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Infidelity: Why It Happens and What to Do After an Affair

Betrayal is such a terrible experience in a relationship--especially a betrayal like infidelity. I commonly see it in couples I work with as a therapist with training from the Gottman Institute. Frequently couples will come to me for therapy only after there has been a major disruption to a relationship, which they previously considered to be safe and trustworthy.

Research findings estimate that approximately 20 to 25% of men and 10 to 15% of women will at some point engage in infidelity during their relationships or marriages. So why does it happen, exactly? In my experience as a couples therapist, having worked with both LGBTQ couples and heterosexual couples, people often say that infidelity occurs without reason. However, Gottman's research findings indicate that infidelity typically occurs because of couples turning away from each other's emotions over time. So what do I mean by "turning away", exactly? Gottman says that in relationships we make "emotional bids" with our partners--attempts to gain attention, affirmation or any other type of positive connection. Turning away refers to one partner not acknowledging these emotional bids. One example might be that of one person in a relationship complimenting his or her partner, only to have the partner ignore the compliment, act busy or otherwise being distracted. When this occurs enough in a relationship, the often unintended message sent to the other person is, "I don't really care about you."

So where does infidelity come into play, exactly? Well, when couples dismiss or ignore these emotional bids with enough regularity, the person making the emotional bids might begin to focus upon his or her partner's negative qualities more and not pay as much attention to his or her positive qualities. When this happens enough, the person might begin to convince himself or herself that he or she may be happier with someone else, increasing the likelihood that infidelity may at some point occur.

Consider this example:

Partner 1: "You look really nice today. I was thinking we might go out to dinner together tonight. What do you think?"

Partner 2: "I really don't have time. I have so much on my mind. I have all these things at work, that I need to work on tonight."

Partner 1: "Well, maybe this weekend, then--what do you think?"

Partner 2: "I don't know. We'll see."

When this type of interaction occurs with enough regularity, Partner 1 may begin to tell himself/herself the story, "They're always putting work before me. They don't care about me." It's then just takes the right opportunity to find someone else, who "does care"--if even for a brief period of time. Consider the following alternative interaction, which might have occurred instead:

Partner 1: "You look really nice today. I was thinking we could maybe go out to dinner tonight. What do you think?"

Partner 2: "Oh, thanks. I really appreciate that and would love to go to dinner. Unfortunately, I'm swamped with work right now. What would you think about maybe going out this weekend for dinner--just the two of us?"

Partner 1: "I'd love that. I've been thinking about you a lot lately as you've been so busy."

Partner 2: "I know it's been an inconvenience, but I really appreciate you trying to be so understanding. Let's definitely plan something for this weekend."

Considering the second example--if it were the norm for the relationship--infidelity would not be very likely because each partner is feeling validated by the other. But what if an affair has already occurred? How does one rebuild after such an awful betrayal? I normally advise the individual, who engaged in the infidelity, to expect to be on a "short leash" for a long while. The other partner needs to see--consistently--that he or she can trust again. This might mean being open and transparent about what websites are being visited, what phone numbers are being called, and so forth. I also caution the partner, who was cheated on, not to ask too many questions about the affair. It's good to be open about what happened and why it happened, but often the betrayed will want specific information about the other person, what sexual activities may have occurred, etc. Asking questions of this sort can lead to the betrayed engaging in a never-ending comparison game, which can contribute to depression, anxiety and even trauma reactions: "Why did he/she do that with them, and they don't do it with me anymore?"/"She must be prettier than I am, and that's why he was with her."

Taking time to rebuild a relationship after an affair has occurred is difficult work and sometimes uncomfortable. However, if you have experienced an affair in your relationship, I am confident we can help get your relationship back to a point where both people feel validated and loved. It takes time, and I honestly think that in order to rebuild after an affair, it takes the right kind of help. It's not hopeless, though, and many couples I've worked with have ultimately told me that being able to rebuild trust again after betrayal has actually strengthened their relationship more.

I'd be honored to talk with you about difficulties in your relationship and how I can help get you and your partner back on track together. For more information, visit me online or email me at

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