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Why People in Happy Relationships Still Have Affairs

A good marriage is no guarantee against infidelity.

Key points

  • Infidelity exposes our personal and social perspectives about love, desire, sex, and commitment.
  • The reality is that we are walking contradictions with multiple needs and desires.
  • At times, the underlying issue of affairs in healthy relationships is low self-esteem.

Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, yet this extremely common act remains poorly understood. We want to believe that having a "happy marriage" would protect us from infidelity. After all, affairs only take place in problematic relationships, right? While that is usually the case, I found that some of my clients in genuinely happy relationships cheated on their partner anyway. They said "It was just there, simple and easy. I was not looking for it." Or, "I could not control my urge and could not resist it." Or, "I don’t know what I was thinking and made a big mistake."

So, what is really going on here? How can a loving and faithful partner end up cheating anyway?

There are several potential reasons why people in happy relationships may have affairs:

Uncontrollable temptations

In today’s world, there are more opportunities to meet potential affair partners due to work, travel, or social situations that can increase temptations. We can all relate to these explanations, especially when we understand the impact of our social and technological situation. More than ever, our technological advances make extramarital sex more accessible, cheaper, and easier. You can get it anytime and anywhere. The temptations are great and frequent, and the desire for immediate gratification amplifies.

Lack of self-esteem

Not always, but often the underlying issue of affairs in healthy relationships is low self-esteem, deficiency of emotional control, impulsiveness, and lack of maturity. To some people who lack self-esteem, no matter how much love they get, it is never enough. They take for granted what they have. Even if their partner tells them every day how respected they are, or how loving and attractive they are, after a while, these praises become predictable and less potent. In that regard, the affair makes the person feel desired and provides a delusional boost for the self. Unfortunately, this boost is short-lived, leading to even more feelings of emptiness.

An expression of loss or longing

In this case, the affair is not designed to withdraw or disconnect them from their partner (since they still love their partner and want to be with them), but rather it is an expression of loss or longing (for excitement, freedom, passion, fantasy, etc....things that even happy relationships cannot provide). The affair expresses the desire to experience and reconnect to lost parts of the self and to integrate them into a bigger more complete Self.

Lack of intimacy or emotional connection

Even in a generally happy relationship, there can be periods where partners grow distant emotionally or lack physical/sexual intimacy. When emotional needs for affection, understanding, and feeling valued are not met within the committed relationship, individuals may seek to fulfill those needs elsewhere. An affair may be an attempt to fill that intimacy void.

Boredom or seeking freshness

Over time, even happy relationships can fall into familiar routines and patterns. The intense passion and novelty of the early stages fade. For some people, the routines of a long-term relationship can lead to boredom or a desire for freshness and excitement that an affair may provide. This loss of exciting newness makes them crave the thrill and butterflies of a new romantic adventure.


While infidelity may cause or worsen substance abuse or addiction, it is also true that in many cases, addiction can cause or worsen infidelity. When someone drinks or does drugs, their judgment is impaired and that may lead to poor decisions.

Trauma or PTSD

PTSD can make you think irrationally. Unresolved past traumas or fear of intimacy can lead some to self-sabotaging behaviors. Having an affair could be a form of self-sabotage or a way to create drama so you feel the flight or fight mode, which many people with PTSD re-enact. The affair might be a way to push everyone away and isolate yourself. It could also be a distraction from personal pain or a way to get something from the other partner…..not sex, but understanding, compassion, and comfort.

Contradictory desires

The reality is that as humans we are walking contradictions with multiple needs that pull us in different directions. Our brains evolve to include many parts and layers that desire different things. The unique interplay of our parts drives contradictory needs. As such, it is not surprising that we find ourselves conflicted between our hearts and our minds, between who we are and what we want to be, between our values and our behaviors, between our short-term needs and long-term goals, between stability and novelty, between marital commitment and personal freedom.

The importance of understanding yourself

Understanding yourself and questioning your thoughts, feelings, and desires before an affair takes place can help you navigate such problems. It may also prevent the affair from taking place in the first place. For personal clarity, ask yourself questions, such as:

  • Are you challenged by having intimacy?
  • Are you trying to avoid or repress your desires, thoughts, or needs?
  • What are your sexual fantasies?
  • Are you afraid of sharing your pain or desires with your partner?
  • Are you feeling you are losing yourself or torn and confused?
  • Were you drawn by the general idea of having an affair?
  • If you are thinking about cheating, why do you think about having an affair? What are your motives for desiring an affair? What does it mean to you?

Whatever the roots, trying to reflect and find answers, as soon as possible before it creates more damage, is best for you and anyone else in your life. You might consider journaling or therapy. Hopefully, these will also help you to heal and grow to become a better person and a better partner.


Too little attention is given to the motives and meanings of affairs, especially in happy relationships. Betrayals run deep and desires run deep. Paradoxically, cheating has a lot to teach us about relationships—what we expect, what we want, and what we are “entitled to.” It exposes our personal and social perspectives about love, desire, sex, and commitment—attitudes that have dramatically changed over the past century.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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