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Why Do Some Happily Married Folks Cheat?

To keep a marriage safe and secure, desire may be banished

By Max Belkin, Ph.D.

By Max Belkin, Ph.D.

As romantic relationships flourish and mature, lovers become emotionally dependent on each other. This closeness can be anxiety provoking—the fear of losing one’s life partner is hard to tolerate. In an effort to make love feel safe, many couples try to rid their shared life of anything risky and destabilizing. Case in point: Connie and Edward Sumner from Adrian Lyne's 2002 erotic thriller, Unfaithful.

Some people cheat on the spouses they love

Connie, a stay-at-home married mom in her forties, is cheating on her gentle and caring husband Edward with a young and sexy Frenchman named Paul. According to conventional wisdom, Connie's infidelity is a symptom of her dissatisfaction with her marriage, an unexpressed desire to end it. However, Connie and Edward’s marriage appears a happy one. While Connie’s relationship with Edward might have lost its erotic spark, it still offers the couple myriad domestic pleasures, a cozy togetherness.

The struggle to experience both love and desire within the confines of a monogamous relationship reflects the predicament of many couples.

It is scary to love and desire the partner who means so much

For Edward and Connie, like for many other couples, the spouse is a co-parent, a soul mate, and a lover, all folded into one irreplaceable fragile human being. In fact, for this husband and wife, marriage is their only emotional lifeline. Being each other’s primary source of moral support, emotional intimacy, and erotic bliss unleashes much unacknowledged anxiety.

For many middle-aged individuals, like the Sumners, mortality becomes more real and frightening. Having watched parents or grandparents bury their life partners, most have witnessed the emotional devastation of such loss. So it is possible that, among other reasons, Connie turned to Paul to make herself less emotionally dependent on her husband.

Lust and aggression are often excluded from happy marriages

Because of its unruly nature, lust is often perceived as a threat to the relationship’s stability. Lust is not politically correct. Breaking taboos, aggression, exhibitionism, submission, and domination are powerful aphrodisiacs for many folks. Thus, in order to keep marriages calm and predictable, many people channel their erotic passion into extramarital affairs.

Cultivating both love and desire towards one's life partner requires tolerating conflicting feelings: the wish for autonomy versus the desire for emotional dependence; tenderness towards one’s partner, as well as aggression; and the need for stability, as well as that for adventure. We often acknowledge only comfort-inducing parts of ourselves and our partners, while ignoring the anxiety-provoking parts.

For example, Connie perceives and treats Edward as if he were only warm and fuzzy; she is loath to acknowledge his lust and aggression. Conforming to his wife's expectations, Edward moves, smiles, and talks like a middle-aged Teddy Bear. Paradoxically, Richard Gere, whose sex appeal is obvious to everybody but Connie, plays Edward’s character.

Similarly, as part of the tacit agreement to keep lust out of their relationship, Edward views Connie (played by Diane Lane) as predictable, motherly, and incapable of risk or adventure. And for a while, she complies. Ironically, again, Edward might be the only person who ignores Connie’s erotic charisma. Both husband and wife are complicit in selectively overlooking the erotic—and thus potentially destabilizing and nerve-racking-- aspects of themselves and their partner.

Extramarital affair serves as a steam valve

Edward's and Connie's unacknowledged and unexpressed lust and aggression find expression in their emotional triangle with Paul. While Connie is unconsciously invested in keeping her marriage predictable by treating her husband as a man-child, she directs her erotic passion toward Paul. Although in the marital bed Connie allows only the gentle, loving parts of herself expression, in her extramarital affair, she luxuriates in domination and submission. For instance, with Paul, Connie is game for hitting, spanking, and having sex in public places.

Similarly, while Edward never confronts his wife about her affair, he lets his anger out by getting into a fight with her lover. Thus, the affair allows both of them to experience and express their unacknowledged lust and aggression without jeopardizing their loving marriage.

Affairs make people feel autonomous and erotically alive

Whenever people trade eroticism for the illusion of security, their romance turns stale and bloodless. Routine and predictability, the two pillars of stability, tend to stifle erotic spontaneity and creativity. In contrast, veiled-in-secrecy and risk-taking extramarital affairs tend to fill lovers with excitement and titillation.

However, affairs carry a hefty price tag. Just like Connie, other married people who cheat eventually get tired of lying and feeling guilty. Afraid they will break up, some couples turn to marriage counseling to unpack the meaning of the affair, and to rekindle love and desire. Connie and Edward Sumner would make perfect candidates for such an endeavor.

Marriage counseling to the rescue

In therapy, Connie and Edward would begin to articulate and explore the loving, lustful, and aggressive aspects of their own and their partner’s personality. The therapist would help them to discuss what turns them on, and to manage the anxiety and guilt evoked by their erotic desires. The goal would be to help Connie and Edward construct new ways of tolerating the tensions between love and lust, autonomy and dependence, and tenderness and aggression.

Max Belkin, Ph.D., is a relational psychoanalyst and psychologist. He is a graduate of NYU and the William Alanson White Institute and serves on the editorial board of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. He teaches graduate courses in couples counseling and individual psychotherapy at NYU. He works with individuals and couples in his private offices in Greenwich Village, New York City, and in Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

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