The Hidden Drivers of Infidelity

Governor Mark Sanford is a hypocritical louse; a jerk; a no-good, philandering husband. At least that seems to be the general consensus of the countless people evaluating his amorous escapades. Before I continue, let me make a couple of things clear. Do I think it’s fine for someone to break a monogamous agreement or engage in the unfaithful behavior they have admonished in others? No, although it is not uncommon human behavior. Do I think it’s okay to put one’s spouse and children in a humiliating position—and continue to do so after expressing regret over the initial hurtful behavior? No, although it does suggest the presence of mental and/or emotional imbalance.

As injurious as Mark Sanford’s behavior has been to his family, there is a fact that most people seem to be missing: It takes two people to make a good marriage, and it takes two people to make a bad one. A partnership or marriage is a culmination of the dynamics created by both of the people in the relationship.

In cases of exposed infidelity, one partner is typically seen as the “villain” (the one who cheats), while the other is perceived as the “victim” (the innocent one). Because the cheater’s injurious behavior is blatant, it’s easy to peg him or her as the bad one—the one to blame for the relationship’s downfall. But it’s never that simple. The victim always has a part in whatever caused the relationship to deteriorate, although the dysfunctional patterns they bring to the relationship are usually more subtle (and thus harder to see) than those of the villain.

Common relationship patterns of people in the victim role that can contribute to an infidelity include emotional distancing, using parental responsibilities or work to avoid connecting with their partner; withholding physical affection or sex (often a passive-aggressive expression of anger); constant complaining or blaming their partner for things that are wrong; using “humorous” or cutting sarcasm to express resentment, or denying or ignoring what's not working in the relationship. Patterns that villains often play out in relationship include being controlling, stubborn, self-righteous, or self-centered; overt expressions of anger such as yelling or throwing things; subtle or overt threats of abandonment, or entitlement (feeling like they’re the exception to the rules others have to live by). In response to their partner’s withdrawal, they often feel justified in seeking affection or meeting their sexual needs elsewhere.

I am not condoning Mark Sanford’s behavior, nor do I lack empathy for his wife, children, and family. My purpose in adding my voice to the throng of Mark Sanford commentators is simply this: We all are co-creators in every relationship we have. The interpersonal dynamics that two people share are created by the values, beliefs, behaviors, words, and intentions that both people bring into the relationship. Mark Sanford’s behavior was, indeed, injurious and hypocritical. But I think it’s important to remember that both he and his wife played a part in their marital discord, even if we don’t know what his wife’s part was. In cases of infidelity, there is always a lot more going on behind closed doors.