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Why do people have affairs?

The beginning of an affair is a thrilling moment of exceptional vitality and promise, offering greater emotional and/or physical closeness and validation. At last, I will be understood, I will be openly loved, I will have my desires satisfied, feel more powerful with someone, be able to live out everything I have kept secret about myself!

These are all wonderful desires, and they all should be fulfilled. The real question is why married people are so often unable to satisfy these desires in their marriages and seek out affairs instead.

One perspective on the answer to this lies in the nature of marriage.

Marriage (or long-term, committed relationships) seems to start out as the free, loving union of two independent people. That’s the appearance, but the reality is that couples are often deeply and unconsciously encumbered by the family experience they had while growing up.

Along with learning to walk and talk and go forth into the world, we grow up learning how a relationship is supposed to look and feel, how open married people can be with each other, how much of ourselves we can safely reveal. We learn how to stay safe in the give and take of a family, or we acquire a great deal of anxiety about our lack of safety.

Until we are married, what we learned as children does not usually arise for us in relationships. We are freer then. But once we marry (or, for some, once we have children), we unconsciously start living within what we learned in our childhood families. If we come from a family in which no one acknowledged feelings, we don’t either. If in our original families everyone seemed happy, and anything distressing was dismissed as though it didn’t exist, that’s the way we live in marriage. If our childhood family was one in which whatever we wanted was ridiculed or provoked anger, we usually don’t let ourselves know we want anything.

All of this happens without awareness that we are doing it, as a way of avoiding confronting our fears of being too open about our true selves with our spouses. Consciously we may have very different intentions, yet as soon as there is conflict and emotions get overcharged, the ‘rules’ we learned for safety in family life take over. As the conflicts pile up, the love gets replaced by impasse. If one of us tries to move beyond these reactions, the other reacts more strongly to hold the rules in place. We’re stuck.

Our desire for love and intimacy hasn’t diminished, but the opportunity to live it out with our spouse becomes less achievable (except, for some of us, when we are on vacation, when we may leave our rules at home). There are many ways to maintain distance in an unsatisfying marriage, with cheeriness which stays on the surface, with coldness, with frequent arguing, with keeping very busy.

This is the background which motivates married people to have affairs. Affairs are an attempt to get the love we have denied ourselves. And initially they often seem to work.

Yet affairs do not resolve the underlying conflicts we have about being vulnerable in an ongoing relationship. For that reason, they are actually only a short-term fix to a long-term problem (usually with bad consequences which increase the fear of openness). The long-term solution lies in developing the capacity to bear more of the vulnerability of ongoing, intimate connection.

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