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October 6, 2022 — 10:34 AM

A discovered affair is one of the most heartbreaking crises I witness in my counseling practice. Secret relationships can range from a long-term love affair to a one-time hookup. Betrayal can also come in the form of flirty texting, an emotional affair, or an undisclosed porn habit. Infidelity has become so common that some studies indicate that 20% to 40% of heterosexual married men and 20% to 25% of heterosexual married women will engage in an extramarital affair at some point in their lives.

With how prevalent affairs are today, it’s important to understand why they happen on the emotional level—because if we can understand the deeper reasons behind why people have affairs, we may be better able to proactively protect our relationships from the potential fall. 

Understanding the nature of affairs.

Before diving into the main and often unexpected causes of an affair, let me first offer a sign of hope. As a marriage counselor, I see couple after couple heal from the deep betrayal of trust that a secret relationship creates. So much so that many partners agree that while the process was excruciating, the dramatically new version of themselves and their relationship was greatly needed. Those who use the trauma as a wake-up call to grow and change, personally and in their relationship, often reach a deeper level of intimacy where they dare to call it a gift—a painful one no doubt. The raw brokenness can awaken a vulnerability that, in turn, can become the fertile soil needed for growth and real connection. Because of this, helping couples heal from an affair is one of my favorite specialties.  

Not all couples survive (or should) the devastating impact of an affair. This is especially true for those who deem that the relationship isn’t worth the tremendous effort required to grieve, transform, and heal the trust. Some relationships have such a crumbled foundation, or perhaps there was never a strong one to begin with. Both partners may not be ready to take ownership of reaching such a low place, individually and as a couple, which is an essential first step in the repair and growth process. 

While many use the pain from an affair as a catalyst for transformation, there is definitely a better way. The key is to do everything you can to get ahead of this kind of devastating crash. 

The first proactive step is awareness. I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “I’m not sure how this happened. I never thought I (or my partner) was capable of having an affair.” Many fall into the illusion that they are immune to the allure of an affair. They feel sideswiped as to how they could have let this happen. Wanting to know the why is the betrayed partner’s constant front-runner desire, only second to trying to calm the emotional storm and grief from finding out. 

This is why it’s so important to dig deeper and learn about the reasons people form secret relationships and betray their partners, often whom they love very much.

Here are the seven main reasons I have found that people have affairs:

1. Misconceptions about love (falling in and falling out)

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No matter how many times we hear that relationships take work, most people in our society do not appreciate the investment required to create a long-term, successful relationship. Further, we often expect to continue feeling that high in the relationship just as we did in the beginning. Dopamine and stress-buffering hormone cortisol overflow while in the early limerence stages of a relationship. These physiological upsurges are short-lived as we acclimate to our partner with time. Many who cheat on their partners report, I fell out of love. 

Falling out of love is a passive term; that is, it just happened to me. The truth is that the fulfillment and good feeling we seek inside can only be sustained, and endlessly expanded, through effort and growth as we creatively evolve in the relationship. Our natural inclination is to get caught up in what we are not receiving in the relationship, totally missing the importance of putting skin in the game. Many are not aware of or prepared for the level of effort that a successful relationship requires, which leaves them more vulnerable to the instant feel-good of new, forbidden attraction. 

2. Opportunity and boundary naivete 

The sheer opportunity for a secret relationship has grown tremendously in the past decades as men and women work more closely together, run in the same parenting circuits, and generally have more interactions with each other. Likewise, as the LGBTQ community becomes more accepted and visible, so, too, are more viable partners likely to present themselves.

Many in a committed partnership don’t realize they need to be on guard for the dopamine surge when receiving romantic attention or an accepting ear. Crisp boundaries are essential. Many secret relationships start with just a little flirting or emotional disclosure, and before you know it, that little spark flames rapidly into a bigger ember, then a raging fire. No one is immune to an affair, especially when feeling lost, even if you love your partner and still consider them your chosen lifetime mate.  

3. Lack of emotional and self-care

A secret sultry relationship exhilarates like the best drug out there. I see so many partners after having fallen prey to this intoxicating high because they were suppressing and/or not dealing with their emotional anxiety or pain—at home, in their family of origin, or at work. Many don’t realize how vulnerable they are to a quick escape or distraction because they are so out of touch with and ill-equipped to regulate their sense of lack or distressing emotions.

Without being aware of, accepting, and knowing how to effectively take care of our difficult emotions (e.g., feeling anxious, trapped, depressed, lonely, unhappy, uninspired, undervalued, or insecure), the instant feel-good of a new relationship can become too hard to resist. For too many, secret relationships can evolve into an addiction, used to further dissociate from exiled emotions.

Self-awareness, and learning skills to regulate one’s emotions, gives us a fighting chance to resist the intoxication of attraction and sexual attention. 

So many couples I meet with feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of parenting, day in and day out—especially the men. Not to mention, a shift in focus naturally, and often too dramatically, occurs away from the relationship and toward the children. When children enter the duo dynamic—while this can add tremendously to the bond and shared experience—a lack of fun, play, and intimacy can set in. Many feel embarrassed that they are struggling with the thwarted freedom and lack of attention to the relationship, and so they don’t address it.

Successful couples have deeper conversations about their relationship and share time together as much as possible—with no responsibility—where they dip into dating again. As difficult as it may be to carve out emotional time and space for your relationship, you and your family have everything to gain.

5. Feeling unappreciated 

When we don’t feel good about ourselves in our relationship, we tend to wander toward where it is that we do. Many report feeling unappreciated, never good enough, and not respected or valued like they would like to be. We love to have something to offer our partners that they deeply value and appreciate. We want to be near those who not only don’t judge us but who see us in a positive, admiring light. Partners who feel criticized, undervalued, or controlled are more at risk of seeking out or taking the bait of a secret relationship.   

6. Unresolved issues and disconnection

When couples don’t work through their issues effectively, they create space between them. Without feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually connected, the infidelity snake can strike. Common relationship issues include differing needs or attachment styles, ways that fights are handled, the balance of domestic responsibilities, not feeling a priority, issues with in-laws, or maybe there is not enough fun, commonality, or appreciation in the relationship. It’s easy for couples to kick the can on their issues, but the space that is created only becomes an invitation for darkness.

Much of what doesn’t make sense about good people who make the dark choice to betray their partners can be understood by delving into how our brain chemistry works. Neurologists use a term called neuroplasticity to explain the changes in our brain as a result of our experiences and knowledge. As licensed counselor Deborah S. Miller, LPC, writes in her book More Than Sorry, “…understand that in the context of an affair, the brain stirs up dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, prolactin, and testosterone. These hormones contribute to impulsivity, poor decision-making, and intense energy, emotions, and feelings of possessiveness.” 

A secret relationship can trigger the same kind of response as substance abuse, gambling, or other addictions. We can become “addicted” to infatuation and to the attention from a potential love interest. Once the brain pathway is established for the kind of pleasure that a secret relationship brings, then be on the lookout for the cravings. When the cravings take over, we lose touch with logic as we are carried away into impulsive adventure like an adolescent. We are more likely to judge reality in egregiously biased ways when we lack understanding of our brain chemistry. 

Other biological factors may also have an influence on our risk for having an affair. For example, one survey found that those with an ADHD neurology, which comes with a weaker prefrontal cortex, are even more likely than the general population for a physical affair. Further, a 2019 study found that men with higher levels of testosterone were more likely to cheat than men whose testosterone levels were lower.

While our biology doesn’t define us or definitively determine our actions, our own brain chemistry plays a huge role in the decisions we make and can actually cause us to cheat ourselves from our inner knowing. Awareness of this is an important first step in protecting oneself (and in many cases healing from) the madness that lust creates and the deep trauma that infidelity causes. 

Talking about infidelity is not an easy or comfortable topic, yet it’s a dangerous one to keep in the shadows. Being more open about the unexpected traps that cause so many partners to be unfaithful is an essential place to start—for preventing this painful path and helping affected couples heal and grow forward.

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