It’s not an uncommon situation for a practitioner to encounter. A couple is happily married—they enjoy each other’s company, communicate well, and have a strong emotional connection. At first glance, their relationship seems like it has a strong foundation. And yet, one of them has a confession to make: “I’m having an affair.”
The situation doesn’t seem to make much sense. How can someone who says they value their partner also be having an affair? It turns out, the thoughts and feelings that drive someone towards infidelity aren’t so simple.
How Relationships Have Changed
To understand why people are cheating, it’s worth taking a look at how relationships in general have changed in recent years. To look at data where white, heterosexual couples are over-represented—which is the case in many studies of marriages—leaves out a huge number of other experiences, and may be one reason why researchers and practitioners struggle to understand infidelity rates.
The nature of marriage and family is changing, and that shift from traditional values and roles plays a big part here. Modern marriage is less about convenience or necessity than it has been in the past. Now in most places and cultures, marriage is a choice, and one that people are waiting longer to make. Millennials are waiting until they’re older and more self-confident to decide if and when they want to make big life changes—like getting married and having children.
The role of women in the household is changing, which means that other traditional gender roles in relationships will also change. Older gender norms—like men struggling to express their feelings and women taking on the brunt of housework—are slowly evolving, which could lead to more equitable and healthy relationships.
Also worth noting is that while monogamy is still preferred by the majority of Americans, there’s growing acceptance of polyamory. Couples are having more candid conversations about consensual non-monogamy (CNM), which will continue to transform what the average relationship looks like.
By and large, it seems like relationships are moving in a direction where they’re more malleable to each couple’s individual needs than ever before. Most adults in relationships in the US say they’re happy in those relationships. Plus, the overall divorce rate in America has been going down over the past ten years. So why do we still see infidelity happening at all?
Why People Cheat
The desire to be unfaithful is not limited by gender, sexuality, or age. In some cases, it stems from unmet needs in a relationship. Issues like lack of communication, boredom, and personal insecurities can fester when they’re not fully addressed. If one partner feels like they’re never listened to or respected in their primary relationship, they may look for that in another person.
A major challenge for couples and their therapists is that, despite what someone who has been cheated on may fear, relationship problems are not the only reason why people cheat. When infidelity emerges from personal struggles, impulsivity, or social and environmental pressures, relationship problems can result from cheating, rather than being the cause of it. In these instances, there is still meaningful work to do to repair the relationship, but that work is not about finding and fixing a pre-existing relationship problem.
The Difference with Happy Relationships
In happy relationships, someone might cheat not because they are dissatisfied with their partner, but because they are dissatisfied with themselves. It’s easy for people to get caught between the questions “What do I want?” and “What does everyone else want from me?” If someone has spent their whole life doing everything they’re expected to do, the act of breaking free of those expectations can actually be more exciting and meaningful than the act of cheating itself.
When people are happy in their relationship, it’s less likely that the partner practicing infidelity has fallen out of love with their partner. Rather they’re newly in love with the free, risk-taking, adventurous person they become when they’re having the affair.
Who’s Actually Cheating?
In any specific relationship, it can be difficult to say which partner is more likely to be unfaithful—anyone can cheat. However, men are slightly more likely to cheat on their spouses than women are. In response to a General Social Survey, 20 percent of men said they had extramarital sex, while 13 percent of women said the same.
In heterosexual relationships, men are more likely to practice sexual infidelity. They engage in extramarital sex and have more affairs, both short- and long-term, where the main attraction is only physical. Men may have more difficulty expressing feelings of love or appreciation verbally, so sex becomes an even more important way to connect with their partners. If they feel a lack of sexual connection with their primary partner, that can lead them to look for intimacy elsewhere.
By contrast, women are more likely to have emotional affairs. That doesn’t mean that women aren’t having extramarital sex, because some are, but if a woman is seeking attention outside of her primary partner, it may be because she’s feeling underappreciated or ignored. That’s not to say an individual’s motives to engage in infidelity are defined by their gender. Some men have emotional affairs, and some women engage in sexual infidelity.
How Couples Counseling Helps with Infidelity
Grappling with infidelity can lead to a lot of emotional distress—both in couples and in their counselor. Guiding a couple through their moment of crises can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned clinician, but their role is a crucial one. Emotionally-focused therapy (EFT) for couples has asuccess rate of 75 percent. Yet, no matter what led to the infidelity or how happy a couple seemed before it occurred, there’ll still be a lot of betrayal, hurt, and mistrust that they’ll have to rebuild. That process is something even the most in-sync couples need expert guidance to navigate successfully.
Even experts may be at a disadvantage here, though. Research on infidelity often comes to wildly varying conclusions, based on how a study was conducted and who participated in it. There are big gaps in our knowledge, and those gaps are leaving out the experiences of queer people and people of color. Without sufficient insight into why members of different communities act as they do, it’ll continue to be a barrier for clinicians to provide adequate care and guidance for those individuals.
The challenge facing therapists, then, will not only be the usual work of figuring out the root cause of a couple’s issues or the best way to treat them. It’ll also be trying to learn and really understand the specific situation that walks into their office, and finding a way to offer care that best serves their client’s lived experience.
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