Why do people cheat? A look at infidelity and what you can do about it.


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It’s everywhere – in our favorite TV shows, in the movies, in the books we read, and even in our lives. Whether you’ve cheated, been cheated on, or know someone close to you who has been through this experience, it’s an epidemic.

And according to renowned therapist, Esther Perel, infidelity isn’t going anywhere.

So, what the hell is going on? Why do people cheat? Most importantly, what the heck can you do about it?

Let’s start by examining Perel’s latest TED talk. Then, we’ll look at a few ways that will help you combat some of the main issues that can lead towards infidelity.

Adultery has existed since human beings began entering into relationships.

In fact, Perel humorously points out that infidelity is the only commandment repeated twice in the Bible: once for doing it and once for just thinking about it.

What exactly is an affair?

According to Perel it has three things: “a secretive relationship, an emotional connection to one degree or another, and a sexual alchemy.”

Perel goes on to say that cheating is universally practiced, meaning it’s something that isn’t unique to one culture, time period, or way of living.

She even shares that 95% of us say it’s terribly wrong for a partner to have an affair, but then we turn around and admit that 95% of us would never tell a partner if an affair happened.

Happiness is not the cure for cheating. Because people who are happy in their partnership still cheat.

The truth is that despite what we see and hear in the media, cheating is not always done from a place of hatred or misery.

Of course there are serial cheaters out there – individuals who are dishonest and disconnected and disrespectful on many levels. But that’s not who we’re talking about.

I’m talking about people who love their partner, who are generally pretty happy, and who still seek something outside their relationship in an unethical way.

So what gives?

“Monogamy used to be one person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time.”

In the past, monogamy had nothing to do with love. It was about ownership – guaranteeing the purity of the man’s heir, of the ownership of his property and inheritance. It was an economic transaction based on wealth and security.

An affair, then, used to threaten our economy status and our financial well-being, but taking a lover was often our only chance at love.

That has changed somewhat recently. Now, our relationships are based on love and personal connections. As a result, affairs threaten our emotional and psychological well-being, which is a much higher price to pay.

What’s the solution? Many people claim that non-monogamy is the cure for infidelity because monogamy isn’t realistic or fair.

However, Perel says that cheating happens in non-monogamous relationships, as well, and that fidelity and monogamy are actually two very different conversations altogether. I happen to agree.

All that said, there is one thing that Perel gets wrong in her talk – or, rather, she doesn’t go deep enough for my liking.

She says we have this romantic ideal that in a monogamous relationship one person will meet all of our exhaustive list of needs.

This is true, but it’s not the whole story.

In my experience, when a monogamous couple is made up of individuals who are self-aware and consciously choosing this for themselves (instead of allowing monogamy to be their default or a blind assumption), they have no such illusions about their partner.

Rather than this fairytale myth, I see people who rely on their family and friends for many of their needs – emotional support, personal development, intimacy, love, physical comfort, adventure, etc.

They create a community that supports their relationship.

Healthy non-monogamous couples do the same thing, except they often include sexual experiences and/or romantic feelings with some of their support network, too.

I also see these same people having a strong sense of self requiring a fair amount of autonomy – the people in the relationship see themselves as complete people with their own hobbies, interests, and friends.

This is a critical distinction. It may not be common, but it’s important to note that it exists.

Back to Perel’s talk…

The bottom line is cheating creates a crisis of identity and a crisis of trust. It’s deeply upsetting and threatening.

We live in a culture where we believe we deserve happiness and that we owe it to ourselves to chase desire.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it does make it so much easier and so much more tempting to stray.

Perel says we used to divorce because we were unhappy. Today we divorce because we could be happier.

The advice from friends and advice columnists is to leave if you’re unhappy, to throw in the towel if there is a transgression. And yes, if you’re truly miserable then you should leave.

We live in a commodity culture where anything that no longer serves us or becomes too much trouble is easily discarded in favor of something newer and easier. The same has become true for our relationships.

But surprisingly, most couples who experience infidelity actually stay together, which often leads to a great deal of internalized shame for the wronged partner.

If we can easily divorce, without any cultural shame, then why do we have affairs at all?

Perel’s book, “Mating in Captivity”, covers this at length, and it’s a book that I recommend to many of my clients.

In her new TED talk, she expands on her previous work and says that affairs are an expression of longing and loss.

It’s not necessarily that something is wrong with your relationship or with you, but that something has gone missing and an affair helps to reclaim that thing.

What is that thing?

Often it’s “an emotional connection, a novelty, freedom, autonomy, sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves, or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.”

Perel tells the story of one client who has an affair with her gardener because she’d always been the good girl, taking care of everyone but herself, and she felt compelled to experience some of that lost adolescence, to be carefree and reckless, that she’d never had.

“It isn’t always our partner we are turning away from, but the person that we have become.”

Affairs make people feel alive. Cheating often helps individuals who feel stuck to experience the thrill of newness again.

The most important point in Perel’s talk is this:

Affairs are rarely about sex.

They are usually about desire – desire for attention, to feel special or important, and that endless wanting for something you can’t have.

It’s about the power of the forbidden.

Perel has a hopeful message. You can heal, and even thrive, after an affair, but this is where we’ll leave her talk and turn to look at some ideas for what these things mean to you.

What can you do about infidelity in your own relationship?

While there are no guarantees, there are things you can do that help create a space where everyone involved has an opportunity to thrive.

Define what fidelity means in your relationship – and keep revisiting that definition regularly.

Many people in relationships establish loose rules around infidelity – don’t do anything that would hurt me or don’t do anything stupid. Not terribly specific, since two people may have vastly different assumptions about what would hurt the other, so this is potentially problematic.

So, let’s say you actually take the time to really examine what the both of you want and need when it comes to the boundaries of your relationship – flirting is fine, watching porn, going to strip clubs as long as there’s no sex. If you start developing feelings for someone, talk to me first. Something like that.

The thing that most people miss?

Revisiting those boundaries regularly. I recommend annually, at a minimum, but also leave flexibility in between check-ins for conversations to happen at different intervals.

This is not a set it and forget it process.

Your needs will change. Your partner’s needs will change. You will both grow in new directions. Perhaps you want to expand the boundaries of your relationship at some point, and at other points to pull them in.

But, both of you need to be open, honest, and brave enough to examine the rules.

One other note: sometimes one person will want more freedom than the other.

That’s OK. You two can decide if that’s a deal breaker or if one person is willing to be patient while the other explores what that means.

Therapists, counselors, and coaches can help you a great deal in this space, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Infuse your relationship with excitement and mystery.

In her first TED talk in 2013, Perel touches on the importance of maintaining eroticism in your relationship. She posits that there is a continuum (I like to imagine a teeter totter) for relationships with intimacy on one end and eroticism on the other.

Many couples slide along this scale until they’re deep in the intimacy realm. With all of the weight on the intimacy end, things fall out of balance. Eroticism dies or becomes incredibly rare (enter low libidos, dull sex lives, and only having sex on someone’s birthday).

And therein lies the problem.

Too much intimacy kills erotic energy.

Why? Because eroticism needs air and mystery and heat in order to burn.

(Conversely, if you have a relationship that is entirely erotic, then it’s risky and thrilling and dangerous, but lacks intimacy and trust. These relationships tend to be dramatic, hot, and short.)

Perel calls this concept erotic intelligence.

This is also one of the main things I recommend to my clients when libidos are waning and sex isn’t what it used to be.

Desire thrives on the unknown, on surprises, and on the unexpected.

This, in turn, makes people feel wanted, seen, craved, and needed. Which, from what you saw up above, is one of the main reasons people have affairs – they feel like they are no longer desirable.

I’ve created a list with some ideas for injecting your relationship with fun, fresh energy. You can download it at the end of this post.

Allow your partner a chance to be their own person.

Autonomy is critical if you want your relationship to thrive. Both of you need to have time and space to do the things that you love doing.

Go out with your friends without your partner.

Let your partner go golfing or fishing or crafting for an afternoon.

Do weekends away to the spa on your own.

Schedule time on the calendar for you to have the house to yourself for a few hours so that you can take a bubble bath or watch an erotic film or masturbate or read a book in silence.

Whatever it is, cultivate a sense of self and nurture that through acts of self-care. Taking care of yourself is necessary and attractive.

Not only will that space help with the erotic energy, but it will also ensure that both of you have a clear sense of self and an identity outside of your relationship.

Practice gratitude for your partner.

What you focus on grows.

Are you focusing on all of the things your partner does that drive you nuts? Or are you focusing on all of the things they do that make your life a little better for having them in it?

If someone feels taken for granted or invisible, it’s so much easier for them to feel drawn towards situations where they will feel appreciated and seen.

Be that person for them, and ask for them to do that for you.

Perel says she tells most of her patients that if they put half as much energy into their relationship as they did into their affair, they wouldn’t have had the affair in the first place. Preach, Esther. Preach!

Develop little gratitude rituals. Maybe it’s daily text messages or hand written notes. Perhaps it’s a weekly date night where you both make an effort to talk about what’s going well.

Before bed each night, think of 3-5 things your partner did that day that you were grateful for. Some days it will be really difficult to come up with nice things to say, so even if it’s super small – they put their socks in the hamper and ate everything you cooked for dinner – find something you can be grateful for.

If you do this often enough, you’ll find that the way you view your partner becomes much more kind and appreciative, which helps to create a relationship where everyone feels valued.

What are your favorite ways to keep desire alive? What’s your biggest struggle? Comment below with your thoughts.

Ready for your free download? Just click the button to open it. Be sure to join my email list for exclusive videos and worksheets, too.

  • i think these two points you mentioned are key, dawn: allowing your partner a chance to be their own person and practicing gratitude for your partner. without these two elements of mutual respect in your relationship, many things falter (not just fidelity).

    • April, I love that – many things do falter beyond fidelity when you have a lack of autonomy and lack of gratitude. John Gottman, the leading researcher on marriage, talks about kindness being one of the most important traits for happy, successful marriage, and I think kindness stems from gratitude. Such a great discussion. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Yes, we all need to explore and discuss what our lines are and want we desire. This was very well rounded. Too many times I read about just infidelity and how they don’t wee desirable. But there are so much more that goes into an affair.

    • Thanks, Anung! I really agree with what you said about how complex an affair can be – it’s rarely as black and white as evil doer and victim. Understanding the hurt happening on both sides and how it manifests is so important. Thanks for stopping by!

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  • c4bl3fl4m3

    Am I the only one for whom intimacy and eroticism are on the same ends of the scale? Emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy are deeply linked for me. The more intimate I feel with someone, the more I get turned on. The closer I feel to someone, the more aroused I get around them. (Which is why I don’t like cultivating intimacy with people I don’t want to be sexual with. It feels… awkward. “Inappropriately boundaried”, as my therapist puts it.)

    • This is actually super normal. Many of us, myself included, need a deep level of safety and trust before the creativity and the arousal really starts to flow.

      But, there is a line when intimacy becomes unhealthy codependency or a fusing of autonomy or even predictable and boring. That is when erotic energy can start to die. If it’s the same way every single time, many people find that eventually they just aren’t interested anymore (as much as you may love pizza, having the same pizza everyday for years would probably get old, fast, not to mention not very nutritious).

      Each of us require a different mix of safety, trust, risk, and mystery. We often experience frustration when that balance begins to shift for us or for a partner. It’s not as static as you might think.

      Powerful points!