What Is An Affair

Women's Dating

 What Is an Affair?

Ashayla Blakely

Written by: Ashayla Blakely

Ashayla Blakely

Ashayla Blakely is an experienced storyteller who has fun writing authentic and relatable content for DatingAdvice.com. As a hopeless romantic, Ashayla has always enjoyed sharing good conversation and advice about dating. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in Telecommunications from the University of Florida. She is currently enrolled in the graduate program at Florida State University's film school. You can often catch her with a script in her hand, calling out the shots in her many directorial roles on set.

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Edited by: Lillian Castro

Lillian Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro brings more than 30 years of journalism experience to ensure DatingAdvice articles have been edited for overall clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement. She has worked at The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, The Gwinnett Daily News, and The Gainesville Sun covering lifestyle topics.

Reviewed by: Amber Brooks

Amber Brooks

Amber Brooks is a dating and relationship expert who has penned over 1,800 lifestyle articles in the last decade, and she still never tires of interviewing dating professionals and featuring actionable advice for singles. She has been quoted by the Washington Times, Cosmopolitan, The New York Post, and AskMen.

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The word “affair” carries a weight of intrigue in human relationships. An affair typically means a married person cheated on their partner by becoming intimate with another person. It’s a form of betrayal that often leads to heartbreak and divorce.

But affairs aren’t just about lust and disloyalty. Different types of affairs can stem from unresolved personal traumas, commitment issues, and other psychological factors. In this article, we will explore the multifaceted definition of an affair and its implications on individuals and relationships.

Definition | Types | Contributing Factors | Impact | Recovery

Defining an Affair

An affair can be a lot of things. From physical infidelity to emotional betrayal, affairs differ in scope, type, and circumstances. Ultimately, an affair breaks the boundaries that couples set in their relationship or marriage.

Cultural and Societal Influences

Certain cultural and societal norms have shaped individual perspectives, values, and behaviors when it comes to affairs. An affair can start a painful chapter in people’s lives, but it can also become fodder for jokes on social media platforms and pop culture news. Just ask Monica Lewinsky.

I’m sure you can think of many examples of famous affairs in our society — from Hollywood royalty Brad Pitt cheating on Jennifer Aniston to actual royalty King Charles cheating on Princess Di (and vice versa).

Magazine cover of Princess Diana
Princess Diana endured public scrutiny for divorcing due to infidelity.

Such scandalous stories gain a lot of attention in the mainstream media. It’s easy for viewers to pass judgment and dismiss those who are put in the spotlight for having an affair, but what the media doesn’t cover adequately is the underlying root of why the affair occurred and the effect it has on the couples and their families. 

In today’s society, affairs are sadly common. One study estimated that as many as 40% of couples experience an affair at some point in their relationship. An entire dating website launched in 2001 to cater to affair seekers — and Ashley Madison now has over 80 million members.

American society glorifies romantic relationships and shames those who participate in extramarital affairs, but the trend of failed relationships and divorces in the U.S. speaks to a missing piece. We want to encourage forever love, but we do not educate people about how to maintain a healthy, committed relationship.

Evolution of the Concept 

It’s safe to say that the perception of affairs has evolved. How people view affairs nowadays is completely different from back in the day. In the 1500s, married men were almost expected to have an affair. It was an acceptable part of life. Men of this time often had concubines and weren’t judged for stepping out of their marriage, which was often an alliance of wealth, family, and status, not romantic at all. 

It wasn’t until the 18th century that most people started marrying for love — and affairs gained a bad reputation. These days, affairs represent a serious transgression. Whether it’s a symptom of an unhappy marriage or a toxic relationship, an affair can mark an unfortunate end to a couple’s love story. But it can also be the start of a new love story.

Types of Affairs

Affairs come in a few different forms. Most people think of affairs as physical acts, but affairs can also involve sexting or emotional intimacy that still betrays a partner’s trust.

1. Physical Affairs

Physical affairs involve physical interactions with another person outside of your relationship. This can entail sexual intercourse, kissing, or even flirtatious touches and caressing. Physical affairs are difficult for a couple to overcome, regardless of if it’s a one-night stand or an ongoing sexual situationship.

Physical affairs often cause a lack of trust and insecurities within a relationship. Nearly 60% of individuals in an academic study said they had gotten divorced due to infidelity.

Photo of a physical affair
Physical affairs provide sexual gratification outside of marriage.

The numbers sound grim, but it is still possible for couples to bounce back from a physical affair. 

Couples who wish to mend their marriage after an affair need to give each other space to process. Anyone dealing with affair recovery should seek help from a marriage counselor or a trusted family member or friend. 

2. Emotional Affairs 

Emotional affairs refer to when a married person forms a strong emotional bond to the extent that it exceeds a casual friendship and becomes detrimental to their marriage. Although physical affairs get more attention in news stories, emotional affairs can be just as harmful to a couple.

Sometimes people who are engaging in an emotional affair don’t even recognize it at first. They might say that their feelings are platonic and that their new friendship isn’t a threat to their marriage. 

People who think emotional affairs aren’t a big deal are mistaken. Strong emotional feelings for another person, whether it’s a crush or close friendship, can harm a marriage by creating a side-by-side comparison. As harmless as it seems at first, emotional affairs can lead to detachment from one’s primary partner.

“When I had an emotional affair, I withdrew myself completely from my husband. I stopped chatting to him about my day, as I was sharing my tales with someone else,” said Sarah Homesdale on Quora

3. Cyber Affairs

Online dating has helped a lot of singles find their soulmate, but it has also been a tool for illicit affairs. Cyber affairs occur when an attached person engages in sexually charged conversations via email or text. The cyber affair may never become physical IRL, but it still represents crossing the line and becoming intimate with another person outside the marriage.

Ashley Madison logo

The rise of online dating has made it easier for people to seek affairs without getting caught. Online dating apps such as Ashley Madison are dedicated to helping married people date and find discreet affairs. With the help of technology, affairs have skyrocketed as married people have taken the chance to explore their sexual desires in secrecy. 

Factors Contributing to Affairs

As I mentioned earlier, affairs don’t just occur because someone in the relationship is unhappy. Different reasons can lead people to start an affair. The impulse could stem from family history, past toxic relationships, psychological factors, and other external influences. Let’s review the most common motivations.

Psychological Factors 

Relationship dissatisfaction may lead individuals to engage in an affair. This often happens to couples who have been together for years, even decades. Paying attention to your partner’s needs in the relationship is so important. Couples who have been in a relationship for a long time sometimes get so complacent that they no longer put in the effort to woo one another. 

As a result, people find extramarital connections that fulfill them emotionally, intellectually, or sexually. They may take comfort in the arms of a coworker or a neighborhood friend.  

“Though most cheating involves sex, it is rarely just about sex itself. Most participants felt some form of emotional attachment to their affair partner, but it was significantly more common in those who reported suffering from neglect or lack of love in their primary relationship,” said Gary Lewandowski Jr. in a Scientific American article

Relationship Dynamics

No one should feel like they’re the reason for their partner having an affair, but I have to admit that certain relationship dynamics can be contributing factors. Issues within a relationship such as communication breakdown or lack of intimacy can motivate someone to seek an affair.

Photo of a husband texting in bed
Relationship problems can push someone to seek love elsewhere.

Dr. Stan Tatkin, the founder of PACT Institute said that people often cheat when there’s a lack of healthy communication and boundaries. 

“People go seeking,” he said. “They seek outsiders and outside excitement as a way to free themselves from this feeling of being trapped and confined and not being able to set boundaries and be themselves.”

Going to a marriage counselor or therapist early in the relationship can help establish strong communication and make an affair less probable. 

External Influences

The sad reality is that affairs can happen even in healthy relationships. Societal pressures, workplace dynamics, and other external factors may facilitate affairs. In these cases, relationships crumble due to lack of trust. There is no justification as to why people are motivated to have an affair when they’re in a healthy and loving relationship. It could be a momentary lapse at a work party or a chance to get closure with an ex.

Work relationships commonly lead to affairs. The nickname “work husband” or “work wife” can become more of a reality than coworkers care to admit. People spend a lot of their time at work and create relationships that have the potential to take an emotional turn and lead to an affair. 

The Impact of Affairs

The impact that affairs have is profound. Affairs take a huge toll on people’s emotional and mental health. Regardless if the couple decides to go separate ways or work on restoring their relationship, things can never be the same after an affair. Understanding that healing requires time and patience can make all the difference during the healing process. 

Signs of Infidelity 

The best way to know that your partner is having an affair is if they tell you, but such honesty is pretty rare in these cases. Most of the time, the cheater is discovered before coming clean. Some warning signs that a person is having an affair are:

  • moodiness
  • mysterious absences
  • emotional distance
  • decreased sex drive. 

If you suspect your partner is having an affair, it’s best to be upfront and have an honest conversation. Relationship coaches share that couples should voice their concerns and be willing to receive the truth when their partner is ready.

“You may or may not get part or all of the truth in this first conversation. Typically, the person discovered tries to limit what they say. Or they may continue to lie,” said Lori Hollander in an article. “Though we tell people who’ve had affairs it is important to “come clean” and answer all their partner’s questions honestly, information usually dribbles out.”

Emotional Fallout 

The emotional toll on individuals involved in affairs is draining and heartbreaking, to say the least. Plenty of affair stories have ended with the couple breaking up due to the emotional fallout between the two.  

But time and time again, love has found a way. Like with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, some affairs result in couples choosing their affair partners for the long haul. An Affair Recovery newsletter pointed out that strong attachments are created during affairs due to the excessive time spent together under intimate and often secretive circumstances. 

Sometimes a new relationship can be a silver lining when a marriage comes to an end. Affairs are undoubtedly controversial, but sometimes they’re the beginning of a real love story.

Relationship Consequences 

Affairs have an understandably negative impact on trust, communication, and the overall health of a relationship. It can take couples a long time to rebuild their connection and feel comfortable being vulnerable with one another after an affair. 

Photo of an upset woman
Sometimes a relationship crumbles after an affair comes to light.

There’s no way to determine whether a relationship will recover from infidelity, but one thing that’s for certain is that couples should make a recovery plan to reach reconciliation. The Mayo Clinic suggests that couples agree on a timeline and process that works best for them.

“If you are both committed to healing the relationship, the reward may be a new type of marriage that will continue to grow and likely go beyond your previous expectations,” advised Mayo Clinic staff.

Long-Term Effects 

Individuals will naturally encounter long-term effects from an affair. The lasting implications of affairs include grief, brain changes, harmful behaviors, and mental health conditions such as chronic anxiety, stress, and depression. 

I’ve witnessed couples who had an affair and are still suffering after 20 years. The wound from an affair cuts deep. The feelings of betrayal can stay with people for a long time, especially if it’s not processed and dealt with appropriately. 

Coping and Recovery

Trying to cope after an affair is difficult. Whether you were cheated on or did the cheating, it isn’t easy to recover from the end of a serious relationship. It can be a lonely and challenging process. That’s why it’s important to seek support where you can find it.

Couples can get help from professionals who specialize in infidelity recovery. That way, they can move forward and heal. 

Outside of marriage counseling and therapy, individuals can look for online resources such as self-help articles and podcasts that promote emotional healing after infidelity. 

The Healing Process 

Let’s get one thing straight: Healing after an affair is not linear and requires time and effort. It’s unreasonable to put yourself and your partner on a time crunch to find healing after an affair. Oftentimes couples want to speed up the process and get back to how they were before the affair, but they may fail to realize that healing takes time. The saying “time heals all wounds” is true, but the time it takes could be years.

Navigating the aftermath of an affair sometimes requires more than one resource. With therapy, open communication, and consistency every step of the way, couples can find the healing that they need. 

Rebuilding Trust

Rebuilding trust with your partner after infidelity can be an emotional roller coaster. Some days you can feel like you’re making progress, and then other days you might feel like you’re back to square one.

Photo of Dr. John Gottman
Dr. John Gottman, clinical psychologist.

According to relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, restoring trust is an action rather than a belief. Couples need to follow through on their promises to one another. In other words, actions speak louder than words. 

When rebuilding trust, couples have to be honest with one another –– even if it’s not easy to do so. The Gottman Institute teaches that partners who have had an affair should be honest, use full disclosure about the affair, and find a way to atone or express remorse sincerely. 

Moving Forward in the Long Run 

Couples should engage in self-reflection to ensure that they are growing from their experience with infidelity. 

By understanding why an affair took place, individuals will be able to move forward and learn how to be a better partner in the long run. 

Both partners can benefit from self-reflection, but particularly the cheating spouse has some serious soul searching to do. The person who committed the affair must evaluate why they felt the need to stray in the first place. They may have commitment issues or relationship desires that weren’t being fulfilled by their partner. Is important to bring such issues to light so they can be addressed.

At the end of the day, the only way to recover from an affair is by being open and willing to forgive. As challenging as that sounds, forgiveness is key to restoring trust and communication within a relationship. Without forgiveness, couples cannot truly move forward.

The State of Affairs: Infidelity Made Easy by Technology

To sum it up, affairs occur when a person has romantic, sexual, or obsessive feelings for someone who is not their significant other (yet). Many people assume that sex is involved in an affair, but that’s not always the case. It all comes down to the boundaries the couple sets and the behaviors they allow.

Thanks to the advancement of technology, people are capable of communicating in ways that they could have not done in previous years. Unfortunately, with technology becoming more advanced and accessible, relationships are suffering. Whether it’s through dating app messages or a DM on a social media platform, it’s easy for people to step out of their relationship and have an affair.

While affairs are extremely hurtful, people can overcome them. A surprising 77% of couples reported that their marriage was stronger after recovering from infidelity. Couples must maintain open communication and set clear boundaries to overcome the trauma of an affair. Cornerstone Marriage and Family Ministries shared that during their experience working with couples approximately three of four marriages survive affairs due to genuine effort put in to reconcile the relationship. 

When dealing with an affair, it’s hard to see what life will look like afterward. But the good news is that love always finds a way when the heart is willing. Plenty of couples testify that their affair didn’t destroy their relationship. Celebrity couples such as Eniko and Kevin Hart and Jay-Z and Beyonce show that it’s possible!