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Why Do Married People Have Affairs?
Since January first of 1981 (my first day of practice as a divorce mediator), rarely does a working day go by without a client mentioning an affair. I don't hear about an affair. Sitting at my round mediation table with the divorcing couple, I listen as an angry spouse bitterly condemns the betrayal of their partner. Simultaneously, I notice the heavy silence from the one who's had (or having) the affair. Rarely are there protestations of innocence nor are any reasons offered to the inevitable questions hurled by their spouse. I sit and wonder, wanting to know how I can help. I want to know what causes a married spouse to have an affair.
Recently, a friend of mine, Carol, visited me in Boston. We had dinner at one of those quaint, outside restaurants on Newbury Street. Well-dressed passers-by and new lovers provided our backdrop. I told Carol of my interest in knowing why married men and women have affairs. Carol coughed politely and squirmed. I waited to hear what she had to say. Carol told me her story. Ten years earlier, when she was thirty-nine, "My husband was ignoring me. Not big-time, mind you, but we'd been married for a while, and other things had his attention, especially those damn TV sports. It started to bother me a lot. I read the right books, even tried to liven things up, you know, candlelight dinners, sexy lingerie, and all. I even saw a therapist." She looked at me, chagrined. "Funny, huh? See, I didn't want a divorce, I just wanted Sam to change, but he didn't. His baseball-watching drove me crazy. One day I went to a friend's 40th birthday party. Sam had begged off, and I was irritated enough to go alone. Let him have his game. This guy stared at me right away. Anyway, all night long he paid a lot of attention to me. As I was leaving, Richard asked for my number. I felt scared, but I was excited when I gave it to him. Two days later he called me. We started sleeping together right away. It was great, but it ended in a short while. I was afraid of getting caught. He was so sweet. One night, what else is new, Sam had his TV game on watching a baseball game, of course. I was in the kitchen cleaning up when I heard Richard's voice. It startled me--hearing his voice. I waited for the camera to focus on the speaker, and, sure enough, it was Richard. I sat down and watched the rest of the game. Sam kept looking over at me, like I'd lost my mind, but, true to character, he never mentioned it." I shook my head, "That's a great story, Carol." She smiled and reached for my hand. "You never know how people will respond, you know?" I smiled back. "To this day, I have a soft spot in my heart for baseball games. In fact, more than once, Sam has shaken his head over my refusal to watch any other sport. Actually, Sam and I have gotten along a little better since Richard."
THE PRIMARY REASON
For married men, having an affair has always been somewhat tolerated (though Clinton may yet change that). Today, almost as many married women as married men are having affairs.
Why do wives and husbands have affairs?
Rarely is there a single reason why a person has an affair, rather, there are a multitude of reasons. Take my friend, Carol, for example. She said that she had an affair because she wanted more attention from her husband, however, if you spoke with her husband, Sam, he would tell you that she was the one who was distancing from him. The factors that Carol didn't mention, though they came through loud and clear in her story, were that she wanted some excitement in her life, that her self-esteem was in need of a lift, and lo and behold, she was forty-two and, as she acknowledges now in retrospect, she was going through a mid-life crisis. And it would be naive to assume that revenge was not a factor in Carol's choice of a partner for her affair.
Though reasons for an affair are many, often they can be identified, generally, there is one primary reason. This primary reason may not be easily discernible, especially if that reason feels inappropriate to the person. For example, Carol might give excitement or attention as reasons for an affair, but she would avoid mentioning her low self-esteem. I know that when I mentioned the word, "revenge" as a possible motive, she became defensive and a little angry. "I told you that I didn't know what he did for a living until we were already involved." But coincidences do often speak for themselves. Here is a woman who is jealous of her husband's devotion to sports, specifically baseball, and she sleeps with a TV baseball announcer!
In order to understand the reasons a married person has an affair, it helps to understand the man or woman, however, as with any cause and effect dynamic, generalizations may still be made. Factors which make it difficult to know the real reasons are that all of us like to think that we're doing things for a reason which makes sense.
An affair has two possible directions: one, the affair continues, or two, the affair ends. The possibilities encountered on either path are whether or not the spouse knows of the adultery and whether or not the marital relationship ends.
To many professionals who deal with this issue regularly, it seems clear that the purpose of the affair is often to end the relationship.
Contrary to the popular cultural belief that people shed a marriage as they do last year's coat, marriages are often difficult to end. The difficulty exists because there are strong factors which influence spouses to keep their marriage together. First is our belief that marriage is forever. Traditionalists have long maintained that one should stay married unless there are good reasons to divorce. Over the year, those "good" reasons haven't changed much. They still consist of the famous three: drinking, domestic violence, and the affair.
A second factor which helps to hold marriages together is our American belief in the ability of a person to change. We embrace the idea that people can change themselves if they choose to do so. (Yet how many of us desire to change our eating habits, to lose weight, or to become more physically fit, and how many of us do it?)
Factors which help to keep marriage intact are not limited to the two reasons just cited. A third reason is that society continues to regard divorce as a personal failure. Though we are a society with a relatively high divorce rate, divorce is not considered a good thing nor even a neutral event. Society, as well as the couple, inevitably believe that marriage is for life. It doesn't matter that the ideal is more myth than true. It is a myth which people cling to. And, it may come as no surprise that society generally holds the wife more responsible for the success of a marriage than the husband. Actually, a marriage is difficult to end. The spouse, the friends, and the family, all want "good" reasons for a divorce. We marry for our feelings, not for good reasons, yet at the prospect of divorce, people want solid reasons and not simply "feelings."
If a person wants a divorce and his or her spouse doesn't, one way to ensure that the spouse will agree to a divorce is to have an affair, though it may not be a conscious decision, it works.
SOME DIFFERENT KINDS OF AFFAIRS
1. EXCITEMENT AND ADVENTURE
The reason for this kind of affair is driven by a desire to put excitement and adventure into life. Almost by definition, affairs are filled with excitement: a new lover, secret meetings, intensity, the danger of getting caught. The novelty and differentness of it are an adventure. It is pretty much a guarantee that excitement and adventure will be part and parcel of an affair.
2. UNDERSTANDING AND COMPANIONSHIP
Many individuals need to feel understood and want that understanding from their spouse. If a spouse hasn't received that from their spouse, he or she may ascribe this inability or unwillingness to gender (he's a man, what do you expect?) or personality (she just doesn't get it) or communication styles (he has never been able to have that kind of dialogue). When that person finds a lover who gives her the understanding and companionship she seeks, it's indeed a powerful draw.
For other folks, he or she may not expect understanding from her mate. Her finding it in a lover is unanticipated--and that makes it all the more enjoyable.
After years of watching romantic movies, listening to sappy love songs, and fantasizing what "happily ever after" should mean, some individuals long for romance in their life. These men and women may never have had romance, or they had it so long ago they have forgotten. They may choose a partner who is reminiscent of a Gothic tale, an emotionally tortured man or a woman poet. Some do not engage in sex, but seek and enjoy sending flowers, writing a poem, and looking forward to the hide-a-way lunches.
A search for love is probably the stereotypical reason many people think a married woman has an affair. Since sex is still thought of as a "male" thing, society continues to assume that women are not motivated by sex. Rather, the idea of love is seen as central to a woman's existence, "love is to man a thing apart; 'tis women's whole existence." Tennyson. The search for love may not be the driving reason, many assume, since many women believe that love belongs in marriage.
If ever there is one factor which is assumed to drive an affair, this is it. For a number of men and women, this certainly exists as the primary reason. If the husband is having an affair, the assumption is that the wife has lost interest in sex. A few years back, a B-grade movie titled "Jade," portrayed a woman married to a powerful lawyer who was lustful after his wife. Their lovemaking, was, by her insistence "traditional," consisting of intercourse. One of the characters in the movie is a high-priced prostitute suspected of murdering a big-shot. During the investigation, various men described this woman (known as "Jade") as "wanting to be fucked from the rear...she loved it and couldn't get enough." Though only a movie (and a bad one at that) it exemplifies another reason for an affair: a spouse wanting a different kind of sex. "Vanilla" is the term for boring, traditional sex. Some women and men are bored by vanilla sex, and want sex which is more daring.
5. ONE-NIGHT STAND/OPPORTUNITY
Generation X may not call them "one night stands" anymore. Today, these sexual rendezvous take place at conferences and meetings which one attends as an employee. The reasons for one-night stands vary, from wanting a different sex partner to enhancing self-esteem, but generally, all share one common theme--opportunity. Curiosity is a factor, for many women and men often have one-night stands because the possibility exists--and the risks are minimal.
We have not talked much about risk, but risk is a factor. For women (and here there is a difference between genders), the price of an affair may be higher than it is for men. These liaisons are generally the least threatening of all of the kinds of affairs.
Attention and acknowledgment are generally thought of as components of self-esteem. They help to make a person feel O.K. A dose of self-esteem is a basic requirement for a healthy person.
The importance of self-esteem cannot be underrated. Each of us needs to feel that he or she is a worthy person. If a married spouse does not have that basic feeling of self-esteem, she or he may very well go out and get it. Of course, one does not "get" self-esteem by having an affair, rather, self-esteem develops early in life and is shaped during our lifetimes. Parents, teachers, friends, neighbors, and others help create self-esteem.
It is not unusual for a woman or man who lacks self-esteem to have an affair with someone who makes her or him feel O.K. Ironically, the affair may indeed begin their path to self-esteem.
7. REVENGE/TIT FOR TAT
I started this article with the story of Carol, the woman who is married to a baseball fan. She chose to have an affair with a man who "turned out to be a baseball announcer." It's an interesting story, and though you may not label it as "revenge," that's what it is. When Carol brought up his dedication to sports, Sam said he understood, yet he continued his behavior. Carol loved her husband and didn't want a divorce. Since she couldn't change Sam, she took matters into her own hands. To this day, Carol denies that revenge was her motive. Carol says that it was simply a coincidence that the man she choose to sleep with "turned out to be a baseball announcer." That's just too big of a coincidence for most of us.
The typical reason for revenge is that the spouse has had an affair and the other spouse feels some sense of justification to also have an affair, to get back at that spouse. As a divorce mediator, I hear a lot about this kind of affair. Frequently, it occurs in reaction to the husband or wife's discovery of the spouse having an affair. After confronting the unfaithful spouse or rather than confront the unfaithful spouse, he or she chooses to engage in the same behavior.
Thelma and Louise may be dead, but in many hearts they live on. Some married women feel trapped, confined in their roles of wife, homemaker, and mother. It's one of the major themes of books and movies. Meryl Streep, the star of "The Bridges of Madison County" played a midwestern housewife who had an affair with Clint Eastwood. The director sets the stage prior to her meeting Clint: a stable, unexciting husband, the isolation of a farm, two almost grown children, and no indication of outside home involvement. She falls in love with him and he offers her the opportunity to escape.
Her affair is her escape, she never leaves her home and escape from her life. Eastwood entreats her to go off with him, and she refuses, and much of middle American women were divided not over the affair, but over whether or not she should have left her married life and gone off with her lover.
THE CHANGING WORLD OF WIVES AND HUSBANDS
Years ago, the challenges for a spouse were different--easier, many would say. The focus was on doing your duty, fulfilling your role as a husband or wife. A "search for yourself" was not the focus of a person's life, in fact, it was rarely mentioned. Now, we are expected to "search for ourself" and take care of the others in our life-- spouse, children, aging parents, a house, and for women, balance a career with it all. For men, the expectation is to be "sensitive" as well.
The pressure on husbands and wives is to do it all is as never before. Even sex with a spouse has pressure--how often, what kind of orgasm, and not just the kind, but how many. Years ago, you spread your legs every Saturday night after the bath, you did it and both of you rolled over and went to sleep. No "who goes first" or "did we have equal time" or "orgasm thermometer." In and out. Duty done.
One way to escape our responsibilities would be to enter another world. However, we don't become missionaries nor nuns, too much responsibility for that, and no, we rarely walk away from our kids, and we can't just ignore the demands of our aging parents, so we stay and try to do it all, and let's face it, we need money to live.
A lot of us go to therapy and find support for all that we have to do and want to do. It helps. Some of us even manage to change a little, to fix our boundaries, to learn to say "no" for the first time. The more athletically predisposed join gyms and fitness centers and physically work out pressures. Many find supportive friends. Talking helps. We joint support groups and interest groups, bonding together with strangers in order to be able to share the vulnerabilities we do not want to burden our loved ones with. The groups help too. Many take ways which ultimately add to their troubles. They drink too much, or engage in recreational drugs. Others use the legitimate drugs, Zoloft and Prozac are common names, as a way to avoid depression.
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