As a sexual empowerment coach, I get to hear a lot about people’s private sexual lives and the things they don’t usually talk about—not even to their partners. Many people have come out to me as having had affairs. I can often hear their voices shake a little in wanting to tell the truth, to let it out, hoping they will be met with some understanding for why they made the choices they made. I let them know that I don’t judge them. I think sometimes people have affairs for good reasons and positive things can come out of them, though it’s not the best way to manage the issues in their current relationship.
We live in a culture that sees affairs as a black and white issue; so much so that the person who went outside the relationship is usually seen as the one who “ruined the relationship,” regardless of the dynamics that led to the affair. I’ve had friends say they lost respect for an artist or musician they once loved because they had an affair, which I find interesting. As observers, we don’t know the facts of the relationship.
The truth is, there are a lot of reasons why people have affairs, and sometimes they can result in positive outcomes. Here are the four most common reasons I’ve observed:
1. We long for the excitement and desire that dwindles in the long-term relationship.
It’s human to want excitement and to experience new things, and when something new shows up, it can feel incredibly invigorating. Flirtation brings excitement back into daily life, and knowing that someone else desires you is incredibly intoxicating. A recent study showed that the brain chemicals released in the beginning stages of a relationship (when sexual infatuation peaks) is akin to brain changes smoking crack cocaine. Does that excuse the dishonesty of an affair and the pain it can cause? No, of course not – but it does provide some context for why new attraction is so tempting.
The truth is, you cannot compare the newness and exciting nature of your affair partner with your long-term intimate partner; it’s apples and oranges. It requires a different kind of approach and creativity to continually fuel desire and excitement with someone you’ve been with for a long time. And sometimes an affair reawakens the desire that has long been dormant that you thought you’d lost. Sometimes you don’t realize how unhappy you were until you have something to compare to.
Desire is beautiful and exciting—it makes life worth living. The question is, what will you do about that desire once you feel it again? If an affair has opened you up to things you didn’t know you wanted, you can look at how and if you can actually get those desires met in your long-term relationship. Sometimes an affair will reinvigorate the relationship with some vibrancy that was missing.
2. We don’t know how to talk about our sexual needs, and sex needs a voice.
Most of us do not learn about sexual communication or have healthy communication about sex modeled for us—and as a result, when it comes to talking about sexual issues, we get paralyzed by the fear of rejection, fear of hurting the other person, and shame or guilt about what we really want. It can feel easier to go get it “out there” rather than having the hard conversations and feeling all those difficult emotions, or continually trying to get unmet needs fulfilled in within relationship.
But avoiding those conversations will never bring you closer to really having the sexual life you want in your relationship. I’ve worked with countless couples who, once they developed some tools for solid sexual communication, changed their sex lives profoundly. An affair can push a couple to learn to talk about sex, meet sexual needs in more profound ways and to prioritize their sexual life and sexual connection again.
3. For those of us who want to explore multiple relationships, we have no other model than monogamy.
Most people grow up with monogamy as the only relationship model, which makes wanting something else very foreign. If you’ve never seen a different kind of relationship arrangement, you don’t have the model or the tools to create it. We barely have the tools to do monogamy, after all! Affairs are the default most people fall to when they want to expand beyond monogamy, but don’t have the tools to create something different. Monogamy isn’t for everyone. Neither are open relationships. Either way, no matter the relationship structure you choose, it requires negotiation. If you are not negotiating needs in how you structure your relationship, you are playing to the default—and working off of an unspoken set of assumptions. When it turns out those assumptions aren’t helping either of you get your needs met, things will come to a head and it can be pretty messy.
4. The only framework to explore sexuality outside a long-term relationship is to have an affair.
I’ve witnessed many people be with the same person for fifteen, twenty years and get to their forties wondering where all the time went. Their sex lives have dwindled and they are on autopilot in the relationship. They want to explore and understand their sexuality in a new way, but their partner may not be interested. Maybe there’s a desire differential where one person wants sex much more than the other. Maybe one person has physical issues that make sex challenging or debilitating. Maybe one person wants to explore certain sexual acts or dynamics that the other person has no interest in. In all of these cases, one person exploring their sexuality hinges on what the other person will or will not do; and that can be a very tough position for both people.
If you relate to this, it might be that you need to go back to reason number two and learn to better talk about sex. If you did, you might actually get more of your needs met. If you keep running into a wall, it can come down to do I choose my sexuality or do I choose the relationship? This is a difficult question and most people don’t want to deal with the consequences of what their answer might mean, so having an affair can feel easier than truly addressing the sexual desires and needs that are not being met. But you might be surprised at how far you and your partner can come if both are willing. Affairs happen a lot and for so many reasons. Sometimes they are plain selfish, thoughtless, and cruel. Sometimes they indicate a total lack of relationship and emotional skills. Sometimes the affair is not at all about one’s partner—it’s about something the individual is seeking. But try to tell that to your partner who feels betrayed by your choice to have an affair. It feels pretty personal when you break an agreement.
Staying to Repair the Damage
If you find out your partner had an affair, you can shift the narrative to one that might be more empowering for you both by asking the right questions. Rather than ask why they had the affair from a place of accusation, the question might be “What purpose did the affair serve?” “What did it give you or teach you?” It’s okay if you need plenty of time to process the anger, sadness and betrayal before you can get to a place where you can ask these questions with authentic curiosity. And if you don’t get to that place, that’s also okay. Sometimes couples do the work to repair and grow after an affair and they build more intimacy and caring than ever. Sometimes they are able to work through the convoluted reasons the affair happened. And sometimes the betrayal just feels too big, too heart-wrenching and the forgiveness and growth doesn’t have space to happen.
Part of the process is owning your contribution to the situation and getting to the “now what?” and asking the hard questions: Is this someone you want to be with with all your being? Are you willing to do the work to meet both people’s needs? Can you heal from this and move forward without forever holding it against them? Can both of you own your part in it? If not, the affair did you a favor, albeit a painful one. If the answers to these questions are “yes,” there’s a lot to learn and there are new ways to grow and be curious about this other person that you’ve been missing. Affairs force us not to make assumptions, not to get stuck in autopilot and defaults of expectation in a relationship. They make us face what we really want and allow us to discover how to get it. It would be great if people would do it in another way—affairs are not the best way to go about this. However, if an affair has happened, ask the right questions and use it for the growth your souls are both seeking.