Behind the affair: The people in happy relationships who cheat.

Hannah* married her husband, eight years her senior, when she was 27 years old.

While she says that he is kind and she was relatively happy in their relationship for a long time, she acknowledges that over the years she came to recognise that her husband loves her more than she does him. 

"I often find his intensity overwhelming and exhausting," she writes. She dreams often about leaving him but she is deeply concerned about the consequences this could have for her children.

In 2000, three years after she was married, Hannah met a man through work who she became good friends with and, although nothing romantic was ever pursued at the time, Hannah says that in hindsight there was always a spark between them. After he returned home from a stint working overseas in 2014, the pair began to meet for lunch regularly to chat about their jobs. 

For a long time, it was not a romantic relationship – until one day it was. 

"At a conference in 2016 we happened to end up alone at the end of a function. He confessed feelings for me and this woke me to feelings I had previously suppressed," she writes.

Hannah has now been having an affair with this man for approximately eight years. She says that it is "all things – joyful, fulfilling, amazing, but also frustrating and sometimes sad."

Watch: The Mamamia team debate on the difference between physical versus emotional affair. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

While her coworker divorced his wife several years ago and the pair had an opportunity to pursue a relationship, Hannah says that she was still apprehensive to break up her family.

"My affair puts a spring in my step. He is constantly in my thoughts. We see each other approx [sic] every six to eight weeks, speak occasionally on the phone and rarely text."

Her coworker remarried a few years ago and Hannah says that she feels for his wife but their relationship remains "meaningful, positive and complicated".

"I don't have the bravery to take a risk and leave my comfortable life but I do often wonder what my life would be like if I did," she says. 

Infidelity is extremely common, with most research finding that approximately 60 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women admitting to cheating in some form, whether it is an emotional or physical affair, during their marriage.

Approximately 70 per cent of marriages will experience some form of an affair at some point and if these numbers seem high, it may be because only around a third of people admit their cheating to their primary partner.


In fact, cheating in long-term relationships and marriages is so frequent that one 2020 paper stated it is "hard to imagine romantic and committed relationships devoid of transgressions of some kind. Despite the best intentions not to cause any harm or disappointment to one's partner, breaking rules and promises are largely inevitable in long-term relationships."

Perhaps due to the enduring taboo of affairs in the face of their commonality, they have long been a fixture of cultural fascination.

They are the focus for countless works of fiction, with books and films honing in on the risks, passion, and complications of affairs. There are also narratives where cheating is an ancillary detail on the road to ultimate romantic fulfilment – think The Notebook.

Madeleine Gray's Green Dot, one of the most acclaimed Australian fiction releases of last year, centres around an affair narrative when the narrator, Hera, a floundering woman in her early 20s, meets and falls in love with Arthur, an older married colleague. Gray says that she wrote the character of Hera with a lot of empathy for her character and the bind she finds herself in, as somebody enamoured with a married man.

"She can't see her way out of the predicament that she's in – and that happens in all relationships where love blinds you," Gray explains. 

"In this particular situation, you can feel that it's kind of like the 'sunk cost fallacy' in that you'll get involved in this relationship, you think you want to be with this person so you just have to wait a bit longer and because you've already been waiting, it feels like it would be a waste to stop waiting, so you keep going until you're further and further down the rabbit hole."


Listen to Sealed Section where Chantelle answers three anonymous questions from listeners, who are cheating, or being cheated on. Post continues after audio.

Gray tells Mamamia she chose to write about an affair because of the extreme emotional experiences that tend to propel them. 

"I think affairs in general are just the juiciest possible vector of emotionality because it's like love, but on steroids. You're breaking all society's moral rules, to pursue desire and potentially love. And I just think with anyone who makes that choice, there's got to be some interesting, emotional stuff going on there," Gray says. 

However, when it comes to our appraisal of affairs in the real world, overwhelmingly, these reactions contain little nuance and there is little interest in what is happening underneath the surface. 

Although common, affairs are broadly and steeply criticised, with one sociologist referring to infidelity as the "lone area of adult sexual practice that is disapproved of under any circumstances". One 2013 study of over 1500 American adults found that 91 per cent considered infidelity to be morally wrong – a higher percentage than people who looked down on human cloning, suicide, and polygamy


Disapproval of cheating also seems to have increased as divorce has become a more acceptable option over generations: after all, if you're unsatisfied in your marriage, why not just separate rather than cheat? More often than not, people report that they would rather see the end of their relationship than be betrayed within it. 

This is likely due to generational differences in the way marriage is conducted. For previous generations who married earlier, "struggles" including fighting within the relationship, or infidelity outside of it were more expected. For younger generations who are getting married later, infidelity has become less acceptable. 

Journalist Hugo Schwyzer referred to this shift in relationship expectations in a 2013 Atlantic article as the difference between "capstone" and "cornerstone" marriages. "Cornerstone" marriages are the ones that you build upon, while "capstones" are the crowning achievement of a well-ordered life. 

"The 'capstone' model presumes, as one of my friends puts it, that you only should get married 'after you've got your sh*t together'. The capstone model is much less forgiving of sexual betrayal because it presumes that those who finally get around to marrying should be mature enough to be both self-regulating and scrupulously honest," Schwyzer writes. 

The effects of cheating can, of course, be profound and destructive, both for those who have been cheated on, the partner who cheated, and any children or family that may bear witness to the consequences. Reactions to the trauma of being cheated on can vary but research suggests that there can be immense emotional, psychological and cognitive dysregulation after being cheated on, including lower self-esteem, lower self-confidence, and a lack of trust in others and strong fear of abandonment in future relationships. 


However, while an extremely important consideration, if the negative ramifications of affairs and moral disgust that follows them are the only aspects of affairs that are seriously inspected and fore fronted, then we will continue to miss the answers to some equally important questions: Why do people have affairs? Why do they continue in marriages if divorce is relatively less stigmatised now than in previous generations? And is there any way to repair a relationship following an affair

As for why people cheat, the answers can be rather complex and difficult to unravel. 

Affairs can occur in relationships that would otherwise be considered perfectly happy and healthy – a confusing concept that psychotherapist Esther Perel addressed in her 2015 Ted Talk 'Rethinking infidelity… a talk for anyone who has ever loved.'

Watch: A snippet of Esther Perel's TED Talk on why happy couples cheat. Post continues after video.

Video via TED Talks.

Perel states that affairs are less about anything to do with the quality of relationships or contentment with primary partners and more a result of a personal desire for different types of fulfilment. She says that there is a misled assumption that perfect marriages can "innoculate us against wanderlust". 

"Affairs are an act of betrayal and they are also an expression of loving and loss. At the heart of an affair you will often find a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy… It isn't so much that we are looking for another person as much as we are looking for another self."

Perel also posits that the forbidden nature of affairs makes them inherently alluring, leading even people in non-monogamous relationships to break the rules and cheat on partners. 

However, beyond these desires for individual escape or reconnection, there are other reasons that people pursue affairs – reasons that are born out of dissatisfaction. 

One analysis published in 2021 revealed that anger, self-esteem, lack of love, and neglect are cited as common motivators for infidelity. And while most affairs involve sex, sex is less commonly cited as the primary source of motivation, with most people who have had affairs admitting to becoming emotionally attached to the person they have cheated with and claiming that sex was an expression of affection for that person.


Dee Tozer is a relationship counsellor and psychologist who specialises in helping couples to repair relationships following infidelity. Tozer tells Mamamia that there are different types of people who cheat in relationships

One type of person she refers to as a "serial cheater" and says that they receive an ego boost or a sense of conquest from having an affair. Tozer notes that there is little chance of reform with people who cheat for these reasons – however, they seem to be the minority. Tozer says that, more often than not, people will cheat when they feel a gap in their pre-existing relationship. 

"The non-serial-offending cheater is somebody who’s been attracted to somebody else, often in the workplace or in a sporting group, and the main reason that they’re attracted is because something’s been lost at home that makes them feel disconnected. 

"They don’t feel heard, they don’t feel like they matter and then somebody else pays attention to them and shows them that they matter and the willpower to stay faithful disappears," Tozer says. 

She refers to this as emotional or sexual "starvation" and says that often, married couples who experience cheating will report feeling more like friends or housemates beforehand. 


Tozer says that these aren't factors that she would overtly use to justify the action of infidelity but they are important to address and she frequently speaks to married people who have not held hands in two years or held silences between one another for six to eight weeks at a stretch. 

"What I say is that cheating could be the 'best worst' thing to happen to a couple – because if they come out of it well and it brings them closer together, they can recognise the mess they’re in... and it’s forcing them to do something about it."

Dana* says that she had an affair around 10 years ago because of some deeply troubling things that were happening in her marriage. 

Her then-husband was a difficult person, struggling with issues of alcohol dependency, regularly travelling for work, and cheating frequently. Dana says she would have been under a huge amount of financial pressure had she left her husband at that time and she felt she could not have supported her children alone. 

"I had young children and no family support around me to assist with the kids. So, I was really isolated and living a terrible life… We were both in very toxic scenarios with young kids that we were managing," Dana says. 

Alan* had been living in the same small town as Dana for a while and, with kids the same age, they would often meet at sports matches and school parties. She says that he is well-respected and very-liked but, when they first met, he was also dealing with his own marital issues and his wife had long-term substance dependency issues that would eventually lead to the breakdown of his own relationship. 


The friendship between Dana and Alan developed over a long time and Dana says she never intended on pursuing a romantic relationship with him – the sex was secondary to their emotional affair. When they first had sex, they were both shocked and deeply ashamed, believing wholly that they "weren't that type of person".

"It's a testament to our friendship that we could actually just talk that through… We were asking 'how did we end up here?' And trying to figure out what it meant for us. We had some really considered conversations about how we got to where we got to and what that says about us and our characters."

After pursuing the affair for a while, Dana says that circumstances arose in her own family that meant she felt more inclined to try and repair her marriage. She moved away with her then-husband and children to try and give them the chance for a stable family unit. 

Unfortunately, Dana's marriage fell apart. She had caught her partner cheating around 15 times over the course of their marriage, and he had continued to drink excessively and verbally abuse both her and their children. Dana simply waited until her children were older and she had the financial independence to walk away from the relationship. 


She's now living back in the same town as Alan and they're both single. Although they're still close friends, Dana is uncertain if they will end up in a committed relationship. Looking back, she wishes she could have simply taken the leap earlier. 

Behind the affair cover

"In retrospect, I am ashamed that it was done as an affair. I wish that I had the courage at the time to have ended my marriage and started a full relationship with this person and lived a happy life. The shame was the thing that stopped me pursuing what could have been an absolutely beautiful relationship," Dana says. 


As somebody who has experienced both the destructive consequences of affairs and pursued her own, Dana says she's been left with a lot of empathy, both for the people who are hurt by affairs and the people who have them. 

"When it comes up in conversation, I always think 'There's more to this', I think that affairs often have a very instant response for people – and I understand why. But also, from my own experience, there's a deeper context and I'm not saying that excuses everything but there's often an explanation."

Dana had a number of heartbreaking reasons for eventually ending her marriage – but what about those who choose to try and move forward in a relationship after cheating?

The adage 'once a cheater, always a cheater' is commonly referred to following the breakdown of relationships as a result of infidelity, as a way to cast ex-partners aside and move on. However, both Perel and Tozer state that 'serial cheaters' are in the minority of people who they have encountered in their practices. 

Tozer says that her perspective may be skewed because she only counsels couples who have decided that they are willing to try to move past an affair but she sees a 95 per cent success rate with the people that she works with. Although, it is important to recognise that Tozer exclusively works with couples who have agreed to try to repair the relationship – the statistics of how many marriages survive affairs in general vary wildly.


Experts advise that there are several factors that need to be involved in order for a couple to repair a marriage following infidelity, including ending cheating completely, an agreement for complete honesty, and, often, long-term work to address underlying issues that could take several years. Tozer also notes that emotional affairs can be much more difficult for couples to successfully recover from. 

Keeping in mind the distress and hurt caused by affairs, the choice of whether or not to move on in a relationship after infidelity is, of course, entirely circumstantial and a deeply personal choice. 

"Trauma is not about 'recovering' from trauma. We push through it, we go with it, we live with it, we adapt and we accept. That healing path goes exactly the same with affairs… People push through and move on and down the track they may be able to forget it to a fair degree.

"Can they forgive? Now that's a big ask, they may be able to but it’s not a prerequisite that I have for doing work with a couple."

*Names have been changed due to privacy.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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