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Unless you’re in an open, polyamorous relationship, engaging sexually with someone who isn’t your partner is almost always considered cheating. And as far as the topic of cheating goes, the general consensus is that it’s wrong. No ifs, ands or buts.
But the reasons behind why people cheat, what actually constitutes cheating in a relationship, and the whole issue of whether or not a couple can ever come back from one partner being unfaithful, well, that’s not so black and white.
If you’ve ever been cheated on, you know that it feels pretty awful. It’s a blow to your ego and your self-esteem. It makes you question your judgement in terms of choosing a partner. You start to blame yourself, wondering if you could have done anything to keep them more interested so that they didn’t feel like they had to look elsewhere. Your trust is shot, and if you do decide to start over with someone new, the process for building it back up again becomes harder than ever.
But the flip side of cheating is no walk in the park either. The anxiety that comes with sneaking around, the guilt you feel after committing the crime and having to see your partner who is none the wiser about what you’ve done, and, if you decide to, breaking the news is incredibly unpleasant.
So then, why do people do it? And if it does happen, what should you do about it? Here’s everything you need to know about cheating, straight from the experts (and a few real women who have been there).
- 1 Why Do People Cheat?
- 2 Can Your Relationship Recover From Cheating?
- 3 What To Do If You’ve Cheated
- 4 Different Types Of Cheating
- 5 Further Reading On Cheating
1. Why Do People Cheat?
The reasons for cheating can run the gamut. According to Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., one main driver (that can be especially harmful) is the compulsion to feel good at any given moment regardless of relationship status. “Certain types of people are focused on instant gratification,” she explains.
“They cheat as a matter of course, and don’t consider that they should be faithful. People who feel entitled to sex any way they can get it, will always rationalize cheating, and just keep doing it. They don’t want to work on marital issues, or learn to keep intimacy alive with the same person. They get their jollies from illicit sex.”
If you’ve had a conversation about infidelity with any group of people, there’s usually someone who throws out the idea that happy people don’t cheat. Dr. Tessina says that there is some merit to that, albeit, not always the case. “Research shows that women cheat because they feel emotionally deprived, and men because they feel sexually deprived,” she says. “With illicit affairs quite easily available online or at the office, it’s often easier for a spouse who is dissatisfied with the relationship to transfer affection to someone else than to take the emotional risk of talking to a partner about dissatisfaction.”
Relationships take work, and when one or both parties aren’t willing to put the effort in, it can feel easier to find what’s lacking elsewhere. “While most marital dissatisfaction is not that hard to fix, and cheating is usually emotionally devastating for everyone, the cheater has an ‘instant gratification’ mentality, and is just doing what feels good, and feeling unable to control it,” says Dr. Tessina. “He or she is not thinking of future problems (at least, when connecting with the other person) and is just masking emotional pain.”
You may have heard the idea (or even joked with your partner) about the idea of a “pass” list — essentially, 2-3 celebrity crushes you have that, if ever the opportunity presented itself, your significant other would be OK with you sleeping with as a one time thing. Granted, these types of conversations are all in fun — because there’s no way you’re likely ever going to have the chance to nail that supermodel. But author Kevin Darné says that this concept is actually not that farfetched in terms of one type of cheater who can’t say no to an unbelievable opportunity. “This person is not proactively looking to cheat,” he explains.
“They may have a secret crush on a coworker or even a stranger they cross paths with at Starbucks or wherever. One day this person flirts or hits on them! There’s an opportunity to turn a fantasy into reality and be with this hot person. Maybe the married person’s spouse is out of town or the would be cheater is away on business and the chance of getting caught is extremely remote. Essentially, this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to be with him or her. On occasion, this type of cheater may give into peer pressure. They may be hanging out with their friends in hotel lounge bar who are egging them on to go for it. Cheaters like this are guilty of caving in to temptation.”
RELATED: Why Do Women Cheat? We Got 5 To Reveal Their Motivations
What Real Women Say: “Cheating for me was a total escape from day-to-day life,” says Simone, 34. “It was exciting. But I’m not sure if it means you shouldn’t be together. I think that depends on the reason why you cheated. In my case, it was like therapy to get through what I was unhappy with in my life. I think it is different for everyone, but I will say if you’re only in a relationship a short time and you or your partner is cheating, then you probably shouldn’t be together.”
2. Can Your Relationship Recover From Cheating?
You’ve seen it whenever a new extramarital affair scandal breaks with someone in the public eye — the spouse stands by throughout the turmoil. If a couple that’s facing infidelity so publicly can reconcile, we should be able to do it too, right? Yes, and no.
Sexologist Dr. Megan Stubbs says that having your relationship make a full recovery can be a very long road — one that, if you ever do reach the destination, would require a lot from both parties in order to rectify. “Cheating is one of the most devastating things that can happen in a relationship,” says Dr. Stubbs. “Cheating is a violation of trust, and that is one of the key foundations in any kind of relationship. Once you (or the cheater) come clean, there needs to be a plan put in place. It takes energy from both sides to rebuild the trust and intimacy in the relationship.”
And this process can come with new parameters being enforced — ones that may be hard for both sides to acclimate to. “Sometimes the adoption of new rules like open social media or cell phone access will be requested from the other partner,” she says. “Whatever rules or agreements you put in place in your relationship are personal. There is no list of must-haves on the healing-from-cheating plan. Know that the healing process takes time. It is up to you and your partner to determine how long you need to heal and when trust is reestablished. This isn’t a two-week fix.”
Dr. Tessina agrees, and says that if both parties are willing and focused on mending the relationship after one person cheated, it can be done. “As a therapist who works with couples every day, I know that it is possible to repair the marriage after infidelity,” she says. “Not only is it possible, but when children are involved, it’s desirable.” However, in order to do so, the person who was cheated on needs to not continue to use this fact to start or win arguments.
“Often both partners have contributed to the problem, and if the other spouse continues to blame and vilify the one who made the mistake, then both will suffer for a long time, and so will their families and children. If there is a sincere change in behavior, and if the problems that led to the infidelity are addressed and corrected, and both parties approach the problem with a sincere wish to discover what went wrong and fix it, then forgiveness is an important part of the healing process, whether the couple stay married or not.”
But sex educator and columnist Gigi Engle advises to approach the optimism of being able to continue a relationship after cheating with caution. “Most experts will say that they believe a relationship can recover from infidelity if both partners want to fix the relationship badly enough,” she says.
“I am not of this persuasion. I truly think that if you cheat on someone, the relationship is over. You’re essentially ending it by betraying your partner. Some people can forgive their cheating partner and try to move on, but how can you really let that go? It will always be something that is between you. If you are in a relationship that you really want to save, you won’t do something that is disrespectful like this. Think about it: Cheating is not something you just accidentally do. You have to kiss someone, go somewhere private with them, take all their clothes off, and then physically have sex with them. The factors to consider here are why you [or your partner] did this. At the heart of that question nearly every time is a lack of respect for your partner, your relationship, and yourself. People cheat because they want their relationship to end, but don’t know how to or don’t have the nerve to break up with their partner.”
What Real Women Say: “When I was in my teens it was because of boredom and power,” says Kate, 38. “It felt exciting to be wanted by anyone at any time. Once I was in college and in a long-term relationship, it was because there were things I wasn’t getting from the relationship, but I had no idea how to communicate that to my partner. I was afraid. So I just cheated. Emotionally and physically. Sometimes with different people for different things I needed. It was also fun. (Yep, I said it. It was fun.) I also didn’t believe I would find the right guy, anyway. This was back in the ’90s when us ladies were way less woke on our self-worth and ability to tell a guy to take a hike. This lasted into my first marriage, who I cheated on as well because he was abusive and neglectful. Eventually I moved out and initiated a divorce, and got lots of therapy to figure out where this behavior was coming from. Now I’m remarried and have been happy for 10 years. Cheat free. Although it’s like alcoholism — the trigger and the desire is always there — I know how to control it now, and more importantly, where it actually comes from.”
3. What To Do If You’ve Cheated
First things first, after you’ve committed the crime, you need to take a hard look at whether or not you want the relationship to continue. Was the motivation behind your actions due to the fact that you want out of your current romantic situation? Or was it truly a one time mistake that you wish you could take back if you could? If it’s the latter, Dr. Stubbs says step one is to tell your partner — no matter how unpleasant it may be to do. “Ultimately if you want this relationship to work and be long-term, you need to come clean,” says Dr. Stubbs.
“If you cheated, this isn’t necessarily a sign that you shouldn’t be in this relationship. Communication with your partner is key. Ask yourself why you did what you did and then see if you can tease out an underlying reason of why. And chances are, if you’ve been feeling that something is off in your relationship and this is what led you to act the way you did, your partner is likely feeling the same change. Ultimately cheating comes down to a violation of trust. Whether this is a one-night stand or an affair, you are keeping these intimate secrets from your partner and that isn’t OK.”
Dr. Tessina aggress. “If you’re serious about fixing the problems in your relationship, it’s crucial that you both begin to face each other honestly and openly,” she says. “Most of the time, affairs occur because the communication and intimacy in the relationship have broken down. It’s time to take an honest look at what went wrong. You may need professional help from a counselor or therapist to open up your communication, but it’s the only way to repair the damage done.” Once you’ve talked with your partner, it’s time to begin the process of identifying the problems in your current relationship. “Be willing to make the changes that will fix them,” says Dr. Tessina.
“Doing things the same way you always have will give you the same results. Again, it may take the objectivity of a counselor to help you figure out what changes are needed.” The final component that’s often time the hardest is forgiveness on the ends of both parties. “As long as you’re stuck in blaming each other and defending yourself, you won’t be able to move forward,” Dr. Tessina says. “Forgiving each other doesn’t mean condoning what happened, or that it would be OK if it happened again. What it does mean, is that you’re willing to close that chapter and move on. Your therapist can help you understand and create mutual forgiveness.”
If, during this reflection period, you realize you truly do want out, Engle encourages using this as a learning experience to inform your future relationship endeavors. “Once a cheater does not necessarily mean always a cheater,” she says.
“You need to find a relationship that is fulfilling enough to not lead you to cheat — you need to be with someone you respect enough to communicate your unhappiness to before you go and sleep with someone else. It’s really about being mature enough to have a relationship that you don’t try to sabotage. We’ve all done it. It’s a part of becoming an adult. The best thing you can do is take some time to be single and truly explore what you want out of life and out of a partner. Set realistic expectations. Don’t enter into a relationship until you’re ready to commit and stick to your word.”
What Real Women Say: “If you cheated don’t beat yourself up about it,” says Michelle, 27. “Take a hard look at why you did it and why. If it’s a one time thing just brush it off and look forward but if it’s reoccurring then maybe it’s time to move on from your current relationship.”
4. Different Types Of Cheating
The term “cheating” isn’t necessarily limited to sexual contact or connecting physically. The truth is, there are different types and levels of infidelity. In today’s digital age, with so many opportunities to connect both with people who we know in real life and others who we get to know only virtually, there are plenty of opportunities to stray simply using our words and emotions.
“Emotional cheating is when there is a level of intimacy without necessarily being physical,” explains Dr. Stubbs. “This can be something like a relationship you build with a coworker, but you never (or haven’t) engaged in physical acts.”
Drinks with a coworker may seem innocent enough, but to get to the bottom of whether or not what you’re doing constitutes emotional unfaithfulness, take a look at the context of the things you’re sharing. Are you finding yourself confiding more and more in your coworker, to the point that you’re not sharing as much with your partner or spouse? Are you opting for multiple nights out per week at happy hour over spending time at home with the person you’re in a relationship in? If those lines start to blur, it could fall under this category.
Then there’s the type of cheating that falls under the category of a one-night stand. “One-night stand is an isolated incident when you engage in sexual acts with someone,” Dr. Stubbs explains. “The key for this type of cheating is that it happened once and may or may not have strong emotional attachment.” This one-off type of infidelity means you don’t have a lasting vested interest in the person you cheated with, but it’s still beneficial to take a look at why you felt compelled to go through with it in the first place when the opportunity presented itself.
Once you’re in affair territory, you’re cheating on your partner with the same person. “Short term affairs are when you have sex with the same woman a few times (or maybe over the course of a few weeks or months) and then end it to go back to your primary relationship,” Engle says. “A long-term affair means you’re have sex with same woman regularly for a prolonged period of time — years even.”
In the case of chronic infidelity, being unfaithful is considered the norm for the cheater — and can be an indicator of a deeper issue. “If cheating is a way of life, even though it’s destroying your life, then it’s sex addiction,” says Dr. Tessina. “This also may be a learned pattern from a father who was unfaithful.”
What Real Women Say: “Every relationship is different,” says Lynn, 27. “Every cheat. Every motivation behind cheating. They are all different. I really believe there are times when it’s not worth it [to tell your partner]. Like a kiss at an office Christmas party. Or a hook up when one of you has been traveling for work for many months. Or the guy who’s visiting his corporate office in Thailand and goes to get a ‘massage.’ These are all places I don’t believe it is necessary to say anything because they are one-offs and don’t necessarily reflect the state of the relationship itself. However, if you have lasting feelings for someone, or are repeatedly drawn to unfaithfulness, then it’s time to look at the relationship and be honest with your partner. But chances are, if you are drawn to cheating often or in a compulsive way, you need to take a harder look at yourself and the real reasons behind it.”
5. Further Reading On Cheating
There have been plenty of books penned on the topic of affairs and infidelity to help those who have been affected cope with the situation — and to help cheaters understand the motivations behind why they did what they did. Here are a few titles to consider for further reading about cheating:
Stronger Than Broken, by Stacey Greene
If you’ve been cheated on by a spouse, it can be enormously helpful to hear from someone who has been through it themselves. Author Stacey Greene details her journey toward mending her relationship with her husband in Stronger Than Broken, providing a first hand look at the work involved. “For most of us, kicking the cheater to the curb is the norm,” says Greene. “I guess I am not normal. We chose to resurrect the marriage and make it even stronger.”
$10.99 at Amazon.com
When Good People Have Affairs, by Mira Kirshenbaum
Celebrated therapist Mira Kirshenbaum tackles the conundrum of why “good” people get themselves involved in affairs, leveraging her real life experience of treating thousands of patients who have had to face and overcome the emotional impact of being cheated on. Kirshenbaum lays out easy to understand steps to achieving clarity on cheating, and identifies seventeen different types of affairs to shed some light on this heavy topic.
$11.66 at Amazon.com
Not Just Friends, by Shirley P. Glass, Ph.D.
The thing about being cheated on that can be the toughest to swallow is that more often than not, we get the sense that something is going on before we catch our partner in the act. Shirley P. Glass delivers the much needed validation that readers are right to be suspicious of the dismissive, “We’re just friends” response when questioning their spouse about someone they’ve been spending a lot of their time with. The book also provides guidance on how to prevent these situations from happening, and puts readers on the path to healing.
$11.58 at Amazon.com
Living and Loving After Betrayal, by Stephen Stosny, Ph.D.
Being cheated on greatly impacts the success of your future relationships. The process of getting back out there is hard enough after a break up, but coming off of one where the partner you trusted turned out to be dishonest can end up setting you up for failure when you to meet a new potential love interest. Stephen Stosny, PhD, helps readers see the light at the end of the tunnel, offering effective tools for getting past the shadow of betrayal and learning to trust again.
$12.83 at Amazon.com
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