Today we are going to take a compassionate and sensitive look at the “why” of infidelity. We believe that infidelity is a choice, and, from our own moral perspective, it is wrong, but at the same time when it comes to making sense of infidelity as part of rebuilding a marriage, further examination reveals a lot of complexity and many sensitive topics.
Infidelity Looks Different for Different People
Infidelity is more common than we might think. A 1994 study showed that nearly a quarter of all men and fifteen percent of women engage in sex outside marriage in either a current marriage or previous marriage.
Individuals who commit infidelity can have very different stories. From the perspective of a betraying spouse, some people come in and know how they got derailed. Others come in saying “I don’t know how I got here,” or “I didn’t want this.” There can be a real disconnection from the consequences of their actions.
Factors that Can Contribute to Infidelity
Dissatisfaction with marriage
People who are dissatisfied with their marriages are more likely to seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere than people who are satisfied with their marriages. According to Gerald Weeks, an expert in the field, one of the strongest factors making marital infidelity more likely is diminished marital satisfaction”.
This information may bring up questions like “what does this mean for distressed marriages?” “Do all affairs point to a distressed marriage?” “Does this happen to all distressed marriages?” It is certainly not the case that distressed marriages always lead to infidelity. There are some situations where infidelity is a result of diminished judgment and an unexpected opportunity, rather than a sign of distress. For example, if a partner goes on a work trip and has too much alcohol and ends up having a sexual encounter with someone other than their spouse. And not everyone in a distressed marriage will have an affair, many people in distressed marriages are faithful to their spouse. But if your marriage is in distress, it’s best to get help and not just to hope for change without taking action.
Little or No Sexual Intimacy
There have been shown to be higher rates of infidelity when sexual intimacy within the marriage is low in frequency or quality. This is not to say that if you’re not having sex with your spouse that justifies going elsewhere for sexual fulfillment, but a lack of sexual intimacy does increase the temptation. From a Christian perspective, continually withholding sexual intimacy from your spouse is also abandoning one of the privileges of marriage.
Doubts the Marriage Will Last
Individuals are more likely to engage in extramarital sex if they doubt the long-term viability of their marriage. These doubts may lead them to think that the traditional rules regulating marriage no longer apply to them. One can start thinking “because the marriage won’t last, I’m going to seek sexual fulfillment elsewhere.” But once the norm of sexual fidelity is violated, prospects for the continued stability of the marriage are lessened considerably, so this mentality ends up leading to the disintegration of your marriage, regardless of what hope you had for the marriage to begin with.
It’s important to watch for doubts, and what you may entertain based on those doubts about the viability of your marriage. If you find yourself having doubts, try re-visiting your core values. Ask yourself, even if it didn’t last, how you would like the end of the marriage to be remembered? If you’ve been holding off getting help for your marriage, maybe now is the time to do so.
Multiple Sexual Partners Prior to Marriage
Once again, this doesn’t mean that if you’ve had sexual partners prior to your marriage that you will be unfaithful to your spouse. Correlation is not causation. However, statistically individuals who have had numerous past sexual partners prior to the marriage are more likely to engage in extramarital sex after marriage.
Gerald Weeks states “It is pretty clear in my clinical experience and in research, that the more sexual partners one has prior to marriage, beyond a certain reasonable point, the more likely they are to have an affair. I can recall one case where a man actually admitted to roughly 150 relationships prior to marriage. And then after marriage, he had documented another 150 relationships by the time he got into therapy and this was a 10-year marriage. This is an extreme case involving sex addiction, but it is a legitimate point.”. Marriage doesn’t solve sexual compulsivity, and it’s important not to assume that one’s sexual history will be completely irrelevant after marriage.
What Causes Infidelity?
The bonus guide for today’s episode gives you several additional points to discuss with your spouse and work on to buffer your marriage against affairs. You can make your marriage more affair-resistant than it already is. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Crisis is another thing that can make your marriage more vulnerable to infidelity. This can be a personal crisis or tragedy that comes up suddenly. It can also be something like being diagnosed with cancer, which can cause one to suddenly start thinking about one’s mortality and want to get the most out of life.
The death of a family member can also create strong feelings of sadness and anxiety. When somebody dies, it seems to stir up one’s sense of mortality. When that gets stirred up too much, one may want to try to recapture some sense of vitality by seeking out a sexual partner.
Of course, this is not the case in all marriages. In fact, it can be the opposite. Facing a crisis can make an individual want to cherish the remaining time with their spouse, and grieving over the loss of a loved one can cause you to draw closer to your spouse, but in some marriages these things have been shown to be connected to sexual infidelity.
Some psychiatric problems can lead to infidelity. One example is sexual addictions, which involve a compulsive desire to act out sexually. It should be noted that in our practice at OnlyYouForever, sex addiction is treated as an addiction, but regardless of how it is categorized, sex addiction can certainly lead to sexual infidelity.
People with bipolar disorder can also act out sexually during a manic phase. This varies from person to person. For some individuals with bipolar it is a huge problem, in other cases it is totally absent.
Again, this does not cause a temptation to sexual infidelity in all cases, but for some couples it can. For some couples, it can become a shared issue in their life that they can rally around and support one another through. Couples who are having trouble having a child can find that sex becomes scheduled and routine, or perhaps that certain body positions become routine because it is purely for the purpose of procreation, which can make it less enjoyable.
For some people there can even be a sense of “I need to prove my fertility by actually getting pregnant or impregnating somebody else.” This is less common, but it is a possibility.
So, don’t get too scared if you’re facing infertility, because this is not an issue for all couples. At the same time, remember to make sex fun sometimes, and not just for procreative purposes, since it is important to enjoy intimacy and bond with one another as well.
The greater the imbalance in gender-role equality, the more vulnerable couples are to affairs. There is a higher risk of an affair if there is a power imbalance rather than a sort of “equal/equal relationship” (Sager’s typology).
This can occur either through a sense of privilege and power on the dominant side, or a desire to have some independence/personal efficacy on the dominated side. For the dominant spouse, there can be an attitude of I can have whatever I want, including an extramarital affair. For the dominated spouse, they may feel overpowered or overwhelmed by their spouse, and there can be a desire to have more independence in the relationship. But there is always another way to solve the problem, even if your spouse is abusive. And having an affair just results in a lot of guilt, and doesn’t bring the sense of freedom you were hoping for (and it’s probably breaking your own values anyway).
How to Have a Strong Marriage
If you do experience infidelity in your marriage, it does not mean that your marriage is beyond hope. If both spouses are willing to do the hard work of facing what was going on and taking responsibility, they can find healing. For the betraying spouse, they really need to take responsibility for why they went down that road. And for the betrayed spouse, it’s important to work through any trauma they’ve experienced. After that has healed and your spouse takes responsibility, you can explore what was going on in the marriage and how it can be a healthy place now. Those couples have a better marriage at the end of the day than many people who’ve never had an affair (though this is certainly not a reason to have an affair).
For couples who have remained sexually faithful, the key is to avoid complacency. If something about your marriage is disappointing, take that seriously, own your own part, and commit to working through it together and you will create a strong marriage. And the intimacy you’re experiencing together is better than anything else you could experience.
 Denise Previti and Paul Amato, “Is Infidelity a Cause or a Consequence of Poor Marital Quality?,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 21, no. 2 (2004): 217–30, https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407504041384.
 Previti and Amato.
 Travis Smith, “Understanding Infidelity: An Interview With Gerald Weeks,” The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families 19, no. 3 (2011): 333–39, https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480711405445.
 Previti and Amato, “Is Infidelity a Cause or a Consequence of Poor Marital Quality?”
 Previti and Amato.
 Smith, “Understanding Infidelity: An Interview With Gerald Weeks.”
 Smith, “Understanding Infidelity: An Interview With Gerald Weeks.”