Affairs can be undoubtedly devastating, but are all affairs created equally? What are the key differences between an impulsive one-night stand and romantic affairs that last more than a year and how do affairs that last more than a year usually end?
Cheating is considered wrong, but can people fall in love when having an emotional affair? Moreover, can the betrayed spouse find forgiveness and reconciliation? Will a marriage survive such instances of infidelity? Let’s get into everything you need to know.
Why Do People Have Affairs?
If you ask a group of ten people who had an affair why they engaged in the act, you will probably receive ten different answers. Affairs are complex, and they manifest from numerous factors, including:
- Relationship stress
- Personal temperament
- Individual beliefs about infidelity
- Mental health
Falling In Love with a Fantasy
Affairs can quickly become consuming and tantalizing. The highs and lows feel seductive- but they’re rarely about the other person.
Relationship therapist David Lechnyr indicates that fantasies always feel more exciting than the daily routines and realities of everyday life. Think about it this way: the other person remains alluring, but that’s because they are in limited supply. The taboo remains taboo.
The betraying partner gets to see this new person at their best- time and time again- which can create an irresistible fantasy bond. They don’t have to argue about who will do the dishes or drive the children to daycare. They don’t have to compromise on finances or remodeling projects.
Lechnyr also indicates that non-sexual affairs can be even more addictive. That’s because the person gets to maintain an ideal fantasy without any discrepancies. Imagination, after all, can be far more seductive than the truth.
Need For Validation
We enter this world as helpless infants needing attention and security. As we grow and mature, this need doesn’t disappear. It may become somewhat more refined, particularly as we become more independent, but we all desire the reassurance that we are loved.
Many times, cheating happens as a result of fragile egos and the desire for validation. This isn’t just about sex. People who cheat will often cite that the other person made them feel special or worthy. They may share how their spouse stopped offering them that reassurance.
Chemical Release of Feel-Good Hormones
Feelings of lust and attraction release all kinds of hormones, including testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. This tantalizing cocktail can quite literally make someone feel ‘hooked’ to the other person.
Spending more time together reinforces the reward system in the brain. This reward system can create intense feelings of giddiness, euphoria, and sexual attraction. This can create a vicious cycle- even if someone wants to stop the affair, they may find it challenging to do so.
It’s no secret that it can feel uncomfortable to confront relationship problems. For example, a partner may feel like the other person doesn’t care about their feelings. Or they might feel guilty or ashamed for having specific needs. They may even feel like they have fallen out of love with their spouse.
Whatever the specific reason, an affair can exacerbate this avoidance. According to therapist and author Tina Tessina, “People don’t want to deal with whatever problems they’re facing in the marriage, and an affair is soothing, exciting, and an escape.”
By moving outside the marriage, the person can focus on something new and exciting. This can help them forget or deny their actual reality.
Commitment can have different definitions depending on who you ask. Even in a marriage, people may have disagreeing perceptions of what constitutes an affair.
For example, someone might deny to their partner (and to themselves) that they are actually having an affair. This is especially true if sex isn’t involved. Or, you might suspect your partner has an inappropriate friendship, even if they insist everything is fine.
Feeling desired by someone else can boost someone’s self-esteem and self-worth. If someone feels insecure in their marriage, they may feel more apt to look outside of it.
Even if their partner is loyal and compassionate, the insecure person may assume that they’re just saying or doing that because they have to. On the other hand, feeling admired by someone new feels novel and thrilling.
Narcissists are notorious for engaging in affairs. They inherently value power and control, and they also believe they are above mainstream rules.
If confronted about suspicious behavior, narcissists will often gaslight or lie about the affair. They may turn it on their partner and insist they’re being paranoid because they’re the unfaithful one.
Sexual compatibility is an integral part of relationship health, and constant disagreements or about sex can result in tension.
Some research shows that sexual performance anxiety is a risk factor for infidelity. Some people may find themselves too nervous to talk or engage in sex with their partner. Subsequently, they may look outside the marriage for a lower-pressure way to fulfill their needs.
Additionally, feeling confined in a sexless marriage can increase the desire to have an affair.
Some people have affairs to retaliate against their spouse. This can happen if they feel betrayed by them cheating or by other harmful acts.
When engaging in this response, the cheating partner may assume that “getting even” will make the other person feel bad. This can be true, but it only increases the level of mistrust in a relationship.
Exploring Long-Term Affairs Statistics
What percentage of marriages have affairs? Although exact data is impossible to obtain, national surveys show that almost 15% of married women and 25% of married men have had extramarital affairs.
Over the course of the entire lifespan, 70% of Americans engage in some kind of affair during their marital life- although these affairs do not always include sex.
This research may be surprising to people who assume men are exclusively responsible for infidelity. While men are more likely to cheat on their partners, the infidelity rates amongst women have jumped 20% in the past two decades.
Some affairs are quite brief, lasting only a few physical interactions. Others may be more complex and nuanced- these affairs that last for years tend to involve emotional and physical intimacy.
How Long Do Extramarital Affairs Usually Last?
Most affairs last between one month to about a year. However, about a third of affairs survive longer than two years. The duration of the affair often depends on how the affair dissolves.
The majority of affairs start with friends or coworkers, although infidelity can happen anywhere and with anyone. Many people who engage in cheating do not tell their spouses. This statistic resembles the research that shows that 60% of people lie at least once in a 10-minute conversation, with many telling an average of 2-3 lies.
The rates for infidelity tend to increase with age. While people may cheat during their first few years of marriage, statistics jump during middle age, with the highest peak for both men and women occurring between 51-59. These rates remain high for people throughout their 70s and 80s.
Why Do Some Affairs Last For Years?
According to therapist and author Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, “An affair is always somewhat of a fantasy life being lived within confines that allow it to be exciting, fun, and without the difficult issues that all relationships have.”
The longer someone has an affair, the longer they can live out their fantasy and avoid reality. Drawn-out affairs can become a crutch- rather than focus on the problems affecting one’s marriage, the betraying spouse simply directs their attention elsewhere.
Longer affairs may be more common when:
- Both parties are married to other partners.
- Both parties indicate being in love with one another.
- Both parties agree that the affair will not progress into a formal relationship.
In other words, longer affairs may be more structured and defined. Both partners understand what they will and will not receive from the other person. It is more of a transactional relationship rather than a whimsical one.
What Percentage of Affairs End in Divorce?
We all know that the statistics on divorce are harrowing. In general, nearly half of all first marriages in the US end in divorce. And while the rate is falling, there are still 750,000 divorces each year.
Research shows that 42% of divorcees cited an extramarital affair during their marriage. Many couples therapists indicate that affairs are one of the most challenging problems a couple can face.
That said, these statistics do not mean that the affair itself led to divorce. Many factors can contribute to a couple deciding to separate. For example, the affair often results due to other difficulties within the marriage.
Why Do Affairs Usually End?
Affairs typically have three endings:
- Divorcing the spouse and remarrying the other person
- Divorcing the spouse and ending the relationship with the other person
- Recommitting to the marriage
In its simplest form, the affair usually reaches its end when one person has had enough. This person can either be one of the betraying partners or their spouses.
In some cases, the affair ends once it’s discovered. One partner may give the other partner an ultimatum- if they don’t end the affair, the marriage is over. These ultimatums may put an immediate stop to the affair.
That said, deceit and infidelity can still go hand-in-hand. Some people may insist they ended the affair- only to continue engaging with the other person.
Why Do People Stay Married When They Have a Long Affair?
This question plagues many people. Why stay in a marriage if you’re going to be unfaithful? Better yet, why cheat if you’re allegedly happy with your spouse? As it turns out, these answers can be complicated.
Love For Their Spouse
Although it may seem counterintuitive, many unfaithful partners report solidly being in love with their spouses. In this case, the problem isn’t so much about love- it’s often about feeling dissatisfied, bored, lonely, or disappointed despite the love.
The unfaithful person may or may not have expressed these issues to their spouse. They may feel like, despite their feelings of love, things won’t improve within the marriage. An affair may seem like a viable solution for fixing one’s distress.
Familiarity and Consistency
Marriage can provide a stable and reliable foundation. This is especially true if the couple shares many parts of their lives, such as children, social circles, financial assets, or hobbies.
Many times, people have no intention of leaving the marriage when they have an affair. Often, they crave the combination of consistency with the thrill of novelty.
Most people understand the ramifications divorce can have on children and family units. From splitting custody to transporting them to different homes, divorce is stressful, and parents often want to maintain a united front for their kids.
Divorce may simply be out of the question. Even if the marriage is unhappy, parents may agree to “stick it out” for the children’s sake.
The Affair Cannot Fulfill All Their Needs
At first, a new partner may seem like the perfect fit. Everything can feel so novel and exciting. Again, this is part of the fantasy bonding. However, like with most things, the ‘shiny toy’ tends to lose its luster over time.
Most people logically realize that one person cannot fulfill their every need. Instead, they may try to ‘mix-and-match different people to meet different needs. This phenomenon may explain why some people engage in multiple affairs. They hop from person to person trying to fulfill other voids.
72% of Americans report feeling stressed about money, and finances are a leading problem in most relationships.
Many people feel they must stay in unhappy marriages because they need financial support. This rule especially applies to people with children, particularly if one of the spouses has paused their career to stay at home with the kids.
Unfavorable Views of Divorce
Cultural or religious constraints may keep people married even if they aren’t happy with their partners. These individuals might worry about social ostracization or other related consequences.
In such cases, marriage represents a lifetime commitment, regardless of any egregious variables. The affair may serve as a refuge from the unsatisfying relationship.
Do Long-Term Affairs Mean Love?
It’s impossible to answer this question with one generalized response. Affairs can mean so many things: sex, emotional connection, freedom, rebellion, power, and control. They can also mean love. It’s very possible for someone to feel like they have fallen in love with the other person.
As we know, love can be elastic. Some people will indicate that they love their spouse and the other person. They might just insist that the type of love is different.
How Long Do Relationships That Start as Affairs Last?
Love doesn’t necessarily equate to long-term sustainability. Although studies are limited, some research suggests that only about 3-5% of affairs result in marriage. Over the long term, many of those marriages invariably fall apart.
Relationships that start as affairs begin on a rocky foundation. You know your partner is breaching someone else’s trust. Additionally, you probably must conceal the truth about how you met when people ask.
Additionally, when an affair transforms into a relationship, people often lose some of their support systems. Friends and family may side with the betrayed spouse. They might distance themselves from the cheater, angry or hurt by their decision to end the marriage.
Can a Marriage Survive a Long-term Affair?
In a short answer, yes. In a longer and more nuanced explanation, it’s complicated.
According to the relationship therapist, Rich Heller, “Every couple I’ve worked with that’s had an extramarital affair sees the affair as being good in the sense that it triggered the healing process for their marriage.
Would it have been better not to have the affair? Inevitably, they both feel that not having it would have been better. They wish they had seen the missed steps that led to the affair rather than having it.
At the same time, they accept that they are where they are, and this is how they’re learning the lessons that will build their marriage in the future.
In other words, affairs can act as the catalyst for long-term change. Confronting an affair- although it’s challenging- forces a couple to look inwardly. Both partners must evaluate the role they play in their marriage.
How To Survive Long-Term Infidelity
Is there a chance to save the marriage? Contrary to popular belief, extramarital affairs aren’t always disastrous. In some cases, it’s possible to come out even stronger after healing from an affair.
Avoid Impulsive Decisions
If you just discovered your partner had an affair, you will likely experience an intense rollercoaster of emotions. These emotions are normal- aim to accept and embrace them.
That said, try to avoid making snap judgments right now. You may be highly vulnerable, reactive, and prone to making poor choices. Instead, pause. Reach out for support. Talk with trusted friends. You don’t need to make a lifelong decision today.
If you were the cheating partner, you should also avoid impulsive decisions. You might be tempted to initiate a divorce, especially if you feel like you’ve fallen in love. But there can be profound power in simply pausing.
Do Not Reach Out to the Other Person
You might desperately want to lash out and attack the other person. This urge is normal. However, it’s essential that you avoid acting on it.
You must recognize that it’s easier to point the blame at someone else. Most people want to give their partners the benefit of the doubt. They hope to believe that their partner was taken advantage of by someone else. This cognitive dissonance allows you to channel your anger at this other person- rather than your partner directly.
But your partner is responsible for their actions. No matter the motives, they chose to be with this other person. Reaching out will only cause more stress and heartache and ultimately delay the healing process.
Empathy Is Essential
According to the licensed social worker Raffi Bilek, “Infidelity can certainly be forgiven and overcome. Couples counseling is often an important part of that, but it’s only part of the picture. The main ingredient in healing this breach is empathy. The betraying party has to work to fully understand the hurt they’ve caused, and they have to be able to communicate their remorse over what’s happened.”
Empathy refers to having the ability to understand someone else’s emotional experiences. In healthy relationships, empathy is a critical component of connection.
Like Bilek states, the betraying partner must be willing to attune to how their partner might be feeling. This experience can, of course, be painful. Most people don’t want to hurt their loved ones. Leaning into their emotion- and embracing it- requires immense vulnerability.
The betraying partner must be willing to hold themselves accountable. They need to listen openly without judgment, defensiveness, or rationalization. They must be willing to give their partner ample time to process what happened.
Accept No Guaranteed Timeline
You cannot just assume that you can heal after one month, six months, or even one year. According to therapist Mac Stanely Cazeau, “There is no guaranteed time frame. When it comes to rebuilding trust after an affair, no timetable can be given. Healing and forgiveness look different to every couple. Be ready to give all access, as rebuilding trust will take a lot of time. As a cheater, one must accept that one’s privacy may no longer exist as trust is rebuilt within the relationship.”
That said, it’s crucial to track your emotions and progress. If things remain stagnant (or start deteriorating rapidly), it’s time to take inventory. What changes do you still need to make? What do you need from your partner? What steps can you take together to continue moving in the right direction?
Seek Couples Counseling
If you want your marriage to work, couples counseling can help you process the affair and your individual needs. Therapy offers safe, structured support designed to help you heal.
Many couples therapists have extensive training in working with infidelity. When meeting with prospective therapists, you should consider asking:
- How do you typically help couples trying to heal from an affair?
- How long do you expect treatment to take?
- What will you expect us to do in between sessions?
- What specific training do you have working with couples?
Some couples who remain on the fence about their marriage opt to start with discernment counseling. Discernment counseling helps both partners decide if they want to end the marriage or commit to working on it.
If your partner does not want to attend therapy, you can still benefit by meeting with an individual therapist. They can provide you with resources, guidance, and practical coping skills for how to move forward.
Reassess What Needs to Change
Besides ending the affair, what do you need from your partner? What do they need from you? These questions can be hard to answer, but you must start asking them.
Affairs can erode even basic trust, and if you want your marriage to survive, you both must actively work to restore it. This process takes time and conscious effort.
Do you need more intimacy? Do you want to have healthier communication with explicit boundaries? Do you require that your spouse allows you access to their passwords or technology?
There are no right-or-wrong answers for what needs to change. You are both allowed to express your boundaries. Ideally, both partners need to work together to meet those needs.
Be Mindful About Who You Tell
If you’re angry, you might want to let the whole world know. You may wish that your spouse feels the same pain and betrayal you do.
But before you spill what happened, consider this: you can’t undo the reveal. If you choose to stay together, you risk people judging, shaming, or questioning your decision. Ultimately, you need supportive loved ones who can stand by you unconditionally.
Not everyone is capable of this critical task. That’s why it’s a good idea to consider sharing your story with only your trusted few- and avoiding it with everyone else.
Reevaluate the Relationship Often
To survive a long-term affair, your marriage needs to avoid complacency. You need to revisit and reflect on your relationship satisfaction often. Are you feeling more connected with one another? Is the trust returning? Can you experience moments of happiness and intimacy together?
As mentioned, there isn’t a specific timeline for healing. But if the dynamic remains stagnant- or if things progressively worsen- it’s time to reassess your priorities. You may also need to consider more boundaries or therapy.
With that in mind, infidelity can take a massive toll on everyone. In some cases, marriages will not survive this trauma, and that is perfectly acceptable.
Affairs are challenging to navigate, but understanding the ways to overcome infidelity can provide you with much-needed relief. You do not have to struggle with your feelings alone. Reach out for support and make sure that you practice self-care during this vulnerable time.