Affairs: Who Has Them, and Why?

Copyright © 2010, Liz Currin, Ph.D.

 If your life hasn't been touched by an affair, you may think that only certain types of people are vulnerable to infidelity, for example, the misunderstood husband, or the lonely housewife. You may think that couples who enjoy each other's company, communicate well, and have a good sex life are immune from such problems. And, in a very limited sense, you'd be right. That's because marriages that don't contain these ingredients may be less robust emotionally, and therefore less able to withstand some of the forces that can strain a lifetime partnership. But the reality is that anyone can be subject to the temptations that affairs offer, whether it's the traveling salesman, the preschool teacher, your child's pediatrician, or even your clergyman.

Reliable statistics on infidelity are hard to come by. This is partly due to the nature of the topic and the understandable reluctance someone may have to acknowledge, even to an impartial researcher or statistician, that they've had an affair. It's also a function of how young the scientific study of relationships is. But surveys and other data seem to point broadly to the conclusion that many Americans say one thing and do another when it comes to monogamy.

Americans are consistently among the most conservative people in the world when it comes to attitudes toward extramarital sex. For example, 80% of Americans versus 36% of Russians believe that extramarital sex is "always wrong". Yet estimates of American men involved in extramarital affairs range from 22% to 75%; estimates for women range from 14% to 60%. Add to that the statistic that 74% of men and 68% of women say they would have an affair if they knew they would never be caught!

To put this in historical perspective and to illustrate the impact of the workplace on infidelity, a 1975 survey conducted by "Redbook" magazine revealed that 40% of married women had had an affair by age forty. But when this number was broken down by women in the workplace versus women at home, it became clear that the workplace provides ample opportunity for women to conduct extramarital relationships. Thirty-three percent of homemakers versus 47% of working wives had had affairs by age forty.

While the workplace has historically been the arena in which men conducted affairs, an interesting trend is the conscious decision of young single women to date older married men with whom they work. This is due not only to the prestige, power, and financial means of this group of men, but to a desire on the part of these young women to focus on career. Involvement with a married man reduces the likelihood of the affair leading to marriage, and limits the amount of time and energy which he is able to devote to the extramarital relationship, thereby freeing her to concentrate on career advancement. Another advantage to having a married affair partner is that that individual has much to lose, for example, marriage and its benefits, children, home, and financial assets, so he or she is likely to make fewer demands.

The numbers and the trends in the workplace tell the tale. As a society, we give lip service to monogamy. When we say "forsaking all others, 'til death do us part", we want to believe that this is what we will choose and how we will behave until we are literally separated by death. But all the evidence points to other forces coming into play, forces that can powerfully counteract our more conscious intentions. These include factors that are an inherent part of many workplaces, as well as the natural evolution of marital relationships.

One of the most common stereotypes about affairs is that they are caused by a lack of one thing or another in a marriage. A wife, for example, may feel that her husband never listens or that he doesn't appreciate her. A husband may claim to be misunderstood, or may feel that his wife lost interest in sex long ago. Or both may feel that they're no longer able to communicate or that they simply no longer have any common interests. And when children have grown up and left the home, this lack of common ground can become a gaping chasm between husband and wife.

Another stereotype is that a spouse has met someone who is superior in some way, someone who better meets their needs and desires. In a wife's fantasies, the new secretary with whom her husband is having an affair is much more attractive than she is. A husband imagines that the man with whom his wife is infatuated is much more successful than he is. The list goes on and on, but the message is the same. The affair partner excels in the areas that matter, whether appearance, sex appeal, personality, education, wealth, or other accomplishments. In our consumer society, in which we feel entitled to choice and the satisfaction of our wants, we fall prey to the idea that someone better suited awaits us out there. But, let's step back and take a look at certain changes in contemporary society, as well as the realities of marriage.

Over the past half century, women have entered the workforce in increasing numbers. In today's economy, it is almost a luxury for a woman (or a man) to remain full time in the home and raise children. And so women and men have become accustomed to working closely with each other, particularly as the feminist agenda has continued to push for full and equal participation in the workplace. The reality is that many men and women spend more time with their coworkers than they do with their spouses. They engage in more conversation about both work and non-work-related matters. The emotional intensity of workplace demands can contribute to the forging of strong emotional bonds.

And the truth is that, without conscious effort, marriages can stagnate. The exhilaration and strong sexual attraction that we once felt for a partner are likely to wane over time. Marriage becomes routine. The sexy young woman you partied with during college becomes preoccupied with childrearing and running a household. The carefree guy you went hiking and camping with when you dated is now concerned about being an adequate provider for his family. And habits that may have been mildly irritating during dating (for example, consistently being a few minute late), over the course of a marriage can become major annoyances. We settle into roles and routines, which tend to be predictable and even boring.

One day, something happens at the office. A new staff member catches your eye and you begin to fantasize about her. Within a few weeks, you find yourself stopping by her office more often than you need to. One day, you invite her to lunch. You run into the same guy at the coffee machine several days a week and begin talking about your weekend. The conversation turns to families and eventually to some frustrations in your marriage. These budding office relationships offer us something we no longer have in our marriages--the opportunity to be seen in a different light. In the workplace, you're not just the pressured mom who's too exhausted for sex at the end of the day. You're an attractive woman whom someone finds interesting and who is offered a sympathetic ear. You're not just the husband with a growing "honey do" list who would prefer to spend his weekends watching sports. You're the guy who takes charge at work, makes things happen, and has the respect of his peers.

So, affairs--at first, at least--afford us the opportunity to occupy a different role from that of husband or wife. And this appears to be the case even in good marriages. Therapists who work with couples dealing with infidelity often hear that the affair really has nothing to do with the marriage, the spouses are best friends and love each other and want the marriage to continue. But affair partners occupy the role of lover with each other, which is far from the role of husband or wife. A lover has limited exposure to his or her partner as an individual. What is presented is likely to be what Peggy Vaughan calls "a special version of their best aspects, free from the normal responsibilities involved in sharing a total life situation; whereas the roles and structure of family life create many restrictions and responsibilities. A person's affair is not so much a rejection of the mate as a rejection of these role restrictions."

Finally, while affairs can occur at any stage of a marriage, there tend to be "peak" times when the marriage is vulnerable. The first year of marriage can be turbulent, filled with doubt about whether a mistake was made. Affairs during this phase tend to be short-lived and may involve a brief reconnection with a former love interest. The arrival of the first child represents a major turning point in a couple's relationship. The danger here is that one parent, typically the mother, becomes so fully absorbed in the joys and challenges of parenthood that the other spouse feels marginalized and neglected. The notorious "seven year itch" corresponds roughly to years four through seven when the initial "psychological contract" between partners has been fulfilled. This refers to the idea that we choose our partners because they meet certain residual emotional needs, needs that have remained unfulfilled since childhood. Many of these needs may be met during the early years of marriage.

For the marriage to flourish, however, the couple needs to renegotiate the terms of the emotional contract. What is it that we need from each other now, that we didn't initially? What do we no longer need? And then there's the much maligned midlife crisis, with the attendant jokes about red sports cars and plastic surgery. Midlife represents a major developmental shift for many individuals, with the psychological emphasis turning to second-half-of-life issues, including mortality and whether or not important life goals were accomplished. The awareness that one has not realized important life goals can contribute to depression and to seeking fulfillment outside the marriage.

If you are struggling with the pain of infidelity in your marriage or relationship, a competent mental health professional can help you sort through the issues and come to some understanding of the forces that may have derailed your relationship.