Why people have affairs and cheat on their partner

Whilst it has never been so easy to cheat, in an era of online social networking it has also never been as hard to keep a secret. After all, the core component of an affair is that the relationship is secretive. Technology and especially social media has facilitated and perhaps enabled, an ever greater expansion of what is meant by infidelity.

Counsellors may suggest a useful exercise for couples, to agree the red lines and dealbreakers for their relationship. Sleeping with someone else might be a clear boundary. However, is a line crossed if one engages in sexting with someone else, for example, or secretly watches porn or is secretly active on dating sites? What about email chatting with a work colleague where there is some flirtatious text? These questions are not always explicitly discussed within the boundaries of relationships. The answers to some of these questions might be assumed by one person but not the other.

People have a great ability for imagination. Anticipation is the motor of desire and that’s why an affair can promise great excitement as it fuels a sense of adventure and exhilaration. An affair also involves sexual alchemy since an imagined kiss can be as powerful and emotionally enchanting as hours and hours of actual sex. 

Affairs are an act of betrayal but also an expression of longing and loss. It is not just chronic philanderers who have affairs. People who are ordinarily deeply monogamous in their belief system can also have affairs as well. What can happen is that they can encounter a conflict between their belief system and their behaviour. One day they cross a line and potentially risk everything as they get caught up in a surge of excitement.

At the heart of affairs is a longing and yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, spontaneity and freedom. When the gaze of another is sought, it does not necessarily mean a turning away from their partner. It could mean turning inwards, towards the person they have become. This might entail seeking to connect with another part of themselves, as much as seeking another person. That part of themselves may want to be "naughty" for instance, and may have been previously forbidden.

People who have had affairs invariably refer to an overwhelming feeling of aliveness. This can often occur after, or indeed during a traumatic life event such as a loss of some description, difficult news from the doctors or the ending of some cherished activity. Death and mortality can often lurk in the shadows of an affair when people begin to ask themselves whether there is more to life. These existential questions can make people cross the line and potentially risk everything on a bet that life can be fun and adventurous once again. Fun and adventure, after all, are the perfect antidotes to death. Affairs are often less about sex but more about desire; whether that is desire for attention, to feel special, to feel important and to feel wanted.

Affairs also happen in so-called ‘open’ relationships when the forbidden becomes attractive. Often a couple will have a very different conversation between monogamy and fidelity. Even when there is freedom to see other people there can still be a draw to what is forbidden. The core structure of an affair is that it is secretive and that you can’t have the person and this can create greater desire. Incompleteness and ambiguity can provide the cocktail for wanting more of what you can’t have.

If people could direct a portion of the energy from an affair into their existing relationship there might be less need for therapy. Successful long term relationships that maintain a passionate love-life, will engage in proper foreplay and allow space for erotic privacy. They also maintain open communication and dialogue with each other.

Sex is a place where we go inside ourselves. When we can engage fully with our partner and all parts of ourselves, we are less likely to be drawn to the forbidden. Exploring sexuality with your partner is not just about new techniques in the bedroom. Real exploration involves novelty and allowing different parts of you to come out. This is where couples counselling can help. A counsellor will guide the couples to recognise and discover what they really want, where the issues lie and how to manage them.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a counsellor/psychotherapist based in London who has spent the past 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural (CBT), humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

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