Can love and good sex "affair-proof" a relationship?

This myth is deeply embedded in our culture and is even held by a fairly large number of marriage counselors. But a lot of people who hold this belief have been deeply disappointed to discover that it’s not necessarily true. While it may seem reasonable to assume that if both partners love each other and have a mutually satisfying sexual relationship, there would simply be no reason for either to stray.  Well, that is true: There is no "good reason." Affairs, however, are generally not motivated by reason or rational thinking, but tend to be matters of the heart, which is the source of passion and desire, and not the mind, which deals with abstraction and logic.

Linda and Charlie bloomLinda and Charlie Bloom Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W are considered experts in the field of relationships. They have been married since 1972. They have both been trained as seminar leaders, therapists and relationships counselors and have been working with individuals, couples, and groups since 1975. They have been featured presenters at numerous conferences, universities, and institutions of learning throughout the country and overseas as well.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

So while it does seem logical to assume that there would be little motivation for partners in a happy relationship to go outside of it to fulfill their most intimate desires, particularly if they’ve made an agreement to be monogamous, it does happen—and more frequently often than most of us realize. A study cited in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy in 2015 reported that 54 percent of female respondents, and 57 percent of males, stated that they had been unfaithful in their relationship. What may also be surprising: The average length of the affairs was two years.

Still more surprising is that according to relationship and sexuality expert Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, the motivating drive to have an affair is a desire not necessarily for sex, but rather for experiences their relationship is no longer delivering. What they desire, according to Perel, is attention, novelty, adventure, vibrancy, aliveness, and passion. They crave the experience of losing themselves in the intensity, excitement, and stimulation of a new relationship, with the hope of re-invigorating the feelings that occur in the stage of infatuation.

Too often, it seems that couples fail to keep that spark alive after they formalize their commitment, and so they run the risk of weakening the glue that keeps their relationship passionate and healthy. When daily routines and responsibilities dominate their attention, the risk of a violation of their monogamy agreement increases. When either partner feels that they must submerge aspects of themselves to maintain peace or avoid conflict, the risk factor is similarly heightened. The fantasy of being free to be fully authentic, and to experience aspects of oneself with another person that one's partner disapproves of, is a compelling motivator for anyone who has withheld or concealed aspects of themselves out of fear of judgment, rejection, or punishment. 

The expectation that one person can and should meet all of another's needs, particularly when many of them appear to be at odds with each other—security and adventure, excitement and peace of mind, spirituality and sensuality, tenderness, and strength—can be a setup for disappointment or betrayal. This is not to justify violating anyone’s vows, but rather a warning to be mindful of the dangers of holding a partner responsible for fulfilling a range of needs and desires that may be beyond any one person's capacity.

The experience of loneliness is also something that can occur even in good relationships. This often comes as a surprise to those who wrongly assume that once they enter into a serious partnership, their lonely days are over. But the experience of loneliness has more to do with our relationship to ourselves than whether we are in relationship, or with whom. It is a function of how comfortable we are in our own skin, whether we relate to ourselves with compassion or criticism, and how much we enjoy our own company. When we mistakenly hold our partner responsible for taking away our loneliness and making us happy, he or she will be likely to feel turned off by our efforts to coerce their attention.

There is a significant difference between desire and neediness: Neediness often feels manipulative and is seen as a turnoff. It can also include a sense of entitlement, or an expectation that one has the right to be taken care of by one's partner. When we experience a partner’s desire, without their expectation of our reciprocity toward us, it feels pleasurable and attractive.

Sometimes the burden of fulfilling family obligations and responsibilities can feel oppressive, and the desire for relief, even briefly, can be compelling. At these times we are particularly vulnerable to the temptation of affairs. When partners take each other for granted and neglect their relationship, they put it in jeopardy. When unresolved conflicts mount up, resentment, anger, a lack of respect, and even contempt may form conditions that are an accident waiting to happen. Such animosity can become a perfect rationalization to go outside the marriage for intimate contact.

Infidelity can be as brief as a one-night stand, or a secret, years-long affair. Some people try to fulfill their need for attention and validation through sex. Some may rationalize their indiscretions with the justification that there was no intimate physical contact, but like emotional affairs, in which literal sex does not occur, even technical infidelity or virtual affairs can do great damage to one's primary relationship.

No matter what their cause or nature, every betrayal harms a relationship and requires repair work to restore trust and integrity. Another statistic cited by the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy study was that, of marriages in which an affair was discovered or admitted, 31 percent lasted. The shock of the crisis can expose the source of the unmet needs that the affair was an attempt to fulfill, and in doing so, open the possibility for this breakdown to become a breakthrough, provided both partners do the work that is required to heal the relationship.

Pain can sometimes be a great motivator. It would, of course, be more efficient and less painful to avoid the torturous stages of wounding and healing that accompany unfaithfulness. There are many ways to enhance the quality of your relationship without unnecessary suffering. If you don’t know what they are, ask your partner: It's likely that he or she will be happy to give you a few ideas. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.