Is your marriage safe?
We all tell ourselves that maintaining a "happy marriage" is the secret to protecting yourself from infidelity. After all, affairs only take place in problematic relationships, right?
That's usually the case, but in my counseling practice (specializing in infidelity) some of my clients in truly happy relationships cheat on their partner anyway. They say things like: "I wasn't looking for it. It was just there, simple and easy." Or, "I couldn't resist and couldn't control my urge." Or, "I just wasn't thinking and made a mistake."
One of my male clients even told me: "I love my wife. She is my best friend, amazing partner, attractive and a great lover. I cannot ask for more." And yet, after 30 years of happy and faithful marriage, he caved to feelings of lust for another woman and cheated on his wife.
The obvious question is: Why? If he 'couldn't ask for anything more,' why did he stray?
He told me: "Suddenly, I found myself crossing the line that I never thought I would, having sex with a stranger ... cheating on my partner, the one I love and care for so much."
He was sobbing. "I was monogamous for over 30 years and now my wife is broken and devastated. She wants to leave the marriage even though we were the happiest couple. All because I made a mistake. I know it was a big mistake, but what about 30 years of being faithful? How come that doesn't count? Why can’t she forgive me and move on so we can continue enjoying our life together?"
So, what's really going on here? Here are 5 reasons people cheat even in the strongest marriage:
1. Temptation is everywhere.
More than ever, with our technological advances, extramarital sex is cheaper and easier. You can find someone to have sex with anywhere, anytime. Temptation tugs at us online and in the real world (from attractive co-workers and flirtatious neighbors to online sites exclusively dedicated to cheating). In a culture obsessed with immediate gratification, temptation becomes harder to resist.
2. Cheaters often suffer from a lack of self-esteem.
Often, the underlying issue of affairs in healthy relationships is low self-esteem and lack of maturity. For some of these people, because they lack self-esteem, no matter how much love they receive from their partner, it is never enough.
They take for granted what a wonderful relationship they have — even if their partner tells them every day how appreciated they are, how attractive they are, etc. After awhile, that praise becomes predictable and therefore less potent to the ego. The insecure person starts to wonder: Well, YOU like me but does anyone ELSE find me attractive?
Their infidelity is driven by a strong emotional need to conquer 'new bodies' so they feel loved and reassured of their self-value. Cheating provides an instant boost to their self-esteem. Unfortunately, this boost is short-lived, leading to even more feelings of emptiness.
3. Sometimes people crave a feeling that a happy marriage just can't provide.
Of course, not all cheaters suffer from lack of self-esteem. So, what's going on for confident, secure people who stray from their happy relationships?
In this case, the affair is not designed to withdraw or disconnect from their partner (they still love their spouse and want to remain in the marriage), but rather it is their way of expressing loss and longing — for freedom, excitement, passion, novelty, etc ... things that even happy relationships cannot provide. Their affair represents a wish and desire to experience and reconnect to lost parts of themselves, aspects they wish they could re-integrate into their life again (even for just a little while).
4. All humans have conflicting wants and needs.
The fact is, we're walking contradictions. Human beings have competing needs that pull us in different directions. Our brain evolved to include three layers: a lizard brain, a mammalian brain, and the the neo-cortex. While, yes, our brains do crave passion, intimacy and safety, our brain can feel those three things for different people. The unique interplay of our sub-brains drives our contradictory needs as they work at odds with each other (having different functions and goals).
It is not surprising that we find ourselves conflicted between our hearts and our minds, between who we are and what we want, between our values and our behaviors, between our short-term needs and long-term goals, between stability and novelty, between marital commitment and personal freedom. So, it's not entirely unnatural (for example) to truly love your husband and desire the hot guy at the office, and feel deep safety and comfort with yet another man.
5. Monogamy isn't for everyone.
Last but not least, I would like to suggest that we question some of our assumptions about marriage and monogamy. Modern research certainly challenges us to rethink our outdated understanding of the topics. Researchers are now asking questions such as:
- What if monogamy and marriage are not compatible with human design?
- What if monogamous happy marriage cannot provide or fulfill all we want and need?
- What if, romantically, we can love more than one partner at the same time?
- What if passion or lust are short-lived?
- What if we can become more forgiving toward the affair and treat it as a mistake or natural human condition rather than an indication that relationship itself is fundamentally problematic?
Questioning our assumptions about monogamy helps us better clarify why affairs take place in happy relationships. It also helps us understand the motives that might lead our spouse to cheat. And should 'the worst' happen, this new understanding will also, hopefully, help each partner heal and grow to become a better person (and a better partner).
Moshe Ratson is an expert in infidelity counseling in New York City. Contact Moshe Ratson (Licensed Marriage Family Therapist ) to get the help you need to heal from the affair, rebuild your trust and ultimately emerge stronger.