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Even Committed Partners Can Cheat. Here Are 7 Reasons Why.

Triggers that can lead dedicated lovers to betray a partner abound.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Recently, my husband and I saw Tatiana torn apart in the last act of the ballet Eugene Onegin, when she decides to remain true to the prince she married and, defending her vows and integrity, sends Onegin, the suave seducer, packing. She has her own code of honor and resists the temptation to cheat on her husband, regardless of the forces luring her away.

But not everyone makes the decision Tatiana did. Opportunities present themselves, and a committed lover may wind up in someone else’s life, arms, or bed. People cheat for many reasons, and each motive can result in several different behaviors. Some of those behaviors can become habitual — i.e., habits. The resulting chain — trigger activating motive, leading to behavior, leading to repetition, which eventually leads to habit, a specific style of responding — follows the social learning theory traced by Julian Rotter in the 1950s. Viewed differently from Tomkins’ script theory, sets of expectations form and guide future choice, usually without conscious reflection.

The real culprit is the experience that leads to cheating in the first place. There is no one-size-fits-all, but here are seven of the most common triggers that result in cheating:

1. Unmet interpersonal needs.

When their interpersonal needs (for sexual fulfillment, emotional intimacy, comfort, or companionship) are not being met, a person has choices: examine what those needs are and address them, or allow them to unconsciously direct behavior. In the first approach, you can discuss them with your partner directly, consider alternate ways to meet the needs by yourself, or hope that a different quality of relationship to the lover might provide a solution and consider how to achieve it. Alternatively, some people look elsewhere to a “savior” who might rescue them from a situation that might more effectively be solved alone or with the original partner. The frequency of this particular unconscious script can influence the likelihood of cheating. As Roy Baumeister has demonstrated, our resistance to that chocolate chip cookie can be worn down with repeated temptation.

2. Unmet narcissistic needs.

When our need to feel good about ourselves is dependent on messages sent by other people, we can be driven to seek out that reassurance elsewhere, failing to see that the other person is an individual. We may not be able to recognize who we might be hurting or what commitments we might be betraying. An ability to seduce takes center stage, simply to reinforce a feeling of desirability. Alternatively, the person in need of outside validation may respond far too easily to someone seeking to seduce. This is about power, not affection. The motive at play here is being able to attract or to feel wanted.

3. Loneliness.

Sometimes one person is in a relationship in which the partner has a demanding commitment elsewhere, often to a creative expression or work activity. The result can leave the other feeling horribly lonely and seeking companionship elsewhere. This behavior, which might initially be innocent, can easily escalate into a broader range of sharing; simple companionship in a single activity can expand to include other activities that involve the person more broadly — perhaps intellectually, creatively, and eventually physically. (When I hear the words, “I’m bored,” I ask myself if the person really means, “I am lonely.”) Loneliness is often a hard feeling to identify in our noisy social world, and yet a yearning for connection is a most basic human need.

4. Anger.

Some people tend to express anger in a passive-aggressive manner, rather than directly. Instead of confronting hurt from or conflict with a partner, they may reach out in ways that they know, consciously or unconsciously, will hurt that partner. They engage someone else to play a role in a drama of aggressor-victim-rescuer. This pattern can easily escalate to the ultimate insult, an affair. Who plays what role in the triangle shifts according to individual perception.

5. Fear of closeness or commitment.

Some people find close personal relationships frightening. They may harbor uncomfortable feelings from an insecure or dismissive attachment that they had as a child. These types of “insecure attachment” evoke fears of loss of freedom or abandonment. As adults, the “dismissively" or “ambivalently” attached may behave in ways that ensure a relationship will not be allowed to become emotionally intimate. The dismissive may reject a lover as a confidante, complain about the partner to a third party (triangulate), choose someone outside the primary relationship at a vulnerable moment, or for a critical role. If it works, the behavior can lead to full-out cheating that goes beyond “emotional infidelity.” The ambivalently attached may engage in an alternating clinging and rejecting pattern, bringing in a third party as a symbolic anchor. Cheating ensures that a strong dyadic bond cannot survive.

6. Memories.

An encounter can reawaken memories of a younger self or an earlier relationship, as in the ballet that we saw. How many reawakened teen romances have gone on to disrupt formerly secure midlife marriages? The passion of raging adolescent hormones can temporarily blind someone whose relationship has evolved to include broader facets of each partner — embracing frailties, honoring individual needs for growth or for care, providing comfort as well as joy.

7. The cultural context.

What Richard Hackman called the “ambient stimuli" that surround us have an acute effect on our behavior. They are those aspects of our lives that affect our consciousness simply because they are part of the culture in which we are embedded. When a culture accepts infidelity (or sexual abuse, or any other attitude that is unconsciously embraced or tolerated among the people to whom one is exposed), the pull to engage in that behavior is strong. What one might call “morality” or “character” — including agreements made between two people — can come to be seen as inconsequential. The honor which Tatiana respected in rejecting Onegin’s belated entreaties could crumble amid an advertising world or media explosion that screams, “Everybody does it!” In this instance, the covenant between two people is sacrificed to individual inclination when that covenant no longer has meaning in the sense of consequences for cheating behavior.

Copyright 2018 Roni Beth Tower


Rotter, J. B. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall. doi: 10.1037/10788-000

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