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Why People Really Have Affairs

They're intoxicating, at first, but may not provide what you really need.

Key points

  • Affairs reveal a deep, inner longing to be noticed and valued.
  • Many individuals who have an affair are not “falling in love” with the other person, but with a new image of themselves receiving validation.
  • An individual can get hooked on the chemicals their brain releases when they’re with their affair partner.
Alejandra Quiroz used with permission
Source: Alejandra Quiroz used with permission

“I just don’t know what’s wrong with him. I mean, we’ve been married for 25 years and this just started happening in the last few. But it keeps happening, despite his promises to stop.”

Julie looked at the floor.

“Julie, what did your life together look like before all this started happening?”

She looked up, then away from me, like she was looking back through time: “We got married young, started a family, went to church. He moved up the corporate ladder. I took care of the kids. I’d say we were pretty normal. Sure, we fought. We’ve had periods of distance, but nothing severe—at least I thought.”

“Then things changed. You discovered...something.”

Despite her obvious sadness, she nearly laughed: “So typical! My husband was taking a nap Sunday afternoon and he left his phone on the kitchen counter. A text came through and I looked over it. It said, ‘How about lunch next Sat?’ For a moment I thought nothing of it, but then my curiosity got the best of me. I looked to see if he was coming into the room and when it seemed safe, I checked his phone. Sure enough, he’d been texting this number for a long time. I couldn't help myself. I called the number and a woman answered. I asked who it was and she hung up. I went into a panic. I immediately woke my husband up and told him what happened. At first, he denied anything, but after a while, I wore him down and he fessed up that he had been having an affair with a coworker for the past six months.”

Sadly, as a licensed marriage therapist and certified sex therapist, I hear this kind of story often. The kind of damage it does to marriages—to both people in the marriage—is significant. While hard numbers are difficult to come by considering the secretive nature of affairs—some research says that one partner has an affair in 60 percent of couples—it’s not hard to imagine that many divorces have occurred because one or both partners strayed from the relationship.

But let’s take a moment and consider Julie’s husband, Evan.

When I spoke with him, he seemed a bit surprised by his own behavior.

“We’ve been married for 25 years, but I’ve had three affairs in the last five years. I’m not a bad guy. I never cheated on any girlfriend before I got married. I’m not unethical in my career. Just ask anybody I work with. And I go to church! But I keep doing what a big part of me doesn't want to do.”

“What do you imagine this is about?”

“She changed. She just got so wrapped up in our kids that I felt forgotten—emotionally and sexually. Not to mention we spent no time together. I’m terrible at communication. I’ve always had trouble talking with her about my life and what’s really going on with me.”

He then told me what so many men in his position have told me before in so many words: “The women I see now, they get me. I can talk to them. I can really share with them, and I won’t be judged or scolded or told what to do. I can just be me. And I can’t help it if just being me makes them attracted to me.”

From my research over the past 15 years, there are three main ingredients that most often cause people to have affairs:

  1. When affairs begin, a person typically doesn’t fall in love with the other person, at least not initially. They’re actually “falling in love” with the fantasy (in their very own mind) about the other person. In other words, they’re falling for the image of the other person they’ve created in their own mind. The affair partner is simply a construct, a made-up image—someone, they imagine, who will meet their every need.
  2. Affairs, at their core, are about longing and a deep need for external validation. Who doesn’t like someone telling them they look or smell good, or confirming that another person is attracted to them? Who doesn’t like to feel that someone values them? Again, many individuals that have an affair are not “falling in love” with the other person; they are “falling in love” with this new, wonderful image of themselves—an image that’s receiving praise and external validation.
  3. Many people, in their initial encounters with an affair partner, become intoxicated by the feeling they get with each new encounter. When that new romance starts giving them positive external feedback, an individual can get hooked—not on the person, but on the feeling (or on the chemicals their brain releases) when they’re with that person. (Three main chemicals are released during this initial stage of affair—dopamine, which is also activated by cocaine and nicotine; norepinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline; and serotonin, one of love's most important chemicals.)
Source: DmitriMaruta/Shutterstock

Affairs often have very little to do with the other person. Instead, they reveal a deep, inner longing for notice and value. They have a way of tricking people into thinking that this new person is “the one” or their “soulmate,” when what they’re really in love with is what’s going on within themselves.

With this in mind, before taking a step toward having an affair, take a step back and reflect on your own inner longing or need. Consider meeting that need or inner longing in healthy ways, rather than unhealthy ones. If you are having an affair, or trying to repair your marriage post-affair, consider seeking professional help from a marriage therapist.

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