In an affair a married person begins to allow someone other than his or her spouse to meet emotional and eventually sexual needs that should be met only by one’s spouse. An affair is not synonymous with adultery (i.e., a sexual relationship with someone other than one’s spouse), for people can commit adultery without developing an emotional relationship (e.g., a sexual encounter with a prostitute), and the early stages of many affairs do not include adultery.
There are a number of ways of understanding the reasons people become involved in affairs. First, some people develop unhealthy personality styles (personality disorders) that make them vulnerable to affairs. Among these personality styles that often predispose a person to unfaithfulness are the narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, and antisocial personality disorders.
Second, sexual addictions often lead to infidelity. In a sexual addiction a person begins to use sexual encounters as a person with a developing alcohol addiction uses alcohol, that is, to deal with more and more of the stresses of everyday life. Thus the person with a sexual addiction begins to search for a sexual experience when bored, lonely, anxious, frustrated, or depressed. It might be more accurate to say that those with sexual addictions are likely to have series of adulterous encounters rather than affairs, since they generally have many partners rather than develop an emotional and sexual relationship with one individual.
Third, as people go through life they face a number of developmental situations. When they do not resolve these successfully, the lack of resolution may lead to an emotional state (anxiety, anger, dissatisfaction, loneliness) that makes them vulnerable to the temptation of an affair. Examples of such developmental situations include making the transition from romantic love to commitment love during the early months of marriage; learning to negotiate differences in ways that result in both marital partners feeling counted; pregnancy, birth of the first child, and mothering; extraordinary stress at work for either partner; being away from home too much; rejection or failure; success; and midlife crises.
Fourth, people also become involved in affairs because they are exposed to temptation-filled situations for which they are inadequately prepared or in which they do not set wise boundaries. Affairs that fall into this category have been given names such as the friendship affair, the office affair, and the people-helper affair. The majority of affairs start as friendships, often well-meaning and innocent friendships, and move toward an emotional and sexual attachment so gradually and sometimes so unconsciously that the persons involved may not be aware that the relationship is changing until significant transformation has occurred.
Fifth, some people become involved in affairs because of unconscious, unrealistic, or uncommunicated expectations they hold. Everyone enters marriage with many expectations, some verbalized, others unverbalized, and some of which they may not be consciously aware. When people have unconscious or unverbalized expectations, their partners sometimes may not meet them, and they become dissatisfied with the marriage. At other times people enter marriage with unrealistic expectations (e.g., that honeymoon fever will last forever, or that if my partner really loves me, he or she will know what I want without my having to ask). When those expectations are not met, a person may feel dissatisfied with the marriage, believing that something fundamental is missing from the relationship, and be tempted to start looking elsewhere. When someone has an affair, it does not always indicate a defect in the faithful partner or in the marriage.
Sixth, there are a number of situations in which the faithful partner can produce a situation that makes the person who eventually becomes unfaithful more vulnerable. One of these is when the faithful partner fails to meet realistic, communicated requests of the spouse. Scripture clearly teaches that we are to be loving and gentle with each other and that marital partners should meet each other’s companionship and sexual needs. While failure to do so does not justify adultery, it does increase a partner’s vulnerability when someone else shows the warmth, respect, or compassion that had been requested from the spouse.
Seventh, each person has ego needs. The top five ego needs of men and women are usually different. Women’s top five needs are for affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial support, and commitment to family. Men’s top five needs are sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship, an attractive spouse, domestic support (managing the home well), and admiration. Men and women generally try to show love to their spouse in the way they want to be loved, without realizing their spouse has different priorities of ego needs. As a result men and women sometimes do not meet their spouse’s ego needs well, causing an emotional void that leaves the spouse more vulnerable to temptation.
Eighth, almost any psychopathology in the faithful partner, if it is extreme enough, can frustrate that person’s partner and make him or her vulnerable to having an affair. Examples include paranoid personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (extreme perfectionism that keeps normal human needs from being met), substance abuse, physical or emotional abuse, or chronic passive-aggressiveness. For reasons that are not totally clear, codependency also seems to encourage infidelity in the partner but probably for different reasons than the above.