Why Do People Have Affairs? By Peggy Vaughn
1. Who Has Affairs?
We tend to think that only bad people have affairs or only people in bad relationships. But no one is immune from an affair.
Monogamy is something most people say they believe in and want for themselves.
Every survey ever done on this question shows a high percentage of people think monogamy is important to marriage and that affairs are wrong. But a belief in monogamy as an ideal doesn’t prevent large numbers of people from having extramarital affairs. Most people don’t intend to have an affair and most people don’t think it will happen to them—but it does.
Bottom Line: No one is immune from having affairs disrupt their lives or the lives of those they care about; they happen to all kinds of people, in all walks of life.
2. Why Do People Have Affairs?
The first question most people ask when they learn of their partner’s affair is, “Why?” And the answers they come up with are usually based on personal blame. They blame themselves, their partner, their relationship, or the third party. They see it strictly as a personal problem, a personal failure of the people involved. This is a very simple explanation for a very complex question.
Usually there are three different kinds of forces that are working together:
• Forces within the individual that pull them toward affairs
• Forces within the individual that push them toward affairs
• Societal factors
Forces within the individual that pull them toward affairs:
• Attraction: sex, companionship, admiration, power
• Excitement, risk, or challenge
• Enhanced self-image
• Falling in love
Forces within the individual that push them toward affairs:
• Desire to escape or find relief from a painful relationship
• Desire to fill gaps in an existing relationship
• Desire to punish one’s partner
• Need to prove one’s attractiveness or worth
• Desire for attention
Affairs are glamorized in movies, soap operas, romance novels, and TV shows of all kinds. Public disclosure of public figures having affairs is headline news because we are fascinated and titillated by hearing of others’ affairs.
People are bombarded with images of women as sex objects in advertising and marketing campaigns. Over and over, the message to men is that the good life includes a parade of sexy women in their lives. Women inadvertently buy into this image and strive to achieve it.
The lack of good sex education and the existence of sexual taboos combine to make it difficult for most partners to talk honestly about sex.
As teenagers we get conditioned in deception when it comes to sex—engaging in sexual activity while hiding it from our parents.
The code of secrecy is a major factor in affairs because it provides protection for the person having affairs and leads them to believe they won’t get caught.
Bottom Line: There is no ONE single reason a person has an affair. There are usually many reasons, including some of the forces that pull them toward affairs and some of the forces that push them toward affairs, combined with the influence of the general factors in society that contribute to affairs.
3. How Prevalent are Affairs?
Conservative estimates are that 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an extramarital affair. These figures are even more significant when we consider the total number of marriages involved—since it’s unlikely that all the men and women having affairs happen to be married to each other. If even half of the women having affairs (or 20 percent) are married to men not included in the 60 percent having affairs, then at least one partner will have an affair in approximately 80 percent of all marriages.
But we need to take a closer look at the statistics on affairs to determine what they can contribute to an understanding of our sexual patterns. While affairs happen in non-marital, “committed” relationships as well as within marriage, most of the statistics deal only with “extramarital” affairs. These statistics began with Kinsey’s reports in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Kinsey’s samples included 5,000 men and showed that by age 40, 50 percent of the men had experienced extramarital sexual intercourse. Kinsey’s original samples of 6,000 women showed that by age 40, 26 percent of the women had experienced extramarital sexual intercourse.
Later studies dealing exclusively with men indicate a continuous increase in the number of men having extramarital affairs. The increase for women having affairs has been even more significant. Some of the statistics, both for men and for women, are extremely high and legitimately debated, but many people question any statistics on extramarital affairs, arguing that statistics are unreliable and confusing and that no one knows precisely how prevalent affairs are. While there are slight differences in the estimates based on clinical studies and questionnaires, the bottom line is compelling in showing an extremely high (and rising) incidence of extramarital affairs.
Why it helps to know about the prevalence of affairs: For the person who knows their spouse has had an affair and is still trying to understand why, acknowledging the prevalence of affairs in our society can help them put it in a more realistic perspective. Understanding just how many others face the same situation (regardless of who they are or who they’re married to) can help break the sense of being so alone, isolated, or “singled out” for this experience. It can help overcome the feeling of “why me?”
People who have not yet faced this issue, either in their own lives or with their friends or family, would do well to start with a realistic picture of the frequency of affairs in society as a whole. It’s not that the sheer frequency means it will happen to any specific person, but it does say a lot about the kind of support to expect from society for remaining monogamous vs. having affairs. We need to make a commitment to face the reality of affairs and address the issue in a more responsible way, both individually and as a society.
Bottom Line: Most of us expect monogamy to be a normal part of marriage or any committed relationship. The reality is that monogamy is not the norm.
4. Is Monogamy “Natural?”
People often get caught up in a debate over whether people are naturally monogamous or naturally have affairs. That’s a useless debate, as was clearly expressed by Jessie Bernard in her classic work, The Future of Marriage:
• “Millions of words have been used to document both the naturalness and the unnaturalness of monogamy. The question…is, actually, unanswerable. We will never know if there is anything intrinsic in human nature that limits the ways the sexes can relate to one another because no one has ever survived outside of any culture long enough to teach us. Human nature seems to be able to take almost any form of marriage—or unable to take any form.”
Below is an excerpt from my book The Monogamy Myth where I expand on this point.
We can only understand monogamy and affairs in a societal context, in terms of the attitudes of society as a whole. Normally, when we try to understand why affairs happen we look only at the reasons why a person might want to have an affair, such as the excitement of sexual variety. But this doesn’t explain why affairs happen. People may want to have affairs for a wide range of reasons, but their decision to act on those desires is affected by the values and actions of those around them.
Affairs happen in so many marriages that it’s unreasonable to think they’re due solely to factors within each marriage. Whatever the personal factors involved in affairs, they are more than outweighed by the significant, powerful, and pervasive societal factors. We have a responsibility to learn more about our role, individually and as a whole, in supporting the societal factors that contribute to affairs.
Bottom Line: Debating the “naturalness” or “unnaturalness” of monogamy is a way of avoiding dealing directly with this issue. Regardless of whether or not it’s “natural,” it’s happening; so starting from there, there is much to learn.
5. How Can Affairs be Prevented?
Prevention is possible only through a commitment to Honesty, not a “promise” to be monogamous.
Definition of Honesty: not withholding relevant information.
What won’t work: Couples can’t avoid affairs by assuming monogamy or even by promising monogamy without discussing the issue. And they can’t avoid affairs by making threats as to what they would do if it happened. Either of these paths creates a cycle of dishonesty. In either case, people don’t feel free to admit being attracted to someone else. If they don’t admit these attractions, then they won’t admit being tempted. If they don’t admit being tempted, then they certainly won’t admit it if and when they finally act on the attraction. The effect on the relationship is to cause it to be filled with jealousy and suspicion, as well as making it less likely that it will be monogamous.
What will work: On the other hand, by specifically making a commitment to honesty, both partners realize that attractions to others are likely, indeed inevitable, no matter how much they love each other. So they engage in ongoing honest communication about the reality of the temptations and how to avoid the consequences of acting on those temptations. The effect on the relationship is to create a sense of closeness and a knowledge of each other that replaces suspicion with trust, making it more likely that it will be monogamous.
Why honesty works: The process of discussing attractions actually decreases the likelihood of acting on them, because it focuses on the potential problems of acting on them; whereas when a person is tempted to have an affair, their private thoughts usually dwell only on the potential pleasures. There’s an added fascination and excitement about feelings that are kept secret as compared to those that are acknowledged and discussed. Shedding the cold light of day on secret desires goes a long way toward diminishing their power.
Who can use this process? This process of acknowledging attractions and discussing how they are to be handled is one that both married and unmarried couples need to address prior to any problem with affairs. Constantly wondering and worrying about this issue creates a strain between partners that may prevent their developing a sense of trust in each other. They need to talk through their feelings about monogamy and attractions to other people on an ongoing basis as their relationship develops.
Bottom Line: There are no guarantees. The issue of monogamy is never settled once and for all. It requires ongoing honest discussion of the issue. This makes it possible for a couple to feel they really know each other, making it more likely they can trust that they won’t deceive each other, thus preventing affairs.
(Adapted from The Monogamy Myth by Peggy Vaughn)