Understanding the "How” and “Why” of an affair is one of the most important steps in the process of recovering from infidelity. It helps both partners make sense of the life-changing experience, it helps them avoid making the same mistakes in the future, and it helps the hurt partner to trust the unfaithful partner’s renewed commitment to the relationship.
Many people who are affected by infidelity – either by their own making or by a wayward partner – never see it coming. Sometimes, affairs happen in relationships that are considered “happy,” and often, people who become involved in an affair were not planning or looking for an affair partner.
Affairs occur for a multitude of reasons. Some people try to pinpoint one reason: It’s a symptom of something lacking in the marriage; it’s a mid-life crisis; it's narcissism; it’s sex addiction; it’s an exit affair, etc. However, the truth is that it’s likely a confluence of reasons and circumstances that lead to infidelity.
In my experience, there are usually Four Circumstances that must come together for an affair to occur. And when these planets align, a perfect storm is created.
Circumstance #1 - There is a “crack” in the marriage.
And to be clear, there is a “crack” in every marriage. Relationship breakdown is common and quite normal in most marriages, and both partners usually have some responsibility for their part in the breakdown. We make mistakes in relationships and we get off track before we realize it.
Over time, communication can break down and resentments can build up. Sometimes spouses become self-absorbed and less compassionate with one another. We become critical of our spouse or forget to tell them how important they are. We stop making emotional and physical connection a priority.
This alone does not “cause” someone to have an affair. That’s why I call it a “crack” – it’s an opening in the marriage that makes room for infidelity to seep in.
Both partners should be willing to examine their part in the cracks that contributed to the breakdown of the relationship. This can be an unwelcome suggestion for a hurt spouse who has been so painfully wronged. It takes a huge amount of humility and strength to take an honest look at your own flaws. But remember, this does not mean that you CAUSED your spouse to have an affair.
Circumstance #2 - An internal crisis in the spouse who has the affair.
In my experience with those whom I have helped through infidelity, there is almost always an issue that was present in the psyche of the wayward spouse when the affair began - some sort of dissatisfaction with themselves or their life. There is usually some level of insecurity lurking: Worry about aging or becoming unattractive; feeling unsuccessful in their career or not accomplishing what they hoped to achieve in life; feeling unsuccessful in their marriage or in parenting; depression, anxiety, conflict avoidance, low self-esteem, or past hurts just now coming to the surface.
Being involved in an affair can act as a self-esteem booster, can feel like it fills in the holes in your life, or can be an escape from things you don’t want to face.
When trying to make sense of WHY an affair has occurred, this is one of the most important issues to address. As I said, a crack in the marriage makes the relationship vulnerable to an affair, but the true jumping off point is usually something deeper in the unfaithful spouse. Many people aren’t even aware of their issues or how to deal with them. They keep them hidden, cover them with a smile or with alcohol, or blame others for their unhappiness.
In short, an affair is less often about problems in the marriage or about the desirability of the affair partner. It is more often about how the affair makes you feel about yourself. A therapist can help you dig deep to figure out what the affair did for you.
Circumstance #3 – An opportunity arises with a willing affair partner.
Some people who experience the first two circumstances might be at risk for an affair, but the opportunity never arises – either because they don’t cross paths with a willing partner, or they never put themselves in a position to be tempted. But often, vulnerable people have a way of finding each other.
If the affair partner (whether married or single) is aware that the other person is in a committed relationship and still chooses to engage in an affair with that person, then they are likely dealing with their own internal issues. Sometimes an affair partner can become manipulative and demanding, drawing the unfaithful spouse deeper into the extramarital relationship.
Circumstance #4 – The spouse makes a choice to step across the line.
Sometimes this happens seemingly "out of the blue" and sometimes it’s fueled by alcohol. Often, it’s not one choice, but a series of smaller decisions along the way that lead up to actually crossing the line.
When this happens, the unfaithful partner can experience a confusing mixture of extremely strong emotions. They may feel shock or shame about what they’ve done and fear of being discovered. But an affair can also feel exciting and refreshing compared to the routine of married life. Sometimes it awakens new possibilities or reclaims a lost sense of self. Once an affair is sparked, it can be hard to turn away from the electricity.
As an affair progresses under cover of secrecy, these conflicting emotions begin to further cloud the judgement of the unfaithful spouse. Reality becomes murky. Sometimes the unfaithful spouse will rewrite the history of their marriage with an overly negative slant as an unconscious justification for their actions. They begin to feel justified in their affair – even entitled – in response to the lack of appreciation they get at home.
Examining all the reasons and circumstances that led to the affair in order to see the big picture is an important part of the healing process. If even one circumstance out of four was absent, the transgression may never have occurred. Each detail is a puzzle piece that will help you and your spouse understand what happened and give you a map for repairing the damage.
-Valerie Allen, MEd, LPCC
If you are trying to make sense of your or your partner's infidelity,
I can help you understand what led to the affair and help you heal your relationship.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 513-317-8113.