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7 Things Every Couple Should Understand About Infidelity

Women do it nearly as often as men, and it doesn't have to kill a relationship.

Key points

  • Infidelity does not automatically doom a relationship.
  • Cheaters can change their behavior—if they truly want to.
  • Infidelity damages relationships even before it is discovered.
 Motortion Films/Shutterstock
Source: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

If I asked 100 people what they know about infidelity, I would likely get 100 very different answers, though each of those answers would likely fall into one of seven categories.

  1. Infidelity is a sure sign of a struggling relationship.
  2. If infidelity can be kept secret, it doesn’t hurt the cheater’s relationship or family.
  3. Men cheat more often than women.
  4. Rich and powerful men cheat more often than other men.
  5. Cheaters are consciously aware that they are risking their primary relationship.
  6. Cheaters cheat. If they cheat once, they’ll almost certainly cheat again.
  7. A couple can never truly get over infidelity.

But how accurate are these common beliefs about cheating? In reality, all of these “beliefs” hold at least a few grains of truth, but none are entirely accurate. For a better understanding, let’s examine these statements one at a time.

Does infidelity signify a relationship that is already struggling?

Not always. Sometimes people cheat for reasons unrelated to their current (mostly good) relationship. In such cases, the behavior is usually rooted in some form of unresolved trauma and is more about soothing feelings of shame and unworthiness than anything else. That said, if a relationship was solid prior to cheating, it’s likely to become much less solid when the betrayal starts.

Furthermore, if someone says they cheated because their primary relationship was struggling, they’re using that as an excuse. And a lame excuse at that. If a relationship is not going well, there are countless options that don’t involve cheating—talking about it, going to couples counseling, ending things without creating the pain of betrayal, etc.

If no one knows about it, then no one gets hurt by it, right?

Wrong. 100 percent wrong. The foundation of a healthy, long-term relationship is trust. As soon as one partner starts lying or keeping important secrets, honesty becomes a one-way street, and trust is compromised.

When this happens, non-cheating partners sense that something is wrong. They may not know the reason the cheater is lying, keeping secrets, and pulling away emotionally, but they know these things are happening. Sometimes, they blame themselves, wondering what they’ve done to create this rift. Worse yet, children sense the distancing, and they almost always blame themselves for it. This results in feelings of shame that can stick with them for the rest of their lives.

Is it mostly men who cheat?

For some reason, our society seems to think that only men cheat and that women would never, ever do such a thing. To that, I say: Who do you think these men are cheating with? The simple truth is women cheat approximately as often as men. The one way in which men may engage in betrayal more often than women is with pornography, but even that has evened out in recent years.

Are rich and powerful men more likely to cheat than regular guys?

In my experience, no. Rich and powerful men (and women) are no more or less prone to cheating than your average Joe (or Jane). Are we more likely to hear about rich and powerful people who cheat? Absolutely. TV shows like TMZ, plus gossipy magazines and tabloid newspapers, make sure of that.

When actors, athletes, and politicians get caught in flagrante delicto, it’s news. When your spouse gets caught, not so much—except to you, of course. So even though it may seem like the rich and powerful have juicer lives than the rest of us, that’s not really the case.

Are cheaters always aware that they are risking their primary relationship?

Sadly, no. In fact, most of the time they are relatively unaware of that fact. Instead, they are in a fantasy-driven neurochemical bubble of arousal (a mix of dopamine, adrenaline, and a few other pleasure and excitement-related neurochemicals). In this bubble, they lose track of the real world and only the fantasy matters.

They do not think about the harm they may be causing their spouse and family; they do not think about getting caught; they do not think about potential negative consequences. Somehow, it just doesn’t occur to them that things can (and eventually will) go awry for them.

If a person cheats once, will they cheat again?

Probably. Unless they take drastic action to change their thinking and behavior. Over the years, I have treated literally thousands of cheaters, and I can tell you that the ones who want to stop cheating and save their relationship usually do.

Typically, they struggle in the beginning stages of this work, still engaging in denial about what they’ve done and the pain they’ve caused. Often, they want to blame their partner for their behavior. Plus, they’ve developed a habit of lying and keeping secrets to cover their actions.

None of these issues can be dealt with overnight, but they can all be dealt with. And the clients I’ve worked with who’ve diligently done this work are uniformly glad they did. They become men and women of integrity in all aspects of life—especially their relationships.

Does infidelity automatically doom a relationship?

Happily, no. In fact, many couples say that after putting in the work of healing and rebuilding trust, their relationship is better than ever. Admittedly, there is “before the cheating” and “after the cheating,” and that distinction will always be there. But many couples still say that cheating is the best thing that could have happened because it forced them to look at and work through their personal and relationship shortcomings in ways they wouldn’t have done otherwise.

Ideally, the cheating partner establishes a pattern of rigorous honesty with everyone in his or her life, and with that, he or she becomes more vulnerable in the primary relationship. It is this newfound vulnerability from the cheater (and sometimes from the betrayed partner, too) that creates previously unknown levels of emotional intimacy. So not only is healing possible, better than ever is possible too.

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