If you’ve discovered that your partner has been having an affair, you may feel like your whole world has been rocked; your illusions have been shattered; your emotional life has been devastated. It is a heavy blow to bear, and for many people it spells the end of the relationship or marriage.
(I want to jump to the end for a moment and just assure you that it doesn’t have to mean the end of the relationship. Recovery is possible. You may not see the path to that right now, but that’s okay. You don’t have to. I just wanted to put it out there that there are still choices.)
One of the hardest questions a person asks themselves when they find out about their partner’s infidelity is, “can he cheat and still love me?”
It is natural to assume and to feel that your partner must not love you if they could have done this to you. And yet, the real answer to this significant question is this:
It is absolutely possible that your partner does love you, did love you before, and will continue to love you in the future. Infidelity does not mean that the love is gone or never existed. The reality is that you can love someone and still cheat on them.
In fact, many affairs happen in relationships that are otherwise very happy. There does not need to be some kind of emotional lack or sexual dysfunction for someone to cheat on their partner (although certainly those factors can sometimes lead to affairs). I have worked with many couples where one of the partners cheated and yet it was clear that, apart from intense remorse, they still felt a great deal of love and care for their spouse.
How is it possible to cheat when you love your partner?
First, let’s understand that the human mind is masterful at rationalizing just about anything. (In How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quotes mobster Al Capone as saying, “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.” Even his extensive involvement in organized crime is nothing that could not be justified to himself!)
Perhaps you and I have never been part of the mafia. But certainly we’ve done things we know are wrong and rationalized it along the way. (“That scratch was probably on that car already. I barely touched it with my door…”) It is a natural part of the human experience. And when powerful feelings like love or lust are the motivator, it’s not hard to imagine that someone could rationalize away the pain they may at the same time be causing someone else. (I am not by any means condoning such behavior; I am just laying out that since this is something many normal people do, it is possible for straying partners to do so as well.)
Let’s also recognize that temptation is powerful. Even if your relationship is a happy one, nobody is immune to it. It is normal human functioning to be attracted to other humans, to want to connect to others emotionally and sexually. Marriage doesn’t mean that you suddenly stop feeling those things for the rest of your life; it just means that you take it upon yourself not to pursue them for the rest of your life. People in committed relationships don’t suddenly find everyone else unattractive. It takes work and discipline to continually refocus yourself towards your partner.
When temptation comes around, the natural reaction is to feel the attraction. It is a conscious act that makes us turn away out of commitment to our partner. One who fails to do that may have transgressed the boundaries of the relationship, but it does not mean that the relationship wasn’t real to begin with. Love is not enough to stop the natural pull towards someone else – it takes forethought, grit, commitment, intellectual honesty – all kinds of qualities that can fail without it saying anything about the love that person feels towards you.
And, just as it is possible to feel sexually attracted to more than one person, it is possible to feel loving feelings towards more than one person. Anyone who has more than one child can attest to this! You don’t stop loving your firstborn when #2 comes along; you just add to the love you feel. It’s no different when the other person is an adult – you don’t necessarily stop loving one adult just because another came along. Human experience has room for adding love without diminishing from what was already there.
Relationship problems do sometimes lead to infidelity.
All this is in a relationship with no major problems! Every relationship encounters bumps in the road. There’s no such thing as a relationship where the partners never disagree, never fight, never mess up and say the wrong thing. Even people in good, loving marriages can have big fights and low periods. Relational breaches like these can open up space for a third party to squeeze in between beloved partners.
And certainly it is easy to grow apart as the years (or decades) go on, leading to feeling of emotional distance that is not synonymous with “falling out of love.” That feeling of distance breeds vulnerability to the attention of and connection with someone else. We can be very much in love, but if you’re busy with your projects and I’m busy with mine, and I’m not getting much attention from you, then the advances of someone at work can be a lot more alluring.
Then there is the obvious question of sexual issues in the relationship. I want to reemphasize that not every person who engages in extramarital sex is sexually unsatisfied in their marriage! People can be very happy with their sex life and still make the choice to cheat on their partner.
This can happen for any number of reasons. It could be that the affair was primarily emotional and simply progressed to a physical relationship without real intent (“one thing led to another”). It could be that the straying partner got pulled in by the excitement of something new. (Esther Perel and others have written at length about the challenge of maintaining newness in a long-term relationship; an affair provides feelings and experiences that are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate in a secure and stable long-term relationship.) It could be that they simply felt attracted to both their spouse and the affair partner at the same time. It could be that the person has a sexual addiction and cannot be satisfied with any quantity of sex! Again, there are many explanations that do not involve the absence or disappearance of love for their partner. (And again, none of this is to excuse the choice a person makes to violate the commitment of monogamy to their partner.)
All this said, yes, it is possible for someone to look elsewhere when sex is lacking or unsatisfying in their relationship. But this too is different from saying they couldn’t possibly love their partner. Two people can be very much in love but not be on the same page sexually and not know how to address that. (Couples counseling is a great way to gain the tools to deal with this kind of problem; sexual differences do not necessarily mean that two people are incompatible.) And a sexually frustrated partner who interacts daily with an attractive and interested coworker is at great risk for an affair.
Still… cheating hurts.
None of this takes away from the fact that a huge breach has occurred in your relationship. None of this means you shouldn’t be hurt, or that your partner isn’t responsible for the choices they made.
What it does mean is that it’s very possible that your partner does truly love you. It’s possible that they made a colossal mistake not out of a lack of feelings for you but for any of the abovementioned reasons and many others. And it’s possible to repair your relationship and reclaim a loving, meaningful connection, if you want to.
I am sorry for the pain you are in right now. It can be overwhelming. And I hope that when you are ready you will reach out to us, or to anyone who can help you get through it, whether it’s on your own or as a couple. Love can still win out.