If you’re in a relationship and looking to cheat, then every season has a reason. St. Patrick’s Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween (think of the costumes!) and even Valentine’s Day each provide unique cheater motivations. During the Christmas season this can be especially true. Simply put, the stress of kids, shopping, parties, family, and all of the season’s other anxiety-producing events can lead some folks toward an intensely felt emotional escape that is found in the arms of a person other than their spouse.
This happens more often than many people may realize. In fact, studies typically suggest that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the people in committed relationships cheat. Of course, in today’s digital world the concept of cheating has become somewhat malleable, making it easier to deny than it was a mere twenty years ago, when infidelity meant actual live physical contact. As such, the definition of infidelity that I am most comfortable using today—because it transcends technology—reads as follows: Infidelity is the breaking of trust caused by keeping secrets in an intimate relationship. So if you’re using porn without your spouse’s knowledge or sexting with strangers and keeping that a secret from your partner, you are cheating. Needless to say, when using this definition the 10 to 20 percent figure quoted above is likely an underestimate.
But Why, Santa, Why?
The reasons people cheat, no matter the time of year, are many and varied. Some people cheat because they never intended to be monogamous. Some people justify their infidelities via martyrdom, telling themselves they’re not getting enough love/affection/attention/respect/whatever at home. Others cheat because they feel entitled and think they deserve something special. Some men and women cheat as part of an addictive behavior pattern (sex and/or love addiction). Still others cheat simply because the right person walked into their line of sight. So even though holiday stress can exacerbate even the most stable person’s feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and the like - primarily because the season brings with it so many elevated and often unmet expectations of peace, joy, and happiness - blaming infidelity on the holidays is a little misguided. Holiday stress might be a convenient excuse for cheating, but usually there are other, longer-term and deeper motivations for relationship infidelity.
Some of the justifications people have for cheating might actually seem legitimate, though I don’t like to call them that because the word legitimate implies a value judgment that I’d rather not attach. Let’s go with the word alternative instead. A few alternative reasons for cheating (that might seem legitimate to some people) are:
Wrap Me Up a Warm Body, Please
Our cultural stereotypes tell us that it is usually men who step out on wives or girlfriends, but research actually indicates that nearly as many women cheat as men. After all, it takes two to dance the infidelity tango. Maybe a larger percentage of men act out with online porn, but otherwise the split is a lot more even than many might think. And why not, when both genders have a similar biological need to meet, mate, and procreate. It’s even possible this neurobiological desire is more acute during the Christmas season, meaning a yearning to utilize the warmth of another person to ward off the cold, dark, damp chill of winter could be a Darwinian survival mechanism. And even if it’s not, all those TV ads touting wedding rings that we see this time of year are bound to affect our thinking.
That said, for the more vulnerable among us (and who isn’t vulnerable during the holidays), the season can be problematic. After all, spending time with family (who we may not like), spending money (that we might not have), and being forced to attend all sorts of potentially stressful events (that we might not enjoy) can trigger a desire for emotional escape. Most people just overeat, drink a little too much, or spend themselves into next October. For others, however, cheating seems like the easiest and maybe most effective way to self-soothe. (Don’t forget that things like porn use and flirting via hookup apps, if you’re keeping secrets about these behaviors, qualify as cheating.)
Stuff Your Stocking with Good Advice
If you’re thinking about cheating, please consider the following five ideas before you act on those thoughts.
Even the Grinch Got Better!
Learning about infidelity is tough under the best of circumstances. During the holidays, with family and parties and everything else to deal with, revelations about cheating can be doubly difficult. The good news is that even with all the emotional distancing and painful mistrust cause by infidelity, many couples faced with cheating do ultimately remain together, most often with the help of a skillful and supportive therapist. Regardless of the actual circumstances, it generally takes time for both members of a committed couple to figure out exactly what has happened and how they wish to proceed, both individually and as a pair. As such, I discourage anyone from making decisions and taking actions in the midst of feelings like anger, betrayal, and hurt. Initially, setting boundaries (like: you need to move out for a while) work much better than black-and-white decisions (like: I’m filing for divorce and taking our kids). I also strongly discourage turning to your children for support in this moment, because a poorly thought-out statement may cause your kids years of misery.
Unfortunately, togetherness is not always in the cards for spouses and families affected by infidelity, especially those dealing with multiple adulteries. Approximately 20 percent of married or otherwise committed clients seen for the treatment of numerous infidelities do not make it, even when receiving useful, appropriate therapy. This is sad, but there are some silver linings. For instance, those who have lost a primary relationship because of their own adultery tend to become better parents following the loss of their relationship - post-therapy, of course. Furthermore, these men and women can utilize the pain of separation to grow beyond their past emotional immaturity, ultimately learning from and not repeating past hurtful actions. As for betrayed spouses and partners who choose to end their relationship, many find themselves to be stronger people on their own than they had thought they ever would be. With support and guidance, they learn over time to be more trusting of their own instincts and emotions, and the next time love comes knocking at the door they tend to be more appropriately cautious before committing.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Ageand the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters.