Before delving into the details of what causes infidelity in relationships (even happy ones), we need to understand what infidelity is.
According to the Oxford learner’s dictionary, the word infidelity means “the act of not being faithful to your wife, husband or partner, by having sex with somebody else.” Okay, great, but that doesn’t tell us what infidelity means for a relationship. The truth is, definitions don’t give us the context around what a term (like infidelity or affairs) really means for the people it affects.
In the past, infidelity in a relationship was a threat to our financial stability. This was especially true for women whose husbands were being unfaithful because in the past a lot of women depended on their husbands for economic security.
But, as Esther Perel, a renowned relationship therapist, notes, in today’s world, marriage is no longer an economic arrangement — it is based on love and meant to designate our commitment to our number one friend and companion. This is a direct contradiction of the past when affairs were the expression of love and marriage was simply an economic arrangement.
So what does that do for the meaning of infidelity? Well, in a marriage that is based on romance rather than achieving economic stability, infidelity becomes an emotional threat rather than an economic one. When our spouse is being unfaithful it can leave us feeling unwanted and threaten our sense of self and our identity. This is a very different consequence of infidelity but it is in many ways much more detrimental to our personal relationships as well as our relationship with ourselves.
Affairs in the Modern World
As we mentioned earlier, affairs today do not have the same meaning that they once did. Today, when we are unhappy in our relationships we are encouraged to leave them — in the US, about 50% of marriages end in divorce. That is a lot of people leaving a relationship to pursue another that will make them happier.
In today’s society, we often view staying in a relationship where you’ve been cheated on is seen as shameful and we are encouraged by our friends, family, and society as a whole to leave that relationship.
So, if the natural end to infidelity today is divorce, breakup, or otherwise ending a relationship, why do people cheat? Is it because they are not getting what they need from their relationship and they want it to end? Well, in reality, the reason for having an affair is a bit more complicated than just that.
Why Do People Cheat?
With the ability to leave any relationship that isn’t giving us the support and feelings we feel we deserve, why do people (even happily married people) still have affairs?
In her TED Talk about infidelity, Esther Perel discusses that many people believe that people cheat because they are unhappy with something in their relationship or that the affair is because of something that their partner is or is not doing. However, she notes that in many cases, people cheat not because of external issues (like with their relationship or partner) but rather because of internal issues.
Perel states that many people who cheat believe in monogamy and aren’t pursuing an affair to turn away from their partner or challenges in their relationship. She has found that oftentimes people will have an affair after the death of a loved one, like a parent or a friend, or after hearing bad news at a doctor’s appointment. In her TED Talk and in her book, Perel maintains that the feeling of one’s own mortality is often the cause of an affair. It is not about seeking another person, ending a relationship, or even hurting their partner — for many people, an affair is simply an attempt to fight that feeling of deadness. These affairs occur when people are faced with their own mortality (or that of others that they know and love) and this realization brings up questions about life — such as “is this all there is to life?” and “am I going to live another 20-30 years like this?”
She notes that many times her clients say they “feel alive” when they talk about the affair — which brings us right back to an affair being an antidote to mortality.
Does an Affair Mean the End of a Relationship?
As a society, oftentimes the general consensus is that infidelity means the end of a relationship — especially in a marriage. After all, marriage is no longer simply an arrangement of economic and social stability, today, marriage is supposed to be everything. Love, friendship, consolation, security, and more.
But, Perel argues, that infidelity does not necessarily mean the end. She notes that there are two types of affairs — she calls these “wake up” affairs and “break up” affairs. The latter of these two affairs is where the relationship is already coming to an end and it may be best to simply let that end come. The “wake up” affair, on the other hand, is not necessarily a deal-breaker in a relationship. These affairs are oftentimes those that are instigated by an internal conflict (such as the realization of mortality).
All affairs will completely redefine a relationship, but the way that that relationship is redefined is up to the couple. Some couples may turn out stronger and more connected because of an affair and some will no longer be able to trust each other and be consumed by shame and guilt. The couples who choose to learn from the affair and from each other can oftentimes achieve a happier and more open and truthful relationship.
How to Heal from an Affair
An affair is often viewed as an act of betrayal to the other partner of the relationship. This is especially true when it is an extramarital affair since marriage is supposed to mark the blissful partnership of unique lovers. As we noted above, Perel categorizes affairs as one of two options, and when it comes to the “break up” affair, it is oftentimes the final nail in the coffin for a relationship that is ending. In this situation, the best way to heal from the experience is likely to leave the relationship.
However, in a “wake up” affair, you can turn this crisis into an opportunity to learn more about your partner and create a stronger relationship. Perel notes that in order to recover and move past the pain and shame that an affair brings with it, both the partner who was having the affair and the partner who was victim to the affair need to take steps to work on the relationship.
The perpetrator of the affair will need to be vigilant for a time and acknowledge and apologize through words as well as actions to their partner who they have hurt.
The partner who has been hurt, on the other hand, needs to understand that asking questions like “was he/she better than me in bed?” or “where were you when you were together?” or any other questions of curiosity will only cause further pain. This partner should instead focus their questions on the motives that their partner had, how the affair made them feel, and what they learned about themselves from it.
Infidelity is one of many forms of betrayal that can happen in a relationship, but the pain does run deep and it can be incredibly difficult to recover from — especially for the one who was cheated on. We touched on earlier how today, infidelity threatens our sense of identity and our worth. And in order to recover from this crisis of identity, you need to do things that bring back that self-worth — such as spending time with friends and family and picking up new hobbies or revisiting old ones.
While these activities can help rebuild your identity and sense of self, we recognize that this can be incredibly difficult to do, especially when you have been hurt by something like an affair. So, if you are looking for any guidance on how to bring back your sense of self or ways to help you and your partner rebuild your relationship in the wake of an affair, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at Love Heal Grow. We have both individual and relationship counseling and we hope to help you transform this crisis into the beginning of a better and stronger relationship.