Cheating, infidelity, adultery—no matter what you call it, it’s a staple of popular culture. Articles with titles like “Why he cheats,” “Affair-proofing your marriage,” “Too sexy to cheat on,” and “Secrets of wives with faithful husbands” litter the self-help and “lifestyle” landscape.
These articles—which mostly advise readers to be as sexy as possible, and just a tiny bit mistrustful—generally treat infidelity as if it’s primarily about sex. But while some affairs are just that, a large percentage of affairs are not about sex. In fact, many unfaithful men and women admit that the sex at home is good, or the sex in the affair is mediocre.
So if not for the sex, why do people have affairs?
* Touching and physical affection
We can live without sex far easier than we can live without touching. An hour’s visit with a lover might include just 10 minutes of sex and 50 minutes of cuddling. Or no sex at all. Some people would risk everything they value just to have someone stroke their face without being asked.
* Someone to talk with
It’s sad, but many couples don’t talk much; if they do, it’s often about the kids or, um, the kids. Ask any prostitute: many clients want the opportunity to talk after sex more than they want the sex (and some prostitutes will tell you that talking and listening are a lot more work).
* Feeling manly or womanly
Sex is about more than pleasure. At its best, people have experiences of validation—being a “real man” or “real woman,” whatever that means to them.
When people feel trapped in routine, when they can’t create joy or delight, when the future looks exactly like the unsatisfactory present, an affair can be an escape, an oasis in the desert of life. It doesn’t fix anything of course—your job is still dehumanizing, your kid still has learning disabilities, your belly hasn’t gone away—but for an hour every month or two, it all disappears.
All those things marriage counselors advise long-term couples to do to keep sex fresh? People do that when they’re having an affair. They make a date to get together, they look forward to it, they talk about how great it will be, they think about what they’ll wear, they eat moderately that day, and most importantly, they plan on to enjoy it.
If married couples did that regularly, sex therapists would lose half our business.
* Feel desirable, attractive, or desired
It’s entirely possible to feel loved and to not feel attractive or desired—it happens in many, many otherwise intimate relationships. And although most grownups very much appreciate intimacy, respect, and love, many people yearn to feel desired. For some of them, an affair is where they have this experience.
Sex in the affair may not be great or even frequent, but the experience of a lover lighting up when he or she watches you undress is, for some people, priceless. It’s no substitute for love or dependability, but some people will do almost anything to feel desired.
* A sense of danger?
Pop psychology says that people having affairs love the sense of danger and the possibility of getting caught. I’ve had a small handful of people like that. What’s more common is people who are unconsciously inviting discovery, which will blow up a relationship they want to leave but somehow can’t.
Most common of all? People who dread getting caught, feel terribly guilty, and even have trouble enjoying their affair because they’re always wondering if they’ve covered their tracks successfully. Very few adults say that risking their marriage, home, and relationship with their kids is exciting. But many do it—and not necessarily for sex.