Couples stand at the altar (or under a flowered arch on a destination beach), exchanging rings and vows of fidelity. They can’t imagine not making it through thick and thin with one another — and only one another. And yet, enough of them end up cheating that one can’t help wondering why infidelity is so common.
Statistically speaking, infidelity is both “obvious” and “not so obvious.”
It’s no secret that its frequency is almost concernedly commonplace. For all the anguish it causes, we’re probably more surprised if a marriage survives without cheating than we are to learn that someone strayed.
For one, there is a broad spectrum of definitions for infidelity.
Some people think of it purely in terms of sex outside of marriage.
Others consider emotional closeness with sexual attraction outside of marriage as sufficient cause for a guilty verdict.
Then there is every form of tryst in between, as well as the presumption of heterosexuality in the relationships studied.
Also complicating reliable research and statistics regarding the presence and frequency of cheating is the way in which subjects are asked about potential infidelity.
Are the subjects questioned in person or via a written questionnaire? Are they alone when answering questions, or are their spouses present? Is infidelity strictly defined, or are the subjects left to interpret its criteria on their own?
It’s easy to extrapolate, then, that figuring out why infidelity is so common may likewise have some inherent ambiguity.
On the one hand — at least in the US and western cultures — monogamy is expected. It’s what couples sign up for, even if they subconsciously pray they won’t be tempted beyond the tenacity of their vows.
On the other hand, not everyone is convinced that monogamy is even natural, let alone possible or healthy.
Beyond the anthropological study of relationships throughout civilization, there are plenty of “happy” marriages that openly avail themselves of outside relationships.
From swingers to threesomes to “open marriages” and couples “with an understanding,” these outliers complicate any would-be irrefutable conclusions about infidelity.
But still the majority of people who enter into marriage do so with the expectation that both partners will remain faithful.
So, when one or both partners stray, there have to be some underlying motivations.
The benefit of understanding why infidelity is so common is that it can help you be more self-aware in your marriage.
It can also help you be aware of signs that your marriage may be unhappy and therefore vulnerable to an affair.
The challenge of that understanding, however, is that it can be easy to use the reasons for infidelity as excuses for infidelity. And cheating excuses will never help you heal if and when infidelity happens.
Let’s look at 8 of the primary reasons, according to Scientific American, that infidelity is so common:
Unresolved anger can fester into negative emotions like indifference and even a desire for retribution.
When communication between spouses isn’t healthy, it’s easy for anger to build up and seek “resolution” in any way that makes the angry person feel better.
Having an affair may not be an intentional way of resolving anger. But carrying around a lot of anger can make you forget your love for your spouse. And it can weaken your commitment to healthy conflict-resolution.
Having low self-esteem can carry over into problems in your marriage. It can make you doubt your worthiness of love and therefore your spouse’s genuineness in expressing love.
It can also make you jealous and suspicious. If everyone else is better than you, then surely your spouse must be cheating.
If you’re not careful, you could create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Likewise, you, too, could be vulnerable to an affair simply for want of the attention and validation that can boost your self-esteem.
Marriage, after all, can get boring as the years go on and responsibilities and stress increase. Attention from an admirer outside your marriage can be invigorating to your self-esteem.
Lack of love:
Being married but feeling unloved creates a very lonely existence. And that loneliness created by the void of love can make a wanting heart seek love elsewhere.
If either or both of you have a low commitment to your marriage, infidelity is a lot more likely. It’s like keeping the doors of your house unlocked in a high-crime neighborhood. You may not go looking for trouble, but trouble will be looking for you.
And your low commitment will make it a lot easier to make excuses for straying, especially if you don’t plan to remain in your marriage.
Need for variety:
As an explanation for why infidelity is so common, the need to “mix things up” probably isn’t one readily admitted.
And yet, for those people openly not sworn to monogamy, the need for variety is the most natural justification for being unfaithful.
Like lack of love, neglect creates loneliness and isolation within a marriage.
But neglect takes that lack of love to a level of deliberateness by completely ignoring the needs of the other person.
It is, essentially, an abandonment of the other.
While it’s unrealistic to expect “hot ‘n’ heavy” sex all the way through your marriage, sex is important.
There is a proven direct relationship between a vital sex life and a happy marriage. It’s not about adhering to a formula, but about finding a frequency and “style” that work for both of you.
If one of you is avoiding sex and physical affection all the time while the other is longing for it, your marriage is going to suffer.
Likewise, if the two of you aren’t in sync regarding the way you have sex, your marriage could be vulnerable to an affair.
For example, “The alcohol was to blame.” Or the two affair partners were on the same business trip and used that as an excuse to let their guard down.
Understanding why infidelity is so common is really just a first step to understanding more about yourself and your responsibility to your marriage.
The time to discuss the uncomfortable topic of infidelity isn’t after one of you has cheated and your marriage is at risk of not surviving.
It’s actually before you even get married (ideally).
It’s up to you and your partner to discuss and agree upon the definition of infidelity. What does it mean to each of you? And what is it going to mean to both of you as a married couple?
When you embark on your marriage with reasons to protect it, you won’t have to provide reasons for betraying it.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and life coach. I work with individuals struggling with how to get over infidelity. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. If you’re interested in taking the first step toward working with me, you can schedule an introductory private coaching session.
Previously published on drkarenfinn.com