Affairs can be very, very devastating. Yet so much of what we think of as "truths" about infidelity are anything but helpful. Some of what is held up to be true and wise can do us more harm than good when it comes to the experience of affairs, so that dealing with them is even more difficult for us, both as individuals and as couples.
As a writer, a marriage therapist, and a couple's coach, I'd like to dispel three particularly destructive and commonly held myths about infidelity.
1. An affair is a sign that something is wrong with the marriage.
This myth ignores the fact that every marriage has something wrong with it. There is no such thing as the perfect marriage, and every marriage has its own unique set of tensions and issues. Human beings don't lead flawless lives or have perfect relationships. Great marriages proceed over rough terrain, just as good people face recurring problems in their individual lives.
The most common excuses that people use to rationalize an affair are "You never want sex," "You don't even notice me," and "You're always critical." These complaints may be genuine. Yet not one of them is likely to be the real reason your partner had sex outside your relationship.
In fact, many people rank their marriages as happy while they're in the midst of an affair, and most say they don't want out of the marriage after they've been discovered. Substantial research has been performed over many years to study the causal connection between marital problems and infidelity. The findings point to the following conclusion: there is NO consistent causal connection.
As revealed in a review by Dr. Jay Lebow, psychologist and clinical professor at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, multiple studies indicate that couples in marital therapy dealing with affairs were just as successful as couples dealing with other issues. (This review of couples-therapy research was published in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy).
Common reasons for infidelity are cravings for variety, something extra on the side, the intensity of new experiences. We seek out novelty elsewhere in our lives, too, of course.
Sometimes trying new things in life can enhance our daily experience. Sometimes they subtract and, as in the case of infidelity, make a mess. The intricacies of the human psyche remain complex and mysterious. The motivations that prompt a person to engage in an affair are myriad. Yet, at their core, affairs happen for only one reason: an individual has made the choice to have one.
2. An affair is sought out: one partner goes looking for it.
Serial cheaters may actively look for a partner outside the marriage. Most affairs, however, occur more passively. They happen because of proximity, availability, and as a consequence of self-deception.
Many seemingly innocent steps can lead us closer to crossing a line and, if we move gradually enough, we can convince ourselves that we're not straying until after the line has been crossed: you have lunch, say, with a colleague that you find very attractive. You Google your college girlfriend. You "friend" your first boyfriend on Facebook.
All these acts may seem innocent. And they may indeed be innocent. But watch for the danger signs. If you choose to keep these activities a secret from your partner, if you begin to think about how to go to the next "harmless" step (e.g., another meeting, a phone call), if you find yourself having fantasies about this person, be forewarned: you may be entering into dangerous territory.
We're all vulnerable to the desire or need for novelty, the excitement of the forbidden, and although illicit sex is condemned, it's also glamorized in our culture and in some cases even condoned. (There exist websites for married people in search of sexual partners that advise things like, "Life is short, have an affair.").
We can each rationalize the seemingly harmless steps we're taking as we march steadily toward the edge of the cliff. One of the dangers, in fact, is to believe that we're impervious to such temptations. An affair may be the last thing on your mind, and then, there you are, on the brink, teetering between conning yourself into taking the plunge or catching yourself just in the nick of time.
3. An affair always spells the end of a marriage.
Many of us have said, "Well, the one thing I'd never accept is if my partner had an affair." The truth is, we never known what we'd do in a given situation (particularly emotionally intense situations) until after they happen.
Over 50% of the couples I work with have gotten stronger as a couple after an affair, but of course they are the people who reach out for help and are motivated to change.
The reasons for staying together are many: deep attachment and love, mutual commitment to family and community, and the seriousness with which we value the promise we made. This half of marriages that endures isn't talked about very often, because most people don't publicize the marital trauma they've managed to survive. The terrible destruction, embittered breakups, and permanently damaged families we hear about instead can appear to be the norm, unfortunately.
In fact, some of the best marriages I know have arisen from the ashes of an affair, probably because it isn't possible to muddle along in a marriage that is just "sort of okay" after such a major event. Each person has to reach down into the depth of their psychological closets and find a way to understand, make amends, forgive and rebuild.