Why Do People Cheat? Exploring the Reasons Why Partners Have Affairs
Infidelity has been around since the birth of monogamy. But there’s often great confusion about why people cheat on their partners.
Partners I speak with who have cheated, struggling to understand their actions, wonder why they did so. Betrayed partners wish to understand how the affair happened so that they can be sure they’re never hurt again.
In the best case scenario in which both partners want to reconcile and save their relationship, coming to a mutual understanding of why the cheating occurred is crucial to healing.
Still, betrayal hurts. Badly. Understanding any experience that we have had can, in time, make that experience more bearable. That includes affairs.
So why do people cheat?
An Affair as a Sign of Something Amiss in a Relationship
Many well-meaning therapists, talk show hosts, and other pundits are quick to assume that an affair necessarily indicates that there was a problem in the relationship. And often, this is indeed the case.
Sometimes couples conclude quickly and without much help from me that their relationship was the suffering, so that one partner participated in an affair to meet unfulfilled needs. At other times, couples come to this understanding after considerable self-reflection.
Once a couple arrives at this conclusion, they can work together to decide what this newfound awareness means for the relationship, their participation in it, and how they need to change to transform their marriage.
This paradigm is very useful because, first, it’s often true. It’s also attractive because it’s very easy to understand, both for couples and therapists alike.
So, therapists who ascribe to this paradigm exclusively can begin meeting with a couple, beginning the “hunt” for problems in the relationship.
But sometimes a partner says something like this: “My partner and I have a great relationship, and I care deeply for ________. I’m happy with ________. But I also cheated.”
Statements like this (which I hear all the time) belie the “something’s-wrong-with-the-relationship” model (i.e., the “symptom theory”) for understanding affairs. How can we make sense of this?
Why Do People Cheat? The (Many) Other Reasons
Affairs don’t always neatly correlate with marital discord. In fact, thanks to the work of Esther Perel, for instance, there is a growing awareness that many affairs have nothing to do with one’s partner or the relationship. She poignantly writes:
Sometimes when we seek the gaze of another, it’s not our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves. . . . So often, the most intoxicating “other” that people discover in an affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.
Raising this possibility with couples can create relief, especially for the hurt partner, who often feels inadequate as a result of his or her partner’s affair. It can also create new possibilities for the couple who cannot make sense of why the cheating occurred.
If it’s possible, then, that affairs have nothing to do with the relationship, what are some of the possible other reasons why people cheat? These reasons are manifold and impossible to summarize, as the “new self” that partner may be searching for in an affair is as unique as he or she is.
That being said, however, we can name some of the usual suspects:
- A desire for more sex or a different kind of sexual relationship or play than what the marriage has offered. Sometimes sexual boredom can be the reason that a partner chooses to have an affair (per the symptom theory). At other times, a partner may choose to have an affair to engage in a form of intimacy that their partner does not want.
- The new relationship simply may be an expression of physical or emotional attraction to someone outside of the relationship. Being married or in a relationship does not turn off this attraction; some choose to act on it.
- “It made me feel alive.” This is what Dr. Perel’s client, who had an affair, stated to her. Whatever the circumstances of the affair, it may be an expression of a part of the self that had to be disavowed, for whatever reason. Engaging in an illicit affair can be one way in which partners act out from this disavowed self. As a result, they feel enlivened by the new relationship.
Healing is Possible
I often encourage couples who have been affected by infidelity to stay in the relationship for at least six months. Why? Because after an affair, both partners need healing and restoration, whether or not they ultimately decide to stay and rebuild or to end the relationship. Staying in the relationship for a time can help the couple get past the immediate crisis to understand the affair, affecting each partner’s healing.
If you need help after an affair, we’re here for you. Recovering from an affair and understanding the meaning of what happened isn’t easy, but if you choose to stay, it can transform your relationship. If you decide to end the relationship, it can transform your next one.
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