You've said that most people who cheat aren't looking for an affair. Why, then, do they find themselves in these situations—and are there things the non-cheating partner can do to prevent the affair?
Most people begin affairs because of a triad of factors, which I call the NOD: a Need, an Opportunity, and Disinhibition (a medical term used to describe the inability to suppress impulses). Let's look at "Needs" first. If a partner has needs that aren't, or can't, be met in the marriage, there's a greater likelihood that he or she will stray. The needs could be sexual, or they could be needs for excitement or feeling special. Next, an "Opportunity" must make itself known for the affair to materialize. While the workplace is the most common place to meet an affair mate, the Internet has dramatically expanded opportunities for people to stray. Finally, if a person has the impulse to climb into bed with someone they meet, there are times they can't resist the impulse.
Affair-preventing strategies revolve around these components. Couples should discuss the needs of each individual, and strive to meet them (or channel them in appropriate ways). People should be careful to reduce opportunities for meeting potential affair mates, by, for instance, not going out to bars when they're away at conferences. Finally, people can make efforts to control impulses by seeking outside consultation, thinking things through, meditating, exercising, or minimizing drugs and alcohol.
You've said that affairs are often with people who are no younger, richer, or more attractive than the person's spouse. So what drives the majority of affairs? Would you say they're generally of an emotional nature, and are caused by alienation in marriages?
There is a vast range of reasons why people look for affairs, and they all boil down to needs. One of the reasons that affairs aren't always with a "hottie" is because the unmet need isn't necessarily for someone more attractive—it's for someone who will increase a person's sense of self-worth. That's one of the reasons emotional infidelity often precedes a physical affair; only after the psychological needs begin to be met does the sex button get switched on.
I can't say these affairs are because of "alienation" in marriage, because every marriage involves some degree of alienation—no husband or wife can ever truly orient themselves toward every need of their spouse all the time. Of course, the greater the sense of alienation, the greater the risk of an affair. But the responsibility for infidelity rests squarely on the shoulders of the individual who chooses to stray from his or her marriage—regardless of its quality.
What factors make people want to stick it out after an affair—rather than throw in the towel?
It all depends on the individuals involved, and their situation. Multiple affairs are more likely to destroy a marriage than one trip to a strip club during a bachelor party, although each might be considered cheating. Factors that affect whether a person chooses to try to repair the marriage include the social and economical conditions, the welfare of the children, the expectations of the culture, and the fears of the affected person about being alone. Love for the spouse and respect for shared history also affects someone's decision to stick it out. The other variable, of course, are the actions of a partner once he or she comes clean about the affair.
Can an affair ever be rejuvenating for a marriage? Have you ever had clients tell you it has actually improved their union?
I'm always wary of suggesting that having an affair can lead to a stronger marriage because it might justify someone's affair. But that being said, many people say that working through an affair has made their marriage stronger than before. First, it tends to counter the all-too-common phenomenon of taking your spouse for granted. To the person who has strayed, it reinforces the task of finding ways to get what they need from the marriage, not outside of it.
Lastly, there are psychological aspects of getting back together that are in force. When you are in bed with another person, you may realize how deeply in love you are with your spouse. I have certainly heard of brief affairs when one partner runs out of the bedroom immediately after having sex with someone else, freaked out and rededicated to their spouse. On the flip side, if your partner is having an affair, it may make you see him or her as someone other people are attracted to, thus pushing you to work even harder to get them back into your life.
There are benefits of rebuilding post-infidelity: To weather storms together with one partner and learn deeper and stronger love; to demonstrate to your children and the community the power of commitment; to enjoy the benefits of marriage including (on average): longer life, more money in the bank, better quality of life, a consistent sex partner, fewer substance abuse problems, and increased levels of happiness. Succeeding at marriage after infidelity is akin to surviving a trauma; you often never realize your strength or resiliency until it is called on. And that's worth something!
If a couple's goal is to recover after an affair, what is the first thing you would tell them to do?
The first thing they should do is to agree to work as a team to solve it. The partner who has committed an affair must first stop the affair. Second, he or she must cut off all communication with the person he had an affair with. Next, the couple must agree to maintain a transparent marriage: passwords, text messages, bank accounts. Finally, the cheater has to be willing to openly answer all of his or her partner's questions. These all lead to the rebuilding of trust, which is vital to the rebuilding of the marriage.
Why do so many people who have been cheated on feel shame after their partner has an affair? Is this something that affects women more than men, or is it equal?
Most feel shame about the affair, but there's no gender difference when it comes to shame. People have a understanding that once they take their vows, they have the responsibility to tend to the marriage, nourish it, and foster continued growth. When an affair happens, there's an atavistic sense that we have failed in some way. But these are gut feelings that don't necessarily reflect reality. First, it feels like a failure to sufficiently nurture the marriage. Second, the idea that a partner is off with another person suggests the victim wasn't paying attention. Third, there's the concern that a cheating partner embarrassed the other.