Cheating is a complicated thing.
While there are lots of generalized things that constitute cheating, people approach them in different ways. For some, the worst thing you could do is have an emotional affair, while for others, secret feelings would be much less bad than actual sex. There are also things like one-night stands, paying sex workers, secret sexting, and even microcheating.
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In short, there’s no one-size-fits-all definition to cheating. The real truth of cheating is that the person who’s been cheated on knows that they have because their partner’s actions left them feeling shocked, betrayed and vulnerable.
But whatever you consider to be cheating, one thing everyone probably agrees on is they don’t want it to happen in their relationship. Particularly, you don’t want the other person to cheat, but rare is the person who begins a relationship hoping they themselves will be the one to cheat. And yet, it happens every day to someone.
So how can you avoid that horrible outcome? We spoke to a plethora of experts to help you out.
Why Do People Cheat?
If you’ve been cheated on, it’s important that you don’t blame yourself for the other person’s actions. Still, the desire to understand what happened can be overwhelming — why do people cheat?
“As people, we’re all need-fulfillment beings. All day every day, we seek the fulfillment of basic emotional needs,” says dating coach Connell Barrett. “People cheat for a simple reason: They’re not getting their needs met, so they go elsewhere. If a person in a relationship doesn’t feel special or connected or desirable, they’re going to seek other vehicles to meet those needs, and they may cheat in service of those needs. They’ll seek out someone who can make them feel special, connected, desired.”
The modern conception of relationships, where there’s an expectation that your partner will be everything to you and vice-versa, makes the meeting of all those needs more difficult.
“Monogamy is tough — especially if we frame monogamy in a way that requires one partner to meet all of our needs (sexual, emotional, practical, etc.),” says Jess O’Reilly, Ph.D., host of the “@SexWithDrJess” podcast. “Most people don’t talk about their expectations of monogamy, and this leads to misunderstandings and often (perceived) infidelity.”
Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness, agrees that talking about things in a real way is very important when it comes to fidelity, and the absence of that can be a big factor in one (or both) partners straying.
“It’s cliché, but communication is the heart of any relationship,” he says. “In my experience, when a partner cheats there was a lot of emotional information that the other partner was missing — whether that was boredom, trauma coming up, or there was some missing information from conversations between partners.”
Of course, material factors often play a large role, too: the presence of someone outside the relationship flirting with one of you, distance, whether physical or emotional and other stressors can push someone who might otherwise have been faithful towards infidelity.
According to Caraballo, someone might cheat on a partner “because they can and want to (also believing they won’t get caught) or to make up for something missing from their relationship (this can be physical or emotional).”
It’s also possible that their cheating constitutes a pattern that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you or the current relationship.
“If your partner has cheated before, on you or another partner, he or she is much more likely to cheat again,” says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of “How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together.” “People who grew up in an atmosphere of betrayal and cheating are more likely both to cheat and to select partners who are unfaithful. [Or,] sometimes, anxiety about being cheated on can motivate a partner to cheat.”
Can Cheating Be Prevented?
Thinking about why cheating happens raises the thought of how one would go about preventing it from occurring. Can you take actions that will make it less likely either you or your partner will cheat? In short, can you “cheat-proof” your relationship?
Of course, there’s no guarantee that you can alter someone’s behavior. If someone feels deeply compelled to cheat, no amount of laid out groundwork or logistical preventatives can stop them.
But there are definitely ways that you can lower the odds of cheating happening in your relationship. First and foremost, Barrett suggests, is true investment in the relationship, and making sure each person’s needs are being met.
“A relationship is like a flower that needs constant tending — water, care, sunlight,” Barrett says. “To keep your relationship faithful, both you and your partner must focus on giving each other certainty, love and passion. Make your partner feel so satisfied that the very idea of straying never enters their minds. But don’t just give, give, give. Your needs are important, so make sure your partner is meeting them. Be willing to receive.”
But what form does that investment take? To break it down, here are four approaches to help you lessen the likelihood of your relationship being torn apart by infidelity.
1. Making Each Other Feel Desirable
One big factor in cheating — as in, seeking out sexual interactions (whether that’s a lengthy affair, a one-night stand, going on dates, flirting, you name it) outside of a relationship — is how sex and desire operate within the relationship. If one or both of you doesn’t feel sexy or sexually fulfilled, it makes sense, on some level, to seek out that sensation from someone else.
“If sex and intimacy go out of a [long-term relationship], the likelihood that cheating will happen increases,” says Tessina. “The most powerful thing you can do to keep [your relationship] strong is form a partnership, a team, where both parties feel respected, cared about and needed. Either person will be tempted to cheat if the relationship is disconnected, or has sunk into friendship — affection without sex.”
However, avoiding that outcome might be more complex than just being aware of the possibility. For starters, different people interpret feeling respected, cared about and needed in different ways.
“Most people want to feel desired, but it’s not a requirement for every single person,” notes O’Reilly. “And no two people will experience the feeling of being desired in the same way. I may want my partner to fawn over my body physically, whereas you may want your partner to use their words to express their desire in new and unique ways.”
Using differing approaches, as well as being flexible with regards to what your partner needs, is also important.
“Find ways every day to make your partner feel desired,” says Barrett. “There are countless ways to do this — give your partner specific compliments, say, ‘I love you,’ make out like you did when you started dating, tell them you miss them, share secrets.”
Tessina, meanwhile, suggests working on lightening the mood around sex in the relationship.
“To have more fun, focus on having fun instead of meeting a goal,” she says. “Some sex encounters go well, some don’t, so have a sense of humor. Spend more time giggling, talking and being silly and less time under pressure. A lighter attitude makes sex more fun.”
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember the limits of what external behaviors can accomplish. If one person in the relationship is struggling with deep-seated self-esteem issues around their sexual identity and/or desirability, the other person might not be able to fix those alone.
“For someone to feel more desired is tricky,” says Caraballo. “Ultimately it is no one else’s responsibility to make you feel valued. That feeling fundamentally has to be internal, otherwise any attempts to fill you with self-confidence and the feeling of desire will be temporary and fruitless in the long run.”
2. Talking About Monogamy, Boundaries and Desire
One area where many couples trip up is forgetting to develop a foundation of honest conversation about their sexual desires.
Sure, it’s understandable — talking about your sexual urges can be deeply awkward, embarrassing and scary for many people — but a relationship where there isn’t dialogue around sex can easily become one where the problem solving that happens is an outward push rather than inward improvement.
As in, if you’re sexually unsatisfied, you cheat, rather than talking to your partner about what’s frustrating you. One way to fight back against that tendency is to, well, talk about sex.
Tessina suggests setting up what she calls a “problem-solving session.”
“Begin with reassurance and good will, reminding each other of your love and of your desire that your sexual relationship be fulfilling for both of you,” she says. “Remember, underneath your anxiety, frustration and struggle, each of you is longing for the other to care about what you want, and to understand you. This is a prime opportunity to improve all the communication in your relationship and get you out of being stuck.”
As well as being open about what you need and feel, it’s important to also be prepared to hear things that you don’t love from your partner. Difficult conversations, after all, are a two-way street.
“Being honest means not only telling the truth, but also being willing to hear the truth from each other,” says Tessina. She advocates for an attitude that says, “’I may not like what you tell me, I may have trouble hearing it, but I will still love you, and we will work together to come to an agreement that works.’”
O’Reilly agrees that a willingness to engage in difficult conversations can help a couple avoid cheating — particularly, talking about the construct of being faithful to each other.
“Talk about monogamy,” she suggests. “Monogamy means different things to different people, so you have to discuss your expectations, fears and boundaries. Be honest about your desire for other people, too. You will find other people attractive. You will most likely think about sexual scenarios that don’t include your partner. If you hide these feelings and desires and feel guilty, the guilt can evolve into shame.”
To avoid that, O’Reilly suggests having “open, vulnerable conversations about two things — feelings and fantasies.”
Your core erotic feeling, she says, is “the feeling you need to experience in order to have and enjoy sex. And each person’s is different. Some of us need to feel love. Others need to feel safe. Others need to feel challenged. Others still need to feel sexy. It takes a good degree of honesty to identify yours, but you need to work on this.”
As for fantasies?
“You need to talk about your sexual fantasies and listen to your partner’s openly,” she says. “With vulnerability, but not judgment.”
Without being able to discuss your most erotic sexual fantasies, you’ll never be able to achieve true sexual compatibility. Without that, something will always be amiss in the relationship.
3. Going to Couples Counseling or Sex Therapy
One approach that couples might not consider enough is bringing in the help of a professional and going to couples counseling, or even sex therapy.
While most people understand the importance of outside perspectives on our romantic relationships, the idea of turning to a stranger to help us through things seems daunting, even if they are trained to do just that. There’s even a perception that doing so might imply that there’s a real problem, and that neither of you is capable of fixing things on your own.
“Couples therapy is a great space for couples to get support on their relationship,” says Caraballo. “Most folks wait a really long time to seek help, creating the stereotype that couples counseling means the end of a relationship. Sometimes it does, but when used as a tool towards relational health, couples counseling can offer a safer space to express honest truths and learn skills to make a relationship better.”
Those kinds of skills can go a long way towards dealing with the issues that might otherwise lead to infidelity — things like sexual dynamics, issues of self-esteem and the interplay between the two.
“Couples counseling can be a great space for couples to learn how to talk about their desires as well,” adds Caraballo. “In a shame-free, nonjudgmental zone, couples can explore interests beyond the conventional standards which may open up exciting avenues for reconnection and sexual growth.”
Couples counseling is also more than just the two of you being forced to talk more openly about things that are bothering you. It can be a valuable place to learn how to have those conversations in a genuinely constructive way.
“A counselor can help you talk about difficult subjects, and keep the conversation from going off-track,” notes Tessina. “A good counselor will teach you good communication skills, like taking turns listening without interrupting, keeping your communication clear and understandable, and helping you express things you’re having problems putting into words.”
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It’s also worth remembering that the impact of therapy lasts much longer than the actual sessions do. That means you can keep practicing the skills and techniques you learn long after you’ve stopped seeing your therapist.
So the question is: How do you broach the topic without making it seem like the relationship is doomed?
“If you want to go to therapy with your partner, talk about why you want to see a therapist/counselor and what you hope to get out of it,” says O’Reilly. “Begin with yourself: ‘I’m struggling with X and I need help talking about it.’ Or frame it as the positive action it is and offer reassurance: ‘I really value this relationship and want to keep investing in it. I think it would help me to talk to a therapist.’ Ask for support: ‘Would you consider coming with me to discuss…?’”
4. Opening Up the Relationship
While not for everyone, another way that can prevent cheating is by encouraging sex outside the relationship.
If both partners agree that it’s OK to explore things with other people — whether that’s going on dates, having hookups, engaging in online-only encounters like cyber-sex or sexting, or anything you both agree on — it technically removes that cheating label.
That’s not to say that you can’t betray someone’s trust in an open relationship, but if there’s an agreement in place and both parties respect the boundaries they’ve laid down together, that can be a way for you to have sex with someone else without it being cheating.
Still, it’s not as simple as getting your partner to agree that sex with other people is on the table.
“If you’re dealing with issues of trust and dishonesty, opening up your relationship can exacerbate these issues,” warns O’Reilly. “Some folks find that opening up the relationship can help to facilitate communication, but if you’re worried about cheating or dealing with communication issues, work on those issues first.”
That being said, if the main issue is that one or both of you feels a need to explore sex or flirtatiousness with other people but you both love and trust each other, getting your partner’s permission to explore those desires is a better approach than doing it behind their back.
One way to make it as low-stress as possible is doing it as a team, rather than separately. Maria Sullivan, dating expert and VP of Dating.com, suggests starting out by going on an online dating site together and exploring.
“Cozy up on the couch, pour that glass of wine and, together, have a date night online,” she says. “Talking to new people while you are both in the same room can help to break the taboo and might even bring some fantasies to life. This can be an exhilarating way for both of you to ease into an open relationship.”
She also notes that setting boundaries about who you can sleep with — as well as how, when, and so on — will go a long way towards ensuring the open relationship doesn’t become a giant mess of jealous, miscommunication and hurt feelings.
“In open relationships I have seen work before, it’s common to determine the ‘how many times’ rule,” says Sullivan. “When engaging in any relations outside of the relationship, how many times can you hook up with said person before it becomes an affair? Maybe you agree to one-night stands, or seeing a person a maximum of three times. This can help reassure each partner that they will not be replaced.”
Depending on what you and your partner are like, some of these strategies will work better than others. Maybe couples therapy alone might work; maybe you’ll end up trying all four.
It’s possible that, no matter what you do, cheating does still happen. But with these strategies in mind, you at least have something to work on.
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