Everyone knows someone whose life has been touched by an affair. One researcher reports that 60 percent of marriages are affected by extramarital affairs. Although few of us choose to think about these sobering statistics, it is helpful to look into the matter further to gain a larger perspective.
What Is an Affair?
For many couples, greater emotional connectivity coincides with the placing of limits on outside relationships and, more specifically, a commitment to sexual exclusivity. Although genital contact with others is usually off limits, some couples renegotiate this agreement if, for example, one partner becomes seriously ill.
There are also cultural variations in these patterns; some cultures, for example, tolerate, if not encourage, men to seek sexual partners outside the marital relationship as a measure of manhood.
Finally, other couples may agree to an “open” marital relationship that acknowledges and allow for affairs outside the primary relationship. Given the increased risk for contracting incurable sexually transmitted diseases (for example, genital herpes or HIV disease) in today’s world, however, there is probably less flexibility around this issue now than there was perhaps 20 years ago.
For our purposes, an affair may be defined as an emotionally or sexually intimate relationship between two people that violates the commitment to a previously established relationship, most commonly a marriage. For many couples, even for some who accept the possibility of extramarital relationships, affairs remain a significant and painful problem.
Who Has Affairs?
Traditionally, men have been perceived to be more likely to have an affair than women. And yet, women are now nearly as likely as men to have affairs.
A particularly high proportion of affairs have been linked to certain professions. Business executives, health care professionals, salespeople, pilots, truckers, and sailors seem to be particularly prone to affairs.
Does an Affair Always Lead to Divorce?
Few couples decide to divorce because of an affair. But of the fewer than 20 percent who do divorce, 80 percent report regretting the decision. In one study of men, 80 percent stated that they would remarry their first wife if they could. The few who have affairs and divorce their spouses so that they may marry one another often divorce again.
Is It Only about Sex?
Those marriages in which affairs have occurred are more likely to end in a divorce, but the affair usually is not the primary reason for it. For those involved in a relationship within which an affair occurs, it is likely that there are other problems in the relationship that need to be addressed. The affair is often a sign of longstanding problems in the relationship that have remained unresolved.
In my practice, I have found that the betrayed partner typically feels more disturbed by the betrayal of trust than the sexual acting-out. This may explain why emotional affairs may be just as painful as sexual ones for many couples. An interesting modern emotional affair is the online “cyberaffair,” which has received much attention in the press. The emotional infidelity is as important to address as an actual physical involvement.
What Can I Do if My Spouse Is Having an Affair?
If your spouse is having an affair, it is important to pause and get your emotional bearings. Decisions made in haste can bring more problems. It is essential to look beyond the pain to discover why the affair happened and then plan for the future.
Sometimes, ideas of harming self or others can emerge from the depths of depression or anger over an affair. If this is something you are experiencing, contact a licensed mental health professional at once! Professionals may be found through the local community mental health center or hospital; more immediate help may be gotten by dialing 911 and asking for assistance.
The following references may prove helpful for those who would like to read more on this topic:
After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful (1997), by Janis Abrahms Spring, with Michael Spring (New York: HarperCollins).
Affairs: A Guide to Working Through the Repercussions of Infidelity (1999), by Emily M. Brown (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass).
Affair-Proof Your Marriage: Understanding, Preventing and Surviving an Affair (1998), by Lana Staheli (New York: HarperCollins).
Affairs are painful but, with help, emotional wounds can heal. Marriages may or may not end, but whatever the decision, it is important to work through the hurt and to learn from the pain.