A common belief and fear in our society is that people cheat because they are looking for someone better. This is true, however that “someone” is probably not who you think it is. The major attraction in an affair is often not the affair partner themselves, but the version of the self that this person mirrors back to the person cheating. The “someone better” that a cheating partner finds in an affair is actually a version of themselves. As Esther Perel says:
“When we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partner we’re turning away from, but the person we ourselves have become. We’re seeking not another partner, but another self. Couples who reinvent themselves can bring this other self into their existing relationship.”
As a romantic relationship progresses, novelty naturally fades and patterns and stability emerge. This has many positive benefits, but one negative side effect is that people can begin to feel like they are reduced down to only one part of themselves— just “the wife” or just “the dad” for example. This identity gets built over time and, no matter how much a person loves being a wife or being a dad, the risk is longing for access to other parts. Like it or not, an affair may very well offer an opportunity to rediscover long forgotten parts of oneself– parts that feel alive, fun, passionate, and exciting. Since you are new to this person, or at least the sexual relationship is new, this person mirror newness back at you. The renewal brings an escape from the everyday self. This dynamic can feel downright intoxicating. As tends to happen, the affair takes on a life and a pace all of its own.
So then what makes someone more or less vulnerable to seeking out this renewal, even at the detriment of the primary relationship? If my story is that I have had to give up parts of myself in order to conform with what I think (or know) my partner expects from me, I am at risk of longing for the parts of me that don’t seem to fit within my intimate relationship. When a couple is raising children, this sense of loss may be particularly acute. The role of parent can feel like it takes over and leaves little room for other parts of the self. If the primary relationship is filled with conflict and resentment, the “mirroring” partners get from each other feels negative and hurtful. So what can couples do?
- Remember that it’s not the sex, or at least not just the sex, that people seek out when they cheat– it’s lost parts of themselves. Keeping this in mind can reduce the chances of getting tangled up in an affair. Think about how you can reclaim your lost parts without breaking your partners trust. What would it be like to bring all of you into your marriage?
- Be intentional about helping each other cultivate multiple facets of you are—woodworker, fitness fanatic, nerd, moviegoer, sports nut, couch potato, guitar hero, quilter, yogi.
- Notice when you have forgotten to see all the parts of your partner and strive to remember that they (like you) are complex and layered, not simple and static.
The truth is we are complex and mysterious and remembering that about a partner can bring new life to them and to you. Everyone deserves to feel excited and renewed. The question is just how to do it without hurting the ones we love.