Marital Infidelity: Why It Happens
I have worked with many married couples as they struggle with the fallout from marital infidelity. Some clients reach out for therapy as they find themselves cheating from their marriage. Others reach out as a couple, as a last resort following one’s extramarital affair. Still others are the ones left behind; one client described feeling like the ground was slipping beneath his feet when he accidentally found sexually explicit photos of his wife with her lover. Betrayal of this kind scars the very fabric of a marital relationship irrespective of whether it was physical or emotional infidelity. Shock, disbelief, trauma, anger, helplessness and sadness are some emotions people experience as they discover their partner has been unfaithful.
Marital infidelity generally involves an act in which people choose to be emotionally or physically invested in a person other than their spouse. The nature, intensity and sometimes even the existence of the relationship is a secret from the spouse. Beyond this, infidelity — that is, what couples count as cheating — can be very subjective for both the partners. Research shows that changing workplace culture and the Internet have aggravated the problem of infidelity, as well as challenged its traditional definition. So affairs today could be one night stands, sexual addiction, online infidelity or romantic involvement.
In her book Not “Just Friends,” Shirley Glass, a psychologist considered one of the leading experts on infidelity, explains differences in how men and women react to physical and emotional infidelity. She found that men feel more betrayed when they find out their wives are having sexual intimacy with another partner, while women tend to be more upset by deep emotional connections between their husband and another. My professional experience upholds this theory. In my marriage counselling, most women tell me they would be fine if their spouse had a weak moment or a one-night stand, as they feel sexual intimacy can happen even without love. But, they say, they would be shattered by a deep romantic relationship between their spouse and another.
As I work with both men and women, I hear them describe their reasons for having an extramarital affair, or what they feel they’ve received from it: “I have discovered a side of myself that I thought was lost” or “I have never felt so understood and loved,” are common. Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth, explains in her book that the people involved in an extramarital affair often present “a special version of their best aspects.” I also see people, sometimes, who are drawn to the adventure of it, that is, the sense of sharing a special, often secret, bond without the baggage or day-to-day issues of a long-term relationship or marriage. It reminds others of being back in the early days of dating, when we only see and show the best sides of ourselves, not who we really are. And finally, for some, often in office intimacy or online relationships, the affair’s appeal is its convenience without any responsibilities attached.
Julia Omarzu, a psychologist at Loras College, researches marital infidelity and has found motivations for people who seek extramarital affairs include: dissatisfaction in their primary relationship in the context of sex, love, and even emotional intimacy; need for varied sexual encounters; need for greater emotional intimacy; and for some, the need for novelty.
I have been asked what people do after an extramarital affair is discovered. There’s no easy answer; how, when, and with whom the affair is conducted defines how people react to it. Many of the betrayed partners experience self-doubt, low self-esteem, mental trauma, and disillusionment with life and the future. Some unhealthily resort to alcohol, smoking or drugs to endure the pain. On the other hand, the partner who has been found cheating often feels exposed, guilty, deeply ashamed, angry, withdrawn and ambivalent about their life going forward. Together, couples dealing with infidelity handle this situation uniquely; some find solace in changing jobs, others in changing cities, while couples’ counselling and separation or divorce may be the way forward for others. Some couples reunite only to choose divorce at a later date.
When clients choose to make their marriage work, I ask them for specific examples of what the affair did for them, the emotional needs that were met and their reasons for choosing to work on the marriage. The person who has betrayed needs to be completely honest with his or her spouse if they even want a chance at making the marriage work. In therapy, couples redefine their needs, rediscover shared meaning, make joint systems, find ways to reconnect, develop trust and develop hope for a life together. A lot of work needs to be in a space where the partner who betrayed chooses to be honest and puts in effort, commitment so that the spouse feels trusted, loved and also an insider to the other’s world.
Cheating can have a long-lasting, negative impact on a couple’s life and even the lives of their children. But the reality is that seldom are two infidelity stories the same, simply because the people involved aren’t the same. What is the same is the need to both talk and listen to your spouse and seek counseling if you struggle with this on your own.