Why Do People Cheat? Understanding Infidelity
Infidelity is a loaded topic, everyone has an opinion on it. The majority of people have also been affected by it in some way, and statistics repeatedly show that a large percentage of people have been unfaithful at some point in their lives. The level of acceptance vary in different countries and cultures but when asked, most people would probably say that cheating in any form is wrong. Yet we do it.
My own way of looking at infidelity has evolved as I have walked through life and experienced the complexity of relationships and human nature. I have played different roles in this classic drama myself during the course of my lifetime. I have come to realise that infidelity is a vastly complex topic that cannot easily be reduced to a simple “right or wrong” or “black or white”.
As a couples therapist in the making I am interested in honest and open conversations. Conversations in which we don’t begin by judging others, but conversations in which we try to understand each other. When it comes to infidelity, I personally believe that societal views in general are judgemental and discriminatory. Whilst I by no means condone infidelity, I simply believe that we need more nuances in this conversation.
So is there a way of actually understanding infidelity?
What is Infidelity?
What is infidelity anyway? The reality is that there is no single act which can define it, it is up to each and every couple to define their own boundaries for the relationship. What is acceptable for one person or couple is completely unthinkable for another. For example, one person might think that watching porn, or being friends with an ex on social media is cheating, whilst someone else might be perfectly fine with their partner having sex – or even a romantic relationship – with someone else. I wrote an article about this previously which goes into this topic in more detail. If you and your partner have not discussed infidelity between you, and what it means to each of you, I would strongly recommend you have a conversation about it, just to be on the same page and not make assumptions.
In summary though, infidelity is a breach of trust. That means that anything that is a violation of agreed boundaries, could be looked upon as infidelity. Each couple should ideally have a joint understanding of what infidelity means for them.
What I find interesting about infidelity is how few people appear interested in actually making sense of it. We look at it as an event painted in black or white, something which is most definitely wrong and never right. It’s like a crime drama in which there is a given victim and a perpetrator. The party who was unfaithful immediately gets judged as the bad one. The “victim” gets all the sympathy and is often advised by friends and family to leave immediately. In fact there is a lot of shame associated with even contemplating to stay and “forgiving” this horrendous act of betrayal.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that being subjected to infidelity can hurt immensely. Still, is it really this simple? Can all the blame be put on one person and should it?
The [im]perfect Relationship Model
In our society, there appears to be an underlying assumption that there exists a perfect relationship between two perfect and perfectly matching people, who fulfil each others’ needs beautifully. There also appears to be an assumption that when we enter a relationship with another person, all of a sudden all of our erotic fantasies and desires for anything or anyone other than our partner suddenly disappear forever. as if they never existed In this perfect construction there will never be a reason to be tempted by anything which could shake the solid relationship rock.
However, reality is not perfect. People are not perfect. everyone has a history, baggage, maybe unresolved trauma. We also have a sexuality which we had before we met our partner. That involves individual sexual preferences, a sexual history, fantasies and erotic desires. Most of which many people never actually discuss with their partner!
History has shown that infidelity is extremely persistent and there is not a single form of relationship or marriage which can protect against it.
What I am saying is not that infidelity is right. Breaching someone’s trust should absolutely not be condoned. What I am saying is that where there is a relationship there is more than one person, there is a story, and there are imperfections. Most people do not want to deliberately betray their partner so if they do, what is their motive? What did it give them, what need did it fulfil, what happened that made this occur?
Reasons for infidelity
What are some reasons infidelity might happen? Here are some examples:
- Lack of communication. You don’t share erotic desires, feelings, fantasies, stories. (If you would like tips on how to talk about sex, see my article here);
- The relationship has become mundane, perhaps you are running “Family Life Ltd”;
- One partner is very insecure and doesn’t feel they get enough affirmation. It does happen that some people are so suspicious of their partner they actually cheat because they think the other has done it, even though that may not be the case at all;
- Unresolved relationship trauma which has driven the couple apart. For example change in life circumstances, miscarriage, difficult pregnancy, illness in the family, change in job situation etc;
- You don’t actually love your partner anymore;
- You do love your partner but you have needs that are not being fulfilled in the relationship. Perhaps you don’t feel alive, seen or desired. One example of an unfulfilled need which is quite common is a sexless relationship. This is an interesting moral dilemma which I wrote an article about a while back. Many people would argue infidelity is wrong at all cost. But what if you don’t want to have sex with your partner anymore and enforce celibacy on them? Is that better or more noble? Most relationships experience periods with less frequent sex and that is normal. I am talking long term, like several years. For some this is a provocative question, but to deny someone to have sex for the rest of their life because it suits you, whilst not allowing them to seek it elsewhere, surely is an act at least as morally and ethically questionable as infidelity?;
- Being affected by drugs or alcohol;
- Falling in love with someone else;
- A desire to explore something you feel you have missed out on previously in life;
- Infidelity could also be part of psychological abuse in a relationship. In fact the act itself of abuse can be looked upon as a form of infidelity. In this article I don’t include abusive relationships as such. If your partner is a narcissist or you suffer any kind of abuse in your relationship, it can be a different story entirely.
Many relationships end after infidelity, but many people choose to stay together. How successful they are depend on how they treat the crisis. Some people never put infidelity behind them. It becomes an ever present ghost. One person is continuously reminded of their “crime” by the other who sees themselves as the flawless victim. Other couples on the other hand, learn from it and use it to create something better. To change their relationship and to ignite a new spark.
Every person and couple must work though what happened and decide what the way forward is for them. Immediately jumping into a shame and blame game, as tempting as it is, is however unlikely to solve any underlying problems and understand the reasons why the side-step happened. If you treat the act of infidelity as the problem that needs fixing, you will not fix anything, you will merely patch up a symptom.
What draws people to infidelity? An affair is filled with excitement, passion, newness, attraction, exploration. If you can find ways of keeping these elements in your relationship over time, perhaps the risk of infidelity reduces?
As Esther Perel puts it in her book “The State of Affairs“:
“affairs rarely lack imagination. Nor do they lack desire, abundance of attention, romance, and playfulness. Shared dreams, affection, passion, and endless curiosity—all these are natural ingredients found in the adulterous plot. They are also the ingredients of thriving relationships. It is no accident that many of the most erotic couples lift their marital strategies directly from the infidelity playbook.”
What does infidelity mean to you? Did this article provoke you or trigger some thoughts? Maybe you recognise problems in your relationship that you would like to talk about? Is so, I would love to hear from you. You can contact me here.