Is an Affair the Disease or Just a Symptom?

Affairs are usually not the "disease" that infects marriages or love relationships, but a symptom of bigger issues that loom under the surface. For me, the key word here is "usually."
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Latin american couple on bed.
Latin american couple on bed.

I've rarely had as much reaction to any of my blogs or articles as there was to an article I posted here last week: Can an Affair Make Your Relationship Stronger? While affairs certainly don't always have a positive result, the point of the article was to offer another option and help couples heal from a crisis that often prematurely ends marriages and love relationships.

Many incorrectly thought that I was promoting or justifying affairs. To call me pro-affair is like calling a dentist pro-tooth decay. People come to my office when they are in crisis and I help them to heal, pick up the pieces and become empowered once again by identifying and then making the best choices for moving forward in their unique situation. It's that simple. My perspective is based on many years of clinical experience, where I've seen every possible outcome. And among some of the saddest I've seen are situations where someone reacted to the news or discovery of his or her partner's affair by immediately, and without further discussion, ending the relationship and burning all bridges back to it -- only to deeply regret it, later. I have also seen more than one situation where someone who would have sworn that their marriage, or even their life, was ruined by a spouse having an affair, come in many years later to deal with issues around having an affair themselves with their next spouse. Hopefully, they get the irony.

The many reactions I received ranged from profound gratitude toward me for this article's perspective and insights to intense rage, and literally everything in between. I even received a call from the CEO of, the web's largest dating/hookup service for people looking to start affairs. The reason I first agreed to speak with him was to capture "the devil's" point of view, but surprisingly, I found an important piece of common ground with him. We agreed that affairs are usually not the "disease" that infects marriages or love relationships, but a symptom of bigger issues that loom under the surface.

For me, the key word here is "usually." The affair, whether sexual, emotional or both, is usually a symptom when sex in your primary relationship is going downhill either in frequency or quality and neither partner -- especially the one who feels it the most and reacts with infidelity -- sees fit to address it with his or her partner. The reasons for this can include the common decrease in desire that often occurs as time goes by, a more serious desire discrepancy between the partners (where one wants much more sex than the other), a sexual dysfunction, fear of commitment, unresolved anger, feeling ignored, a gradual emotional distancing or some ongoing problem in the relationship that may not even be related to sex or passion at all -- in other words a communication or conflict resolution issue that is being ignored. As you can see, any of these issues (or a unique combination of them) can then take on a life of its own.

On the other hand it's the "disease" when the partner who strays is acting out his or her sexual addiction (which is actually an addiction to the dopamine high that is typical of the initial passion experienced during the highly charged romantic phase of the beginning of most relationships) or simply strays because he or she can.

My wife, Dr. Arlene Goldman, is also a psychologist. She specializes in couples and sex therapy and treats many couples in the aftermath of an affair by one partner. Her approach, even when one partner is clearly a sex addict, is often to help the couple reframe their crisis as a blessing that triggered the help needed to mark the beginning of a much better relationship on many levels. To do this, however, she emphasizes that the partner who had the affair needs to accept responsibility for the pain he or she caused the other, and both partners need to acknowledge their roles in creating and maintaining the climate that existed before the crisis escalated. This has been my experience as well.

The point is that I'm not here to judge, but to help those who seek help! I have seen all of these things play out in many relationships; and it's quite sad to see a relationship go up in flames partly because of the angry thinking that preempts any desire to forgive and at least try to resolve the issues in order to move on. Many strategies for healing, addressing your options and evaluating your relationship can be found in my book Can Your Relationship be Saved? How to Know Whether to Stay or Go.

So for those of you who took offense at me even addressing this issue, I hope that you can use this information to sooth some of your painful and unhealthy angry feelings; and let me suggest that to do otherwise would be to help ignore what for too many is the elephant in the room. Of course, in some cases trust cannot be rebuilt after infidelity occurs within a relationship. No behavior can be undone and thus we can't always control the consequences. But my best advice is to step back and address the situation with the mindset to focus on the best long-term solution to this crisis for everyone it affects.

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