09 June 2011

Why do people have affairs?

This week news of Arnold Schwartzenegger's love-child hit the headlines. Health24's Cybershrink looks at why people decide to have affairs and what puts a relationship at risk.


Ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, separated earlier this month after he revealed that he fathered a now 13-year-old son with the family housekeeper - something that had remained a secret until this year.  The couple have been married for 25 years.  CyberShrink talks about what makes some people risk everything for a fling.

It is devastating to realise that your partner is having an affair. It's difficult to give straight answer to why he/she chose to do this.

The more detailed reasons for affairs are very many and various. Then there is the question of what exactly puts a relationship at risk.

Here are some of the most common reasons people suggest:

  • dissatisfaction with the marriage or relationship. Not necessarily unhappiness, so much as a lack of happiness, of a sense of fulfilment within the relationship
  • a wish to experience sexual variety
  • anger felt towards the partner, with a need, whether recognised or not, to hurt the partner
  • some say their intention was to make their partner jealous, though it is seldom clear how this would be expected to have any desirable outcome for either of them
  • an unwillingness to resist any new opportunity for emotional or sexual involvement. This is sometimes given the profitable but bogus diagnosis of "Sex Addiction", though it is not at all an addictive process or responsive to normal treatments for addictions. "Sex addiction" is an excuse for not choosing to exercise self-restraint. Throughout life we are faced with tempting opportunities for brief enjoyment at a total cost that makes it foolish to indulge in them.
  • some explain an affair by saying that they no longer feel "in love" with their partner, or that they have "fallen out of love", or "grown apart". While maintaining a loving relationship may require effort and work, if there ever was real love, it can be regained and extended, so long as the task isn't merely abandoned.
  • some speak of sexual incompatibility, though if a couple were ever sexually compatible, this would only change due to illness, physical or psychological in one or both of them.
  • some feel that if their partner has been unfaithful, they themselves are somehow entitled to have an affair, too. Yet generally, one does not feel that stealing from a thief is a noble or justifiable response.
  • more understandable, some situations arise in which there is drastic change within the partner, due to alcohol or drug addiction, or severe mental illness, which makes the person feel unable to obtain sexual or emotional fulfilment from that partner, while feeling reluctant to abandon them altogether while they may still need help and support.

Other very relevant factors are socially-based. In recent decades societal norms have become far more hedonistic - not only do we focus far more on insisting that we should be as happy as possible for as much of the time as possible, but we too often feel that our mere happiness justifies any degree of hurt or damage to others.

With divorce being increasingly easy, couples feel less committed to trying to work things out. For some, getting rid of their spouse is a bit like taking back a faulty gadget. The sense of marriage being a lasting, perhaps life-long commitment seems less common, rather than an expectation of marriage, divorce, and re-marriage. Also, when both partners work full-time, there is less time to spend bonding and more of a feeling that survival alone would be easier and more practical.

Risk factors
Risk factors can include marrying too young, before either partner is emotionally mature or socially experienced; jobs and other factors requiring prolonged geographical separations of partners; and lack of skills at jointly solving problems.

I think that problems are also often caused by unrealistic expectations, fostered by the media, and by irresponsible pop psychologists - this includes the expectation that one must find a "soul-mate" as well as absolute perfection within a relationship. Another problem is the expectation that love will remain the giddy "in-love" experience that we felt at the start of a relationship, rather than recognising that love grows and develops, ebbs and flows, throughout a long relationship.

How do affairs develop?
The process typically passes through several stages, and may stop at any one of these, or proceed into a full-blown affair. In the first stage, one simply gets to know another person, and to form an initial emotional connection with them. One shares time with them on social or work opportunities, one talks more about one's personal life, perhaps providing one another with emotional support, and perhaps one starts mild flirting.

In the next stage, the relationship deepens, and you mutually decide, maybe even without saying so out loud, to keep it a secret. You feel it's now the sort of relationship you wouldn't tell your spouse about, or tell most friends. Now a boundary has been crossed, and you are no longer merely friends or colleagues. You may start to have fantasies about the other person. Somehow, secret relationships are more arousing and seize your attention far more.

Then though you may officially still insist you're "just friends", you find increasing numbers of excuses to meet, more often and for longer. You start to be far more vigilant and cautious not to let others realise what is happening, though close friends may start to become suspicious.

And then the relationship becomes more intense, and sexual as well as emotional. Feelings of excitement and pleasure become mixed with guilt, and it gets much harder to hide the fact that something has changed. -

(Prof M.A. Simpson, Health24's Cybershrink, updated September 2009)

Alternative sexual practices




Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Exercise benefits for seniors »

Working out in the concrete jungle Even a little exercise may help prevent dementia Here’s an unexpected way to boost your memory: running

Seniors who exercise recover more quickly from injury or illness

When sedentary older adults got into an exercise routine, it curbed their risk of suffering a disabling injury or illness and helped them recover if anything did happen to them.