Affairs aren’t necessarily about sex.
A lot of people who hold this belief have experienced deep disappointment in discovering that it’s not necessarily true. This myth is deeply imbedded in our culture and is even held by a fairly large number of marriage counselors. While it may seem reasonable to assume that if both partners in a marriage love each other and have a mutually satisfying sexual relationship, that there would be no reason for either of them to stray. Well, that is true. There is no good “reason” for that to happen. Affairs, however are generally not motivated by reason or rational thinking, but tend to be matters of the heart, which is the source of passion and desire, not the mind, which deals with abstractions, theories, and logic.
And while it does seem logical to assume that there would be little if any motivation for partners in a happy relationship to go outside of it to fulfill their most intimate desires, particularly if they’ve made an agreement to be monogamous, it does happen, and often, more frequently often than most of us realize. In a study cited in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, it was reported that 54% of the women and 57% of the men who responded stated that they had been unfaithful in their relationship. What may also be surprising is that the average length of the affairs was 2 years.
Still more surprising is that according to relationship and sexuality expert Esther Perel, author of the book, Mating in Captivity, the motivating drive to have an affair is desire, but not necessarily for sex, but rather for experiences that they are no longer experiencing in their relationship. What they desire, according to Ms. Perel is attention, novelty, adventure, vibrancy, aliveness, and passion. They crave the experience of losing themselves in the intensity of the excitement and stimulation of a new relationship with the hope of re-invigorating the feelings that occur in the stage of infatuation.
All too often, it seems that couples fail to keep that spark alive after they formalize their commitment to each other, and in doing so run the risk of weakening the glue that keeps their relationship passionate and healthy. When daily routines and responsibilities dominate the attention of one or both partners, the risk of a violation of the monogamy agreement increases. When either partner feels that they must submerge aspects of themselves in order to maintain peace or avoid conflict, the risk factor is similarly heightened. The fantasy of being free to be fully authentic, and to experience aspects of oneself with another person that one’s partner disapproves of is a compelling motivator for anyone who has withheld or concealed aspects of themselves out of fear of judgment, rejection or punishment.
The expectation that one person can and should meet all of another’s needs, particularly when many of them appear to be at odds with each other (security and adventure, excitement and peace of mind, spirituality and sensuality, tenderness, and strength), can be a set-up for disappointment or betrayal. This is not to justify violating one’s marital vows (if in fact we have each made a pledge of monogamy), but rather to be mindful of the dangers of holding our partner responsible for fulfilling a range of needs and desires that may be beyond the capacity of any one person.
The experience of loneliness is also something that can occur even in good relationships. This often comes as a surprise to those who wrongly assume that once in a serious partnership, their lonely days are over. The experience of loneliness has more to do with our relationship to ourselves than whether or not we are in relationship and with whom. It is a function of how comfortable we are in our own skin, whether we relate to ourselves with compassion or criticism, and how much we enjoy our own company. When we mistakenly hold our partner responsible for taking away our loneliness and making us happy, she will be likely to feel turned off by our efforts to coerce attention from her.
There is a big difference between desire and neediness. Neediness often feels manipulative and is for many people a turn-off. It can also include a sense of entitlement or an expectation that one has the right to be taken care of by one’s partner. When we experience our partner’s desire without their expectation of our reciprocity towards us it feels pleasurable and attractive.
Sometimes the burden of fulfilling family obligations and responsibilities can feel oppressive and the desire for relief, even briefly, can be compelling. At these times we are particularly vulnerable to the temptation of affairs. When partners take each other for granted and neglect their relationship, they put their partnership in jeopardy. When unresolved conflicts mount up, resentment, anger, a lack of respect, even contempt may form conditions that are an accident waiting to happen. Such animosity can become a perfect rationalization to go outside of the marriage for intimate contact.
Infidelity can be as brief as a one-night stand, or a years-long secret affair. Some people try to fulfill their need for attention and validation through sex. Some may rationalize their indiscretions with the justification that there was no actual body contact, but like emotional affairs, where literal sex has not occurred, even technical infidelity or virtual affairs can do great damage to one’s primary relationship.
No matter what their cause or nature, every betrayal does harm to a relationship and always requires repair work in order to restore trust and integrity to the relationship. Another statistic cited by the Journal of Marital and Family therapy was that only 31 percent of marriages in which an affair was discovered or admitted, lasted. The shock of the crisis can expose the source of the unmet needs that the affair was an attempt to fulfill, and in doing so, open the possibility for this breakdown to become a breakthrough, provided both partners do the work that is required of each of them to heal the relationship. Pain can sometimes be a great motivator.
It would, of course, be much more efficient less painful to avoid the torturous stages of wounding and healing that accompany unfaithfulness. There are many ways to enhance the quality of your relationship without unnecessary suffering. If you don’t know what they are, ask your partner and it’s likely that he or she will be happy to give you a few examples of what you might think about doing that could enrich the quality of experience for you both. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.