The Real Reason Extramarital Affairs Are Hard to Stop

The grass on the other side of the fence is...very familiar

Posted Dec 24, 2019

Most therapists do not treat couples when one partner is secretly having an extramarital affair. However, when the cheating spouse solicits individual therapy, many clinicians—particularly those trained in couple’s work—lean towards saving the primary relationship. They might deny this, but some of the brave souls I have spoken to admit they consider themselves successful if they help rescue a marriage. And while that is a noble objective, it may also be one of the reasons clinicians refrain from tutoring the adulterous spouse.

Looking for and finding the real reason for the affair may suggest a poor marital prognosis—even though uncovering this information may ironically be the primary relationship’s best chance to survive. Of course, these same therapists might ask the adulterous spouse a few basic questions such as: When did the affair begin? Are you having an affair with someone at work? Do you consider yourself in love with this person? Are you planning to leave your spouse? But many avoid encouraging the cheating client to seek the most important information needed to stop the affair in its tracks—which is the first order of business in helping an ailing marriage.

No doubt therapists need to consider the most conspicuous reasons for most affairs: abuse or neglect, incompatible sex, lack of attraction, unmet expectations, unrequited love, conflicting interests and values, to name a few. And it is well known that most affairs start with a certain amount of commiserating: The cheating spouse tells the potential lover how awful his/her marriage is and what it is needed to ease the pain; the potential lover responds in kind. Both players suggest they can soothe one another, and the affair commences. If the affair is physically consummated, the therapist and victimized spouse may soon discover that it may be easier to separate two objects held in place by Gorilla Glue.

So how does one truly stop an affair?  Contrary to popular belief, the clinician needs to understand only one critical concept to end an affair, at any stage: The spouse who is having the affair is usually having an affair with someone just like his/her spouse. Yup, that’s it. No need to get bogged down in rudimentary facts such as: The lover is perceived as a kinder and gentler person, more affectionate, more attentive, or more physically attractive than the victimized spouse. These are givens,  requirements for the job description of “lover.”

Most therapists know full well that an affair is a fantasy operating in an artificial situation. Leave your spouse for a lover and transition the affair into reality, and the reality will most likely be a harsh one. Researchers have found that the divorce rate after marrying one’s lover is approximately 85-90%. Yet time and again people take the risk. Why?

Spouses are drawn to their lovers in the same way they were drawn to their spouses. That is, the same unconscious reasons that attracted them to their spouses are still operating—we simply cannot change our radar-like attraction to others without years of work, and most people do not commit to this type of process.

It usually takes some time before the reasons for the attraction show themselves, in part because all is seemingly wonderful during an affair. But sooner or later the characteristics that the lover shares with the victimized spouse will begin to reveal themselves. If the cheating spouse pays attention to them, rather than remain in a state of blissful denial, the similarities, as subtle as they may be, will be recognized. For example, one client eventually realized that his lover was a terrible problem solver—just like his wife. Another client learned that her lover was as controlling as her husband. And yet another concluded that his lover withheld negative feelings, just as his wife did. Some lovers may even physically resemble the victimized spouse.

If the cheating spouse is attracted to characteristics, traits, and tendencies in the lover that are evident in their spouse, the real reason for the affair will emerge: The lover is just like the spouse (a sense of morality notwithstanding) and may be so in a negative way at some point in the future.   

What are the implications for a marriage? First, affairs are often a replication waiting to happen. And second, affairs are often forged with the same magnetic power that a marriage is, often rendering the affair as hard to break as a marriage. Thus, ending an affair, especially if it is long-term, may resemble a divorce.

Only when the cheating spouse recognizes the similarities and replications will that spouse come to accept that the adulterous process is unlikely to lead to an improved choice of mate. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote: “Even the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”