How to understand infidelity

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There are lots of reasons why people are unfaithful. While it's nearly always painful to their partners, it doesn't have to be fatal to the relationship. Some important questions, and answers, about infidelity, from couples therapist and author Esther Perel.

How to understand infidelity

Does an affair inevitably destroy a marriage?

An affair that is revealed is often a crisis in a marriage. Sometimes this crisis will finish off a relationship that is already dying on the vine and in other instances it actually has the capacity to jolt people into a whole new relationship with each other.

Why do people stray?

The central issue of the crisis is always about an aspect of betrayal – that the affair is a betrayal. But, people stray for a host of reasons. Also, people often point to an affair as a symptom of a relationship gone awry. But, in fact, people often have affairs when they are actually quite happy in their relationship. It’s not always because they want to leave, it can actually be way for them to stay.

It’s complicated. People stray because they want to flee the constraints of their relationship. Sometimes people feel disempowered in their relationship and they find someone who values them and validates them in a way that they don’t experience at home. Sometimes people stumble upon a discovery of themselves that they have never known and that never existed in their marriage.

Cultural Influences

The tendency in America is to want to instantly leave the marriage after an affair because Americans are more comfortable with divorce than infidelity. In more traditional societies, the needs of the individual are embedded with the needs of the extended family – a person’s personal hurt is not enough to decide to dissolve the family and change the lives of those who depend on the family. This is in contrast to America, which is a more individualistic society, where personal freedoms are so highly regarded. This is not to say that the hurt is different, only that more traditional cultures are more prepared to find a way to live with compromises in a marriage.

The Key Question

What is the meaning of the affair? The answer to this question will determine how the affair will affect the marriage. The affair needs to be put in the larger context of the relationship.

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  • Esther Perel

    Esther Perel Marriage and Family Therapist, Author Esther Perel is a licensed marriage and family therapist and member of the American Family Therapy Academy and the Society for Sex Therapy and Research. She's author of the international bestseller: "Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence." more about this expert »

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