unhappy marriage leads to infidelity

What It Means When Your Unhappy Marriage Leads To Infidelity

People stay in unhappy marriages for a lot of reasons. You may be in one yourself. But when an unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, it’s time to lift the veil of denial and take a good hard look at what’s going on.

And what you’ll probably see first is fear. Fear can cause people to make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make. That’s its superpower.

Fear is often a reason people stay in unhappy marriages. If this is true for you, you might have thoughts like:

“If you leave her now, no one will want you again.”

“If you divorce him, you’ll never have enough money to live.”

“If you don’t stay, you won’t see your kids, have friends, find love again, be happy….”

It’s when fear is unexamined that it veers decision-making off-course, often landing the fearful person in a ditch of irrational behavior. It can also lead to an acceptance of situations and influences that don’t serve a person’s safety, growth or highest good.

However, fear can be a powerful informant if read and understood correctly. Sadly, when an unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, it’s rare that the underlying fear was understood.

When an unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, the infidelity is a statement of something essential being ignored or mishandled within the marriage relationship. You can think of it as a passive-aggressive way of expressing what is locked up inside the straying spouse or entangled between both spouses.

Just what might the affair be trying to tell you? The causes of infidelity usually fall into four categories:

  • The straying spouse has unmet needs.

S/he may feel lonely, unappreciated, unimportant, emotionally irrelevant, and/or generally unfulfilled. S/he may even feel incapable of meeting the other spouse’s needs, and in that sense may feel insignificant or like a failure.

  • Sexual dissatisfaction.

    Being happy with your sex life isn’t just about the frequency or adventurousness of sex. It’s also about fulfillment, physical presence, emotional connection, physical health, body image, and self-/spousal-perception.

    Even if only one spouse feels sexually dissatisfied, the other spouse — and the marriage — will pick up on the discontent. Avoiding, withholding, detachment, indifference, resentment — there are a lot of indirect ways to express unhappiness in the bedroom.

  • Poor communication.

    Affairs are a way of communicating without engaging in responsible verbal dialogue.

    When your unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, there’s no mistaking the volume of the message. The content of the message is what is being acted out in the affair.

    What have you and/or your spouse been avoiding or miscommunicating?

  • Psychological issues.

Unresolved issues and learned patterns from childhood, addictions and personality disorders can all set a marriage off on the wrong foot. An affair may be the messenger of an underlying problem, but it certainly won’t fix the unresolved issues.

No matter how unhappy a marriage is, the resulting infidelity isn’t the real issue. The breakdown of communication, sexual dissatisfaction, unmet needs, psychological issues and/or loss of love take credit for that.

Sometimes an affair is used as the “final straw” for a spouse to exit an already failing marriage. But still, the underlying, unresolved, tiptoed-around issues and fears remain.

And in this regard, the two spouses may stand on opposite sides of the fault line, blaming different things for the dissolution of their marriage. “S/he cheated” is an easy scapegoat. It doesn’t, however, absolve the betrayed spouse of his/her own accountability for the quality of the marriage pre-transgression.

To understand how an unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, it makes sense to understand the symptoms of an unhappy marriage.

By contemplating them in the context of your own marriage, you can better predict if your marriage is at risk. Alternatively, you may also gain insight into your marriage’s predisposition to an affair if one has already occurred.

Here are just some of the major signs of an unhappy or loveless marriage.

  • You’re not having sex and not showing affection.
  • You have nothing to say to one another.
  • You don’t enjoy being with one another.
  • You fantasize about life without your spouse…and maybe with someone else.
  • You don’t feel heard…and you don’t really listen.
  • You don’t prioritize one another.
  • You ignore your gut when it tells you something is wrong.
  • One or both of you are unwilling to get help or work on your marriage.
  • Your marriage is filled with criticism, blame, defensiveness and/or contempt.
  • Your marriage is built on a paradigm of control-submission.
  • There is abuse and/or addiction.


More often than not, those who stray do so because of opportunity….

  • Opportunity to feel alive, excited, youthful.
  • Opportunity to feel appreciated and valued without having to expose or answer for faults.
  • Opportunity to feel unburdened from constant stress and responsibility.
  • Opportunity to feel desired by someone who has nothing (yet) to gain.
  • Opportunity to escape.
  • Opportunity to be uninhibited without feeling judged.
  • Opportunity to express sequestered feelings without having to talk and listen to a spouse.

Interestingly, a study by sociologist Paul Amato concluded that people in very happy and unhappy marriages (usually) don’t cheat. The very happy marriages stay intact, and the very unhappy ones end in divorce.

It’s the so-so marriages — the ones languishing in mediocrity — that are most at risk for infidelity.

So if you are wondering what it means when your unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, your answer may lie in your acquiescence to the status quo.

To capitalize on the cliché, fear of rocking the boat will keep you in the harbor. But it won’t protect you from the unexpected storms.

And tiptoeing around the unmentionable issues and feelings will exhaust you both. It will also leave you with a marriage that is nothing more than medicore.

When an unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, the trumpet is playing its reveille. It’s time to wake up…decide…and take action. The road has forked, and standing still is no longer an option.


Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats