Counsellors often have to tackle the thorny subject of straying partners. Our journalist-counsellor looks at the potential ‘risk factors’ that research says may increase the chances of betrayal
I met Ed and Nadine (not their real names) for their first couples counselling session three weeks ago. Like many couples they were in pain. Nadine, an attractive woman in her mid-30s, seemed small and shrunken. Ed was of a similar age, and as handsome as she was pretty. He sat on the sofa with his arms crossed rather defensively. She sat on the other side of the sofa, hugging a cushion.
They told me they had come to see me because their relationship had reached a critical state. Nadine told me that Ed was having an affair, and so it all began. By this, I mean everything that occurs when someone has been unfaithful: victimisation, recriminations, shattered trust, hurt feelings and a sense of “How on earth did we get to this?”
As a trained couples therapist, I deal with the thorny issue of affairs a lot of the time. Couples don’t come to see me because everything is ticking along nicely. They come because they have hit a crisis point, and that crisis has often resulted in one or the other embarking on an affair.
My job, I feel, is to look at where the desire to be unfaithful comes from. The idea is that if we were all a bit more mindful of the warning signs, then couples can cut off the devastation that affairs cause at the pass. Affairs happen in 30–60% of marriages and the aftermaths can take years to mend, if at all. Families are ruined, trust is broken, it all feels horrible and disastrous.
But, can we tell who is likely to engage in an affair? Is it an individual transgression or the product of a faulty (or sometimes temporarily faulty) marriage?
Flashing signals for me include a man or woman who has had affairs in the past: a serial adulterer. In my therapy room, it tends to be more men than women who have multiple affairs. Other factors might be couples who no longer spend time with each other or have little energy for each other, or a relationship where having an affair is fine – until someone has one, of course. Lives get busy. Children come along. Pastimes appear. I had one couple for whom the husband’s obsessive cycling hobby was ruining their marriage. For this couple, it was all about the avoidance of intimacy, and so cycling provided an escape.
For some people, having an affair automatically signals the end of the marriage or relationship. It may be the one thing they cannot bear. For others, sexual infidelity is not particularly important and a sexual affair is of little consequence. Most of us inhabit a rather more grey area in between; it’s impossible to know how we would react until it happens. Many long-term marrieds have a habit of turning a blind eye. There’s a sense that as long as the erring partner continues in their relationship with love and support, and the non-erring partner isn’t humiliated, then maybe the marriage can toddle on as usual. These are complicated and emotive issues.
So, why do people have affairs? We must look at why we might end up being unfaithful – in other words, the risk factors. Research shows there are several factors that crop up. One is a history of affairs in the family. Repeating the patterns they witnessed as a child may seem oddly “normal”. I’ve met many a person who is devastated that they have behaved just as their father or mother did. But through couples therapy we can unpick the past and help the couple move forwards.
Another factor is boredom. Some people just get bored. If you have a partner who can’t settle and is always trying out new things and changing life patterns a lot of the time, it will be a major job to keep them interested in a long-term nourishing, fulfilling, relationship. For them, that might feel stale or stagnant. They need excitement and are hedonists rather than realists, prepared to do the hard work of maintaining and sustaining a committed relationship.
Low self-esteem can also lead to an affair. If a partner constantly feels as if they are an imposter – pretending at being successful but inside suffering from crucifying self-doubt – the lure of the affair is that the excitement and attention makes them feel all shiny and new. The affair is a temporary fix before the adulterer sinks back into self-loathing. Many serial adulterers actually dislike themselves intensely, but often masquerade as highly confident, competent people, without a care in the world.
This can also lead to a fear of intimacy. Affairs sabotage relationships. The outcome can be catastrophic but, for an intimacy-avoider, they can be wonderful things. It’s impossible to get truly, frighteningly close to someone who runs off and engages in a clandestine affair as soon as intimacy rears its head.
Sometimes it’s just the thrill – the chase, the first touch, the wonderful sense of being with someone new who finds you devastatingly attractive. The ultimate thrill is the fear of being found out. Many an adulterer plays a cat and mouse game with the truth, and the ultimate result can be the act of being found out. Affairs can actually bring couples together, eventually. Issues that have been avoided are forced out into the open.
Other more complicated indicators are the desire to wound, and the serial adulterer who will never really change because they have no desire to. They love the whole rigmarole of being unfaithful. As political maverick (and serial adulterer) Jimmy Goldsmith once said: “If you marry your mistress you create a vacancy.”
Women often tell me they’ve had an affair because of a lack of emotional fulfilment. I hear this from women a lot of the time in my therapy room.
It’s not necessarily about sex. They are unfaithful simply because they need more emotional support. As a client put it: “I feel like a lovely car that has been left in the driveway and no one bothers to shine me up and take care of me.”
If they then meet someone who makes them feel emotionally looked after, and cared for, a form of affair happens which may be of an emotional rather than a sexual nature, but it can still be very damaging.
There are many things we can do to cope, once an affair has happened. Change only happens when we accept life as it is on an everyday basis. This also means looking at why an affair has happened and how to keep our partnerships alive.
But if we are aware of the risk factors, at least we have the ability to maybe spot what might be around the corner, and take steps to bolster up our relationships.
It’s not easy. Keeping a relationship alive with all its ups and downs is hard work – we need intimacy, excitement, sex, understanding, shared memories, enjoyment of the same things, communication, acts of appreciation and a shared commitment to “affair-proofing”. As famed relationship expert Esther Perel points out, mating in captivity is not easy, but it’s probably the best chance we have of survival. And hopefully happiness and fulfilment.