Therapy in L.A.

  article of the month

January/February 2009

By Carol Boulware, Ph.D.

Is Infidelity Inevitable?

If you have wondered whether today's high rate of sexual affairs means that infidelity is inevitable, even in your relationship, I have good news: you can keep the odds in your favor by avoiding certain pitfalls that weaken a relationship and make it vulnerable to sexual affairs.

As a psychotherapist, and certified sex therapist, with more than 20 years of relationship counseling, I have seen a lot of couples torn apart by affairs. In many cases, the infidelity could have been avoided if the couple could have recognized and remedied the conditions that provided fertile ground for infidelity. There are some people, of course, who will stray no matter how good things are. These people may have emotional or psychological problems.

Why People in Committed Relationships Have Affairs

The causes and issues involving infidelity are complex, and come from both within and outside the individual. Changes in lifestyle or health, trauma, psychological or emotion distress sometimes trigger an affair. However, it is usually a combination of factors that ultimately lead to unfaithfulness. The underlying or fundamental causes of infidelity are:

  • A partner feels that their sexual or emotional needs are not being met within the relationship. People who get involved in affairs say they no longer felt important to their partner. They miss the attention and affection they got earlier in their relationship. The addition of children to a family is a common cause of this type of dissatisfaction. Often the feeling of "being in love" or being "special" is craved.

  • There is unresolved resentment or anger toward their partner. You can't feel angry and loving towards someone at the same time. Often people close off their hearts to the person they are angry with, in order to protect themselves from pain and vulnerability. This is an area in which counseling can help significantly. Sometimes it takes a neutral professional to help you sort through and resolve anger-related problems.

  • There is on-going tension and conflicts within the relationship. Withholding sex is commonly used as a weapon or punishment in an on-going emotional battle. Again, professional counseling will help the couple begin to resolve their conflicts in an effective and meaningful way.

  • There is a loss of intimacy and trust with their partner. This can be the result of the previously outlined circumstances, where anger and tension between two people can eventually break down the trust and intimacy the couple once shared.

  • There are unrealistic expectations of the relationship. Many people think that things will stay the same in the relationship. Actually it is the nature of relationships to change and grow. Some experts believe that the function of relationships is to give us opportunities to expand our ability to love, respect and forgive.

What You Can Do To Help Protect Your Relationship From Affairs

Think of your relationship as having an "immune system" just as the body does. You probably won't catch a cold or the flu if you keep your immune system strong with sufficient rest and healthy food, etc. But if you neglect your health maintenance, get worn out and eat only junk food, eventually germs and viruses will attack your weakened system and make you sick.

I have outlined five steps you can take to strengthen your relationship and help avoid the conditions that could make the relationship vulnerable to affairs. This guide is based on research, therapeutic experience, and the explanations by those who have had extra-relationship affairs.

Step 1: Establish Good Communication Skills
Underlying most of the circumstances that bring about infidelity is the lack of adequate communication. Some couples who previously communicated well, gradually stopped talking to each other. Some couples have never learned good communication skills, such as listening effectively or giving feedback. Time should be set aside every day for the two of you talk about your day and any other thoughts and feelings you may want the other to know about.

If you don't think you and your partner have good communication skills, you can get professional help in the form of a communication class taught at a local night school or coaching from a therapist or relationship counselor.

Step 2: Learn to Handle the Truth - Both Yours and Theirs
Part of communicating well is making it easy for your partner to confide in you. Let them know that you will do your best to be an accepting, non-judgmental listener. It may be helpful to remind yourself that all human beings are imperfect and make mistakes. If you can do this with the smaller things, your partner will feel more comfortable confiding in you about more serious problems.

Be gentle with yourself, too. Harsh self-judgment can also impede good communication . If you hold back telling your partner something because you fear what they will say or do, you may be projecting your own feelings of self-rejection onto them. Try some self-acceptance and self-forgiveness ahead of time. It will make talking about it with your partner a lot easier.

Step 3: Respect Your Partner's Needs and Wishes
Rather than assume you already know, periodically ask your partner how you can support them to have what they want and need. Needs and desires change over time. Negotiations may be in order because you may not be able to fully provide what they need. But try to stay open and flexible to the extent you can.

The other side of this coin is, of course, to make sure your partner knows what you need and want, too. But don't get caught up in making demands. It is not your partner's "mission in life" to fulfill your every need. This type of expectation can be a burden and even the cause of resentment. The key here is to ask for what you want, but not expect, or demand it. Your partner may not be able to give you what you need in a particular instance. Stay flexible, try to negotiate, and most importantly, respect your and your partner's position on the subject.

Step 4: Stay Attractive to Your Partner
How often have you seen people "let themselves go" after they get married or are in a committed relationship for a while. It is unrealistic to think that your partner will overlook your loss of attractiveness because they love you. Remember that part of the reason your partner fell in love with you was because they found you attractive. Don't let issues over weight gain (or loss), facial hair, tattoos, long or short hair, lack of hygiene or grooming get in the way of preserving the sexual fidelity of your relationship.

If your partner has made changes in their physical appearance that are unappealing to you, tell them so in clear terms. Remind them how attractive you found them before the changes.

Step 5: Renew Your Commitment to the Relationship Regularly
Unfortunately, most people forget things, even important things, easily. It helps to use an anniversary or other significant event to renew the vows you may have made to each other. Renewing your commitment to each other on a regular basis, say yearly, or even monthly, will reinforce and give a freshness to the promises you made each other --include the vow of fidelity.

When To Get Professional Help

Sometimes, no matter how good the conditions are in a relationship, a partner will stray. This is because sexual affairs can be symptoms of emotional or psychological problems. Individuals with unresolved pain and trauma from past events in their lives often exhibit problem behavior such as sex addiction, violent or abusive acts, substance abuse and compulsive lying.

It is important to understand that until a person resolves their emotional or psychological issues, they probably will not be able to sustain a healthy, loving relationship. The good news is that effective, relatively short-term therapies are available.

If you suspect that this is the case with yourself or your partner, I strongly advise you to seek professional counseling.

Infidelity Doesn't Discriminate

An affair can happen to any couple, in any social or economic group and among people of every education level, sexual orientation and lifestyle. There are no absolute guarantees of faithfulness --even strong religious beliefs don't always work.

In terms of sexual monogamy, a good marriage is one in which a conscious and continuous effort is made to keep the relationship faithful to its vows. But no matter how sincere and fervent your promises to each other, you still must be aware of the pitfalls. Your best defense against affairs is a pro-active stance based on the guidelines outlined here.

As saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. Keep focused on the goal of sexual fidelity and never take it for granted.


Dr. Carol Boulware is a Psychotherapist and a Certified EMDR Therapist practicing in Santa Monica and Redondo Beach. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Contact Dr. Boulware at (310) 395-3351 or Her website is

© Copyright 2009 by Carol Boulware, Ph.D.

back to article of the month

home | article of the month | featured therapist | news & events
psych bytes | book review | about our group
therapist profiles | locate a therapist

Copyright Independent Psychotherapy Network ©1998