Why married people have affairs

Posted on May 12th, 2013

The beginning of an affair is a thrilling moment of exceptional vitality and promise, offering greater emotional and/or physical closeness and validation. At last, I will be understood, I will be openly loved, I will have my desires satisfied, feel more powerful with someone, be able to live out everything I have kept secret about myself!

These are all wonderful desires, and they all should be fulfilled. The real question is why married people are so often unable to satisfy these desires in their marriages and seek out affairs instead.

One perspective on the answer to this lies in the nature of marriage.

Marriage (or long-term, committed relationships) seems to start out as the free, loving union of two independent people. That’s the appearance, but the reality is that couples are often deeply and unconsciously encumbered by the family experience they had while growing up.

Along with learning to walk and talk and go forth into the world, we grow up learning how a relationship is supposed to look and feel, how open married people can be with each other, how much of ourselves we can safely reveal. We learn how to stay safe in the give and take of a family, or we acquire a great deal of anxiety about our lack of safety.

Until we are married, what we learned as children does not usually arise for us in relationships. We are freer then. But once we marry (or, for some, once we have children), we unconsciously start living within what we learned in our childhood families. If we come from a family in which no one acknowledged feelings, we don’t either. If in our original families everyone seemed happy, and anything distressing was dismissed as though it didn’t exist, that’s the way we live in marriage. If our childhood family was one in which whatever we wanted was ridiculed or provoked anger, we usually don’t let ourselves know we want anything.

All of this happens without awareness that we are doing it, as a way of avoiding confronting our fears of being too open about our true selves with our spouses. Consciously we may have very different intentions, yet as soon as there is conflict and emotions get overcharged, the ‘rules’ we learned for safety in family life take over. As the conflicts pile up, the love gets replaced by impasse. If one of us tries to move beyond these reactions, the other reacts more strongly to hold the rules in place. We’re stuck.

Our desire for love and intimacy hasn’t diminished, but the opportunity to live it out with our spouse becomes less achievable (except, for some of us, when we are on vacation, when we may leave our rules at home). There are many ways to maintain distance in an unsatisfying marriage, with cheeriness which stays on the surface, with coldness, with frequent arguing, with keeping very busy.

This is the background which motivates married people to have affairs. Affairs are an attempt to get the love we have denied ourselves. And initially they often seem to work.

Yet affairs do not resolve the underlying conflicts we have about being vulnerable in an ongoing relationship. For that reason, they are actually only a short-term fix to a long-term problem (usually with bad consequences which increase the fear of openness). The long-term solution lies in developing the capacity to bear more of the vulnerability of ongoing, intimate connection.

Posted in Marriage and Couples

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.

5 thoughts on “Why married people have affairs

  1. Thanks Mark, for your insights. I’m just wondering what role biology plays in teeing up affairs. Are there brain messages to populate that may drive, stem from or contribute to the need to reproduce? In other words, is monogomy natural?

    • Martin,
      There are proponents for every side of these questions, so all I’ll say is that most people I have encountered who have been involved in affairs already have children, and the last thing in the world they are looking for is someone else to have more children with.

  2. Mark, I really like the way you captured the essence of why people stray. You take a complex issue and provide a thoughtful, logical theory about the process of relationships over time, expectations and the Novocain solution (usually temporary) of a new love interest.. Most importantly you point out the unavoidable influence our childhood environment has on trust, intimacy and healthy vs. ineffective methods of coping with interpersonal conflict. I have often heard the argument of procreation as an instinctual response (reason for additional partners) which perhaps centuries ago explained human behavior… I liked your response, keeps the focus on modern day society and personal responsibility(this is not said in judgment).. Thank you