Infidelity: How & Why it happens…..What Now?
(To clarify, this article will only discuss single extramarital affairs in a committed, monogamous relationship vs. patterns of chronic infidelity which may be more symptomatic of sex or love addiction. Behaviors related to the latter conditions often have different patterns and meaning. Also, for sake of writing this article I will refer to the unfaithful partner as “he” and the committed partner as “she” though both genders engage in extramarital affairs at a nearly equal rate.)
So, you’re engaged in an affair. I'm guessing you didn’t see that coming when you were walking down the aisle and exchanging vows. Regardless of where your marriage goes from here, it is important to review why you were vulnerable to the affair, how it happened, and what can be learned from the experience.
The following are two common narratives given by those engaged in an affair:
“I’m married with children and unhappy in my marriage. While I enjoy having a family, I often feel conflicted by the monotony of the same job, same schedule, same partner, same responsibilities that I’m faced with everyday, year after year. I often fantasize about leaving my marriage but experience feelings of fear of the consequences and guilt over my duty and obligation to my family. I often wonder if this is “it”. Is this as good as life is going to get? I can’t remember the last time I felt “alive”. I wonder if there is someone out there that would be better suited for me. My partner and I don’t seem to have any passion or intensity for each other. Did I ever even love my partner? We’re so different and I need things my partner can’t give me. It’s pretty obvious that my doesn’t really love me, either. Plus, that other person is so interested in me. Maybe moving forward with this affair will be the best thing for me and my partner…it may free us both from our unhappy marriage….”
“I wonder how many more years I’ll have to beg to get my needs met in my marriage only to have my requests ignored? I feel like I keep asking my partner to show that he/she cares, to listen to my feelings, to show me love in the way that I value but its almost like he/she denies me that validation on purpose, to spite me. Maybe I married someone who is just incapable of meeting my particular needs. Maybe there is someone out there who can better understand who I am, love all of me, because I don’t think my partner is capable of that. He/she doesn’t love me. This is not love. I miss being in love with someone and feeling loved. The other person seems to WANT to know me, see my “specialness”, hear me. I never realized parts of myself until I found this other person….”
How Did I Get Here?
I have encountered many who have been affected by infidelity in both my work and personal life. Their stories have many similarities, however, none of them ever included a clandestine plot to harm their spouses or destroy their families. Those results are unfortunate byproducts of the betrayal. This phenomenon has intrigued me and lead me to devote years to exploring infidelity. My research and experience have shown me that the driving force behind most infidelities is a desperate attempt to get one's needs met—intimate needs that one feels he cannot meet on his own nor within the confines of the primary relationship.
The Steps Leading to Infidelity
Contrary to popular belief, infidelity does not happen suddenly or without warning. It usually builds up, subtly, and unconsciously. The following is a very general breakdown of how an affair can manifest:
1) First, the unfaithful partner has unmet social, psychological, emotional, and/or sexual needs. The needs are often unrealized or he realizes what they are but he doesn't know how to communicate them to his partner or figure out a way to meet the need on his own. A common narrative is that the affair is the event that brings one's needs from one's unconscious to his conscious (Translation: He always had the need, he just didn't realize what it was or how to explain it, and the experience of the affair brought his needs to the forefront).
The reasons for the unknown/unmet needs vary greatly. For instance, he may have had it demonstrated or reinforced as a child to ignore meeting his own needs and instead focus on meeting other’s needs. He may have never felt worthy to ask to have his needs met by another. He may not have been encouraged to (or maybe discouraged from) openly communicating about what he and others need, how to ask to have to have your needs met, and how to negotiate meeting others’ needs while getting your own needs met. These are all very complex concepts and human operations. We all seem to struggle with the aforementioned.
(Examples of some common unmet needs: more time, attention, and love shown in the way that is valued by the person, more spontaneity, a relief from stress or monotony, a break from boredom, more adoration, verbal affirmation, freedom from dutiful/obligatory "love", sexual fetishes, speaking freely without fear of negative consequences, more frequent sex or passion, etc.)
2) Whether the needs are realized or not, there seems to be a strongly held belief that his primary partner is unable to meet his needs. Maybe she has expressed a lack of desire in meeting his needs. He feels shut down or hurt by her lack of attention or willingness to meet his needs. There may be a lot of anger and resentment on either end which stop him from asking to get the needs met. Regardless of the reasons, the unfaithful partner has convinced himself that he cannot get his needs met within his primary relationship, so he is entitled to seek it elsewhere.
3) Once he reaches that conclusion, I find clients begin to put energy out to others in their attraction template, waiting for feedback and validation that someone else is willing to meet his needs. For instance, a man may speak to women with an (unconscious) undertone of desperation to have his looks, intelligence, or generosity be recognized. Examples are “harmless” flirting with the waitress, longer-than-usual talks with a female friend or co-worker, discussing or sharing mutual unhappiness in your current relationships, going out of the way to cross paths with one another more often, fantasizing about the other. Most of this occurs subtly and without acknowledgement of what is actually happening: an affair is beginning.
Once the affair partner triggers the unfaithful partner’s unconscious (but desperate) needs, the unfaithful partner is hooked. Almost like an addict getting his first hit. The new connection and intrigue of the affair partner triggers a windfall of pleasurable hormones like dopamine (the reward center of our brain), oxytocin, serotonin, and other feel-good hormones. Granted, these hormones may still exist in the primary relationship but they lessen over time or at least stabilize due to the long term relationship (because humans cannot survive with that much dopamine being released for a long period). The “newness”, intrigue, secrecy, and risk-taking all contribute the reason people report feeling “alive” again. They also feel alive, because they have been able to identify (with the help of the affair partner) a long list of needs they’ve had, but have been never been able to meet….until now. Hence, the reason they are willing to "risk it all" to continue the betrayal and lie to their partner.
So now, fully engaged in two different lives, the unfaithful partner finds himself in the ultimate conundrum. He is experiencing mind-blowing intensity and joy from getting his newly discovered needs met. However, he has to lie, manipulate, and split himself in half to continue his marriage and family life. He also quickly develops a great deal of guilt and shame over his choices to abandon his values and commitments, while realizing that the discovery of the affair would destroy his wife. He wonders how much longer he can keep this up....
Further discussion on the impacts of the affair can be found in this article.
If you’re currently engaged in an affair, if you’ve read the two articles on betrayal trauma and the damaging effects of infidelity, you realize you have a long road ahead of you, regardless of the outcome of your marriage or affair. There are a lot of internal and external factors that influence the decision to stay or go. Internally, there is the intensity of the feelings for the affair partner versus the presence of feelings for the spouse, your personal views and feelings about marriage and divorce, or your level of optimism or hope for you and your partner to transcend betrayal in lieu of being destroyed by it. External to yourself, you have to consider the children involved along with the potential of seeing them less often, how different each spouses’ lifestyles would be divorced versus married, finances, your feelings about step-parents in your children’s lives, and your comfort level with losing your locus of control due to divorce. There are many things to consider when faced with this life-altering choice. I have found that leaving the marriage under less-than-honorable circumstances, however, leaves the door wide open for a lifetime of shame, regret, and torment (which often increases the stress and chances of failure with any post-marriage relationship, especially an affair partner).
Affair Versus Conscious Uncoupling
Any relationship “expert” would admit that marriages (or any relationship) can run their course or be outgrown for many different reasons. However, a relationship counselor would also attest that the viability of a relationship is extremely difficult to fully assess if one or both partners are not “emotionally present” in the relationship. In others words, as long as your putting your time, energy, and emotions into another person or entity, it is impossible to do any productive couples work or growth. It is impossible to know if you can grow intimately with your primary partner again as long as you are splitting yourself in half, engaged in two different lives. Lying is the antithesis of intimacy. I will argue that you cannot reach true intimacy with your primary partner or your affair partner if there is anything less than transparency and honesty involved in your exchanges.
There is a new concept in couples work called “conscious uncoupling”. My version of this concept is encouraging both partners to bring themselves to the table, open, honest, vulnerable, and defense-free (because there is “nothing to lose at this point”—though I realize there is always much to lose when evaluating the viability of your marriage). When couples can simultaneously turn toward each other, own their mutual shortcomings, explore how it all “went wrong”, make amends for the damage they’ve done, they are then fully able to evaluate the relationship. The process can be difficult and exhausting but it can also allow couples to end the marriage in a more respectful, amicable way, learning and changing unhealthy patterns, repairing damage done, and improving communication. Of course, this choice would require one to end the affair, which can also be very difficult and painful. However, the relationship skills that can be learned and practiced through a “conscious uncoupling” process are skills that will be necessary regardless of whether divorce ensues, especially if there will be long-term co-parenting involved and any future relationship with another.
Conclusion: There is much to be learned from the act of betraying another and engaging in an affair. Understanding the reasons for it and exploring the lessons from it can shape our personalities and lives. I would encourage you to seek a mental health professional who specializes in the nuances of infidelity in order to explore these concepts further. Betrayal can be a destructive or generative experience. Once it unfolds, you have to decide how you want to experience it.
Continue reading more about infidelity by Kristin Snowden, LMFT
More reading on recovering from infidelity by Esther Perel.