The One Thing I Want People To Know About Affairs
There is something I see online a lot about affairs and it drive me absolutely crazy. It is the sentiments that follow along this line:
“Cheaters are selfish.”
“Once a cheater, always a cheater.”
“If they wanted to cheat, they should never have gotten married.”
Here’s the one thing I want people to know about affairs: IT IS NEVER THIS SIMPLE. The reasons people have an affair are complex– even if they look simple, even if someone gave you a simple answer as to why they had an affair. But, it is never simple.
I know it hurts very deeply when you’re the person who has been cheated on. I have been in that position (the first guy I thought I would marry cheated on me towards the end of our 3-year relationship). I have also been the one who wanted an affair so I understand how that desire feels along with seeing first-hand how that can hurt someone we love. I have compassion and understanding for both sides of the coin.
Behind every desire for an affair, behind every affair, is a complex reason for it and they usually fall under one umbrella: people are trying to get their needs met.
We are all doing the best we can, and sometimes the best option we can see for meeting our needs is to have an affair*. I get that. And I understand that some people see that decision as purely ‘selfish.’ But there are plenty of other ‘selfish’ demands we make in marriage, some of which include “I won’t have sex with you,” or “I want you to take the promotion so I can stay home with the kids,” or “we’re going to move away from our community so I can make more money,” etc- and depending on the circumstances, any of these can be seen as ‘selfish.’ I recognize that the secrecy of an affair is what makes it different than other selfish requests we may make in marriage, but other requests are no less selfish. If you ask me, negotiating our needs for ‘selfish’ requests is a huge part of modern marriages.
When those of us who have been cheated on realize that some part of our self or our relationship was not what our partner wanted, it can cause a lot of grief, fear, and anger- and I think that’s why we turn to the “They’re selfish” answer. Because if we accept that our partner needed something else, it means we may have contributed to the problem, and it’s very hard to admit that. It means we may have failed, or we may have not been what our partner needed and that shit hurts. But, as Esther Perel noted, “the victim of the affair may not be the victim of the marriage.” And I believe we need to accept our part in the affair, even if it is 1%. Even if it fucking hurts to do so.
What I will add to that point is that while there is often some problem with the relationship or with the person who was cheated on, generally, the person who has the affair is the place where the most work needs to be done. There is something going on inside them that needs to be looked at with patience, gentleness, and a lack of judgement. (People who think of having an affair or actually have one know they are jerks, okay? They know they are doing something morally questionable. They don’t need people telling them that. What they need is a safe place to set down the burden of their life and the chaos of their affair and spread it all out and look at it. That’s why I don’t judge. Because it doesn’t help people figure their shit out. Like, ever.) Because the issue(s) that lead to the affair may be in the person who cheated, may be in their partner, and may be in their relationship, we can see that an affair isn’t a simple thing.
So, if affairs aren’t simple things, where does their complexity come from? Let me talk about the Sex Surge® here. What looks like a fairly simple “I wanted more sex” reason for an affair actually has hormonal reasons. Issues around frequency and pleasure of sex come up a lot in my work with clients. When the Surge hits, we want sex more and we want it to be good. So, yeah, this looks like “I just wanted more sex” but it can encompass other factors such as lack of sexual communication, a lack of sexual pleasure, fear of rejection, or a hundred other things. When we hear about women having affairs at mid-life simply because they wanted something for themselves, we are talking about trying to heal a sense of dissatisfaction, wanting to be someone else (which a lover can help us see and be), needing a reason to jump from an unworkable marriage, or a hundred other things. The reasons behind affairs are never simple- they are a complex mixture of mis-matched pieces inside the partnership, the people, and their desires. And we don’t solve the problems by making simple excuses about what happened and why.
If I were going to suggest something to help avoid or deal with affairs, I would suggest developing the skills to have direct, clear discussions about sex, needs, desires, expectations (for sex, for responsibilities, for shared work in all areas of marriage), and what to do if/when we find ourselves attracted to others, desiring an affair, wanting to leave the marriage, etc. These conversations aren’t fun, and we aren’t trained to have them. In fact, having clear, direction communication scares the shit out of some people, but I truly suggest you do the work to get over that (because being able to communicate well will make dealing with problems 1000% easier). And opening up to these kinds of conversations goes against the modern ideal of romantic love where our partner is our everything- because if they are our ‘everything’ how could we possibly entertain the idea that at some point they might not be everything? Well, dare to rebel and imagine that you might not be everything to each other at some point, because I can almost guarantee it will happen (whether due to an affair, resentment, frustration, co-dependency, etc.). Communicating well is one of the biggest and best tools you can give your marriage to keep it healthy.
I know that affairs can be devastating. I don’t want to minimize the pain they can cause individuals, couples, and families. But I also want people to know that they are never because of simple reasons and we need to start recognizing that in our society. We also need to recognize that talking about issues of desire, attraction, personal needs, and relationship boundaries are key to keeping us on the same page as our partner (or finding out we’re not on the same page and figuring out what to do about it!). And that talking about such issues isn’t putting some kind of hex on our relationship. Life is complex. Our responses to it require mature, thoughtful tools- even if it means we have to move to a new level of understanding to do so.
* In my book I discuss the times when an affair is a reasonable option. Because sometimes it is. The world is a complex place and we need to start accepting that.