Ashleymadison.com is a well-known website for spouses looking to have affairs. AM has been in the news lately because a group of hackers has threatened to post the personal information of its 37 million users if the Canadian site isn’t closed down. As of July 22 the first names of its customers have been released (Weiss, 2015).
This news story once again ignites the age-old question:
Why do married spouses cheat?
Historically, men have engaged in extramarital affairs more with more frequency than women. Male hormones, a biological drive to spread the male’s DNA to as many offspring as possible, a hard-wired attraction to youthful (read; fertile) partners, or an assertion of dominance over subordinate males are some common explanations for this difference. Some sociologists take the position that monogamy is not “natural” for our species (Bryner, 2012). There are psychotherapists who say that married people resort to having affairs when they become “emotionally disconnected,” or are no longer getting their emotional “needs” met in the relationship (Johnson, 2009).
More women are admitting to infidelity than in the past. The sexual revolution, easy access to birth control, and the entrance of women into the workforce are common explanations this change.
All of these explanations have validity depending on the lens through which you look at the issue of affairs.
Murray Bowen, M.D., was a psychiatrist who conducted groundbreaking research on the family starting in the mid-1950s. He developed a series of concepts that describe how all families operate as emotional units. These concepts go far beyond culture, race or even gender, and apply to the human being as a species that is connected to every other species through evolution.(Bowen, 1978)
Bowen postulated that there are two distinct life forces at work in us all the time. There is a force for togetherness that is characterized by the drive to be like others, find unanimity in beliefs, values, feelings and behavior. The togetherness force operates in tandem with, and often in opposition to, the force for individuality. This is the drive to be a separate and unique individual with thoughts and goals for the self as distinct from the group. Even at the cellular level, in order to survive each cell has to recognize itself as distinct from every other cell and to compete for available resources (individuality) while simultaneously cooperating with other cells (togetherness) for the good of the organism. The tension inherent in these two competing forces results in tension within the individual and in the relationship system. (Think about a common scenario between spouses; one wants to spend time together while the other wants to spend time alone. This may be a small manifestation of the two life forces playing out in a very ordinary way.)
Bowen hypothesized that the tension created by these two competing life forces led to a universal fact; the two person relationship system is inherently unstable. Whenever two people form a relationship, no matter how harmonious it is in the beginning, eventually tension will develop between them. Because the tension can only travel back and forth from one to the other, the dyad will eventually become overwhelmed. If there isn’t a mechanism for managing some of the tension, the couple will have to break apart from one another. One of the most common mechanisms for managing the relationship tension or anxiety in a dyad is the relationship triangle.
A relationship or emotional triangle occurs anytime one or both individuals in a dyad bring another person into the picture. Whenever two people argue about, worry about or gossip about a third person they have created an emotional triangle. When a wife calls a girlfriend to “vent” about her husband, she’s activated a triangle. When spouses have a baby, they’ve created a new triangle. The triangle creates a new “circuit” for relationship anxiety to run. The more interconnected triangles, the more circuits for the anxiety to run.
Triangles are Natural
Relationship triangles are natural, not geometric. They are constantly shifting, with two people in the inside position and one on the outside. When things are calm between the two insiders they are reluctant to let an outsider maneuver into a favored inside position. When things heat up between the two, however, one or both will try to pull in the outsider who, at that point, would prefer to stay outside.
Triangling behavior is so fundamental to the human species that it undoubtedly existed before there were humans. Even pets participate in the triangling process. Clients often report that the family dog will jump in between them when they are trying to be intimate. Conversely, when the couple argues, the dog will run and hide in another room. Triangling is clearly a primitive and automatic response to stress.
An Affair is a Relationship Triangle
An affair is an example of a relationship triangle. Affairs occur when a vulnerable member of a couple triangles in a willing outsider. It is possible that men have been more likely than women to engage in affairs because historically women have had larger social networks and more intimate ties with extended family and children with which to form triangles.
All triangles are not created equal. Sharing with a family member is not equivalent to cheating on one’s spouse in an extra-marital triangle. The underlying purpose of the triangle is to provide stability in relationships. That being said, any triangle, even the non-romantic type, can become destructive. If, for instance, a wife has a habit of complaining to her mother about her husband, and complaining to her husband about her mother, she will shift the anxiety in the relationship system to between her mother and her husband. Things will look calm between the wife and her mother and the wife and her husband but intense animosity may develop between son-in-law and mother-in-law. The wife may then make a project out of bringing the two together: “Why don’t you just give my mother a call,” or “Mom, my husband doesn’t mean any harm. He’s just grumpy sometimes.” She may try to mend the fences in the other angle of the triangle without having any awareness of her part in the friction between them.
Triangling is an extremely common behavior that is almost never recognized when it is happening. Infidelity often begins with a relatively innocent connection. Maybe a man starts confiding a bit to a co-worker about problems in his family. The co-worker feels good about being a resource to him and encourages more intimacy. The closeness they feel isn’t marred by the years of tension that have built up, unresolved, between the man and his wife. He soon makes two big mistakes: He equates the tension in his marriage with a lack of love and he equates the easy intimacy of the new relationship with proof of love. At that point it’s easy to fall into an affair. Neither the man nor the co-worker understands that what is happening between them is more accurately about the relationship between the man and his wife. The co-worker has been triangled into an existing relationship. The triangle created by the affair may even serve its original purpose of calming things down in the marriage for a time. Eventually, however, some event is likely to throw things out of balance and the true destructive nature of the affair will affect everyone concerned.
The universality of emotional triangles is not an excuse for having an affair. Understanding the relationship mechanisms behind cheating can be helpful in several ways:
- Individuals tempted to have an affair can see what they are doing in a more objective, less romanticized way.
- The non-affair spouse can use the knowledge of the triangle to help think through the dilemma of the affair, to depersonalize it and make better decisions about how to handle its aftermath.
- Motivated individuals can recognize and deal with the tension that is creeping into their relationship. There are no guarantees in life, but learning how to deal directly with one’s spouse without automatically running the relationship through a triangle is theoretically the best way to avoid the pain and suffering of an affair.
Websites like AM offer sexual intrigue, romance and mystery. What they are really selling is a ready-made relationship triangle that is likely to result in far more problems than it solves. The threat of disclosure made by the AM hackers is proof of the precarious nature of this particular life strategy.
Bowen, M, 1978, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, UK, Aronson Publishing
Bryner, J. (2012, September 6). Are Humans Meant to Be Monogamous. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
Johnson, S. (2009). Hold Me Tight. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
Weiss, R. (2015, July 28). Online Infidelity Hack Raises National Cheater Anxiety. Retrieved July 29, 2015.