Dating & Relationships

When Affairs Lead to Breakup, And When They Don’t

January 22, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller

Earlier this week, I wrote about a new study that explores what people who are having affairs do, say, and feel. The results of this research tell us that there really seem to be different “types” of affairs that vary substantially in terms of people’s underlying motivations for stepping out on their partners, the sexual and intimate activities they engage in with their affair partners, as well as how long affairs themselves usually last.

Given all of this variability, it shouldn’t be surprising that the outcomes of an affair can vary pretty widely, too—and that’s what I’m going to be talking about in today’s post. What happens after an affair? Specifically, which types of affairs are most likely to lead to breakup? How often do people disclose their affairs to their partners? Also, do people tend to maintain friendships or relationships with their affair partners, or do they cut off all contact?

I’m going to be answering these questions drawing upon the same study that I discussed previously, which involved an online survey of the infidelity experiences of 495 young adults (average age of 20, 88% of whom identified as heterosexual). Participants were asked to describe an instance of infidelity in either a current or past relationship, including what happened afterwards.

How Many People Broke-up After Their Affair? 

It may surprise you to learn that only 1 in 5 people said they broke up with their primary partner as a direct result of the affair. However, it’s important to note that another 27% said they broke after the affair, but for a different reason, which points to the fact that affairs are often (but not always) symptoms of deeper, underlying problems in the relationships. So, in total, nearly half of participants broke up after their affair, but it wasn’t always the affair itself that caused the breakup.

The other half who stayed together were split between those who stayed despite their partner finding out about the affair (22%) and those who stayed without their partner ever discovering the affair (28%).

Those who broke up tended to say that their affairs were more emotionally satisfying and involved better sex compared their primary relationship. They also reported less frequent sex with their primary partners and felt less intimacy with them.

Those who ended their relationships were also more likely to have cheated due to anger, lack of love, feeling neglected, and not being very committed to their relationship. Those who broke up were less likely to report that situational factors (e.g., being drunk or on vacation) played a role in their infidelity.

How Many People Maintained Relationships with Their Affair Partners?

Nearly 1 in 3 participants stayed friends with their affair partner after it ended, with another third saying they continued to see their affair partner occasionally. About 1 in 10 started a committed relationship with their affair partner, and only 1 in 4 reported cutting off all contact.

Those who went on to start committed relationships with their affair partners were more emotionally satisfied with them, went on more public dates, and felt a more intimate connection to them.

People who maintained occasional contact with their affair partners were more likely to have cheated due to situational factors, which makes sense—these affairs were circumstantial and probably related more to a temporary lapse in judgment with a friend or acquaintance they can’t (or don’t want to) completely cut out of their lives or develop a deeper bond with.

Affair Secrecy and Disclosure

Not surprisingly, most participants said that they kept their affair secret, with just one-third saying they confessed or disclosed their affair to their primary partner. However, women (41%) were more likely to disclose their affairs than were men (30%).

Those who kept things secret were more likely to say that they had better sex with their affair partner than their primary partner, while those who confessed were less likely to say this.

Confessions were also linked to cheating out of neglect and anger; however, those who cheated due to a desire for sexual variety or a sexual desire discrepancy in their primary relationship were less likely to confess. In other words, people who cheat for purely sexual reasons are more likely to hide their affairs, while those who cheat because of fundamental dissatisfaction with their relationship are more likely to admit them (perhaps due, in part, to the fact that people sometimes use affairs to get back at a partner who has wronged them).

It’s important to note that these findings come from a study of young adults—people who likely have not been in any relationship for very long and do not have an extensive romantic history. Thus, it is quite possible that the affair outcomes of older adults might be quite different, in part, because they might have different considerations (such as presence of children in the home—this could impact secrecy, decisions to stay together, etc.).

That said, these results tell us that there is a lot of variability in what happens after an affair and, in particular, that breakup is not a foregone conclusion. At least in this (non-representative) study, about half of partners stayed together afterwards, although many did so without their partner ever finding out about the affair.

Also, there seem to be different affair typologies that may predict why some relationships survive and why some don’t. Better understanding these typologies may be helpful for sex and relationship therapists, some of whom treat infidelity with “one-size-fits-all” rules, such as characterizing all infidelity as stemming from the same underlying cause (e.g., a relationship deficit). However, people often cheat for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the relationship and, sometimes, despite being very sexually satisfied. Thus, the more we understand infidelity and what motivates it, the better equipped we’ll be to both prevent cheating and treat it in a clinical context.

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To learn more about this research, see: Selterman, D., Garcia, J. R., & Tsapelas, I. (2020). What Do People Do, Say, and Feel When They Have Affairs? Associations between Extradyadic Infidelity Motives with Behavioral, Emotional, and Sexual Outcomes. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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