In a recent study, more than 23% of men and 19% of women reported they had “cheated” on their current romantic partner, and the motivation was not always a lack of happiness or sexual satisfaction: close to 30% of the men and 40% of the women did not report lower relationship happiness. Lower sexual satisfaction was not found to promote infidelity in women, and for 30% of men. Various other studies and books report various motivations and factors in one (or both) partner’s infidelity.
This post will address how infidelity is viewed from an attachment perspective. In other words, how infidelity in adulthood may be related to how one has experienced close relationships throughout life – not just with one’s mother, but whomever the primary caregiver(s) happened to be.
How we learn about relationships
Decades of research on attachment theory indicate that throughout life, all human beings have a need for safe emotional connection with others, as well as a need to be supported in independence and exploration of the world. This connection and support is especially crucial in the first few years of life when we an infant or toddler learns the basics of how to be and act in close relationships–in other words, by the time you’re 18 months old, you have a pretty good system in place for understanding how relationships work in your world–for better and for worse.
While the early years may not write the rest of one’s life in stone, they can continue to play a powerful influence on later relationships. From thousands of interactions with one’s caregivers, one learns what needs and what feelings are acceptable to others, and how to deal with them (consider the parenting practice of “time outs,” and how it might teach a child that anger is something that must be dealt with alone). In other words, if your mother or father was uncomfortable with your anger, fear, or shame, chances are you were as well. Or maybe you learned not to take those feelings to your caregivers.
What this has to do with infidelity
Creators and proponents of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (an evidence-based treatment for distressed couples) have come up with 6 types of affairs, based on attachment-related concerns. Keep in mind that these are meant to apply to monogamous couple relationships:
- Protest – Feeling shut out, rejected, or abandoned, one might seek out another relationship as a means of protesting the lack of emotional connection and getting needs met. The protesting-partner might feel justified in doing so, and blame his or her partner for being distant or rejecting. The partner who did not have the affair might indeed feel distant, perhaps never feeling good enough in the relationship.
- Attention-Seeking – This is an attempt to get one’s partner to move in closer by using jealousy to “test” him or her. This person has a deep need to feel important and loved. While some might dismiss them and say, “they just want attention,” the need to feel loved and important to someone else, irresistibly so, is something we all have.
- Burned Out – In this case, interest in the relationship may have dwindled. Emotional disconnection started as an attempt to deal with pain or fear. While the relationship continued out of feelings of guilt or tradition, a “Burned Out” Affair would involve getting one’s needs met outside of the relationship.
- Romantic Escape – This is a way for a partner to avoid dealing with problems in the relationship. There may be feelings of failure, and the person might feel like he or she is not worthy of being loved. In some cases, romantic escape affairs involve having a second family.
- Hedge Fund – This is one I have seen working as a counselor somewhat frequently. At some level, these people feel unlovable, and they expect to be abandoned sooner or later. They may have had other relationships end poorly, but they carry with them a sense that ultimately they will probably be left, yet again. A “Hedge Fund” affair is a protection against being alone when the breakup or abandonment “inevitably” occurs.
- A Power Player / Compulsive Affair – Some people having multiple partners in relatively short periods of time (remember, in the context of a commitment to monogamy). Often, those who end up in this situation never had anyone to help them cope with and manage difficult emotions and experiences. Sexual activity is sought as a means to cope: problematic use of pornography, strip clubs, or one-night stands; yet, these behaviors are ultimately not meeting their underlying needs. Combine this strategy of coping with emotions with a powerful position of wealth, celebrity, or political office, and you have some key ingredients for compulsive affairs.
What couples can do to recover from (and prevent) infidelity
Everyone has needs for connection with others, and many struggle in romantic relationships. The creators of this model do not suggest that infidelity is the way to get one’s needs met, if the original relationship is indeed what is valued. At the same time, a clearer understanding of one’s attachment needs and emotions can shed light on why many people do look elsewhere. Understanding one’s needs and how to meet them can help couples heal from infidelity, as well as prevent future problems.
What do you think? Does this way of viewing infidelity make sense to you? Does it fit with your sense of emotional needs, and your value system? How might these issues look different for relationships which are non-monogamous to begin with?