Why Do People Have Affairs?

Juli Walchuk, MHC-LP February 20, 2023

What leads people to stray from their primary relationships?

Affair. This word alone stirs up a lot of emotions, especially if you‘ve been cheated on, or perhaps your best friend was the victim of a disloyal partner, or maybe you have been unfaithful in a relationship. Infidelity in relationships remains a fairly taboo topic in our society but most people have some sort of experience with it. People of all genders and sexual orientations can find themselves tangled up in the messy world of affairs. Oftentimes, people feel blindsided by infidelity yet analysis shows there are often signs of discord long before an affair begins, so let’s discuss some of the most common reasons that people stray from their relationships. 

And please know this: while open communication may help prevent affairs down the line, a partner can never cause the other to cheat. 

What is an affair?

An affair refers to an ongoing connection between people while one (or both) are in a committed relationship with someone else. Affairs typically occur without the consent or knowledge of the spouse or partner. Affairs are generally ongoing, including repeat interactions, while cheating is a broader catch-all term that encompasses one-time transgressions as well as long-term affairs. Affairs can be short-term including just a handful of interactions, or they can span decades. Below are three common types of affairs; overlap amongst these categories is common as well:

  • Physical: Perhaps the most obvious, a physical affair is centered on a sexual relationship. It can also be romantic in nature but the key feature is physical intimacy. 
  • Emotional: These affairs may be less obvious as they can remain platonic, but the main feature is emotional intensity and closeness. This emotional connection can threaten the primary relationship a person is in and can also escalate to a physical connection. 
  • Internet/ Virtual: If you’ve ever seen the MTV show Catfish, you know what I’m talking about here. Internet affairs can occur via chat rooms, social media, dating apps, sexting, and more. These can also escalate to emotional and physical affairs.

An important thing to note is that affairs can occur in non-couple relationship structures as well, such as polyamorous or consensual non-monogamous relationships. People can still cheat and have affairs by not honoring the agreed-upon boundaries and parameters of the relationship. Whether in a monogamous partnership or any other type of relationship, the boundaries should be delineated and communicated openly, as what constitutes an affair in one relationship may not be considered so in another. 

So why do people have affairs? 

People may engage in affairs for a myriad of reasons but here are some common ones: 

  • Needs are not being met: Whether physical or emotional, people may pursue affairs to make up for what they feel their primary relationship is lacking. Maybe sex has become sparse, so one partner seeks out a physical relationship elsewhere. Perhaps one partner’s emotional aloofness and lack of communication have left the other feeling lonely, so they seek out companionship and emotional connection with a coworker. 
  • To get their partner’s attention: We often think about affairs as secret but in some situations, a partner may want to get “caught.” This could be to elicit jealousy or be used as a self-sabotaging maneuver to get the primary partner to end the relationship. 
  • Insecurity: The reasons for starting an affair may have more to do with one partner’s self-image than with the primary relationship itself. Someone may be seeking external validation to cope with deep-rooted insecurity and low self-esteem. 
  • Fear of intimacy or attachment: An affair may be a way to detach or avoid a deeper connection with a primary partner. This is one of the more cliché reasons and it is often discussed in a gendered way, with men stereotypically being fearful of commitment. However, people of all genders may experience this concern. 
  • Retaliation or revenge: Anger lies at the heart of this reason, as an affair may be a way of “getting back” at or punishing a partner for some action or decision. This can include starting an affair in response to a partner’s infidelity, giving them a “taste of their own medicine.”
  • Situational: Though more common for one-time transgressions rather than ongoing affairs, there could be situational factors at play, such as being under the influence of drugs or alcohol mixed with a bout of poor judgment. 
  • Boredom: It may sound odd but the mundane and routine nature of a relationship (and poor communication about this boredom) may lead a partner to seek novelty and excitement elsewhere. Especially in very long-term relationships, a curiosity for what else might be out there can lead to infidelity. 

Can a relationship recover after an affair? 

While some affairs serve as the last nail in the coffin of a dying relationship, the disclosure of an affair can also serve as a turning point towards a stronger, more honest, and vulnerable relationship. It is possible to repair a relationship in the wake of an affair, and many couples do rebuild their connection, but this requires work. Here are some important steps: 

  • Understand the why: As shown by the non-exhaustive list above, people enter affairs for various reasons so clarity on the circumstances and feelings that led to infidelity is vital. 
  • Recognize that trust must be re-earned: Responsibility must be taken for one’s actions and there must be recognition of the harm caused. The rebuilding of trust can be a long process but it is possible if partners are committed to repairing it. 
  • Set boundaries: Be honest and specific about the expectations of the relationship moving forward, leaving no gray area for what constitutes cheating.

Couples therapy can be a great place to do this repair work in the wake of an affair. Affairs can be complicated and painful, but understanding what led to infidelity can help in the rebuilding of that relationship or in the pursuit of developing healthier relationships in the future.

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