Why Do People Cheat in Relationships?
Over the past few months I’ve received quite a few emails from men and women who are either considering cheating, are concerned that their partner is cheating on them or have found out about an infidelity. The emails are similar in nature; expressing a lot of fear and upset, asking questions as to why partners cheat, if it’s acceptable to cheat and if it’s worth persevering with a relationship when one partner has been unfaithful.
Instead of replying to each question individually, I thought it was worth penning a blog that talked about cheating and the reasons people stray from their relationships. I don’t mean this to be the last word in how or why things happen but hopefully it will serve as a guideline to help those who are facing up to an infidelity from either side.
There is no easy way to explain infidelity, each individual circumstance is different but it’s fair to say that sex and affairs outside of a monogamous relationship are incredibly common. Surveys undertaken in the UK and USA suggest that 25% – 70% of women and 40% – 80% of men have had at least one sexual encounter while in a monogamous relationship.
Everything from a lack of emotional support to a flagging sex life to stress to an overwhelming physical desire is cited as a reason for cheating. There are a thousand reasons someone might cross the line but focusing on the whys is not always the most constructive way of dealing with infidelity, at least not initially.
Looking at statistics doesn’t do us a whole lot of good either. In fact it’s likely to make us incredibly cynical about the potential for any relationship. Surveys that reveal cheating stats usually take very little information into account albeit for the occurrence of sex, and they’re usually conducted using fairly small or specific groups (such as those using an extra-marital dating site). It’s likely that the majority of us will cheat on a partner at some stage in our lives but for many of us this happens in our teens or early twenties while we’re learning about sex and relationships first hand. Take stats with a pinch of salt and generalisations with the knowledge that they’re just that – a summation of a subject and not the defining rule.
Looking at why people cheat is a helpful way of handling any infidelity. Although the common answer when you confront a cheating partner is often ‘I don’t know’, there are usually reasons behind it, even if there is uncertainty about what they are.
The Role of Biology, Desire and Self-Control
Whether we want to accept it or not, we are predisposed to consider cheating. This comes down to a biological desire to find the best-possible mate to have offspring with and you’ll see it demonstrated within societal structures throughout the animal kingdom where mate poaching is an expected part of life. The conscious desire to have children or spend our lives with someone has very little impact on our consideration, nor does our emotional connection with our partner or family. The desire to have sex is mainly driven by biochemistry – an involuntary bodily response to someone we’re attracted to that is hot-wired into us and impossible to control. The unfortunate fact is that our mental state is at odds with our physical. We know in our minds what is expected of us but our bodies betray us.
When we develop a crush on someone, we tend to fantasise about sex with them. For some people this culminates in fleeting thoughts whereas others will start thinking about their crushes during sexual scenarios – both solo and with their partner. For some it becomes a subconscious or conscious obsession of sorts, leading them to strengthen their bond with the object of their desires and in doing so, they increase the likelihood of cheating on their partner. Although this is primally driven, we have to accept responsibility for our actions.
The difference between cheaters and those who stay faithful is simply self-control, and the first step in understanding why people cheat is accepting that we all have ‘impure’ thoughts within the confines of a relationship. For example, your partner fantasising about Ryan Gosling might be harmless enough and is an acceptable ‘celebrity crush’ but the same feelings about someone your lover is on speaking terms with is rightly construed as a threat. The difference between the two is availability, the sentiment is one in the same.
Physical Gratification Through Casual Sex
The easiest kind of infidelity to make peace with is one that involves casual sex and nothing more. It’s no less hurtful to the faithful partner but some solace can be taken from the fact that it’s devoid of any emotional connection. We all have times when we meet someone and we feel sexual desire or simply note sexual accessibility, but for the majority of us the consideration is fleeting.
Casual liaisons like these are most common within long-distance relationships or those where there is little sex or sexual dissatisfaction. The casual partner serves to fill a physical desire and rarely poses a threat outside of a sexual union. There are instances in which a sexual connection can become an emotional one but these tend to be few and far between. A partner who seeks extra-curricular sex is most likely seeking physical gratification and nothing more.
If you’re reading this speculatively then my advice is thus: If you’re considering looking for sexual gratification outside of your relationship, you need to improve communication with your partner. Whether sex is too infrequent or you need something more from your sexual relationship, you need to find the courage to talk about it in order to improve the situation. Having sex with someone else in the short term may improve your sexual satisfaction but it’s a temporary and potentially harmful solution to what might be an issue that’s easily fixed with words and constructive action.
Developing Feelings for Friends
Another major reason we cheat is that we develop feelings for someone in our lives without meaning to. We all have good friends who mean the world to us but at times the boundaries between friendship and love become blurred and we begin to feel more than a platonic connection with our comrades.
When we’re single, this can develop into a relationship that has deeper foundations than sexual attraction but when we’re involved with someone else it becomes incredibly difficult to understand where we stand. Connections with friends are more likely to develop into an affair as we feel loyalty to both the friend and our partner, making it hard to take a step back.
Self-Control – Intoxication is NOT Your Friend
Sexual attraction and deeper connections with friends are more likely to result in sexual action when inhibitions are lowered. Intoxication is a major contributing factor in many infidelities but it’s not the reason we desire sex with people other than our partner. That is already predetermined by our biochemical responses or emotional connections, as mentioned above.
When we drink or take drugs, we find our rational thought is dampened and that leads to lower levels of self-control and a higher instance of impulsiveness. That’s why so many infidelities happen or commence when intoxicants are involved, the attraction has been there for a while but a diminished sense of responsibility makes it easier for us to cross the line. For those already subconsciously or consciously considering a physical union with their crush, it’s simply fuel to the flames.
If you’re reading this speculatively then my advice is thus: Do not drink alcohol or take drugs around your crush if you don’t want to action your desires.
Becoming Overly Friendly with a Crush is Dangerous
Another reason things go too far is allowing ourselves to become too emotionally involved with our crushes. Generally speaking, you need to take several steps back if you have a strong sexual attraction to someone and they’re also a friend, colleague or another type of social connection.
Florence Nightingale Syndrome is roughly explained as a carer and patient relationship in which one or both sides develop feelings for the other, but it also applies if you’re lending an ear to your crush and providing advice. Acting as a physical or emotional caretaker for a crush is dangerous territory that often leads to a deeper bond and greater affection. The conscious intention might be innocent but your body is likely to think otherwise.
There’s also something to be said against merely hanging out with a crush, even if you avoid personal subjects or one-on-one time. When we feel attracted to someone, prolonged exposure to them leads our bodies to produce a bonding hormone called oxytocin that strengthens our connection with them and it’s a recipe for trouble. When this sense of closeness is reciprocated by our crush, it’s the leading reason an affair develops as opposed to a simple sexual encounter. You don’t just desire one another, you’re emotionally attached to one another and subconsciously see the connection as having the potential to be more.
If you’re reading this speculatively then my advice is thus: If you have a crush on someone you spend time with, it’s better to back off and spend as little time with them as possible to avoid becoming more attached.
My Partner Has Cheated. What Do I Do Next?
Finding out your partner has cheated on you is one of the most emotionally devastating things that can happen when you prescribe to a
monogamous lifestyle. The first and foremost issue you face is one of broken trust, infidelities usually occur without prior discussion and are often brought into the light of day without a confession. When you’ve entered into an agreement with someone that you’re theirs and they are yours, it’s hard to understand why they’ve undermined that sentiment.
The first thing to recognise when you’re facing an infidelity is that the act of physically or emotionally connecting with someone else is not necessarily a reflection on your relationship. Sure, there may be things that are imperfect about your partnership but that doesn’t mean to say the reason your partner strayed is down to you. If your partner has hidden their actions from you, it goes some way to show that they’d rather you didn’t know. Although it is a betrayal, it’s also indicative that they don’t necessarily want things to end with you.
If there’s one place that statistics have a place in this blog, it’s now. Very few affairs or flings culminate in a relationship. Even when partnerships form as a result of an affair, they’re more likely to end at some stage than not. If you consider the role of monogamy in our society and what we want from love, being cheated on doesn’t come high on that list. If emotions develop as a result of infidelity then trust is likely to be a foremost hurdle in anything long-term happening within the affair. It’s more probable that your partner will feel remorse and regret for their actions and will consciously wish for your relationship to continue. How you handle that and progress is down to you.
It’s important that you don’t make any rash decisions and try to curb your words. Sometimes it’s better to live with a partner who has been unfaithful than it is to live without them, despite the initial anger and hatred you feel. Yes, it is easier said than done. Finding out someone has cheated on a monogamous relationship feels exactly like finding out that someone close to you has died. Your biochemistry reacts in the same way and you’ll most likely need to go through the grieving process in order to accept and deal with what has happened. Once more, that’s no easy task.
It’s normal to take time alone to consider your thoughts and feelings. You’ll swing wildly between wanting to be close with your partner and wanting them to disappear from view. The best thing for you both is to acknowledge and be accepting and understanding of this fact. Infidelities cause a painful and turbulent mix of emotional circumstances that are tricky to navigate and even trickier to discuss rationally. Patience and sympathy are often the difference between a relationship surviving an infidelity and one breaking apart because of it.
During this time you’ll want to avoid off-the-cuff conversations and take a constructive approach toward dealing with your hurt. Again, it’s far easier said than done. The best thing you can do is make good friends with a pen and pad and make your smartphone your enemy. Modern technology is certainly a curse when you have emotions to express and an impulsive tongue (or fingers) will often serve to worsen the situation instead of help to heal it.
As creatures we’re incredibly impulsive but the last thing you want to do is contribute further to the hurt you both feel by prematurely expressing your thoughts. This echoes the what I’ve written in my ‘How Do I Know My Relationship is Over?’ blog. Constructively conveying how you feel is one part considering your thoughts and one part expressing effectively.
When you’re ready to discuss the hows and whys of the infidelity, you’ll be able to better understand your partner’s perspective. It doesn’t mean you’ll empathise or even sympathise but it can help to heal the pain you presently feel. It’s never easy to hear why things got to this point but it’s better to know the facts than it is to have them covered up for the sake of spared feelings. Bringing the full details to light will allow you both to accept what has happened and find a constructive way to deal with things. From there on in, we reach the point of the ‘Is My Relationship Over?’ post, the steps contained therein will help you to decide where to go next.
It’s also worth remembering that time is a great healer. Although the pain you’re experiencing now is fresh, raw and incredibly difficult to make peace with, over time it does fade and pale in comparison to the experiences you have ahead of you. How do I know? I’ve been there too. I’ve stuck with a partner who was unfaithful and the experience was a big factor in dedicating a large proportion of my life to understanding how relationships work.
Yes, my relationship with B ended too, but not before another two years of love, joy and intimacy together. In the end we parted ways because we grew apart and it was a tough decision for both of us. I don’t regret my decision to stick things out one bit but it was a very steep learning curve to traverse. It can be done and I have come away with a better understanding of love and less fear about sex outside of a relationship. In the least, you can possibly expect to take that away with you – regardless of which side of the fence you find yourself on.
I hope you’ve found this blog helpful. I welcome comments, additions and the like if you’d like to give them.
– Hella Rude