It’s one of the worst words that can be uttered in a marriage: affair. When a couple agrees to be married, they promise to be faithful to each other. So why then is infidelity in marriage so common? Depending on which research study you look at and what you consider an affair to be, somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of married spouses admit to having at least a one-time affair.
An affair can be damaging to the marriage relationship, tearing apart a once happy couple. It can dissolve trust and then in turn affect all those around them. Children, relatives, and friends take notice and lose hope because a relationship they once valued is having problems. Does that mean other couples are hopeless, too?
Let’s look at types of infidelity, why spouses cheat, and who they cheat with; then decide if it is something spouses can live with. Either way, surviving after infidelity will be a challenge.
Types of infidelity
There are two basic types of infidelity: emotional and physical. While sometimes it’s just one or the other, there is also a range between the two, and sometimes it involves both. For example, a wife could be telling all of her most intimate thoughts and dreams to a coworker, who she is falling for but has not even kissed or had intimate relations with. On the other hand, a husband could be having a sexual affair with a woman friend, but he isn’t in love with her.
A study at Chapman University looked at what types of infidelity bothered each spouse. Their findings concluded that overall, men would be more upset by physical infidelity, and women would be more upset by emotional infidelity.
Why spouses cheat
Why did he or she cheat? The answer to that question can vary widely. In fact, it is a very individual answer. One obvious answer could be that the spouse wasn’t either emotionally or physically satisfied with the marriage, or there was some sort of issue in the marriage causing the spouse to feel lonely.
But still, there are many spouses who are in fact satisfied, but still cheat. One big question to ask the offending spouse is this: Did you do something wrong when you cheated? Some spouses are able to rationalize their behavior to the point of not seeing it as bad. While the reality is they broke a marriage vow, sometime the reality people choose to believe paints them as the victim, instead of the other way around.
Other reasons could be a sex addiction, or being pursued by someone outside the marriage and the temptation wears them down over time—plus the flattery is hard to ignore. Others find it easier to fall to temptation under stressful situations, and many admit to affairs during business trips when they are far removed from their spouse and the chances of them finding out are lower.
Some studies have concluded that marriage infidelity is in the genes. According to research by Scientific American, men who had a variant of vasopressin are more likely to have a wandering eye.
Who spouses cheat with
Do spouses cheat with strangers or people they know? According to Focus on the Family, it’s most likely people they already know. It could be co-workers, friends (even married friends), or old flames they’ve reconnected with. Facebook and other online resources make connecting with them even easier, even if initially the connection was innocent.
A YouGov survey for The Sun newspaper in Britain reported that of cheating spouses, 43% had an affair with a friend, 38% had an affair with a co-worker, 18% had an affair with a stranger, 12% had an affair with an ex, 8% had an affair with a neighbor, and 3% had an affair with a partner’s relative.
Is infidelity a deal breaker?
This question is very personal and requires a lot of soul searching. According to researchers Elizabeth Allen and David Atkins, of those who report a spouse has had extramarital sex, about half of those eventually lead to divorce. Some say that the affair is a result of issues that were already leading to divorce, and others say that the affair is what is leading to the divorce. Either way, the researchers suggest that while half break up, half actually do stay together.
One big factor that seems to influence many couples is if there are children involved. Breaking up a marriage between a married couple with no children is a little less complicated. But when there are children, spouses tend to reconsider breaking up the entire family unit, as well as resources, for the sake of the children.
In the end, it comes down to what each spouse can live with. Does the cheating spouse still love the person they are married to, or has their heart moved on? Does the spouse who was cheated on willing to look past the affair and keep the marriage alive? It’s up for each person to answer for themselves.
How to survive infidelity — if you’re staying together
If you and your spouse have decided to stay together despite infidelity, the number one thing you must do is see a marriage therapist. Seeing a counselor together—and separately—can help you work through the issues that lead up to the affair and help both of you get past the affair. Rebuilding is the key word in the years following the affair. A good marriage counselor can help you do so, brick by brick.
The biggest hurdle to get over is for the cheating spouse to take full responsibility, and also for the other spouse to offer full forgiveness. It won’t happen overnight, but spouses who are committed to each other can move past it together.
How to survive infidelity — if you’re breaking up
Even if you divorce and you no longer see your ex-spouse, infidelity has still put its mark on both of you. Especially when new relationships present themselves, in the back of your mind may be distrust in the other person or yourself. Talking to a therapist may help you make sense of the past and also help you move forward into healthy relationships.
Unfortunately, there is no magic wand to keep everyone safe from marriage infidelity. It happens to married couples all over the world. If it does happen to you, work through it as best you can and seek help. You can’t control what your spouse does, but you can control how it will affect your future life.
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.