circuitous messages the norm, and the partner who was cheated on had no knowledge of the other’s suffering?
Too often the spouse/partner who is the victim of the affair feels totally blind-sided by the affair and had little-to-no knowledge of the cheater’s unhappiness prior to the betrayal.
I’ve worked with many post-affair couples where the victim of the affair reports being in the dark about the emotional pain of the cheating partner. The cheater may claim that his/her bids to address relationship issues were communicated but simply fell on deaf ears; while the victim of the affair may feel these claims of unhappiness are only being communicated after the fact of being caught in the web of lies and infidelity.
2) An Affair As a Repetition Of Unresolved Childhood Issues
It’s common for us to repeat patterns of behavior throughout our lives, patterns often set down from our childhood experiences. These patterns can be seen as either positive or negative. For instance, if you grew up in a family where open communication and the expression/validation of feelings was the norm, this type of communication pattern might seem very natural to you. If so, you are repeating the positive relationship habits you learned and internalized throughout your life.
If, however, you grew up in a family where secrecy was commonplace or important relationship issues were never dealt with (avoidance and denial were the norm), you may find that you struggle with similar issues of secrecy or avoidance in your own marriage/relationship. The repetition of these unhealthy relationship patterns can leave one vulnerable to emotional and physical infidelity, despite your partner’s best efforts to set up relationship conditions that allow for emotional safety and open communication.
In these instances, the affair is more a reflection of living out your past than it is about the current state of your marriage/relationship. Change can only come through the realization that you are vulnerable to acting out unresolved childhood issues–in particular, issues involving secrecy that led to interpersonal betrayals.
3) An Affair As an Escape from an Ailing Self
An initial attraction to another has the power to set off an emotional charge that can reverberate throughout our life, making us feel more awake and alive. The intensity of infatuation is often confused for love, and sadly, many misinterpret an extra-marital infatuation as an indication that they are committed to the wrong person.
An affair in these instances acts as a distraction from the mundaneness of life, and/or as a temporary respite from any unresolved, painful emotional issues that may exist. The emotional spark inherent to novelty and attraction (which frequently surrounds the beginning of many affairs) can lift you, acting as an emotional life jacket that seemingly carries you above the struggles and undercurrents of your life.
But this, of course, is an emotional house of cards that quickly crumbles once the veil of infatuation lifts and the reality of the affair-partner comes into focus. Those who end up leaving their spouse/partner for the affair-partner at some point inevitably find themselves faced with relationship challenges and complaints, challenges that often parallel the very issues that led to the dissolution of their previous relationship or marriage. The struggles of the self tend to resurface in relationships and we once again come face-to-face with our own emotional demons.
Understanding the conditions that make us vulnerable to betraying our partner is an important step in building a more resilient marriage/relationship. The fact is, many committed couples have fallen victim to an affair, and to think that you or your partner are impervious to these vulnerabilities (out of sheer love) is a mistake that can be emotionally costly.
Strengthen your relationship/marriage with knowledge—knowledge about what goes into making a strong relationship and knowledge about yourself, your strengths, as well as your vulnerabilities.