Turn on the TV, scroll through a celebrity gossip site or analyse the latest divorce statistics and it may seem like infidelity is now more common than happy, stable relationships.
Unsurprisingly, no one really knows how common extramarital affairs are, but some estimates suggest 70 per cent of all marriages experience infidelity.
While there’s no denying affairs can be extraordinarily damaging, with professional help many couples manage to stay together – and often come out the other side with a stronger relationship.
Why do we cheat?
Counselling and clinical psychologist Elisabeth Shaw MAPS* says infidelity falls into three broad categories.
“There is a very small group of people who never were committed to monogamy even though they said they were, the people who stray but do not want to end their primary relationship, and the people who have an affair on the way out the door when their relationship is, in the mind of the person having the affair, virtually beyond repair,” she says.
The middle category, which Shaw terms the ‘opportunistic’ affair, is perhaps the most common, especially given the increasing number of opportunities afforded to women outside the home. In fact, equal numbers of men and women are now believed to cheat on their partner.
“The reason for that is believed to be increasing numbers of women in the workforce, because a lot of affairs occur opportunistically through work contacts,” says Shaw.
“You’re working together and it’s quite exciting to have someone who you really connect with at work. When women were at home meeting with their mothers group, it wasn’t so likely to happen.”
Technology in the form of apps like Tinder, sites like Ashley Madison – which is believed to have more than 900,000 Australian members– and not-so-old fashioned texting is fuelling the growth of ‘emotional’, non-sexual affairs, which can be more damaging than physical affairs.
“These types of affairs occur when someone gets very close to the point of going on dates and texting and being in a lot of contact, but it may not have come to a sexual relationship,” says Shaw.
“Sometimes it’s seen as more of a threat because it’s the emotional connection, the fear that the partner fell in love, that is the ultimate threat.”
Healing the hurt
While it may seem like packing your bags is the only solution to infidelity, Shaw says when couples consider an affair in light of the complexity of their lives – years together, love for their partner, valued aspects of the relationship – they are more likely to fight for their relationship, often with professional help.
“Certainly in my experience, and I’ve worked in a number of relationship-focused organisations, after affairs is an extremely common time to seek help,” says Shaw. “Especially with opportunistic affairs, it reflects very much on the person who chose to have the affair and the relationship itself could be quite solid and they genuinely don’t want to leave.”
And contrary to what you might believe, relationships can actually become stronger after an affair. “I’ve had so many couples say at the end of therapy that they will never be pleased the affair happened but they’re pleased they’ve done the work on their relationship,” says Shaw.
“A lot of couples are stronger and more connected, and better able to survive for the rest of their relationship. Instead of that drift that can happen when people get comfortable and stuck in settled habits, what this experience can do is put them back in a really intense pursuit of each other that’s similar to when they first got together.
“These couples have really had to decide if they want to stay together – most couples don’t ask that question midway through as it’s accepted you will. It’s very powerful.”
*Member of the Australian Psychological Society