I had to do research in this because virtually everything I’ve read up until now tells me that married people who have affairs mostly do so with a backdrop of unsatisfying marital/relationship existence and/or deep deficits and flaws within themselves. That the more likely you are to be unhappy, with other factors intervening (including access and opportunity), the more likely a person was to cross that line.
But repeatedly I hear spouses on blogs, on mine, or in my email, swear that they believed their marriage was very close and happy and yet their spouse stepped out on them. Like a “bolt out of the blue,” their seemingly happy spouse took up with someone and left. And the betrayed spouse is left in both pain and bewilderment.
So I did the research. Does this happen? Do happy and content people have affairs?
Yes, but it’s far more rare than unhappy people. But it’s not unheard of.
Happy and content women less likely to cheat than men. My research tells me that women and men mostly cheat for the same reasons, stereotypes aside — that there is something critically missing in their relationship, including, but not limited to regular, satisfying sex. However, there is a statistical difference between the genders. A few studies which indicate that women are more likely to cheat when they see fundamental relationship problems than men. A 2008 study found that half of women reported marital problems before an affair, while only a quarter of men reported problems. And a 2007 study published in the journal Sex Roles found that women are much more likely than men to begin a new relationship with the person they cheated with, perhaps indicating that women use affairs as a way to end stagnant relationships and find new, better mates. The classic “exit affair.” Men, the study reports, were more likely to cite “saw an opportunity and took it” as a reason for committing adultery than women were, while the women cited reasons that had to do with the demise of the relationship. Men more successfully compartmentalize things in their lives than women, and therefore could still feel like they love their wives and not wish a divorce, but embark on an affair nevertheless. However, this is NOT the majority of men who have strayed, nor does it account for long-term affairs, but instead, one-night-stands. Most men who stray do not do it out of opportunity. Let’s be clear on that. They are just more likely than women to take an opportunity presented.
And married men may always get a larger share of opportunity from single women, if a 2009 study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology is any indication. In that study, single women were shown a picture of a man and were told that a computer had rendered him a compatible match. When the women were told that the man was single, 59 percent of the single women were interested in meeting the man. The other half of the single subjects were told that the man was in a committed relationship; 90 percent of those women were interested in pursuing the man. Researchers theorize that the men in relationships have been pre-screened and deemed acceptable as a mate, while the unattached men are greater unknowns. For men in the study, a status of single or attached made no difference in whether they wanted to pursue their computer-generated match. So there are at least some differences between the genders in when it comes to who pursues affairs and why.
But gender aside, some happy people cheat for very complex, psychological reasons, not just opportunity or boredom. They are longtime monogamists who one day cross a line into a place they never thought they would go. They remain monogamous in their beliefs, but they experience a chasm between their behavior and their beliefs. People who inexplicably are sometimes willing to lose everything, for a glimmer of what? Fun? To see if they are missing out on something? A glimpse that perhaps they are married to the wrong person nevertheless? That is the question.
As one psychologist wrote, and I thought very profoundly, “Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.
What’s changed is, monogamy used to be one person for life. If I needed to marry you to have sex for the first time and I knew this is it for the rest of my life, then infidelity becomes one of the ways to deal with those limited choices. But now we come to our marriages with a profoundly different set of experiences and expectations. So the interesting question is, why did infidelity continue to rise even when divorce became available and accepted and nonstigmatized? You would think an unhappy person would leave. So by definition they must not be that unhappy. They are in that wonderful ambivalent state, too good to leave, too bad to stay.
What’s changed is, we expect a lot more from our relationships. We expect to be happy. We brought happiness down from the afterlife, first to be an option and then a mandate. So we don’t divorce—or have affairs—because we are unhappy but because we could be happier. And all that is part of the feminist deliberation. I deserve this, I am entitled to this, I can have this! It allows people to finally pursue a desire to feel alive.
That’s why an affair is such an erotic experience. It’s not about sex, it’s about desire, about attention, about reconnecting with parts of oneself you lost or you never knew existed. It’s about longing and loss. ”
What the psychologist is talking about is both the “semi-happy marriage” and perhaps the absurd, almost unobtainable expectations we have now placed on marriage and the effect of both on affair incidence.
The semi-happy marriage. One study published in 2008 in the Journal of Marriage and Family, couples were asked to define their marriages as “very happy,” “pretty happy” or “not too happy.” Those in not too happy marriages were three times more likely than those in very happy marriages to report an affair, but surprisingly, couples in pretty happy marriages were twice as likely as those in very happy marriages to have had an affair. This actually strikes me as consistent with my thoughts on the semi-happy marriage and its effect on the incidence of affairs. This is not an enthusiastically happy marriage, but on the surface it would appear to be. Semi-happy spouses genuinely can’t decide if they should stick it out and live with the faults in the marriage, or if those faults are too much to handle.
Many semi-happy marriages are high-functioning — almost like business partnerships or friendships. And often the scales tip in favor of an affair or leaving, when opportunity presents itself. They may have not been UNhappy in their marriage, but it was too dull and disconnected to stay. Over time, their interest wears down, even if there is no outward conflict or discussion. In this case, the betrayed spouse is often taken completely by surprise. They didn’t see it coming because the other person didn’t express their misgivings about the state of the relationship. There is often the mistake that the absence of open conflict and a cooperative relationship in “running” the marriage is an indicator of happiness and contentment. Not necessarily.
So affairs have become the new path to personal satisfaction and independence. Married people often don’t want their “real life” and “home base” disturbed, but they want to fill in the gaps of a semi-satisfying existence. This is not an excuse for affairs (there is none). However, you must consider what the same psychologist wrote as a way to understand “why”:
“Marriages are so much more merged, and affairs become a venue for differentiation, a pathway to autonomy. Women will often say: This is the one thing I know I am not doing for anyone else. I am not taking care of anyone, this is for me. And I have a harder time doing that in the context of marriage because I have become the mother who needs to protect the child 24/7 from every little boo-boo and scratch, and I am constantly other-directed so much so that I am utterly disconnected from my erotic self and my partner is longing for sex and I can’t even think about it anymore. And then suddenly I meet somebody and discover something in my body I haven’t experienced for the last eight years, or I didn’t even know existed inside of me.”
Of course, there are all kinds of implications of this. Are we moving back towards, frankly, the traditional model of marriage where its more of a business arrangement and monogamy is not assumed? The current model of marriage is less than 150 years old. Our forefathers (and mothers) expected far less from marriage in the mid-1800’s than we do now. Or even in the 1920s, to be frank. Are we all just a bunch of hypocrites, fighting against our basic nature? (see Why We Cheat). Why the gap between our beliefs/expectations and our behavior? Is perhaps the reasons for cheating far more complex than merely saying, “He’s an asshole” or “She’s a skank-whore”? Probably. Labeling people is easier than deep contemplation, or looking in the mirror and wondering why you got a “Dear John” or “Dear Jane” letter out of the blue.