“People fall into affairs rather than plan them…”
While the landscape of illicit love has been shifting, experts have remained fixed in the belief that affairs occur because something is wrong with you and your partner. Make no mistake – most couples want to stay together after a partner has strayed. Yup, 70 percent of couples choose to rebuild the relationship after infidelity, although they may not quite know how.
While relationship dissatisfaction has been linked with straying, there’s proof that in almost two-thirds of cases, these problems are the effect, not the cause, of cheating. And affairs themselves skew perceptions of the partnership. Once someone has cheated, partners tend to look back on their relationship and see it as having been flawed all along.
Having 100-percent focus on relationship flaws encourages couples to get psychologically stuck, stewing on the betrayal, reckon the field’s thinkers. There is no set time period for the hurt and anger that follows a partner’s affair. Yet, if you’re the one hurt, you’re often rushed into “moving on”, burying resentments that fester underground or emerge Elin-Woods-style, golf club in hand.
There are many contributing factors, says psychologist Dr Barry McCarthy. The most common reason? High opportunity. “People fall into affairs rather than plan them,” he says. Common causes include…
1. The Workplace
Providing people with constant contact, common interests, an income to camouflage the costs of socialising outside the office and an ironclad excuse – the workplace is the ideal place for affairs to fester. A study in the Journal of Family Psychology revealed that those who worked, but whose spouses didn’t, were the most likely to be unfaithful. Opportunity at the office is most ominous when it mixes with uneven power on the home front (think Jesse James and Sandra Bullock). “But no one profession has a lock on infidelity,” says psychologist Dr Kristina Coop Gordon.
2. Travel frequency
“You’re away from your partner, in situations where you’re encountering plenty of people,” says Gordon. “It certainly facilitates one-night stands.”
3. Level of education
As this increases, so does your likelihood of cheating – it may be a marker for more liberal attitudes towards sex. Ditto a history of divorce, or divorced parents, especially if either had an affair. Women with a higher education than their husbands have more affairs, perhaps because they’re less dependent on a spouse.
4. Personality differences
Spouses who are comfortable with conflict are less likely to have affairs. Openness, which makes you more satisfied with your relationship and better able to express feelings, is also a characteristic of noncheaters. Some researchers believe that openness is essential to commitment and enduring satisfaction in a relationship.
5. Low levels of agreeableness (compassionate and cooperative)
Low levels bode poorly for monogamy. More important, however, is whether couples are matched on that trait. People who see themselves as more agreeable than their mate believe themselves to be more giving, feel exploited by their partner and seek reciprocity in outside relationships.
Exposure to alcohol, an exhausting day of travelling or challenging work all raise the risk of infidelity. They disable sexual restraint, researchers found. Plus, “some people don’t feel desired in their marriage, and they want to see if they can be desirable outside of it,” says McCarthy.
How To Move On
Infidelity has a wildly different emotional impact on each person. The uninvolved partner is traumatised, desperately trying to piece together what happened. The straying partner, often because of deep shame, may get defensive and shut down or blame the other for not moving on, compounding the hurt.
One needs to talk about what happened; the other can’t bear to. Getting on the same track is the key to recovery, says Gordon. The first step is for both people to recognise the huge emotional impact on the uninvolved partner.
Gordon and her co-authors found a powerful device: after encouraging the partners to make no decisions about the future in the immediate aftermath of discovery or disclosure, they ask that the cheated-on partner write a letter to the other describing what the hurt feels like. Awkward, but effective.
READ MORE: “I Cheated – Should I Tell My Partner?”
“The cheating partner must hear, no matter how discomfiting it is,” says Gordon. “The experience is intense and usually a turning point. Partners begin to soften towards each other. It’s a demonstration to the injured partner that he or she matters.” Then the couple search for the meaning of the affair together.
Everything is fair game – attitudes and expectations about the relationship, conflicts, hidden desires, insecurities, needs for excitement, the closeness and distance they feel, job demands, flirtations, opportunities, people and pressures around them at home and outside it. The approach short-circuits the inclination to focus on The Other Person. From understanding flows forgiveness.
Bringing Sexy Back
McCarthy gives the revolution in recovery from affairs another twist: re-eroticising the relationship. “A couple has to develop a new sexual style,” he says. The point is to abolish the inclination to compare normal sex with affair sex – a hopeless cause as affair partners don’t have to contend with sick kids or dirty plates, and the illicitness of the liaison intensifies excitement. Most couples treat sexuality with neglect, he says – until an affair sets off a crisis.
In healthy marriages, sex plays what he deems “a relatively small 15 to 20 percent part” – but it energises the bond. When couples abandon sex, they wind up draining the entire relationship of its oomph. “You not only lose the connection but your sense of self,” says McCarthy. “An affair can be an attempt to regain a sense of self.” McCarthy recommends reconnecting emotionally and physically. He focuses on “non-demand pleasure” and encourages couples to find a mutually acceptable level of intimacy and come up with erotic scenarios.