Why People Have Affairs: 10 Contributing Factors
Why People Have Affairs: 10 Contributing Factors

It has never been easier to have an affair, if you see the various ways that people may connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, Dating sites, hook-up sites, sex sites, by smartphone, and other ways on the internet with others emotionally or sexually.  It seems affairs are also very popular given their prevalence reported in the media related to athletes, entertainers, politicians, business leaders, religious leaders, and others.  Additionally, it is estimated by some sources that approximately 33% of men and 25% of women in heterosexual relationships (Janus Report 1993) have affairs, but actually, the number is most likely much higher.  Let’s look into why people have affairs and contributing factors.

The number of same-sex couples may be higher due to the propensity for some couples being more open in their relationships and expressive regarding their sexuality, but at times, not adequately defining their rules of engagement with others.  Whether heterosexual or same-sex couples, affairs happen when the relationship boundaries are not clearly defined or are being temporarily blurred by other relationship events and life circumstances.

In general, the number of people having affairs is likely higher than what we know, due to the fact that most affairs are kept secret, can come and go without being known and in some circumstances go with people to the grave and will never be known.

What is an affair?

If we are to define an affair, generally, we mean the multiple ways a partner or spouse is violating the emotional and sexual bonds of their committed monogamous relationship or open relationship with their partner or spouse.  What is considered as being an affair varies and is determined by the partner who feels they have been betrayed regarding their relationship commitment.

An affair could be a partner flirting or sex talking on social media, sex texting or sending provocative pictures by phone, looking at hook up sites or Craig’s List personal ads, viewing pornography, chatting on sexual blogs, or engaging in sex cams.  It could also include texting or e-mailing a co-worker on a regular basis they consider to be a “friend,” having a one-night stand, going to a massage parlor for a happy ending, or seeing a sex worker or an escort.

It may involve having secret meetings for coffee or drink with an opposite or same-sex person they find attractive or interesting or having an ongoing emotional or sexual relationship with someone other than their partner or spouse.

Double standard

There appears to be a double standard in our culture with regards to how people view affairs in heterosexual couple relationships regarding men and women.  There seems to be an expectation that more heterosexual men will have affairs than women.  In addition, some research indicates gay men may be more likely to have affairs than lesbian women if partnering in a couple relationship.

There is also the perception that it is worse or not as understandable (somehow) when a woman has an affair than when a man has an affair.  This goes along with the notion that when men express their sexual desire that is just part of being a male but when women express their sexual desire they are “sluts” or nymphomaniacs.

Affairs are not always about sex

They can for men and women be more about communication, connection, expressing feelings, emotional responsiveness, validation, sharing, excitement, adventure, escape, coping, or wanting something new in their life.  However, affairs may start in getting some of those things but with unintended or negative consequences for them personally and regarding their couple or marital relationship.

There is also the stereotypical view that when men (straight or gay) have affairs, it is about sex primarily and when women have affairs, it is about romance or emotional connection primarily.  In working with heterosexual and same-sex couples, in my experience, I find both men and women looking for emotional connection and sexual intimacy in their affairs.

Unsure what they want

Affairs can be primarily emotional or primarily sexual, but usually involve some aspects of both.  Sometimes, I find people are confused as to what they are looking for in having an affair.  Many times, people engaging in affairs are looking for something they want or could have with their primary partner or spouse, but haven’t made a meaningful attempt in trying to get.

Other times, what they are looking for in an affair and maybe finding is not something they are going to be able to get from their partner or spouse whether it is emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual, or sexual.  Any affair usually involves unique circumstances with multiple contributing factors that have different meanings to all the parties involved.

Emotions are intense and frequent with affairs

If you are in a committed relationship with a partner or spouse and there is an affair, it will most likely be experienced by the injured partner as a significant betrayal and be traumatic as a relationship event.  Due to the shock, hurt, and anger of finding out about the affair, it can be difficult, at first, having discussions without experiencing blame, defensiveness, escalation, and polarization between the partners or spouses.  Even though individual and couple contributing factors are identified, it can be difficult to address the related issues and concerns that led to the affair without first addressing the emotional intensity and reaction to the unexpected affair.

The challenge for a couple, who decides to stay together after an affair, is to be simultaneously trying to process the trauma of the affair in conjunction with addressing the prior individual or couple issues and concerns that contributed to the affair.  Each couple’s situation is unique and often complex regarding circumstances and factors that led to the affair, but there are general factors that may contribute to most affairs that, I will discuss momentarily.

It is important, for partners or spouses, to take adequate time to understand the contributing factors and circumstances of the affair before deciding whether they want to be in the couple relationship.

Often, the injured partner vacillates between blaming themselves, blaming the betraying partner, and blaming the affair partner, for the affair which can make it difficult in understanding and addressing the real contributing factors that need to be addressed.  A betraying partner needs to be able to accept responsibility for their unilateral decision to break the monogamous relationship agreement with their partner or spouse by stepping outside the relationship to have an affair.  The injured partner after getting over the initial shock, hurt, and anger also needs to be able to accept responsibility for their part in any contributing factors to the affair.

Again, when there is an affair in a monogamous couple or marital relationship, it usually involves different meanings and feelings for the partners or spouses, as well as, the third or affair partner.  This is not to excuse or justify the affair, but rather to have a realistic and agreed-upon understanding of the issues, events, and concerns that led to the affair so that the couple is able to work toward recovery in their couple relationship.

The landscape of relationships are changing

As mentioned, there are many opportunities for connecting emotionally and sexually with people due to smartphones, the internet, and other technologies such as apps.  Since the arrival of the internet in the early nineties and more recently the smartphone, there is unlimited, anonymous, and free access to communicating and connecting with potential “friends,” partners, and lovers.

The internet has also, brought about a silent sexual revolution in making erotica, sexual content, and pornography easily available as a sexual outlet which may or may not be problematic for couple relationship issues and concerns related to intimacy.  Pornography for many has a negative connotation but includes erotica in the form of art, photography, movies, as well as, conventional and unconventional or kinky sexual interests, practices, people, and communities.

Many individuals and couples enjoy pornography and it’s various forms of erotica without it being problematic or a threat to their relationship.  Pornography while it probably has something of interest for everyone, is also not necessarily of interest to everyone.  This can be especially true in some couple relationships where, if one partner or spouse is looking at pornography or other on-line sexual interests, it may be perceived as much of a betrayal as if the person were having an affair with an actual person.

In addition, too much viewing of pornography and masturbation as an alternative to getting sexual needs and wants met in the couple or marital relationship may contribute further to intimacy difficulties.

What constitutes an “affair” or relationship betrayal is in the eye of the one feeling betrayed.

Relationships that evolve into emotional or sexual affairs start with shared attraction, shared interests, conversations, mystery, excitement, fantasy, and longing for a new or partially known new person.  Some partners or spouses who find themselves just talking with social media “friends,” coworkers, or others are not intentionally looking to have an affair, but appear to be unaware that what they are doing is exactly what can contribute to why people have affairs unless they are very clear about their relationship boundaries.

Some people, as a result, also realize there is easy access to viable alternatives to what is missing in their monogamous relationship and that can become problematic in various ways.  It is my understanding, in the United States, there are as many people choosing to live together as couples, rather than be married.  There appears to be a greater stigma to having an affair, if you are married than, if you are living together as a couple or not living together as a couple.

However, for unmarried couples, the experience of an affair is also a major relationship betrayal, as well, and can be just as intense and problematic for the parties involved if married.  There is a growing population of people who are choosing to be in non-monogamous and open relationships involving one or more primary partners that allows for connecting with others emotionally or sexually.  People in open relationships also can experience relationship betrayal involving others, if there is a violation of the agreed-upon rules and expectations with respect to involvement with other people.

There are also people who are single, not living with someone who may be into “hook ups’ or “friends with benefits” that may or may not result in being in an exclusive relationship with someone.  There are also people from the L.G.B.T.Q. communities who may be single or involved with others in a variety of ways that includes monogamy, non-monogamy, and polyamory.  People from the BDSM, kink, and other sexual communities can involve partner swapping, “threesomes”, group sex, as well as, a host of other sexual partner possibilities.

They may also engage in a variety of monogamous and non-monogamous relationship arrangements.

While it is fair to say monogamy doesn’t necessarily work for everyone and some people are choosing alternative relationship arrangements, there are still many couples that choose monogamy because of how they were raised and the values and beliefs they learned in their families and from their religion.  One of the indictments against monogamy and traditional marriage is that it doesn’t seem to work that well, for a variety of reasons, since the divorce rate in the U.S. is approximately 50%.

Some people are feeling that it is difficult to get all of their needs and wants met, emotionally and sexually with one person.  The real challenge in having a successful monogamous relationship is related to how good a fit the relationship is in terms, of meeting each partner’s important criteria, as well as, how flexible and open the couple is to discussing and negotiating their needs and wants with each other over time despite the changes that may come their way.

Most people, in monogamous relationships, at the time of getting married, are in love or in the early stage of their relationship and seem convinced they will be able to get most, if not all of their needs and wants met with their spouse.  It is fair, to say, most couples, think they will beat the 50% odds of divorce.

Be vigilant

The main point to remember is if you are wanting to be in a committed monogamous couple relationship you and your partner or spouse must be vigilant in working to maintain your emotional connection and sexual intimacy.  In my work with couples, I sometimes find that a couple or marital relationship that has become problematic may have been flawed from the beginning or not a good fit due to a variety of ways needs and wants were not being met.

Even if a marriage doesn’t appear to be a good fit to friends, family, and even sometimes to the couple involved, it is usually pretty difficult to talk them out of it.  Many couples, I have met with for couples therapy when describing serious concerns or doubts they had about their relationship, in the beginning, find those same concerns or doubts surfacing sometime later or contributing to them breaking up.

Another thing to keep in mind is that of those fifty percent staying together, we know that they are not all happy with their relationships and maybe staying together for various reasons other than love or companionship.  It often has to do with very pragmatic factors like finances, children, parents, and religion.

On the other hand, whether a couple or marital relationship seemed to be the right fit from the beginning or not, the real challenge is can the couple assess their needs and wants in the present and work toward having a more fulfilling couple or marital relationship.  I am continually surprised when couples manage to turn their couple relationship around in a meaningful way that works for them despite things looking pretty grim to others around them.

In my work with couples, wanting to recover from an affair, the most common question they have is why?

Each couple’s situation is different and complex, but there are several general contributing factors that may have contributed to why people have an affair.

The emotional or sexual affair may have involved one or more of these contributing factors.

Ten factors that may contribute to why people have affairs:

  • Something is Missing in Their Life
  • Difficulty Coping With Stressors and Adversity in their Lives.
  • Difficulties in Their Couple or Marriage relationship.
  • Feel They Can’t or Won’t Leave Their Primary Couple Relationship or Marriage.
  • Want To Test Out a New Relationship or Feel The Freedom Of Being Single Again.
  • They Want an Exit From Their Couple or Marital Relationship.
  • Past Couple or Marital Relationships Difficulties
  • Difficulties in Their Family of Origin Growing Up.
  • Opportunities That Are Difficult To Say No To.
  • Varied Sexual Interests and Desire for Sex That Are Not Being Met.

Copyright 2020, Why People Have Affairs: Ten Contributing Factors, M. Douglas Evans. All Rights Reserved.

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