We can never determine the exact frequency of romantic cheating because people who get cheated on are often too embarrassed or humiliated to report it. Surveys about relationships are conducted every day, but getting someone to share details about their romantic life is often challenging. Think about it: Would you always tell the truth in a romantic survey? Aren’t there some things you might not even want to admit to yourself?
There’s no single reason why someone cheats, though my clinical work with couples has shown me that it usually boils down to a few basic motivations: the need for attention; the desire for stimulation when a person feels bored or empty; or a self-absorbed and impulsive personality style. Know anyone who meets those criteria? Sadly, odds are that you do.
Without question, our society abhors infidelity to the point that cheaters are typically dismissed as completely immoral, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. For example, if most people are told a story in which one person cheats and the other is the victim, most people won’t need a single additional detail before they deliver the verdict: The cheater is a bad seed worthy of banishment. So, is the cheater always wrong for cheating? And does cheating always indicate a severe character flaw?
As a therapist, I have a unique perspective in that it’s my job to access empathy for anyone who is open to the work of self-repair. The truth is, there are some cheaters who learn their lesson, and there are others who will continue to engage in this selfish behavior regardless of the consequences. Simply put, people who cheat aren’t necessarily bad people. Though it is easiest to stick to absolute ideals (e.g., the cheater is always a jerk), the reality is more complex.
My first piece of advice to anyone about cheating is that everyone should resist the urge to feel totally shocked if they are ever cheated on. Life can be very hard and people don’t always deal with their commitments and responsibilities in the most effective way. Infidelity can be a tragedy which seriously disrupts the trust in a romantic relationship, but accepting that life sometimes throws you curveballs will help you cope with any negative experience that comes your way.
People who cheat typically want it both ways: They want the security of having someone there, coupled with the excitement of a sexual tryst or full-blown affair. I have found that people who cheat were usually nervous from the start about whether they could remain faithful for the long haul. If only men and women would be more honest about their fears with their partner before they seal the deal and take a serious vow that theoretically holds for life! The fact that both men and women do cheat – regardless of the vows or agreements about monogamy they made previously – shows what a serious character flaw cheating indicates. The point is that people don’t change overnight, so a person who cheats at some point in life has probably cheated before or has seriously considered it. Not confiding in your partner about your difficulty with staying faithful shows a calculated form or hiding, similar to lying by omission. Yes, it’s a character flaw if you hide important information from your partner.
What to do instead of cheating:
What should a person do if he or she is on the brink of cheating? Imagine, say, that a relationship has gone south and the couple has stopped emotionally connecting, socializing together, or being physically intimate. Add to the mix anger or resentment, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a big fat cheating episode. The goal in this situation – which happens to millions of couples, by the way – is to first figure out your feelings. Are you bored or angry? Are you not getting enough attention? Next, run the issue by a trusted friend to get a little perspective, and I recommend going to someone who has managed a long-term relationship for years. Tell your friend that you’ve got the itch, which sets up a support network for you so that the feelings don’t stay trapped inside your head – and fester! Finally, the pre-cheater must have a heart-to-heart with their partner and state clearly what’s been going on.
In your conversation, ask for what you want specifically. If you need more attention when you get home from work, ask for it; if you need a date night twice per month, ask for it; and if you need more you-know-what, ask for it! Once you have asked for what you need, give your partner some time to meet you halfway. If things don’t change after a month or two, it’s time for part two of The Serious Talk. Say, “I know I told you what I need in the relationship, but nothing has really changed. At this point, I guess I need you to tell me what you think we should do going forward.” Drawing this boundary is a shorthand way of asking your partner to take some responsibility and to help come up with a solution that works for both of you.
Conversations like the one described above are awkward, but the bottom line is that these occasional awkward conversations spare you so much unnecessary drama down the road. Whether you stay together or break up, the two of you are going to end up telling each other how you really feel sooner or later, so why not do it when you feel in control of your feelings, rather than sweep the issue under the rug and wait until something bad has happened to have a knock-down, drag-out fight? Ultimately, happiness in this lifetime is about learning to predict which problems, if left unchecked, could cause you emotional pain down the road. More than anything, I wish you insight into what you need romantically in order to thrive!
About the Author:
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.