Article By Robert Weiss Ph.D., MSW
~ FEBRUARY 2022 ~
After nearly three decades of treating individuals who’ve cheated on a loving partner, I can tell you with absolute certainty that infidelity is not always the result of a bad primary relationship.
In fact, much of the time, the cheaters I work with tell me that they love their partner, find their partner attractive, value their relationship, and do not want to damage the life that they and their significant other have created together.
Yet they’re in my office because they cheated. They betrayed the person they love in the worst possible way and now their relationship is in turmoil. Their betrayed partner no longer trusts a single thing they say or do, and worse, anything they’ve said or done in the past. The entire relationship is in question. So the cheater sits in my office wondering why they did what they did, why they endangered the most important facet of their life.
Of course, it’s not just cheaters who want an answer to this question. Betrayed partners also want to know why. Often, they’ve invested a great deal of time and energy into building the best possible version of “us,” and now that vision of life has been shattered. And with it, their self-esteem and ability to cope with life on life’s terms may also be shattered. Sometimes, they wonder what they did wrong, even though they had nothing to do with their partner’s decision to cheat.
Admittedly, sometimes people choose to cheat because they’re in a bad relationship and want out. Sometimes they feel stuck because of kids, finances, social mores, or whatever. So they sneak around to get their needs for connection, intimacy, and validation met by someone other than their spouse. But just as often, cheaters are in reasonably emotionally healthy relationships with people they love, care about, and have no desire to hurt.
Eight reasons people cheat on someone they love
So why? Why do people who love their primary partner still choose to engage in infidelity? Usually, they do so for one or more of the following reasons:
- Self-Exploration. For some, cheating is a way to explore repressed parts of the self. These cheaters don’t actually want to change the core of who they are; they just want to escape the constraints of that for a little while. They’re not looking for another person; they’re looking for hidden versions of themselves.
- Insecurity. Sometimes cheaters struggle with self-esteem. They don’t feel attractive, powerful, smart, young, or whatever. So they seek validation through cheating. They use that spark of interest to feel wanted, desired, and worthy.
- The Appeal of Transgression. These cheaters are like children stealing a cookie their mom says they can’t have. The forbidden nature of the cookie makes it extra-desirable. Infidelity is the same. Because cheaters are not supposed to cheat, cheating seems extra special and extra desirable.
- Unresolved Early-Life Trauma. Sometimes cheaters are reenacting or latently responding to unresolved childhood traumas—neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc. Basically, their childhood wounds have created attachment deficits that manifest through infidelity.
- The Life Not Lived. Here, it’s the life that could have been, the lover that got away, or the lover that never was that drives the infidelity. The cheater is not unhappy with their current life, but they’re curious about what their life might have been if they chose a different path.
- Unrealistic Expectations. Some people cheat because they have unrealistic expectations about what their partner and primary relationship can (and should) provide. They may think their partner should meet every need and desire they have, which is an impossible standard. And if they don’t have close friends and family who can step into the occasional void, they might chase an affair partner.
- Wanting to Feel Intense Emotions. When primary relationships settle into the comfort zone of long-term love, cheaters may want to feel the intensity of a newly formed relationship (even though there is absolutely nothing wrong in the current relationship).
- Inherent Selfishness/Entitlement. Some cheaters, despite loving their partner and enjoying their relationship, feel they deserve more. Rather than seeing their vow of fidelity as a sacrifice made to and for their relationship, they view it as something to be worked around.
Whatever the reason(s) for cheating, intimate betrayal does not automatically signify the end of a relationship. This is especially true when relationships were relatively strong, other than the cheating and its emotional impact. Many couples find that their relationship ends up better than it was before the cheating was discovered. In fact, this is somewhat likely if the couple chooses to work through the betrayal, establish better boundaries, rebuild trust (through rigorous honesty), and open the lines of emotionally intimate communication.
A version of this article originally appeared here on psychologytoday.com