Nice people in happy marriages sometimes have affairs.
Maybe it doesn’t come as a surprise to you. But I had to adjust to the idea that even happy couples have affairs.
I used to think that infidelity was a sure sign that a couple had slid into the dark abyss of crushing unhappiness. Or that at least the cheating partner was completely miserable.
But after counseling dozens of couples dealing with infidelity, I came to realize that marital happiness and affairs are not mutually exclusive.
An affair is not always a symptom that something is missing or that something is terribly wrong in a marriage.
My clients, Gregory and Dawn (not their real names, of course, so as to protect their privacy) are a good example of this. Right before coming to me for couples counseling, Dawn had discovered that Gregory had been cheating on her for 2 months.
During our very first session, Gregory explained that even he was surprised by his choice to cheat.
Gregory said, “Dawn is the perfect wife! My affair really had nothing to do with her or our relationship. We have a happy life together. We’re blessed with wonderful kids, great jobs, a nice house, and an awesome circle of family and friend. I’m super attracted to Dawn and we still have a good sex life. I don’t know why I put all that at risk. I’m afraid I may have ruined everything!”
Gregory was right…affairs can have catastrophic consequences. And they cause enormous pain. Especially for the betrayed partner.
So why would a happy spouse risk everything for a secret dalliance even after vowing to remain faithful until death do us part?
Four Reasons Why Happy Couples Have Affairs:
They Are Missing An Essential Agreement
Couples who wake up to the nightmare of infidelity never made this essential protective iron-clad agreement: We promise to tell each other everything. Always. No matter what. Even if it has to do with another person that I’m attracted to.
The agreement to always tell each other everything is the most powerful inoculation to infidelity that’s around.
If this agreement is missing from the line-up of vows and pinky promises, even happy couples can fall prey to affairs.
Neurobiology Of Novelty
As humans, our brains are wired for novelty. Especially when it comes to desire.
A happy couple may be content, but they might have dropped the ball on creating fresh experiences. Too often they stop coloring outside the lines. Or peaking their senses with novel ways of sharing attention—both in and out of the bedroom.
Affairs are novel.
They are a guaranteed way to get an immediate and intense hit of dopamine (via novelty) in the brain. And dopamine sparks that euphoric feeling that makes us want to go back for more.
Happy couples who aren’t intentional about weaving novelty into their relationship are at greater risk of infidelity.
Indulgence and Entitlement
Have you noticed? We live in a culture where entitlement and self-indulgence are encouraged and romanticized.
Every day we hear messages such as:
- Life is too short to…
- If you don’t take care of yourself, no one will.
- Just do it!
- You deserve a break today.
These messages trick us into believing that we are entitled to have everything we want. And then some.
The popular emphasis on seeking freedom, personal fulfillment, and individuality can be a set-up for happy couples to stray.
When you ad self-indulgence to the natural desire for attention (to feel special, attractive and important) watch out. The results can lead to infidelity. Particularly if there are no protective agreements in place.
Quest for self-discovery
In her famous Ted Talk, Esther Perel explains that affairs are a form of self-discovery. She says that even though the betrayed spouse usually feels like the cheating has something to do with them, that’s usually not the case.
In fact, Perel maintains that for the unfaithful partner affairs are usually about the exploration of self. In essence, affairs are a quest for a new or lost identity.
While affairs are excruciatingly painful and derailing for the betrayed spouse, they can often be empowering and liberating for the cheating partner.
For the one having the affair, it sparks exploration, expansion, and metamorphosis.
A person having an affair finds they can be more bold, spontaneous, or playful than usual. They feel a surge of identity growth that is very exciting. And they feel more alive than they have in years.
In order to protect against the lure of self-discovery via affairs, happy couples must create conversations and activities that promote self-exploration and personal growth.
If you were a happy couple right up until one of you discovered an affair, I want you to know you can get through this. You can get back to being happy.
Getting some professional guidance from a couples counselor that knows how to help you repair after an affair can save your marriage.