Why People Really Have Affairs (It’s Not Always Just About Sex)

Protect (and maybe even save) your marriage by being open with your spouse and talking about these ideas.
By Chris Ownby
December 15, 2020

Marital affairs are kind of like rust. On the surface, it’s apparent that a single, ugly event has happened. But underneath is a complex process of chemical reactions and driving forces that have built up over time. Affairs are complicated like that. And finding out why people really have affairs can be even more complicated.

Therapist Esther Perel describes an affair as having three essential elements: 

  • A secretive relationship
  • An emotional connection
  • A sexual chemistry

The word chemistry is used here because actual sexual activity doesn’t have to be involved to be a marital betrayal. To paraphrase Perel, the mere thought of a single kiss can be as powerful as hours of lovemaking. 

It’s essential to understand emotional affairs-—when one is getting their emotional needs met by someone other than their spouse—are just as damaging to a marriage as sexual affairs. Not to mention the fact that emotional affairs often quickly escalate to sexual ones. 

But what causes a spouse to stray? It’s tempting to want to peg the blame on a single factor. He just wasn’t getting enough from his wife, so we went hunting in the bars. She didn’t feel loved at home, and another man showed her attention. 

Rarely do affairs boil down to one single reason. What leads up to the one-night-stand or the seductive conversations over text is usually a mix of ingredients that have been simmering for a while. To understand this, it might be more helpful to think of affairs as having contributing factors rather than reasons.  

Let’s look at five of these contributing factors to help explain why people have marital affairs: 

1. They let their guard down. 

Good marriages do not prevent affairs. Just when you think, “I could never do that,” or “Our marriage is much too healthy for infidelity,” is when you are the most vulnerable. Anne Bercht, director of Beyond Affairs Network, writes that the keys to affair prevention are realizing your marriage is not immune because it’s good, and being informed. She says there is no such thing as affair-proofing your marriage. But “developing open, honest, respectful communication in your relationship, including the ability and commitment to give and receive constructive criticism” is a strong foundation to keep your guard up. 

2. They let their marriage go out of focus. 

We often become hyper-focused on work, stress, hefty schedules, or even kids. Especially kids. Life happens. It’s easy to fool ourselves and say we do this for our marriage. The problem is our marriage suffers because it’s not being focused on. It’s in these circumstances the doors to infidelity crack open. You can minimize this factor by ensuring your focus remains on your spouse. 

3. They give a NOD

Infidelity and marriage expert Scott Haltzman explains in his book, The Secrets to Surviving Infidelity, that an unfaithful partner gives a “NOD” toward an affair: Need, Opportunity, Disinhibition. The Need is something they feel is missing in their life, such as love, respect, attention, or emotional support. The Opportunity for the affair might be a business trip, an office party, the gym, or being alone with someone in your circle of friends. And the Disinhibition can be alcohol or drugs, but perhaps more often something such as resentment, depression, or a sense of entitlement. 

What is interesting is the NOD can also be the key to avoiding infidelity. The more two people seek to meet each other’s needs in marriage, it minimizes the opportunities and disinhibition that leads to betrayal. 

4. They were seeking something they feel they didn’t have. 

Esther Perel says that affairs are less about sex and more about desire. “At the heart of an affair you will often find a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity…” The problem here is that often the other spouse doesn’t know these things are missing because they are never told. A healthy person communicates needs to their spouse. 

5. They aren’t happy with themselves. 

Many times, the affair is more about the unfaithful person than it is about the marriage or the other spouse. Perel, again, offers lots of wisdom here: “When we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partner we are tearing away from, but the person we have ourselves become… We aren’t looking for another person as much as we are looking for another self.” Experiencing something missing from your marriage and seeing the NOD at work requires a hard inward look at yourself. It begs the question, “Am I happy with who I am? Am I about to let dissatisfaction with myself damage my marriage with this choice? 

The truth of the matter is we are all capable of having an affair. However, every spouse has the ability to say, even though I am capable, I will make the conscious choice not to walk through that door. As Anne Brecht puts it, be informed. Be aware of the contributing factors that can be at work and work to reverse those. Be open with your spouse and talk about these ideas. Together, make the conscious choice to remain steadfast in your marital relationship. 

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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