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A psychologist's perspective on affairs and jealousy

Tags: Relationship psychologist, affiars and jealousy, Dr Janet Reibstein, how affairs start, dealing with the consequences of affairs, affairsm jealousy, relationship advice, couple guidance
Categories: Affairs and Jealousy

Studying affairs
Twenty years ago I began an interview study* of couples in which one person (at least) was having or had had an affair. As a new parent, I could not fathom how contemporaries of mine had the inclination or energy, never mind the time, to conduct one. Yet affairs, even among new parents, were happening and some of these couples presented themselves to my consulting room. The discovery of an affair at any stage of the relationship is still a chief reason couples come into therapy.

I found, and so have others who bravely try to research this most difficult area (how do you study people’s secrets, for that’s what most are?), that people usually have affairs because they feel disappointed by marriage and are estranged in some way from the person they wanted to love and honour.  They’d lost their way in love. Affairs struck me as primarily a symptom of people’s inadequacy in negotiating the changes of married life.

How do affairs start?
The arrival of children, work taking one or both away into different worlds, not managing disagreements and conflicts and resentment building in consequence, all contribute. Or all of these combined can lead to the start of an affair. The upshot of not catching things early is feeling misunderstood, neglected, unappreciated, unloved, and/or undesired. Drift sets in. With it goes hope and effort. Attention wanders. And couples find renewal arises away from home.

Affairs can begin - and sometimes remain, a remedy for what particular light has gone out: just about sex, just about fun, just about talking and feeling understood. But sometimes they grow and become about love—the most dangerous kind for marriage. (This applies even to “open marriages”). However, it’s possible, as research has shown that sometimes those affairs that stay limited and those that stay secret do not actually disturb the stability or commitment to the marriage (and the children in them), even if they might disturb the person having one.

Dealing with the consequences
But once an affair - (except those tiny few “open marriages”) - becomes discovered or revealed, all marriages will suffer. This is related to how we understand marriage. We’re supposed to marry our best friends. We’re meant to be “intimate” - to share innermost thoughts, private joys and troubles, ideas and pleasures. Thus an act of intense intimacy and pleasure shared with someone other than our partner is like a dagger thrust first and then – the final betrayal—if kept secret from your “best friend,” repeatedly, is continual knifing at the heart of modern-day, best-friends-and-lover partnerships.

Sometimes there’s a happy ending - sometimes not. But, as with all deep wounds, sometimes not. This marital drama’s been replayed over and over again in all my years in clinical practice. First I manage the wounds, and then return to the marriage: where, when, why the lights went out, before the wandering began.

*(co-authored with Martin Richards and published 1992 as Sexual Arrangements: Marriage and Affairs)

Dr Janet Reibstein

Janet Reibstein is a psychologist and Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter, and she has a private practice in London. Janet’s books include: The Best Kept Secret (2007, Bloomsbury); The Family Through Divorce (with Roger Bamber; 1997, Thorsons); Love Life (1997, Fourth Estate); Sexual Arrangements: Marriage and Affairs (1992, Heinemann). Her award-winning five-part documentary series, Love Life (broadcast in March 1997 on Channel 4) was based on her clinical work and research and earlier this year BBC Radio 4 broadcast Together Against the Odds a series of interviews highlighting factors involved in resilience and relationship success.


  This was of help to 100% of people  


  • User-anonymous heavensent2 Flag

    I'm having a hard time trying to get over my fiance's infidelities. We had a great relationship in the beginning. We talked about everything and 3 weeks after having our 1st child together, i found out he was cheating the whole time. That was almost 3 years ago. We worked it out and bought a house together and I had our 2nd child last year. There have been so many instances where I felt he was being unfaithful even up until now. My brother has told me since he's known my finance before we met that he has never stopped cheating on me and my fiance's mom told me that she has seen him in love and she knows he loves me but just not in love with me and that he only sees me as a babysitter for the kids. He still tries to say that he has not did anything since when I caught him the 1st time. He says he has changed his ways but when he drinks, another side comes out of him. He;s the only child and he gets very selfish a lot. I don't know whether to believe him or leave! Any advice?

    Tue 26, Jul 2016 at 10:57am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    My husband and I have been together 15 yrs., married for 8, separated off and on for almost 4. Recently he admitted to living with & having an affair with his brother's ex, who also has a child with his brother. After his confession, he told me he was sorry and wanted to save our marriage. That was March of this year and we are not together yet. All the while he says he's trying to work on getting "us" together. My upbringing makes me want to fight for my marriage as well as my heart, but after all this time my feelings are fading. I do love him but I find it hard to even look him in his eyes. This man was my best friend, we talked about EVERYTHING. And one day he just bailed. He said I didn't do anything wrong, it was just him. Don't know what to do, I'm completely at a loss...

    Thu 8, Nov 2012 at 6:59am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    Yep me too , don't worry honey everyone looks- it's not being unfaithful,

    Wed 8, Aug 2012 at 10:10am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    Yep me too , don't worry honey everyone looks- it's not being unfaithful,

    Wed 8, Aug 2012 at 10:10am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    Well, my situation is completely petty but i want to say it anyway, even when im with my bf i feel atracted to other people,i feel so horrible cus its like im not faithful.

    Thu 12, Jul 2012 at 12:45am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I understand how you're feeling - just sick and numb inside.
    You say your wife drinks  a lot and is sometimes violent - you need to keep yourself and your daughter safe. Abuse in a relationship is never right and maybe she needs some help with this. There's an organisation called 'Respect' which might be able to offer you some helpful advice - or even just an ear to listen to if you'd like to talk. I hope you begin to get your life back on track again.

    Mon 22, Nov 2010 at 9:32am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    my wife is seeing my suposed mate,,,they both just deny it,,we have been married for 12 years but have been together for 28 years,i feel sick to the core,we have a 15 year old daughter and its affecting her life also .i just dont know what to do,i dont want to throw her out ,dont think i could face it on my own,i just feel very weak and depressed.i suppose i should be glad because she drinks alot and is violent,the other night she spat in my face and pulled a knife to my throat,,please help,i dont know what to do,,,,,,,,

    Sun 21, Nov 2010 at 10:04pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I recently went to my wife with the intention that I would make her happy by bringing flowers to her. Instead she looked at me confused and told me to go away. I got angry and hit the front door hard with my fist. Why? Is it possible that she is having an affair? I feel powerless and confused and I suspect that my reaction hasn't won me any favours in her books. She rejects my calls and even my texts. I write to her but she doesn't even want to talk things through and tells me that it is over but I love my wife so I do not understand why she is behaving this way? I feel that things may not improve. But I desperately want them to. I suspect she has even taken off her marriage ring as when I saw her at the window it looked as though she was not wearing it. Although maybe I just did not see it on her finger or overlooked it at the time. Since we married I have been faithfull and have not cheated her.

    Tue 17, Nov 2009 at 7:45pm
  • User-anonymous Adonis Flag

    Even though I am married I feel that my wife is behaving very immaturely in the marriage and has a very careless and relaxed attitude about her behaviour toward me as though she does not care and it does not mean anything to her. This has made me feel a mixture of emotions from depression to contempt even to hatred. And I end up asking myself whether I should be feeling this way or not?

    Tue 17, Nov 2009 at 7:37pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    Suspected my wife cheated on me with her dentist when we went away to her mums. It sounded as though she was being (you not what) by him as I was waiting for her outside when she was making an appointment to get her teeth done. Even one of the nurses with an upturned expression said something to me on her way past. And later she returned to him, it was even me that paid her flight even though I had just become unemployed at the time. I was very upset, very hurt and very depressed for months, and the thought of them at it made me feel physically sick, like vomitting every time the idea came into my mind. Whether it actually happened or not I do not know to this day because I have a very vivid imagination and this may be something to do with my suspician on the matter.

    Tue 17, Nov 2009 at 7:34pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    My fiance had an affair.  We had been engaged for 13 months and were due to get married in November this year.  i found a text on his phone and at first he denied everythign and then he admited it. He has now left and is seeing the girl from work that he was having the affair with.  I am devastated, all my hopes and dreams for my future have been curshed.  I despeartely want him back and he has told me there is no chance.  I feel completely to blame for the situtation - I worked too hard, neglected him and was mean to him at times.  I just want him to come home.

    Sat 25, Apr 2009 at 6:34am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I can only say that im so sorry for you all - i had my wife cheat on me last year several times with the same man and i found out on the computer how bad it was but having been to counselling and talked to friends they are helping me through and i hope for the sake of the children to make it through - i dont want to be another statistic of a broken home. We have talked about why it happened and the advice above as to why rings true i guess though im only trying to make ends meet in this tough world but we have changed alot of things and things are lookng good. But nine months later not a day goes by where i dont feel heartbroken at the lost trust and -how could she. I hope in time it will fade and we can be stronger together. One piece of advice - watch which friends you seek advice from as some i have found to be lying & cheating themselves! However others have been a godsend i would not have made it through without. I would also say try not to tell everyone about the affair as it gives you an escape from it when you want to - ie work or sports club etc - just my thoughts. Good luck - were all going to need it.

    Sat 4, Apr 2009 at 8:21am
  • User-anonymous Tony Flag

    It is desperately sad to feel this emptiness after betrayal and to feel so weak and alone.  My heart goes out to both of the last people posting here.
    You do not have to face this on your own.  There are networks that can understand and support your position, such as Supportline on 020 8554 9004.
    I wish you every strength in fighting your way through this tragic situation.

    Tue 31, Mar 2009 at 9:51am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    be strong - you have your daughter to live for - whatever happens you will always have her and her love. cherish this positivity - together with your 5 year old you will find some happiness, she will help you do that together. imagine how lucky you are to have her with you.
    i'm a man who loves my 3 young children to bits, but i can only lose as my cheating wife continues her love affair - she admitted it when i found out - she says it's ended - but i know she continues to have sex with him. She cheats me and our children but she knows that she will always win the children and the family home if I try to contest her behaviour.................I'm trapped forever, or until my brain snaps and I kill myself or her or thse children......what can i do ........desperation leads to doom.   

    Mon 30, Mar 2009 at 7:40pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I recently found out my husband is having an affair since November. We had a huge row after myself coming hom from a weekend with friends to find our home feeling 'dead', no food eaten, rotten bread, off milk etc.  Had a row, he walked out said he went to a hotel and friends and did not want to speak or tell me anything. I found out a week later about his affair and that he was living with this woman. My world, my daughters world has fallen apart, he is cold and not at all being the man I knew. I feel he is having a mid life crisis and wants the freedom to do his own thing and using this woman as somewhere to stay and get attention.  I love him so dearly, every marriage has problems dont they? we could have worked things out, we have been married 17yrs, what marriage that long does not have concerns, or worries about either money, enough time together, kids etc.  I am sad, very sad, angry, hurt, distressed, want to die to rid myself of the pain i'm feeling, it's like no other pain, it doesn't go. I don't want to hit the dating scene ever again, i was in the marriage for life, grow old together. I have to leave him now and not contact him to make his own choices, i do believe he will regret. God, I wish someone would tell me it's all just one big nightmare of a dream, at present the only way out of this hurt, nightmare, deep, deep pain is to rid myself of this cruel world. I feel I don't have a future, just someone going through every day motions. My daughter is the only thing (at present) stopping me ridding myself of the pain completely, she is the most beautiful thing in my life and can't beleive it when I say, but how can I continue, this is me and I'm not coping at all, each day gets worse. I feel numb and very weak, i'm normally a strong character with determination. That has all gone, I have no control over my tears, no matter how hard I try. My daughter who is only 5 wipes the tears away and I feel such an awful, useless mum who shouldn't be putting my daughter through this, but I can't stop my emotions. My dauther does not deserve this, nor does she deserve me as a mum, she should have someone stronger more able to cope.  Does or have anyone felt this way?

    Sun 29, Mar 2009 at 1:09am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I dont want my children to find out they are so happy this will break their hearts, you know i never thought this would happen to me but it has and its hit me like a ton of bricks. I,m hoping we can talk and sort everything out then part of me is saying what about the lies how can someone you have been so close too and love you deeply do this to you. you go to bed at night wishing this is a dream only to awake to the sad reality of it all. I,m playing the waiting game now until I see him as he works away and since finding out we have not seen each other. I,m always ready for a chat as it does help when we are going through the same torment !!!

    Thu 12, Mar 2009 at 7:49pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    thank you for the supporting words. I have to find someone to talk to - I don't know who yet, but find someone I must.
    I am exploding inside..........and pretending all is fine when the children are around. I can't imagine the damage they will suffer if they have to find out the destruction of their home and family.

    Thu 12, Mar 2009 at 6:06pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    It is heart-wrenching to have the trust destroyed when you have been totally unaware. My own situation came to light a few weeks ago and as everyone has said I have also been on a complete roller coaster of emotions.....I constantly wonder when it will end......I want to get off the roller coaster! However my biggest help and support has been my friends, although they cannot tell me either way what to do or how it will all end they have allowed me just to let off the pressure of the torment so take the pressure off yourself don't make any rash decisions but find someone to talk to or you can feel as though you are going mad.

    Thu 12, Mar 2009 at 2:32am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I know exactly what you are going through, its on your mind all the time you cant function at work constantly feeling sick all the time the pain is horrendous. I'm coping and awaiting for him to return so we can discuss. I have his family for support and very dear friends, that does help but when you love someone so much the pain is still there. I,m like you I dont know what to do. To make things worse I,m having to pretend there is nothing wrong to our children. The only sugesstion which helps a little is talking not to your wife but others.

    Mon 9, Mar 2009 at 7:55pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I have just discovered my wife has been having a sexual affair.
    I feel she has cheated me and our 3 beautiful young children (aged 5,7 and 8).
    I am distraught and have no-one to talk to or to turn to for help.
    I am burning away inside my stomach.
    Can anyone give me advice on what to do next?

    Sun 8, Mar 2009 at 3:04am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I found out a week ago via email that my husband has cheated, this has come as a big shock as we were so in love, he works away and I spent a week with him three weeks ago which was lovley he commented that he would never leave me and the children and all he wants to do is make sure we are happy. Then this I,m absolutely in bits I was never meant to find out as he is back home in two weeks, this has wrecked everything we cant talk because he's so far away, he is riddled with guilt cant talk to anyone and I,m feeling our marriage is over but I dont want it to be as there wasnt any problems. How can I move on from this pain? How can I save my marriage as it seems there is no hope? what if he still is continuing this three month affair?

    Thu 5, Mar 2009 at 2:59pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    Thank you to everyone commenting above. I am not sure that my situation is the same, but here goes. I first cheated on my wife after about 5 years of our marriage by visiting a massage parlour a few times. I then stopped for about 4 to 5 years, and then had a fling with another woman and then started seeing prostitutes a few times a year. This continued with different women for some 11 years making it 18 years in total out of about 23 years of marriage. And even in the years when I was not physically straying, I was certainly straying mentally.
    It escalated to webcamming and chat rooms until my life was dominated by it. I would add that when I was not looking for or having sex I considered myself a good family man and did quite a lot in helping to bring up our 3 children.
    The inevitable happened of course and my wife found a website and the whole thing unravelled, though it took me some time (too long) to fess up to all I did. It is now 18 months since the truth came out and we are working hard trying to put the relationship back together. I have changed my ways and appreciated that a relationship needs total commitment. I think it is working and I feel a changed man (and much better for it). My wife, not surprisingly feels totally betrayed, but is staying with me - partly because of our children and partly because the alternative, she feel, is worse. However, there is inevitably the anger at regular intervals which is tough for both of us.
    I suppose I would like some advice as to what should/could happen next. Do we wait for a day when forgiveness is given? Do we reach a point where the subject is never referred to again? Or do we just let it drift away? I appreciate it depends on so much, but any suggestions would be gratefully received as my wife is finding it very tough at times

    Thu 26, Feb 2009 at 5:41pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    This Janet Reibstein talks a lot of sense but just knowing how it is or how it should be isn't always enough when I'm suffering emotional pain. i've looked at this site a few times and it seems to me that support from others is what most  people want. I really feel for some of the anonymous comments on this page and maybe you might get support if you put a post in the talk it out area. Worth a try.

    Mon 23, Feb 2009 at 7:35pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I know this sounds petty compared to other peoples but I have been with my boyfriend for just over 1 year and we used to have a great relationship and we had trust.  A few months ago we were at a party and my boyfriend got really drunk and ended up kissing another girl in another room in the house.  I Know that is all that happend.  I was heartbroken and finished with him but he kept telling me how sorry he was and begged for me back. he said this was just a drunken mistake.  I think about this all the time and i am still hurt and just cant forget about this.  I don't think he would do it again but deep down i dont know and we argue all the time over trust. what should i do?

    Thu 19, Feb 2009 at 4:50pm
  • Cc admin Flag

    Have you thought about creating an item for discussion in the Talk it Out forum on this site?  Other individuals may be able to share their experiences which may be of help to you. Also, the Talk it Out Team, who are experienced relationship counsellors, may be able to give you some useful suggestions.

    Sun 1, Feb 2009 at 3:05pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    my longterm partner has been cheating on me for a year with some sad married woman that he works with, he says that its over and that he is sorry and wants his life to be with me, but i dont know if i can ever trust him again. To make matters worse this woman is on occasions texting telly me that IM pathetic and that he keeps coming back to her. He denies this completely and says that she just wont accept that its over but how do i know who is telling the truth??? I do love him but dont know where to go from here, i feel like im in limbo and am sooooo depressed, angry and upset all the time. Its ruining my life.

    Fri 30, Jan 2009 at 3:04pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    very hart broken and confused...way?

    Wed 28, Jan 2009 at 8:33pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I've been flirting with someone for 4 months before starting a relationship with him, been 2 months since. He is everything I have wanted in a guy and there is a very strong physical, emotional, mental attraction with him that I don't have with my husband. It's so easy to fall into an affair and it's so difficult to get out from one. Today I've decided to finish it with him because I can't break up my family, we got lovely children and my husband, despite that lack of attraction I have for him (but then its been so many years, how many people still get attracted to their partner!) and boredom in a marriage, he is still a good husband and great father. I have good reasons on why I should work on my marriage. This affair is too much of a distraction for me to concentrate on my kids, my home and even my life. It was up to a point where I got obsessed by this guy. I even lay awake thinking and wondering what he is doing behind me or without me. Is he seeing other women? Does he really love me and is he willing to take me and my kids on as a package or is he just seeing me as a short term kind of relationship/a squeeze until he meets someone? All these stresses are not worth it. It gave me sleepless nights. I have too many unanswered questions with him. Whereas with my husband, there is only one path ahead. There is a future. I can place all my bet and savings in it and I know I trust him with all my heart that we have a future. With this guy, there are too many insecurities and uncertainties. I can't live like this. Had I been a single and no kids involved, that is fine. But I am a mum and I need to know there is a future for me and my kids. I need to live with security not just for myself but for my kids.

    Fri 23, Jan 2009 at 5:55am
  • Cc admin Flag

    Dear Anonymous,
    Thank you for commenting on this article. I am sorry to hear you are feeling depressed - perhaps it would help to look at other areas of this site?
    For example, have you thought about creating an item for discussion in the Talk it Out forum on this site?  Other individuals may be able to share their experiences which may be of help to you. Also, the Talk it Out Team, who are experienced relationship counsellors, may be able to give you some useful suggestions.
    You may also be interested to browse through the external links on this site to see if there is anything else which may be of use
    I hope this helps.

    Wed 7, Jan 2009 at 12:25pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I have had a fling with someone and my married is ending i have not been a good wife or a good mother i just want to run away im so depreesed what am im going to do

    Tue 6, Jan 2009 at 10:43am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    Dear heartbroken and lonely, you are not alone...My world has just been turned upside down with my husbands confession, just before Christmas! (2008) I am trying to keep things together for the sake of my children but it certainly is devestating and confusing and it feels like I am on a roller coaster. I don't know who to talk to and I don't know what I should do.

    Mon 29, Dec 2008 at 10:37am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    heartbroken and lonely

    Mon 22, Dec 2008 at 3:14pm