Affairs don’t just happen. They have a predictable life cycle. It’s fairly consistent from one couple to the next. If you can understand it, you may be able to see it coming and prevent it. Or, if you are already in it, you may be able to see your way out. Curious about the life cycle of an affair? Here are the stages.
In order for an affair to happen, the relationship must be vulnerable. It has nothing to do with how much the people love each other. It’s about how well each partner is getting his or her most important needs met. If one of them is running on empty and someone comes along who shines a light on that deficit or meets that need, that person becomes vulnerable to an affair.
People associate feelings with people. If “Stan” has a good time with “Lola,” they are going to enjoy each other’s company and will feel good about each other. If Stan feels fulfilled around Lola, those feelings may just turn romantic even if Lola is not a “catch” or what would generally be considered Stan’s type. Our emotional needs can overrule our intellect and personal preferences. When we are carrying around an emotional deficit, we become vulnerable to making all sorts of ineffective decisions because all we know is that we want that need fulfilled.
What needs am I talking about? There are six basic needs: safety/security, variety, significance, connection, growth, and contribution. Safety refers to physical and emotional things. Variety is about experiencing new things. Significance is the desire to feel seen and appreciated. Connection is about intimacy and closeness. Growth and contribution are pretty self-explanatory.
Everyone needs all of these things, but we all rank them in different orders. If we get our top two needs met, we tend to be pretty happy. When we find a person or thing that meets all our needs, that tends to be our passion. Missing any of these can create vulnerability, but when the top two are low or completely absent, the threat is much larger.
Pointing out vulnerability doesn’t mean that it is our partner’s job to meet our needs. It is first our responsibility to know what our needs are, then to meet our own needs. The only way to eliminate the threat of anything disrupting our personal peace is to take responsibility for meeting our own needs.
An additional way to avoid this threat is to know your values, stick to your values, and maintain effective boundaries. What I mean is, if you value an intact family and you know that meeting with an attractive co-worker is arousing for you, you have to see that threat and say no to the opportunity. As I said before, affairs don’t just happen. They happen decision by decision. It’s a lot easier to turn back at the start of that road when you still have self-control.
Once you say yes to someone outside of your relationship who meets one or more of your low needs, you are in murky waters. You may not be doing anything wrong yet, but there is something inside of you that says, “I have to be careful here.” The little white lies start. The lies of omission start. You may start pulling your friends into group outings to make your meetings look innocent. Or you may start retreating from friends to keep it completely hidden. You start hiding your phone.
At this stage, you may find yourself getting angry at your partner for little things and reaching out to your love interest to make you feel better. The angrier you get at your partner, the more wonderful your secret love interest becomes. The forbidden aspect of the whole thing may also add a bit of spark (by providing you with the need for variety) so it just gets more and more exciting and attractive.
Sometimes people get scared and back off before things go this far, but often they do not. It slides easily and naturally into an emotional or physical affair. This will generally last for as long as the involved parties can get their needs met. If it becomes too hard, too demanding, too boring, too routine, or moves in any direction where it’s no longer emotionally satisfying, it will fizzle out.
It is my personal belief that nothing between a couple is truly a secret. There are tell tale signs of cheating that are selectively ignored. However, not all affairs are discovered. When they are, what usually happens is that the partners see each other as strangers. This is because they start to pay attention to things they overlooked before, but also because they start acting like different people – one because she is wounded, the other because he is discovered.
This stage is often called “The Fog” because not a whole lot makes sense. It would seem that the Betrayer should be begging for forgiveness and doing all he can to fix things while the Betrayed is crying a river. What tends to happen is that the Betrayer feels justified for cheating and may go on the attack. The Betrayer may feel threatened by the thought of losing the person who has been meeting his or her needs. Meanwhile the Betrayed feels like if s/he wants the relationship to stay together s/he is the one who has to do the work to fix things, and this feels very unfair.
The next stage is the decision stage. What will the couple decide to do about the affair? Some sweep it under the rug by saying, “I forgive you” but not doing anything to address the problems. This tends to lead to a repeat of circumstances. When you hear, “Once a cheater, always a cheater” this is usually why. The Betrayer has decided to use cheating as a coping strategy. If the Betrayed ignores the problem, this type of couple is likely to face serial cheating.
Some Betrayed partners walk out. They stick to their values and won’t tolerate infidelity in their relationships.
Some couples stay together and continuously fight.
Some Betrayers leave with the new partner and start a new life. This is the worst possible way to start a new relationship. The person who meets your needs when you are transitioning out of an unfulfilling relationship is rarely the person who will fit well with you when you are stable and happy again. Think about it. If you need fun in your life, nobody can blame you for wanting the energy of a outgoing, young, vibrant person who loves the nightlife, but can you see that person tucking your kids in at night? Probably not. In fact, less than 10% of affairs end in marriage. Of those, about seventy-five percent end in divorce.
Regardless of whether each partner stays or leaves, it’s an opportunity to grow their relationship skills and learn about their needs, how to meet them, how to stay mindful of how they feel, how to ask for what they need, etc. Every effective, fulfilling relationship has partners who are present, self-aware, and self-responsible. We all fluctuate on how well we do those things, so we’re not all 100% all the time. In times of illness, death, financial instability, or other stressors, we are not usually our best. So, vulnerability can creep in the best of relationships.
When the partners decide to stay together and work through it by building understanding and skills, the marriage is often stronger and more satisfying than before. So, affairs do not have to be the end of a marriage. Even when it is, all parties can grow because of it. Knowing the warning signs and practicing good boundaries and effective relationship skills can go a long way in keeping relationships connected, happy, and monogamous.