Affairs: Who Has Them, and Why?

If your life hasn't been touched by an affair, you may think that only certain types of people are vulnerable to infidelity, for example, the misunderstood husband, or the lonely housewife. You may think that couples who enjoy each other's company, communicate well, and have a good sex life are immune from such problems. And, in a very limited sense, you'd be right. That's because marriages that don't contain these ingredients may be less robust emotionally, and therefore less able to withstand some of the forces that can strain a lifetime partnership. But the reality is that anyone can be subject to the temptations that affairs offer, whether it's the traveling salesman, the preschool teacher, your child's pediatrician, or even your clergyman.

Reliable statistics on infidelity are hard to come by. This is partly due to the nature of the topic and the understandable reluctance someone may have to acknowledge, even to an impartial researcher or statistician, that they've had an affair. It's also a function of how young the scientific study of relationships is. But surveys and other data seem to point broadly to the conclusion that many Americans say one thing and do another when it comes to monogamy.

Americans are consistently among the most conservative people in the world when it comes to attitudes toward extramarital sex. American men involved in extramarital affairs range from 22% to 75%; estimates for women range from 14% to 60%. Add to that the statistic that 74% of men and 68% of women say they would have an affair if they knew they would never be caught!

While the workplace has historically been the arena in which men conducted affairs, an interesting trend is the conscious decision of young single women to date older married men with whom they work. This is due not only to the prestige, power, and financial means of this group of men but to a desire on the part of these young women to focus on careers.

Another advantage to having a married affair partner is that that individual has much to lose, for example, marriage and its benefits, children, home, and financial assets, so he or she is likely to make fewer demands.

When we say "forsaking all others, 'til death do us part", we want to believe that this is what we will choose and how we will behave until we are literally separated by death.

But all the evidence points to other forces coming into play, forces that can powerfully counteract our more conscious intentions. These include factors that are an inherent part of many workplaces, as well as the natural evolution of marital relationships.

One of the most common stereotypes about affairs is that they are caused by a lack of one thing or another in a marriage. A wife, for example, may feel that her husband never listens or that he doesn't appreciate her. A husband may claim to be misunderstood or may feel that his wife lost interest in sex long ago. Or both may feel that they're no longer able to communicate or that they simply no longer have any common interests. And when children have grown up and left the home, this lack of common ground can become a gaping chasm between husband and wife.

Another stereotype is that a spouse has met someone who is superior in some way, someone who better meets their needs and desires. In a wife's fantasies, the new secretary with whom her husband is having an affair is much more attractive than she is. A husband imagines that the man with whom his wife is infatuated is much more successful than he is. The list goes on and on, but the message is the same.

For the marriage to flourish, however, the couple needs to renegotiate the terms of the emotional contract.

What is it that we need from each other now, that we didn't initially? What do we no longer need? And then there's the much-maligned midlife crisis, with the attendant jokes about red sports cars and plastic surgery. Midlife represents a major developmental shift for many individuals, with the psychological emphasis turning to second-half-of-life issues, including mortality and whether or not important life goals were accomplished. The awareness that one has not realized important life goals can contribute to depression and to seeking fulfillment outside the marriage.

If you are struggling with the pain of infidelity in your marriage or relationship, a competent mental health professional can help you sort through the issues and come to some understanding of the forces that may have derailed your relationship.