Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Infidelity: Understanding the Affair – And Rebuilding Your Relationship

28,994 views

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. 

Like this article?

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly round up of our best articles

12 Comments

Mike Mckay

As is usually the case on here a thoroughly interesting, eye opening and thought provoking read

Very well balanced and not (as is normally the case) taking one genders side over the others but simply outlining the facts, the driving factors and also not forgetting the potential mitigating factors

I can imagine a lot of people huffing and puffing at their monitor because someone dared to not take their or their genders side on the topic and had the audacity to suggest that biology, psychology and yes, even their partner could have been some if not all of the reason

My personal experience has been that very few clients actually wanted to try and carry on with a relationship after infidelity, and many of the ones seeking counselling merely wanted somebody else to tell their partner that they were in the wrong, that it was all their fault and that they were scum rather than trying to fix anything

What I have also noticed is that the ones that could mtually approach a relationship with an open mind and genuinely put an infidelity behind them rather than constanly using it to get their own way, excuse their own poor behaviour or just repeatedly torture their partner over it tended to come out of the process with a much more open, communicative and strong relationship than they had ever had before

But its sad that

a) people couldnt build relationships like that in the first place and

b) that so few people are capable of doing that after the event

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Thank you. It’s such a polarising issue isn’t it. Although there will always be people who mistreat the people who love them, this is certainly not always the case with infidelity. Affairs are more often than not the symptom of bad relationships, not bad people – but that doesn’t have to mean the relationship is broken beyond repair. It also doesn’t mean there isn’t love still from both sides.

Reply
Mike Mckay

Its difficult for people to have a big picture view when the core of their trust has been shattered

And where people feel completely the victim with no idea they could be anything less than the perfect partner theyre not usually open to hearing anything less than endless streams of apologies

I have found even with the people who claim to want to try again, theyre often just wanting either some time to get revenge by using the other persons guilt or are just wanting to buy time and prepare for when they ditch the person and move on

Another frequent cause that often goes unnoticed is fear

Many people can feel their partner is completely out of their league in one or more areas, or can just grow to see the person as so perfect that someone as flawed as them doesnt deserve them etc etc yadda yadda blad blah or similar

So I believe they then self sabotage the relationship subconctiously and that sometimes cheating is just the vehicle and not the aim or destination some of the time

Because for someone like that the more they care for, depend and love a person the more they know it will hurt when it ends. And it ending is to them a known certainty with only the date it will happen being unclear

Theres even instances where one person just has what they feel are odd sexual needs they couldnt share with a partner, or where they feel their partner would see them in a bad light if they knew about them too at the other less complicated but more deliberate end of the spectrum

Theres just endless scenarios aside from the obvious ones that can lead to an infidelity, but after the fact the person who feels they were the victim wont usually be interesting in any mitigating circumstances which they cant really be blamed for really on some levels I guess

But yes, theres such a vast array of mindsets, reasons both conscious and subconcious and expected aims or reactions

Theres also the wrong assumption too which can be almost as bad, where one partner is complete sure that they are being cheated on but either cant or wont try to prove it or end the relationship

Often this is actually the self sabotaging mechanism instead of cheating, but by accusing the other partner of doing it and expecting them to “prove” they didnt, which of course is impossible

Getting a person to step back from that brink is extremely difficult and their mindset and actions can tend to kill a relationship as effectively as an actual infidelity willl

I have known people who have gone out and cheated because of that constant stream of accusations, and once it had “happened” they did even try to rebuild the relationship which was impossible before they did go and cheat

I have also known someone say they did cheat just to try and move past the accusations too, but that just ended on the spot and they said even that felt like a relief

So yeah, complex topic, and one so many people remain too raw to ever be able to discuss it in a calm and adult manner

Reply
Jane

This was a good read! Having been cheated on in a long term marriage, and still loving my partner, and being afraid to leave the comfort of a home with 3 small children, the only option was to try and forgive and move on in the relationship. Good times, ups and downs, and no mention of the affair surfaced again. I understand it was not all one sided, but there was no excuse for the infidelity. Fast forward 25 years, the children all educated and making their own way in life, I was once again betrayed. This was the end. A 40 year old was much more appealing then I, The wife and mother who was now 60. Should I have invested those years, only to end up alone?? The one thing I do have is the Love and Respect of my children, which unfortunately the cheater does not.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

I’m pleased the article found its way to you and I’m sorry your marriage ended the way it did. If this man wasn’t able to be fully with you, for whatever reason, then it is best that he move along and make way for the things or people that will be good for you. I know it probably doesn’t feel like that now, but it will eventually. I can hear that you feel alone now, but there is now room for new people can find their way to you when you are ready for that.

Reply
Pia

I wanted to forgive and reconcile just as you wrote.
As the betrayer, he didn’t do any of the things you wrote of; instead, screamed at me and made me always feel like there was something wrong with me for reacting the way I did, and not “…moving forward” more quickly. His time frame for me to get over it was “a day or two.”

I expected him to be kind. I expected him to want to help my hurting heart. He added insult to injury, and then I wasn’t allowed to bring it up ever. He said I disgusted him and I am weak.

I walked away. So confused. I didn’t want to “punish” him. I wanted to communicate and understand why. I wanted an apology that I didn’t have to coach. Not a screaming, resentful “I am sorry!!!”

I took responsibility for my part, working a full time corporate job, splitting my time between two coasts for a year. It was unfair to him.

It has been over a year. I was bombarded with love for 18mos., then it was all gone. As if he wasn’t the same man.

I still have not so good days.

Thank you for validating that I did indeed respond normally to being betrayed.

Reply
Shelkey

He sounds like a narcissist. Look up psychological abuse. I think you’ll find some answers there.

Reply
peace

Husband cheated on and off for 2 years (she moved away after about 16 months). He said it was just sex but I caught him because they were texting months after she moved. It’s been 4 months and he’s really sorry and trying very hard. But, he was hiding text messages coming up on his phone until a few weeks ago. He said he didn’t want me to be upset if I saw a text from her. Her never told her to go away, said he deleted her contact info. A few weeks ago I saw some text to an escort (also from a year ago that he didn’t delete) while he was on business. He said he stopped and nothing happened. He loved me too much and didn’t want anything else bad to happen. This has sent me back in my healing and I don’t think he gets that. Married 28 years. Also cheated about 13 years ago. I’m really having a hard time with this. Any advice?

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Speak with your husband about the article and set some ground rules. What do you need him to do? I would suggest things like being fully accountable with where he is, his texts, his messages, emails etc. There has to be no more secrets and in order to help you feel safe, he will need to surrender his privacy for a while. This is all explained in the article.

I think a lot of people who betray the people they love don’t understand the depth of pain that comes with that betrayal. Healing does take time, especially when it isn’t the first time because the trust will take longer to rebuild. This doesn’t mean that you can’t heal, just that it will take longer. It’s important that you are both realistic about the process. It won’t be easy. You will probably be feeling disconnected, angry, and hurt for a long time and it is important that your husband understands that this is part of the fallout. Over time, there will be more good days than bad days and the distance between the two will get longer. At some point, it will be important to let go of the anger or suspicions and start trusting him again – but it’s okay if this takes a while. I understand how much you are hurting and I know this isn’t easy. I wish you love and strength.

Reply
Pieces on the floor

Found out 7 months ago my husband of 13 yrs has been unfaithful 4 times with 3 short term flings lasting no longer then 2 weeks at a time with 4 different women we are associated with in outer circles, 1 woman he met at bar and had a one night stand with and does not know her name. Last time he had any interaction with another woman was 3 yrs ago, this came out over a dispute in someone elses marriage, one of Ows struck another marriage, go figure! So it was let me know she did it to me too. Also he frequented strip clubs that consisted of lap dances and offered paid sex, which he never did but considered and only didnt do due to being with someone else that intervened. What I did know about was he watched porn regularly, not to the extent though, found out after d-day, up to 3 times a day while pleasing himself and has promised many times to stop over the yrs and failed to do so, just got better at hiding it. I have been entirely devastated! We have been to a couples retreat for this and attending church regularly. I am sad, angry, confused, and a million things almost daily still. He has been supportive of me as much as he knows how, accountable, searching, full of shame and pain too. I am struggling with my unrelenting love for him and my values battling nonstop. I feel like I lost all these yrs with him. I thought I had a happy husband, children, home. I am a sahm. We spent alot of time together, close to eachother, we worked through his prior drug and alcohol addiction, built a wonderful life on the other side. I had no idea he had this secret side, I didn’t know he even had time since he was home when he should etc. He is a sweet, gentle, hard working, shy, caring, loving father, talented at what he does, not always sure of himself, lil hard on himself at times, once he loves you he stop at nothing for you hes treated me very well ( he can’t say that about many). He says I was always loving, supportive, available, our marriage had nothing to do with it, nor me. He says it was entirely with in himself. He says a few things and I’m not sure what to think or do anymore, need guidance, I am stuck. 1. that he felt unworthy of me and the life we had, that one day I’d wake up and see I was better then him and leave him, that he couldn’t handle that and needed to self soothe the fear. That his self esteem was low. Said coming from an alcoholic family he didn’t know what to do with a truly loving life and thought it was impossible for him. 2. That his porn addiction started yrs before I met him, that he developed a fantasy of what sex should be like, it mostly consisted of being persued by a woman. That he was persued by these women he was unfaithful with, when he recounts the events he can pinpoint when he rebutted them and they persued aggressively with nonstop contact, then when he ignore them they’d seek him out one on one and physically advance, and he would submit and the Ow would plan a hotel etc. He said it provoked that fantasy aspect for him that he developed. He says once he was to that point he was in a haze of sorts yet excited they wanted him until the day it was to take place. Then when there he’d become terrified and not want to. He even stated that once he told the one he was scared and was trembling in fear and she aggressively took over and he couldn’t perform at all (same happened with the one night stand). When I think about what I do know of him he is not scared of women in anyway, we at one time had a first, a lil nervous yes but scared no. And I am aware of his previous experience as well, it is something we discussed openly many yrs ago, none of this fits what I know of him.
It’s puzzling feels like he was bullied, and I do know these women as well. They are not very good people in general. I recall these women advancing even on me at the time aggressively, speaking about lingerie they bought for this guy they were planning on seeing etc, now I know they were talking about my husband! And how o how lucky I am my husband gave me such a beautiful home, how nice it would be to have that! Ugh! Were they poaching a weak person, that is insecure to feel more then better then, what’s it about exactly? Should I work harder to forgive and him harder to become stronger?
Despite all of this he holds himself responsible, says that he should’ve never done any of this, fact. I wonder what or how I should process this information in a healthy fashion. Is he an addict, low self esteem, a person who has problems that I should run from I have no clue? I’m so confused and hurt I don’t know what way to turn at all. I need help to sort it out. When I bring it up he cries because he’s sick from hurting me so badly, he did so much all these yrs to make a happy life to destroy it like this makes no sense and he doesn’t understand why he’d allow it.

Reply
Anonymous

Pieces on the floor are you taking about my husband? Your story seems similar to mine, except that he was only having sex once but watching porn and having repeatedly cybersex. His bad behaviour (wouldn’t call it addiction) was there before we met 17 years ago and I didn’t know about it before 5-6 years into our marriage. Found out about his sexual affair 2 years ago, and same time he came clean with all the cybersexing and the porn (which I thought he left behind after our first-second-fifth argue years ago). I am devastated, but I don’t pit myself. I have chosen to give him and our marriage one more chance; if he fails this time, I am out. No more mercy, No more chances, No More hurt! Time will heal and time will show if he’s worthy of my love and trust. Enough is enough. I am too good for this shifty behaviour. Hope you’ll get through it👊🏻💪👍🏻

Reply
Laura

Been married 15 years we have 3 kids and a happy marriage , my husband had an affair it lasted one month with someone from work , she doesn’t work there anymore . It’s been one month since I found out and I cry daily I can’t function , I have visions of them together in bed and it makes me ill . I’m so shocked my husband did this . My husband feels guilty and he has apologized for the hell he has put out family thru and is ashamed . We are currently sleeping separate and going to therapy once a week . Last night he told me I’m pushing him away and he can’t breath I’ve been talking about the affair from the minute I wake up until we go to bed and when he’s at work I text him all day long about this . Some advice pls .

Reply

Leave a Reply

We’d love to hear what you’re thinking ...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

















Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.