Barnaby Joyce’s affair with his former staffer Vikki Campion, and his subsequent downfall from the position of deputy prime minister and head of the National Party, made headlines for weeks. It’s not surprising. From politicians to actors and entertainers, stories of high profile individuals caught “cheating” on their partner often make front-page news.
We believe a romantic partner is there to provide us with love, comfort and security. So people are quick to make judgements and lay blame on perpetrators of what they see as a significant violation of relationship norms and betrayal of trust. Infidelity highlights the potential fragility of our closest and most important of relationships.
But despite the blunt belief infidelity is the result of immoral and over-sexed individuals wanting their cake and eating it too, the reality is far more nuanced. For instance, infidelity is rarely just about sex. In fact, when it comes to purely sexual infidelity, the average occurrence across studies is around 20% of all couples. However, this rate increases to around a third of couples when you include emotional infidelity.
An affair is generally a sign things aren’t right with someone’s relationship. Without the necessary skills to heal the issues, a partner may engage in an affair as an ill-equipped way of attempting to have their needs fulfilled – whether these be for intimacy, to feel valued, to experience more sex, and so on. So, the straying partner views an alternative relationship as a better way to meet these needs than their existing relationship.
Who has affairs, and why?
Studies into why people cheat are many and varied. Some find people who lack traits such as agreeableness and conscientiousness are more likely to be sexually promiscuous, as are those higher in neurotic and narcissistic traits. Other studies find infidelity is more likely to occur among people who hold less restrictive views about sex, such as that you don’t have to limit yourself to one sexual partner.
Other important factors relate to people’s commitment to their partner and relationship satisfaction. Those low on these measures appear more likely to have an affair. Recent work suggests one of the biggest predictors of having an affair is having strayed before.
A survey of 5,000 people in the UK found striking parallels between men and women’s reasons for infidelity, and neither prioritised sex. The top five reasons for women related to lack of emotional intimacy (84%), lack of communication between partners (75%), tiredness (32%), a bad history with sex or abuse (26%), and a lack of interest in sex with the current partner (23%).
For men the reasons were a lack of communication between partners (68%), stress (63%), sexual dysfunction with one’s current partner (44%), lack of emotional intimacy (38%) and fatigue or being chronically tired (31%).