06/18/2009 - Articles

Affairs Part 2: Understanding What Went Wrong

By: Andra Stanton, University of Massachusetts, LICSW


Underlying most affairs are problems in the marriage. To repair the marriage, both persons need to examine their pasts and understand the unhealthy ways of relating they learned which may have contributed towards the affair.

Underlying most affairs are problems in the marriage. To repair the marriage, both persons need to examine their pasts and understand the unhealthy ways of relating they learned which may have contributed towards the affair.


What is an affair?

An affair, usually thought of as extramarital sexual relations, is more accurately defined as any prolonged intimate behavior between a spouse and an outsider that would betray the trust of the spouse's marital partner. This means, for some people, that a partner's exchange of highly personal E-mails or letters, clandestine meetings, or even flirtation with an outsider constitute a breach of trust and a breaking of an agreement of exclusivity. Each individual, then, has a personal definition of what constitutes an affair, though most believe it does include some degree of sexual involvement.

Although there are cultures in which it is expected that married people will have affairs, most people say they believe in monogamy and want it for themselves. Yet it is generally known that, in the United States, two out of three married couples will experience an affair during their marriage, and 17 percent of divorces are caused by infidelity. 1 Traditionally, more men than women take part in affairs, but women are catching up. 1

Societal factors and affairs

Many societal factors may contribute to the high rate of affairs. For example, as women continue to flood the job market and climb the economic ladder, many are no longer financially dependent on men. Therefore, they may be more willing to risk an affair (and indirectly the threat of divorce), because they know they will be able to support themselves.

Additionally, in recent years there has been a decrease in the stigma associated with divorce, as well as changes in the definition of family, which now include single-parent homes. With "no-fault" divorce laws implemented in the 70s, couples no longer have difficulty legally terminating their marriages. Following the Women's Movement and Sexual Revolution in the 1960s and '70s, both men and women generally seem to feel more entitled to being happy, even if it is at the expense of others' comfort. Lastly, with the advent of contraceptives, the stage was set for sexual liaisons without the fear of unwanted pregnancy. 2

Risks to women at midlife or older

However, it is also true that women at midlife or older are at great risk for poverty and an associated decline in mental health when their marriages fail. These women most probably established their lives and families before the era that saw women developing lucrative careers. Entering the senior years without adequate financial support, and the loss of community that nearly always accompanies divorce, can be devastating.

When the secret is out

All affairs begin in secret and most often happen unexpectedly. Once the secret is out, due to guilt or accident, the betrayed partner is likely to feel a complicated set of emotions including shock, disbelief, bewilderment, distress, anguish, and rage. That individual will ultimately be forced to make a choice as to what to do next - retaliate against the unfaithful partner, leave, or use the situation to understand what went wrong in the relationship and what needs to change to save it.

An affair: a sign that something is wrong

Researchers agree that affairs are a sign that the wandering spouse is dissatisfied in the marriage. 3 This does not necessarily mean that he or she wants to end the marriage, however. And though affairs sometimes involve sexual infidelity, they are, on the whole, not caused by sexual dissatisfaction. Rather, for the unfaithful spouse, they are a way of expressing pain and confusion that he or she cannot verbally articulate - either because of fear, lack of communication skills, or lack of self-knowledge.

In other words, the unfaithful partner may not even understand why he or she is unhappy, or why he or she chose to be intimate with an outsider. Nevertheless, affairs send the message loud and clear that something is going very wrong in the marital relationship.

Types of affairs

In her book on this topic, Emily M. Brown, a licensed social worker, asserts that most affairs fall into one of five categories. These categories help to explain the reason behind an affair - why it happened - and the problems that need to be taken care of if the relationship is to improve:

* The conflict avoidance affair.
When couples don't discuss what is bothering them, problems in the marriage never get addressed or resolved. Typically in these relationships, irritation is expressed, but open conflict is avoided. When differences come to light, they are quickly dropped. This is so because spouses are afraid that conflict might lead to abandonment.

* The intimacy avoidance affair.
Some couples are afraid of emotional closeness, and fighting is one way to avoid getting close. Getting close means exposing one's innermost feelings, desires, and ideas and risking criticism, rejection, or abandonment. Emotional connection between partners in this kind of marriage is through blaming, faultfinding, and arguments that can sometimes escalate into violence.

* The sexual obsession affair.
Individuals obsessed with sex may use it to fill up an emotional emptiness or to numb inner pain. They see sex as an escape from their despair. Unfortunately, the good feeling never lasts very long, so it becomes necessary to look for the next sexual opportunity. The person obsessed with sex may have numerous affairs during his or her adulthood.

* The self-sacrifice affair.
When people devote themselves to taking care of other's needs to the exclusion of their own, they may very well come to a point where they feel they've sacrificed long enough and want some pleasure for themselves. Frequently these individuals have tried to orchestrate every aspect of their family's lives. As a result, their children and mate may view them as controlling and demanding rather than being grateful for their extensive involvement. Such people sometimes begin affairs as a way to restore some passion in their lives and to feel more appreciated.

* The exit affair.
When a marriage deteriorates beyond the point of repair, an exit affair is a way to end it. The affair provides the justification for the unfaithful spouse to leave. It also distracts this spouse from the pain of ending his or her marriage, and provides comfort and solace. This type of affair often occurs in marriages where the couple's style of relating to each other is to dodge problems and avoid conflict. Individuals who pursue this course of action frequently have unresolved issues around loss and endings.

Why affairs happen

Affairs happen for a variety of reasons. Most often they are due to feelings of dissatisfaction in the relationship that are not being addressed. Sometimes spouses don't know how to get below the surface and figure out what is bothering them. When words and understanding aren't available, an affair can be a way of expressing that there are problems that need to be attended to and resolved.

Underlying many affairs are patterns of relating learned earlier in life, usually during childhood. These early experiences shape one's expectations about how one will be treated by others. Someone whose needs were overlooked learns that he or she is not entitled to have his or her needs met, and he or she expects that this will be so in all of his or her adult relationships.

Some children are taught to dismiss their feelings so that, for example, when a sibling says she hates her younger brother, her parents might say, "You don't mean that. You love your brother." When she reaches adulthood and her spouse disappoints or angers her, she very well may discount her feelings as she had been instructed to do by her parents in childhood. Since her feelings never get aired and problems worked out, she is apt to feel unhappy in her relationship. When an individual comes along who is interested in knowing her feelings, she is ripe for getting involved and perhaps engaging in an affair.

The effects of more malignant family problems, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, pervasive neglect, or a chaotic home environment have even more debilitating consequences. They often produce in children fear of some kind - of exploitation or abandonment, for example. In adulthood, these fears may result in a pattern of reaching out for love and comfort in unhealthy and self-destructive ways.

Understanding what happened so you can move ahead

The challenge for couples that want to save their marriage is twofold: to identify and understand these patterns of relating that have been learned earlier, and to figure out how to rid them from the relationship so that new patterns can be developed. It will take time, effort, and courage, but for many couples it is possible to resolve the problems that led to an affair.

It might seem ironic, and even unfair to say that both partners must begin a long process of soul-searching. It is not enough for the unfaithful spouse to do the work of confessing, expressing remorse and accepting his or her spouse's upset. Both spouses must also explore what he or she contributed to the deterioration of the relationship, if not to salvage the marriage than to prevent the same thing from happening with future partners.

How psychotherapy can help with rebuilding

For most people, understanding what led up to the affair is easiest to do with a trained mental health professional or member of the clergy trained in counseling. Both marital and individual psychotherapy are highly recommended. Once beginning therapy, the tasks are to pay attention to one's emotions and talk about them; examine detrimental patterns of relating; and stick with the process even when it feels uncomfortable. That is often when therapy is the most productive.


The occurrence of an affair does not necessarily mean a marriage is over. It does mean that there is no time to waste before getting to work on rebuilding the relationship. Learning how to talk honestly about uncomfortable feelings and needs, how to resolve problems through tolerance and compromise, and how to negotiate time together and time apart is essential for rebuilding trust.

Some couples are never able to overcome the pain of an affair, but many do get past it. If they work hard to understand what went wrong, partners learn a lot about themselves and their spouse in the process. This knowledge, and the healthy changes that take place can be the silver lining in the cloud of an affair.


The Monogamy Myth: A Personal Handbook for Recovering from Affairs by Peggy Vaughan Divorce Busting: A Revolutionary and Rapid Program for Staying Together by Michele Weiner-Davis Affairs: A Guide to Working Through the Repercussions of Infidelity by Emily M. Brown


1. Pittman, Frank S. (1989) Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy. New York: W. W. Norton& Company.

2. Scarf, Maggie (November 1986) "Intimate Partners". The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 258, No. 5, pages 45 - 58.

3. Brown, Emily M. (1999) Affairs: A Guide to Working Through the Repercussions of Infidelity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Created on: 10/08/2001
Reviewed on: 06/18/2009

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