The Prevalence of Affairs ("You're Not Alone")
by Peggy Vaughan

The general secrecy about affairs creates a distorted view of the prevalence of affairs—because we tend to think that the few affairs that are disclosed are the only ones happening. The reason it's important for people to understand the prevalence of affairs is that without that understanding:

  • those who face this problem think it's just their personal failure (since they assume that most people succeed in being monogamous), making it much more difficult for them to recover from the emotional devastation.
  • those who haven't faced it have a false sense of security in thinking they're not vulnerable, making it less likely that they will put forth the necessary effort to prevent affairs.

There is a great deal of denial and rationalization when it comes to focusing directly on the issue of affairs. For instance, there's a tendency to split hairs by focusing on whether the affair was a one-night stand or long-term, whether it was within the current marriage, whether they were monogamous "most of the time," whether it was with co-workers or friends, whether it was within the past year, whether it was in the final year of marriage, etc., etc.

None of those factors gets at the main point: It's not when or how many or with whom that really matters; it's whether an affair ever happened at all. When an affair happens, it's a life-altering event, regardless of any of the "particulars" of the situation—and the ramifications can last a lifetime, regardless of whether or not the marriage survives.

One reason that focusing on the various "types" or "times" of affairs misses the point—is that the key factor is the deception involved. Most people recover from the fact that their partner had sex with someone else—before they recover from the fact that they were "deceived." An affair, in the final analysis, is more about "breaking trust" than about "having sex."

For over 30 years I repeatedly heard people describe the powerful impact of the fact that they were deceived. And a poll we took on the site a few years ago reflected this same thinking:

Here are the responses to the question in our online poll:
"If your partner has had an affair, what was the most difficult to overcome?"

Women's responses:
That they had sex with someone else - 28%
That they deceived me - 72%

Men's responses:
That they had sex with someone else - 30%
That they deceived me - 70%

In trying to get people to focus on the prevalence of affairs, I feel somewhat like a "voice in the wilderness" (or the only one saying "The Emperor has no clothes"). But I feel it's essential if we are to help people recover from a partner's affair (or help people prevent affairs in the first place). So in helping people recover, I will continue to point out the fact that "you're not alone"—that affairs are extremely prevalent in our society.

I also hope that with more understanding of the prevalence of affairs, more people who have been struggling alone will be able to see that affairs are not just a matter of personal failure and therefore be willing to break through the secrecy (and the isolation). And the increased openness about affairs may then help prevent affairs and ultimately diminish their prevalence.

For more on the impact of secrecy, see: Breaking the Code of Secrecy.

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