During a crisis situation, like Covid-19, our tendency to take risks can increase. Trauma can trigger states where risky behaviour has a kind of softening effect on the crisis we are experiencing. Invariably, it can also make us feel more alive. However cheating on our partner only brings us more problems in the long run. So why do we cheat?
Why do we cheat?
I have many people who come to me who are in an extra marital affair currently, or who have had one. And this situation invariably affects self-esteem. Yes the new relationship makes them feel loved and valued. Perhaps because these needs are not being met in the primary relationship. But close on the heels of that pleasure is the cauldron of problems that beleaguers the person. And for some the guilt and shame can be unbearable.
According the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (9.8.2013) 57 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women will have an extramarital affair. So, considering the total number of marriages involved at least one partner will have an affair in approximately 80 per cent of all marriages. (stats here: http://www.dearpeggy.com/2-affairs/statistics.html). With this many marriages affected, it’s unreasonable to think affairs are due only to the failures and shortcomings of individual ‘bad’ partners.
Why we cheat
Why do we cheat? It is always because of some need that is not being met in the current relationship. Perhaps your wife is cold and distant and doesn’t want sex anymore? Perhaps your partner is unable to express himself emotionally, or doesn’t do feelings? Or perhaps he is too needy and since the baby has come along, turns elsewhere for attention. We all have needs for connection, for intimacy. As well as for touch and for passion.
Things are different these days. Women in their 40s are doing a lot of the initiation. And divorce is on the rise for couples in their 60s. We change. And sometimes the other does not change so much. So we feel stuck or not understood. We need to be seen by another. We all long to be validated, and recognised on a deep level by another soul. This is especially true if we did not have these needs met in our childhood.
And then there is attachment theory. It is said that 40-50% of us are insecurely attached. We may be avoidant, with an almost obsessive need for independence as we had to rely on ourselves so much in childhood. Or we were abused physically, emotionally or sexually. Or we may be anxious-ambivalent (preoccupied) in our attachment. This is because we got inconsistent care in childhood. Needless to say, our ‘hope’ for love and care was dashed time and time again, by a mother who was unavailable herself (depressed, alcoholic etc).
So we cope. We are excellent at coping from a very young age, we have an inbuilt survival mechanism. The need for love and being cared for can feel like life or death. This desperate need for intimacy or sexual connection ends up making us fearful (literally) of intimacy or too needy and dependent on it. Both styles, I find, set us up for affairs. Insecure attachment style goes hand in hand with lower self esteem. So, the self esteem was already low, before the affair.
Intention and behaviour
I am not excusing the behaviour in any way. but the ‘intention’ behind it is positive (and to the limbic brain, can feel like life or death): to get the person what they truly, deeply need. This is not a conscious, rational choice (this need) it is wired into the circuits of the right brain, wired so deeply that it can override the superego’s objections to having an affair.
Nevertheless, the judgements of society and culture, pale in comparison to how we judge ourselves. Affairs can shatter marriages. And make the one who strayed, and the one left behind deeply unhappy. So, given that, the behaviour needs changing.
Healing the wounds
People need help to heal the underlying wounds in the relationship to change the relationship so needs are met. Surprisingly, 30% or more of marriages with a known affair, do survive. But usually both of them also need help in healing the underlying childhood ‘scars’ that created the impetus. The low self-esteem which is a presenting factor in most, has now usually gotten far worse post-affair thereby setting a sensitivity for more affairs.
Our relationship can survive an affair – with help
But the truly beautiful thing is, that for the bravest of couples, who honestly, authentically, courageously work through all this (themselves, the marriage) this crisis can be the catalyst for changing the relationship. The old stagnant relationship can be changed to one that is unrecognisable from the one that was decimated. It can be a route to individuation, differentiation, growth to self – for both partners. Although I am certainly NOT advocating an affair in the cause of ‘personal growth’. Given that most of us in the West today will have two or three committed relationships in our life, ‘for those daring enough to try, they may find themselves having all of them with the same person.’ (Esther Perel, After the Storm)
Resources: A Passionate Marriage by David Snarch