Revised 9/28/2023

“I don’t love you anymore, but I didn’t want to hurt your feelings by telling you that directly. So I had an affair. So now you know. I want a divorce.”

Is your relationship headed for a breakup? Watch out for the telltale signs of an “exit affair.”

We’ve all heard the cliché: “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” But research shows this isn’t always the case. However, some affairs aren’t really about sex or emotional connection – they’re an exit strategy. If your partner is checking out of the marriage, an exit affair may be their final move before calling it quits.

The involved partner is usually conflict-avoidant. They’ve been unhappy for years but have just stopped complaining. The hurt partner interprets the silence as “everything is fine”. Nothing could be further from the truth. While there appears to be some guilt about leaving their primary relationship, there is excitement about their new life. They may actively make arrangements, such as finding a new place to live, consulting with divorce attorneys, or consulting a financial advisor to divide assets. Then they disclose.

An exit affair is a double-emotional sucker punch to the face of the hurt partner. Not only do you find out that your partner has had an affair (distressing enough), but they also have no interest in processing this affair with you or apologizing for it.

They just want out.

While not all kinds of affairs are exit affairs, these types are linked explicitly to a partner’s intention to end the marriage.

What the Research Says

Studies suggest that exit affairs occur when one partner has already decided to end the relationship. Rather than confronting the issues directly, they seek out an affair as a way to force the issue and prompt a breakup.

In one study, 40% of divorced individuals reported their marriage ended because one spouse left for a new partner[1]. Another survey of 5,000 people found that over half of “final straw” reasons for divorce involved infidelity, either emotional or physical[2].

Experts believe that an exit affair provides a sense of distance and detachment from the primary relationship. “The appeal of an exit affair is that it allows the person to avoid the pain of addressing those difficult feelings and the hard work of either fixing or ending the relationship,” explains psychologist Karen Ruskin, Psy.D[3].

Warning Signs of an Exit Affair

How can you spot the signs that your partner’s affair is really a prelude to divorce? Here are some red flags to watch out for:

  1. Sudden emotional distance and withdrawal of affection
  2. Unwillingness to discuss relationship issues or attend couples counseling
  3. Making unfair comparisons between you and the affair partner
  4. Rewriting your relationship history to seem unhappy
  5. Consulting with divorce lawyers or making financial moves behind your back
  6. Having one foot out the door and seeming “checked out” of the marriage

Exit affairs can be incredibly hurtful to the betrayed partner. Not only must they grapple with the pain of infidelity, but they face the secondary shock of learning their partner wants to end the marriage. It’s a double whammy of heartbreak and abandonment.

The Involved Partner

  1. They will use the affair to avoid the difficult conversations. They need to discuss the many decisions associated with separation, they just don’t want to do so. For this reason, an exit affair is also known as a “divorce affair” or “break-up affair.”
  2. Most of the time, it is clear to everyone that this affair partner is not their “one true love.” The affair partner is a bookmark.
  3. The relationship with the affair partner can be emotional, sexual, or both, but it’s not usually long-term.
  4. Sometimes it is with the same sex. The Involved Partner may be aware that they are gay or lesbian for a long time. Now they let their partner in on it through the affair.
  5. They have been unhappy for a long time, and now they want to have fun. They aren’t looking to become part of a married couple or fall in love. They just want to feel good.
  6. In this type of affair, they aren’t seeking a genuinely caring relationship. They instead turn to someone else for emotional support, understanding, and companionship. Their affair partner may be in their own exit affair with the Involved Partner.
  7. The involved partner frequently spends years alone, evading commitment and emotional “imprisonment.” 
  8. Research tells us that exit affair rarely endure and are unstable beyond the divorce. In cases where exit affair partners stay together and marry, most have run their course in about 18 months or so. They often leave the illicit relationship once the divorce has been finalized.
  9. Research tells us that an exit affairs is fundamentally unstable. An intense exit affair may lead to a hasty marriage with an affair partner. The failure of these marriages can be an incredible drain on all involved.
  10. The affair partner becomes a lightning rod of high emotion for both partners. To the Involved Partner, they are the saint who has brought them to life. To the hurt partner, they are the thief who has stolen a loving partner.

The Self-involvement of the Involved Partner

The Involved Partner accepts no responsibility for the failure of the marriage. Their initial concern is “Can I get you to agree to let me go? “Can’t you see how bad it is? How could you possibly want me to stay?” 

They never truly grapple with their role in the “as-if” marriage. They look to their partner to validate the wisdom of their solo decision to divorce.

The second question that grips them is, “Do I still have it? Can I still want to be close to someone? Does someone desire me? Am I worthy of someone getting close to me? Doesn’t my happiness in this new relationship confirm that I’m not the problem in my marriage?”

It is possible for clients to “snap out” of exit affairs. It requires the Involved Partner to reflect on how the exit affair is often little more than a convenient vehicle for ending their marriage. It also requires them to question whether the affair deserves such a heavy emotional and financial commitment. Finally, it requires serious soul-searching about the Involved Partner’s role in the deadness and distance in the marriage. Most exit affairs are strategic. Many of these Involved Partners stop complaining and go dark. They’re tired of talking and not being heard.

When the Involved spouse is ready to engage in such a journey, the marriage can come alive again.

The Hurt Partner

  1. For the hurt partner, being abandoned and deceived can be an incredibly devastating combination. Exit affairs can cause significantly more distress as the anguish of unfaithfulness amplifies the sorrow of being made redundant. It is made more so by the obvious desire of their long-term partner to feel great…without them.
  2. Most Involved Partners will play a waiting game, tolerating their predicament until they meet or create the circumstances that can ease their exit. This is important for the hurt partner to accept. This has been a long-term plan. It is only news to you.
  3. Some hurt partners break down or respond in attack mode under the strain. They use their rage to distract themselves from their own intense grief. The suffering of these hurt partners is great and the need for wise counsel is obvious. I have seen a lot of dignity and self-possession as well and have marveled at their strength.
  4. That’s why getting help managing your emotions is critical. I tell hurt partners to avoid the affair partner and focus on taking care of themselves to manage strong emotions.
  5. The Involved partner sees couples therapy as “first aid” to link their bewildered and grief-stricken partner with a mental health professional who can support them through the divorce.
  6. A hurt partner’s anger allows the Involved Partner to defer any reflection about their contribution. It confirms the hopelessness of reconciliation, clearing the way for them to exit.

When it happens

People often launch emotional affairs after experiencing a significant turning point. Sometimes, it is at retirement, graduating from school or getting a promotion, the children leaving home, or the death of a parent. The involved partner has often been in the relationship longer than they wanted to but may have been waiting for the “right time” to leave.

Exit Affair vs. Conflict Avoidant Affairs

In both the Conflict Avoidant and exit affair there is often an unconscious desire for the affair to be discovered, but for diametrically opposite reasons.

Like the Conflict Avoidant Couple Affair, the Involved Partner, in many cases, has an unconscious wish to be found out.

Affairs for Conflict Avoidant partners are a way to tell the hurt partner, “I want you to pay attention to me so I can feel wanted and stay.” 

However, the communication to the hurt partner in the exit affair is “I need you to pay attention to me so you can clearly see that there is a good reason for you to want me to leave.” 

The role of the affair partner in the exit affair is fundamentally different from the Conflict Avoidant Affair. The exit affair is all turbulence and emotion. It is as dramatic and emotional as the Conflict Avoidant affair is perfunctory and superficial. The affair partner is a comforting and idealized attachment figure. It’s a distant “sorry you got hurt,” not “sorry that I hurt you.” They keep their partner’s pain at a distinct distance to avoid getting too involved.

Case Example

John and Mary had been married for 15 years when John discovered Mary was having an affair with her college boyfriend. He was shocked and heartbroken. He wanted to work on the marriage but Mary was checked out.

In couples therapy, Mary admitted she’d been unhappy for years and had reconnected with her old flame as an exit strategy. “I didn’t have the courage to tell John how I really felt, so I let myself get swept up in the affair,” she said. “It was wrong, but a part of me hoped John would just end it.”

John felt betrayed on multiple levels – that Mary had cheated, lied, and didn’t want to fight for their marriage. The revelation of the affair, while devastating, finally forced the couple to confront the deeper issues in their relationship that they’d been avoiding.

The role couples therapy plays

  1. The hurt partner may want to seek professional help. The involved spouse demonstrates little interest in any form of relationship repair. They just want out. They are ready to move on. They show little interest or investment in working things out.
  2. Many partners in exit affairs spouses report emotional gridlock around their unaddressed needs in the marriage. They may have tried repeatedly in the past to discuss their issues but were met with either indifference, resistance, or bad faith. However, these complaints currently serve more as a buffer and excuse than a sincere attempt to improve things. They understand that the affair is designed to bulldoze their marital home while their spouse still lives there. That’s the crux of it. That’s the strategy.
  3. If the involved spouse brings their partner to therapy, the purpose is to cushion the blow. They are aware that the disclosure of the affair will be shattering. The request for divorce, more so. So, as I like to say, it isn’t actually couples therapy, it is a ‘theatre production.’
  4. They attend couples therapy (if it’s over in a weekend, so much the better…) to demonstrate to children, important family members and others that they’ve made “every attempt” to salvage the marriage. However, this isn’t done in good faith.
  5. Before the BIG BIG Book, the problem was a mystery where I was left to figure out if there was any possibility of improving the relationship. Often because the affair wasn’t disclosed, the Involved Partner would have few specific complaints that we could work on. They seemed more globally unhappy and disinterested in change. 
  6. At a certain point, with timing I wasn’t privy to, the involved partner would announce that the marriage would never work. They are leaving.
  7. Now, I can know the truth after asking 800–1000 questions upfront. I then suggest discernment counseling (not couples therapy), where I can learn about the affair while keeping their complete confidence.


The exit affair is an emotional camouflage. They typically occur just before separation and are the drama that precedes marital collapse. They are a convenient excuse for the marriage’s failure, but the marriage fell apart before the affair happened.

The Involved Partner seeks to alleviate their guilt by cajoling the hurt partner into “releasing them.” They offer the affair as the best evidence to support that decision.

The essential characteristic of exit affairs is the profound emotional disconnection emanating from the Involved Partner. While they are typically uncomfortable with the hurt partner’s pain, the hurt partner’s rage can be a confirming solace to the Involved Partner. It lets them off the hook.

We have done couples therapy with partners who were originally in exit affairs with each other as the paramours. They were both married to someone else when they began the affair and ended up marrying each other. The anger, frustration, and disappointment in these marriages are often profound. Each expected the other to be their “salvation” and doorway into a new and happier life. However, because each tends to avoid bringing up issues (the patterns in their first marriages), these issues ferment and worsen. They have, as I often say “Brought themselves and all of their unresolved conflicts into the new relationship.”


  1. Hawkins, A.J., Allen, S.E., & Allen, K.R. (2015). Reasons for Divorce: Perspectives of Divorcing Individuals in Utah. Journal of Family Issues, 36(10), 1262-1289.
  2. McDermott, R., Fowler, J.H., & Christakis, N.A. (2013). Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else Is Doing It Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample. Social Forces, 92(2), 491-519.
  3. Johnson, S.M. (2013). The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection. Routledge.