Infidelity: Understanding the Affair – And Rebuilding Your Relationship

Infidelity: Understanding the Affair and Rebuilding Your Relationship

Love and intimacy are at the core of humanity. The need for each is hardwired in all of us – dreamers, doers, madmen and the perfectly sane. But love and intimacy can also bring us to our knees, leading us into breathtaking emptiness, sadness and despair. Who hasn’t been there?

Without a doubt, one of the worst parts of love, perhaps one of the worst parts of being human, is finding that the person we love might be falling in love (or in-like-a-lot) with somebody else.

Infidelity occurs worldwide and across many different cultures. It’s been happening throughout the ages, so in terms of human behaviour, it seems to be a classic, despite that we all condemn it.

Infidelity: How Does it Happen?

The are many reasons people stray from the arms of a long-term intimate partner and into the arms of another. Sometimes an affair is the externally visible break of something that has been fractured on the inside for a while. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the marriage at all. According to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, 56% of men and 34% of women who strayed from their long-term relationship rated those relationships as ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’.

So why then?

There are a host of reasons that people turn their attention from a long-term relationship to one with somebody new – and they are reasons, not excuses. Regardless of whether an explanation can be offered by biology, personality, genetics or evolution, infidelity is always a choice.

The more we can understand about what drives a behaviour, the more we can draw a bold heavy underline between it and the rest of forever and move forwards. If you’re the one who was hurt, know that this may have had nothing to do with you, or your partner’s satisfaction with the relationship.

Having said that, it’s important to look at your relationship with an open heart and an open mind. Is there any way you may have contributed to the breaks? Not that you anyone deserves to be on the end of the pain that comes with infidelity, but if your partner has been lonely, felt pushed aside by you or had his or her needs in the relationship ignored or overlooked, then he or she didn’t deserve that either.

If you’ve been attentive, loving and open – and it’s important to be honest – then none of this will make sense. It probably never will, but at some point, if you want to stay in the relationship you will have to forgive. That doesn’t mean accepting what happened. What it means is understanding it enough to stop the anger and hurt from having power over you. People make mistakes. Sometimes they are bad ones. So bad that you might be in pieces for a while because of them. But know that your relationship can survive – if you both want it to.

If you are the one who has turned your affection to someone outside your relationship, it’s important to decide whether or not you want to fight for the relationship you began with. If you do, it’s important to own the mess. Take responsibility, be patient, be accountable, be honest and above all else, be loving – so loving. Be loving through the anger, the hurt, the fear and the raw jealousy that will come your way, until you both find your way through.

Now for the reasons. Here’s what we know:

  1. Brain Architecture

    We have three brain systems that are designed to drive us to seek out and maintain intimate connections.

    The first is the sex drive and it’s designed to get us out there looking for a potential other. From an evolutionary perspective, this is important for survival of the species.

    The second is attraction, or romantic love, and it’s the longing we feel to be with one particular person. Powerful neurochemicals – dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin – surge through the body, igniting the euphoric feelings that come with falling in love and focussing energy on that on that one special person. Serotonin is involved in mood regulation, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire and function, so there is likely to be sleeplessness, loss of appetite and increased passion. The area of the brain involved here is the same area that lights up when a cocaine addict is injected with cocaine. It’s by no beautiful accident then, that falling in love brings with it a giddying, addictive high. 

    The third brain system is attachment. At this point, the body starts to develop a tolerance to the euphoria of the attraction phase. Endorphins (the feel-good hormones) and the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin wash through the body, bringing about the feelings of security, calmness and well-being that come with an enduring relationship.

    Okay. So how does this relate to an affair?

    Over time in a relationship, dopamine – the neurochemical that drives feelings of pleasure and motivation – will diminish significantly if things aren’t kept interesting and fresh. When dopamine stays too low for too long, the instinctive push to connect and feel pleasure will gain momentum and the pull of sexual desire, attraction and attachment will strengthen.

    Dopamine will surge in response to something novel, so when there is someone the person is drawn to outside the marriage, continued exposure to that new, novel person will cause dopamine, the pleasure hormone, to constantly rush the body. This will bring about the euphoria of falling in love. When that person isn’t close, serotonin will drop, bringing sadness, emptiness and the push to seek that person out and be with them. Serotonin is also involved in impulse control, so when it’s at a low, people are more likely to act on impulse and do things they might not otherwise do.

    Adrenaline and norepinephrine also rush the body, amping up the feelings of euphoria and excitement that come with the possibility of connecting intimately with another. These neurochemicals are behind the lines we’ve all heard, and possibly said – ‘He makes my heart race,’ or ‘She takes my breath away’. They are clichés for a reason. Quite literally, because of the neurochemicals that are surging through the body, this is exactly how it feels to fall for someone. 

  2. The Relationship

    Not all affairs are a reflection of relationship dissatisfaction, but some are. The relationship reasons that drive people to have affairs are:

    •  general unhappiness and dissatisfaction within the long-term relationship;

    • personal needs going unfulfilled;

    •  significantly diminished or absent feelings of love for partner;

    •  frequency and quality of sex;

    •  lack of emotional support;

    •  lack of appreciation;

    •  lack of connection between the couple;

    •  the couple share more negative interactions and fewer positive interactions;

    •  less personal need for the relationship, so more ready to let it go;

    •  fewer shared resources between the couple that will be lost and missed if the relationship ends (friendships, possessions, connections);

    •  husbands who strayed were less satisfied with the relationship before marriage. Wives not so much.

  3. Personality

    People who have affairs tend to be more open to new experiences and extroverted than their partners and more easily bored. Remember though – this is a tendency, not a given.

  4. Biological

    Depression

Depression is a risk factor for having an affair. Of course, that doesn’t mean that just because someone has depression, he or she will have an affair – not at all.

Interestingly, the decreased serotonin that is characteristic of the attraction phase also happens during depression. It’s perhaps not surprising then, that depression is one of the risk factors of an affair. In this context, infidelity can be understood as an unwitting attempt to self-medicate and overcome the effects of low serotonin. When the potential for an intimate connection becomes realised, the constant surges of neurochemicals counter the effects of low serotonin by nurturing feelings of euphoria, happiness and pleasure.

Helen Fisher has suggested that the long-term use of anti-depressants that raise serotonin can potentially affect other brain systems associated with love and intimacy. Antidepressants increase serotonin, which depresses the dopamine circuit. Dopamine is associated with the feelings that come with romantic love. Compounding this is the potential of antidepressants to smother the sex drive and deprive the body (and the relationship) of the neurochemicals associated with attachment that surge the body during orgasm.

The 334 Allele

The research on biology and infidelity is compelling. (But even in light of this, infidelity cannot be blamed on biology).  Research has found that men carrying the 334 allele in the region of the vasopressin systems scored significantly lower on a questionnaire that measured how attached they felt to their partner. Those who carried two of the alleles showed less feelings of attachment than those who carried only one. They were also about twice as likely to have had a crisis in their marriage during the past year. 

Before you kiss me, do we have genes in common?

In another classic (and pretty gross) experiment, women smelled the sweaty t-shirts of men and chose the ones they thought were the sexiest. Results showed that they selected the shirts of men with different genes in a specific part of the immune system. In a subsequent study, women who were married to men with similar genes in this part of the immune system were more likely to stray outside their relationship. The more genes a woman had in common with her spouse, the more affairs she’d had. From an evolutionary perspective, this can be understood as a way to minimise complications in pregnancy and fertility.

After the Affair: Dealing with Infidelity

Relationships can certainly heal from infidelity but this will depend on the love that remains, the honesty with which the breakages are explored, understood and owned, and the capacity of each to reconnect in light of the betrayal. 

  1. End the affair properly. 

    Given what we know about the role of neurochemicals in reinforcing attraction and desire, it’s critical that the person involved in the affair cuts communication with the outside person if the relationship is going to be given a fighting chance.

  2. Put the affair in context. 

    The most important step to coming back from the brink of betrayal is to understand the affair within the context of the relationship, rather than as one person’s personal failure. It would be easy, and understandably very tempting, to pile shame and blame on to the person who had the affair, but this will squander any opportunity to address any deeper problems that contributed to the fracturing of the relationship. A couple can let each other down in plenty of ways. An affair is just one of them. Other ways include neglect, indifference, withholding of sex, failure to emotionally connect, and constantly overlooking the needs and wants of the other. It’s important to look at intimacy, communication, expectations, need fulfilment and the way conflict or competing needs are handled in the relationship.

  3. Understand how each other is feeling.

    It’s important for both people to understand and accept what the other may be feeling in response to the revelation of the affair:

    •  At different times, the person who has been betrayed is likely to feel insecure, jealous, angry, deeply sad, unable to trust and anxious. It’s likely there will be a tendency to obsess over details of the affair and hypervigilance around anything that might signal continued contact with the person the affair was with or clues the affair isn’t over. And then there’s the mental images.

    •  The person who had the affair is likely to feel shame, regret, fear of continued ‘punishment’ over the affair, anger, grief for the person they’ve had to let go of, resentment, emptiness.

  4. Be accountable. Every second, every minute, every hour – and don’t argue about this one.

    If you’re the person who has had the affair it’s critical that you remain completely accountable, sometimes perhaps ridiculously so, until the trust is rebuilt. This might take a while but it’s important if you want to rebuild your relationship. Be where you say you’re going to be, when you say you’re going to be, and if your partner rings, answer. If he or she texts, text back – always, no matter what. Rebuilding trust is key and that’s not going to happen without a massive display of commitment to the task.

  5. At some point, you’ll have to forgive.

    If you’re the one who has been hurt, at first there’ll be two types of days – bad ones and really bad ones. You’ll feel hurt, angry, sad beyond words and some days you’ll feel like you just can’t breathe. No doubt your partner will wear this for a while, and everything else that’s in you that has to come out. Eventually though, if you’ve decided to stay in the relationship you will have to make the decision to stop punishing your partner. He or she will already be feeling enormous shame. Go your hardest for a while, but then stop. Your relationship will depend on it. One way to do this is to be willing to honestly explore and own any way you may have contributed to the fall of the relationship.

  6. You’ve made a mistake. Don’t fight the response.

    If you’re the one who has had the affair, understand that your partner will be hurt, angry, in love with you, in hate with you, miss you, never want to see you again, won’t want to be without you – and sometimes this will turn so quickly you won’t see it coming. Stand still and let his or her emotion wash over you. There will come a point where this will stop but in the meantime the high emotion has to come out, otherwise it will fester and rot your relationship from the inside you. You don’t want that. And be loving. Always.

  7. Do something novel together.

    When the time is right, do something novel and exciting together. Go away for a weekend somewhere you haven’t been before, do something together you haven’t tried before, if your relationship has been without sex for a while bring it back. This can increase dopamine in the brain and help to reinvigorate romantic love.

Relationships that have been broken by the intrusion of another can heal, provided that both people are able to feel safe from blame and shame enough to own their part in the breakage. The responsibility might not be shared evenly, and that’s okay. If you’re both still there after the affair, and both still fighting, the relationship is clearly still important. Be patient and be open to each other. A bad decision doesn’t have to mean a bad relationship. It might, of course, but it doesn’t have to. That’s what you need to both decide.

We all deserve to be adored by the one we love. When that adoration turns to another – however short-lived – the pain can quite literally be breathtaking. Some days you’ll wonder if you still have the capacity to exhale. You do. And you will. But it will take time, fight and some hard decisions. You loved each other once and if you’re both still fighting to stay together the chances are that the love is still there, but buried under too many years of neglect, obligation, and the day to day pressures that come with life. If you’ve both decided the fight will be worth it, be patient and keep fighting for it, because it will be. 

79 Comments

Celia F

That was so well written ❤️ I know that maybe I am the bad person here I was a cheater myself,met my husband I was 16years and I was 34 when I met the guy I emotionally cheated on my husband I told him everything 😔I just wished I could go back in time but I think I learned the hard way it’s been 20momths and he did the same to me, its so difficult when you are ponished all the time our you forgive and move on, or what will whapen is that the resentment will destroy the remained love and its will be the end.

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Yasmin

Me and my husband cheated we both found out around the same time. He had a hook up fling with another woman he met online. I had a 2 week fling and had sex one time. I found out about his fling first because he caught chlamydia. Anyways we told eachother what happend but we are constantly blaming fighting it got to the point where it go physical at times. But he said he wants to try but these past few days hes been telling me nasty mean things saying how he hates me and that hes glad he cheated because i cheated. Like hes acting like hes the only one hurt when im hurt about what he did too. So i dont know if its worth saving if he compares my cheating to his saying he cheated in a motel and I cheated at home so im worse…am i over thinking when its clear its over?

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Vanessa

My partner of nearly 4 years has been struggling with loneliness and depression for as long as I’ve know him. He is beautiful and caring and I believe that he loves me deeply. For a long time I’ve tried to encourage him to talk out his feelings or seek professional help and been so clear that I would support him. He has never been able to bring himself to seek the help he needs because that would mean confronting lot of things he has buried quite deeply and he knows he would have to accept making some life changes that he’s not prepared to do because it’s comfortable and easy, and when he gets down he will find quick fixes, not healthy. Last year I went through a really tough time emotionally, and he was there supporting me all the way through it as best he could. I very recently found out that he was cheating on me through virtual platforms with random women. I’ve been heartbroken ever since. We had big emotional talks about it, and he finally admitted that he would go and seek that physical intimacy when he felt I was emotionally unavailable for him because I was going through a difficult emotional situation. He knew it was wrong and said he has so much hate and loathing towards himself that he did it, which breaks my heart to hear. I believe him, might sound naive idk. I didn’t feel like he could communicate to me that he was lost and lonely because he felt like he wasn’t allowed to be. I am so confused because he is the person I care about most in this world, if he had told me he was is a dark place I would’ve helped him, but he didn’t tell me, just went to look for a quick fix so that he could come back and support me through the hard time. I was ready to work through it because I love him, and even though the choice he made was horrible, I understood. He made a lot of promises to work on himself so that this wouldn’t happen again, but since had not actually made any real changes to make progress. I was in so much pain so I asked that we take a break, give him space to work on himself and me to heal. But I am in even more pain than before because I feel like I’ve abandoned him in a time where he really needs me, because he’s really lost. I think right now he needs a friend to help him get the support he needs, do I separate the cheating from his mental issues and be there for him as his friend, and hope that in doing that I will also heal and we can start again to rebuild our relationship? Or does that scream toxic

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Upset

I found out recently that my husband of 28 years has been messaging his ex and that they had arranged to meet up in a hotel to spend the night together. I found out when I woke one night to see him on his phone sending heart emojis to her. It has taken several weeks for the full story to emerge and I don’t know if I have all the facts yet as it seems that at every turn I find out something else. He deleted all the messages that night, so I haven’t been able to see them.

He seems genuinely sorry. He immediately cut all contact with her and says that he doesn’t think that he’d have gone through with it in the end anyway (I don’t believe him on that). He has been very living since it all came out, but he’s laid much of the blame on me, saying that I was cold towards him and that he felt pushed out in favour of our children. He also told me that I’m unapproachable, stubborn and difficult to fathom, but he genuinely loves me and wants to put this behind us.

I’m finding it very difficult to move past this. I was very shocked as in my head we had a solid and loving relationship. I recognise that there may have been some communication difficulties, but can’t take that they were just on my side. Sex had become a bit of an issue and he said he was frustrated with me, which is why he was looking elsewhere, but it hurts that he spoke to her about it rather than to me. I want to make my marriage work, but I’m struggling to see the way through (although ironically the sex has been great in recent weeks)

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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