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Myths about affairs debunked: Surprising expert insights into how and why people cheat

People having an affair. (Getty Images)
Colleagues are the second most likely people for you to have an affair with. The first? Friends. (Getty Images)

When it comes to affairs, you may have certain ideas about the kind of person who has extra-curricular sex or the reason these illicit encounters happen, but the causes and consequences of infidelity may not be quite as you thought.

Here, leading relationship experts look at the top seven myths about affairs… and explode them.

Myth 1: Men stray more than women

Whilst statistics suggest this is still true in married couples, actually, in unmarried relationships, men and women are pretty much head-to-head in their infidelities.

Woman texting in bed (Getty Images)
The ratio of unfaithful men versus women may surprise you. Posed by models. (Getty Images)

A recent YouGov poll carried out for The Sun newspaper found that whilst men are slightly more likely than women to be repeat offenders, the number of men and women who have ever had an affair is essentially the same (20% and 19% respectively). Obviously these figures rely on people telling the truth about their infidelities and it may be that women are just better at covering them up!

Mig Bennett, Relationship Counsellor from TherapyFinders.co.uk, a therapist-client matching service explains: “For every man having an affair it’s likely the woman he’s seeing is also married. I wonder if women are just more careful and able to juggle the secrets and deceit than men. Hence more men get found out and appear in the counselling room.”

Myth 2: Affair partners are most likely to be work colleagues or casual acquaintances

Man and woman at work
A survey found that 38% of those who were unfaithful had an affair at work. Posed by models. (Getty Images)

Read more: I'm bisexual and my husband let me have a girlfriend for four years

Actually, the YouGov survey found the most likely affair-partners were friends of the cheater with 43% having strayed with a friend and only 38% with a work colleague. Interestingly, it also found that women were more likely to cheat with a friend (over half of those surveyed, compared to just a third of men).

This doesn't stop work being the second most likely place people have a bit on the side though.

“There is more opportunity for affairs at work as often colleagues are not integrated into our family and friends’ network and so there’s less chance of getting caught and keeping the two worlds separate,” says Kate Daly, relationship expert and co-founder of online divorce services company Amicable.

Louisa Whitney, Accredited Family Mediator at LKW Family Mediation adds that the person someone has an affair with often comes down to what’s lacking in their own relationship.

“If it’s emotional support then they might be more drawn to a work colleague they spend time with and get on with. If their desire is simply for sex, however then it may be a casual acquaintance. It can often be a previous partner that they re-connect with over social media.”

Yes, Facebook seems to have a lot to answer for….

Upset married couple sitting on the sofa after a disagreement
Infidelity in fact isn't the number one cause for divorce. (Getty Images)

Myth 3: Infidelity is the main cause of divorce

“In fact, most couples experiencing infidelity don’t end up in divorce,” says psychosexual therapist at Tavistock Relationships Marian O’Connor.

“The reality is, couples take each other for granted, and whilst an affair can be emotionally devastating, it can also wake up a relationship rather than be the end of it if you are prepared to work together and identify what’s slipped, for example, intimacy or communication."

In 2021, the most common reason cited for divorce was unreasonable behaviour not adultery.

“This accounted for 48.1% of petitions by women,” says Whitney. “But with the introduction of the no fault divorce (in April 2022), it will no longer be necessary to give a reason for the breakdown of the marriage which may mean we never know.”

“I see a huge number of relationship breakdowns where there has been no infidelity, or the infidelity is a symptom of the bigger problems that are already there. For example, one party feels they are not getting love, affection or support,” she adds.

Bennett agrees: “Whilst my cases do include affairs, the most common reason for divorce is the neglected relationship where a couple disconnect emotionally and intimately and function as flatmates.”

Read more: Guildford tops list of UK destinations where married couples are most likely to cheat

Myth 4: If you own up to the affair you’re more likely to split up with your spouse or partner

Not necessarily so! “Actually, admitting to an affair can be an important step towards repairing the relationship, as it demonstrates a willingness to be honest and take responsibility for your actions,” says Daly.

Also, the alternative is living with a lie and most people find that harder. But proceed with caution as by revealing your big secret, you're taking a big gamble with your relationship and if you have children, the consequences could be even more far-reaching.

Bennett believes however that affairs with "the right help, can also be an opportunity to build a new relationship that’s better than before. And even if this doesn’t happen, many stay together for reasons of security, children, finance etc. However, this second group is likely to be unhappy at some level if nothing changes."

Whether or not you split up after coming clean about an affair, depends, as O'Connor explains a lot on the character of the injured party. It's a tall order to expect forgiveness, after all.

"If someone has experienced previous trauma and has trust issues then even a sexy text could mean divorce as it will just trigger that past trauma. But if they have a robust sense of self, it doesn't have to mean a split – and often doesn't."

Myth 5: Affair sex will ruin the relationship/sex with your spouse or partner

Well, "yes and no," says Bennett. "Some betrayed partners sexually “reclaim” the straying partner and the couple report a sexual honeymoon… the discovery of infidelity has suddenly cast the couple as two individuals again and this can ignite the erotic spark that has been lost.”

However, for the betrayed partner it can be extremely hard to move on. “It is difficult for them to be sexually vulnerable,” adds Bennett, “and the idea of the other person ‘in the bed with them’ may take a long time to dim."

We can imagine…

Whitney also reports that some people report their partner was "kindest and most loving towards them when they felt guilty about having the affair". But we think you'll agree that's a bit messed up...

Couple in bed. (Getty Images)
For some couples, an infidelity may not mean their sex life is over. Posed by models. (Getty Images)

Read more: How to get the spark back in a relationship

Myth 6: You’ll always be more unhappy after succumbing to an affair

Definitely a myth… experts say sometimes we actually feel better; we learn something and can take this positivity into our relationship.

"Say if it was a one-off affair and you did it because you feel you've missed out – for example, you got married very young – then it can make you see it's not better than what you have and that actually what you have is worth fighting for," says O'Connor.

Or, the one-off experience might just remind you that you are attractive but crucially, that you can have this feeling with your partner.

"As the strayer, you might realise what you were in danger of losing," adds O'Connor. "It might even be the best thing that ever happened to you."

Read more: What your sexual fantasies say about you

Man thinking on hill
Distressing life events such as redundancy and bereavement can sometimes be the driver behind affairs. Posed by model. (Getty Images)

Myth 7: Affairs happen because you’re dissatisfied in your relationship

Or they can be down to circumstances in the cheater's life and more about them, than the injured party or the relationship itself.

Say, for example, the cheater has recently been bereaved or made redundant.

"There’s an emotional tsunami and an escape vent is needed," says O'Connor. "They need to do something that makes them feel alive, and something reckless like a one-night stand, may well achieve that."

Indeed, "Cheating is not always about not liking or loving your partner but more about not liking the person you yourself have become," explains Bennett.

"Affairs can be many things: an anti-depressant, a soother of old wounds, a reinvigoration of lost youth etc. In my experience, men, especially, desperately seek to stay with the woman they love, yet they still had an affair. It’s often about the man not the marriage.”

For relationship counselling visit Relate.org.uk