Do People Happy in Their Marriages Have Affairs Too?

men-women-cheat-3The answer?  Mostly not.  But sometimes yes.  It’s an illogical and mind-boggling phenomenon.  There are people very happy in their marriages that have affairs?  Really?

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.

divorced-couple-001The 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.

couple-sensual-kiss-love-couples-merci-lovebisous-poljubac-sexy-new-album-kisses-sex-wow-paare-amor-romance-romantisme-amoureux-hot-couples-kandys-album-bw-pashion-love-pics-sexy-couple-love-romance-eSo 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.

8 thoughts on “Do People Happy in Their Marriages Have Affairs Too?

  1. Instinct & common sense tell me that it must happen, but probably not as often as some would like to believe. Lets face it, it’s okay to accept that you are 50% responsible for the state of your marriage, but responsibility for cheating rests 100% on the cheater, and blaming yourself shouldn’t be a part of your recovery in any case. My WS initially wanted to answer the “why?” question with his affair rationalizations, which would not be wrong if the question I was asking had more to do with why he was unhappy or why he seemed so distant & uncaring toward me – mostly prior to the affair. It’s irrational, even reckless, selfish & irresponsible to think that cheating is the appropriate response to unhappiness. That it’s a cure to what ails you or your marriage. That’s rationalizing an unspeakable act to make it easier for you to live with, and it will never make sense to a betrayed spouse, EVER. Even to one who is able & willing to accept that the marriage was not perfect. But I’m never going to subscribe to the theory that everyone & everything is normal & good, and this bolt of lightning comes out of nowhere. I think that must include at least a little bit of self-deception as well. And I think the most fitting explanation is as you quoted above: “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”. Very profound, I agree. And it would seem to fit regardless of whether the marriage is good, bad, or indifferent.

    • Please understand, and I’ve constant on this point. This is not an excuse for cheating. there is none. The cheater owns their own actions 100%. However, the reason almost always points to deficits within the marriage/relationship. Reason is not the same as “excuse”. but it is STILL the reason. Many betrayeds have a hard time accepting this concept — the cheater IS 100% responsible for cheating, but it doesn’t mean the “reason” they cheated is invalid and it may point back to you. So many people would get further ahead if they embraced the different between “reason” and “excuse” (or blame-shifting). I can’t blame my wife for my stupid choices. But I CAN blame her for neglecting me and our marriage to a large extent such that I was emotionally available when someone came along, swooped in and made me feel understand, wanted, desired and passionately loved. Our sucky marriage was 50% her fault, 50% my fault. Cheating 100% my fault. But still, you can’t ignore the 50/50 proposition that was the underpinning of my affair. I didn’t just wake up one day and say “I feel like having an emotional and physical affair with someone!!” There was a REASON. For a long long time. Get it?

      Instead of a cheater saying “YOU ARE THE REASON I CHEATED!”, I think it would be more accurate to say, “I did a really stupid thing because I failed to speak up (or you didn’t listen when I did!) about how lousy and unsatisfying our marital life had become! I no longer felt wanted, understand and loved by you, and I made a bad choice because of it! So can we focus on THAT, please? What can we do to set ourselves on a better course?”

      The point being is this: Affairs rarely occur in a vacuum. They are almost always a symptom of something terribly wrong inside the marriage/relationship and/or within the cheater themselves (in my case, it was both). This doesn’t make affairs “right” or “justified” — they aren’t. But rarely do they just occur out of nowhere, as some would like to believe. And yes, the couples that take responsibility for their own actions that made one or both of them open to an affair are the ones that get further. The ones that wish to point a finger at the cheater and sort of stay on a permanent punishment offensive against them, as a way of deflecting attention from themselves, usually end up divorced or left anyway.

      So while you have the occasional happy and content married person cheat, it’s still quite rare. Its just that there is a built-in motivation for many people to point the finger solely at the offending party. It’s possible they are right. but not nearly as often as claimed (on blogs, in articles, and in my email).

      • of course I get it. I do understand that you have been consistent on that point & wasn’t indicating otherwise. I was addressing two different things & apparently didn’t differentiate clearly enough. I think it must be true that sometimes marriages may *seem* good (from the BS perspective at least), and the cheating is inexplicable (to them), regardless of how the WS approaches explaining it. But I don’t really buy into the “happily married” cheater idea. I can’t believe this just happens in a vacuum either, but I also don’t want to tell anyone who has gone through this that they may have set themselves up for it in some way. You just never know. Some people do suffer from extreme depression, low self-esteem, etc. and just cannot move on, feeling flattered by the attention, but not taking it any further into something inappropriate. Everyone doesn’t fit into the same mold. And I do like the anonymous psychologist’s quote you posted above. I think it makes a lot of sense, regardless of the state of the marriage prior to an affair. I think you are right to focus on the state of the marriage and making it better – everyone should do that if they mean to go on together. But I also think they need to put some focus on their behaviors and how they rationalized them in order to avoid repeating their mistakes.

  2. “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.”

    VERY powerful. Sums up our situation exactly. I think we were in a life situation where we were essentially drowning, side by side. His father died, the economy crumped, his business was failing, financial pressures were building, a new baby had arrived, a move, etc. He became clinically depressed and could not face that. In a word? He felt like a failure. After two years of both IC and MC, he can see he just couldn’t face what he thought his life had become. It wasn’t something I did or did not do. And believe me, I explored that at great length with all three of our counselors. A “friend” and co-worker had her eye on him and took advantage of a vulnerable time to press the relationship. He enjoyed the flattery, the attention, the admiration. He could forget reality and bask in the lies they told each other. I hold him accountable (as he holds himself) for the choices he made.

    But at the end of the day, what matters most is he has learned to recognize his vulnerabilities and communicate his needs. We BOTH have learned we are responsible for our own needs, and we have learned to communicate clearly and more effectively. This allows us now to be more in touch with the areas we struggle in, and support each other better when rough seasons come along. This was a great article. I wish more people understood that marriages always have a certain level of vulnerability to affairs. Just because you love each other, get along, have good sex and aren’t fighting all the time doesn’t mean your relationship is affair-proof!

  3. i agree completely with the psychologists quote also. something ive believed all along… it is about the self, i dont think you can ever be truly happy with another person if youre not happy with yourself. and most people find that difficult, perhaps its only at certain points in life, or perhaps its been there all along.

    but we do NEED other people… im pretty sure ive mentioned it here before, as human beings, we are wired for connection, we cant live alone… i learned to navigate relationships in the context of a very large extended family (which came with a lot of stuff, mostly good, but i wont go into it here)… and i guess i took it for granted, i didnt really realise other people didnt have such connections, or what it really meant, i think a lack of other healthy long term relationships beyond the primary one may be a contributing factor to infidelity… at least i think its the case in my situation. hit a point where you need someone to lift you up a little… and since these days people move around/away a lot… are busy a lot… didnt maintain their relationships, dont have time to rebuild them… its a cheap substitute for what i believe people are really looking for sure, but… if a person doesnt have a group to fall back on, i can kinda see why the need to connect would take them down the affair route.

    and having said that, the marriage shouldnt be seen as the thing that will carry you through everything either… thats only two people… and obviously, with all these people going out and having affairs… we as human beings need more… perhaps its as they say about taking a village to raise a child, it may also take a village to have a good marriage…

  4. Wow. That was a very interesting and thought provoking post. I can relate to many of this and I think somehow I need to reflect on this more deeply as maybe it will explain more about why I did what I did. This is one of the biggest problems we are having in recovery – I can’t explain it. I can hardly even rationalise it to myself let alone to my husband. Because there IS NO rational explanation for why I did what I did – I took everything that was good and constant in my life and I chucked it away for nothing. I didn’t want to leave my husband and marry this guy, it wasn’t love. So I relate to that quote “it’s about desire, about attention, about reconnecting with parts of oneself you lost or you never knew existed.”
    I did feel incredibly sexy and desired. It was liberating in that sense. Someone who appeared to worship all the parts of me that I was secretly (or overtly) worried about – the saggy bits, the hairy bits, the fatty bits whatever. Have someone desire you so strongly and very overtly is very seductive. It’s very hard to stop that because somehow you feel then you become undesireable (again).
    Of course now in the cold light of day I see without those rose tinted glasses and it is all a bit sordid and cheap and of course in no way was ever worth what I am in the process of losing.
    I so wish I had found all of this before I started down this horrendous journey which has led me to darker despair than I ever thought imaginable.

  5. Attaching that document again. This is what I intended to post as a comment and definitely ANONYMOUSLY!

    • Sir:

      How you SIGN INTO WordPress determines how your identity shows up. You signed in with your name and email address, so it appears that way. When you hit “Post Comment”, your information as you signed in with it to post the comment appears on my page.

      For me to alter it, i would have to go into each comment and MANUALLY remove the person’s information as they posted it. I’m not usually wanting to do this except under special circumstances. I’ve done it for you twice now. It’s not something I’m doing — I’m not adding your name and email address to your comment – YOU are. When you sign into WordPress to post a comment. I assume people want to comment exactly as I receive them for moderation. I have to. I’m not going to manually edit out everyone’s log-in information.

      If you wish to be more anonymous, I suggest you create an anonymous email address or FB address and use THAT to post here. I can’t assume that most people want that sort of anonymity when they post here. So I can’t edit out everytime someone posts their name. It’s too manual and time-consuming.

      Second, there is no such thing as “uploading a document” here. You can post comments in the text box. I am unaware of any function in terms of replying to a comment on wordpress which has an upload function. So whatever you’re trying to upload is not going to reach me. If you have a comment, you need to put it into text into the comment box. Thanks.

Comments are closed.