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A New Theory of Cheating

Is cheating an escape from the self?

Key points

  • Neural circuits located in the prefrontal cortex are the launch pad of our imagination, enabling us to make and plan for future possibilities.
  • Sexual infidelity is an escape from what we have become in relation to our partners.
Ali Karimiboroujeni on Unsplash
What does intimacy reveal about me?
Source: Ali Karimiboroujeni on Unsplash

Sexual infidelity endangers the intimate relationship, and for many of us, it is its most fearsome predator. But despite this threat, have you ever toyed with the idea of having sex with someone other than your partner?

"The grass is always greener..."

No doubt, you can easily complete the above sentence because it's a common, age-old epigram used so often it has morphed into a cliche and for obvious reasons.

At one time or another, most of us have asked ourselves these or similar questions: Would someone else be more exciting in bed? Would someone else make a better partner? Would I be happier with someone else?

The Neuroscience of Anticipation

Not surprisingly, neuroscience can explain our occasional musings over how our lives might be better with someone other than our partner. This includes our occasional lusty mental meanderings, those creeping temptations of imagined sexual betrayal that can momentarily penetrate our vows of commitment.

Neural circuits located in the prefrontal cortex are the launch pad of our imagination, enabling us to make and plan for future possibilities. When these imagined possibilities foresee potentially exciting things, like a hot romance, an adjoining area, the endogenous reward system quickly manufactures its illustrious product, the neurohormone dopamine, and we feel a rapid spike of pleasure merely by anticipating the affair.

Titillating "Pop-Ups"

Neuroscience pinpoints where and how we have these flights of fancy, these sometimes highly-eroticized thoughts of straying, but it fails to explain why we have them in the first place. Are they the primal, restless stirrings of our innate biological drive to reproduce ourselves–evolution's principal goal?

Or are they the occasional, hard-to-repress and titillating "mental pop-ups" that can pester a long-term relationship, especially one that has become lackluster out of excessive routine and predictability?

Countless Explanations

Relationship experts have proposed several theories to explain why we stray, imaginatively and actually. However, in concept, the potential number of explanations is as vast and complicated as the "couplescape" itself, since each couple concocts their own version of intimacy–and thus has its own singular reasons for betrayal.

A "Unified Theory"

As overly ambitious or presumptuous as it may seem, consider what could be a unifying theory that cobbles together all explanations bringing them under a single umbrella.

As you might expect, this encompassing theory lies well outside the conventional box of reasoning on unfaithfulness, so introducing it will first require laying out two novel premises. Here they are:

Intimacy Is the Great Revelator

Assumption one: Intimacy is unique and uncanny in its ability to fully reveal who we are–metaphorically, we are put under the microscope and thoroughly dissected. Why?

Intimacies of shared realities and close relational quarters deliver an ongoing stream of personal encounters, infinite elbow-rubbing, and an expanse of shared activities of every conceivable kind, including the inimical but unavoidable: confrontation and conflict. All this closeness virtually guarantees our partners will come in startling detail, and very likely, as no one else does.

What else gets revealed?

Second assumption: Intimacy shines an unrelenting, highly illuminating, and self-revealing light upon another crucial component of our emotional development or maturity–our personal need management abilities.

Intimate partners are handed limitless opportunities to manage their personal needs–this is what intimacy does–it's even its job, arguably. Of course, some of our personal needs are easily managed while others are not. Moreover, figuratively speaking, our partners hold a mirror to us, which continuously reflects how well we rise to this very personal responsibility of effectively managing our needs.

Under many circumstances, the effective management of our needs can be a daunting task, fraught with challenges, difficulties, and crippling risk. Our sexual needs, in particular, can be especially difficult to manage because they are drenched in deep personal meanings and preferences, which can uplevel and expose our vulnerabilities.

Need Mismanagement and Its Consequences

For these reasons, we often undermanage, mismanage, or neglect to effectively manage our sexual desires. Consequently, this important part of who we are is degraded or erased. As a result, we become someone we don't like in relation to our partners. Sadly, this deleterious process can be imperceptible and insidious. It slowly but steadily erodes the couple's sexual functioning until, over time, this meaningful part of the relationship gets buried under the accumulating weight of poor need management.

"The Great Escape"

Behold, the rising, and ofttimes irresistible urge to escape what we are in relation to our partners.

Specifically, the rigors of managing our sexual needs can begin to outstrip our need management capabilities: they become too difficult, too complicated, even unrewarding, given the effort required to manage them.

Then, fueled by the chronic frustrations of our ungratified sexual needs, we point an accusatory finger at our partner: "It's their fault." This "story" or any other we tell about our partner allays the prohibitions we may have about our wayward sexual fantasies, liberating them, and worse, often provides a rationale for looking outside our relationship for sexual gratification.

Now, there's ample justification for our extra-relational yearnings. We slide down a slippery slope to pursue what we presume awaits us–the dangling allure of someone new, someone easier to get along with, where the management of our sexual needs will be a cinch, and gratification will be unfettered and endless–or so we hope.

By this logic, cheating is an escape from the self or the person intimacy has revealed us to be–a poor personal need manager.

Two typical examples

  1. At home, Justin has grown weary of his wife's under responsiveness in bed and her all too frequent use of what he calls her "veto power." Justin faults his wife as "groin dead," a derogative that fits at the top of his colorful list of condemnations. At the office, he has found the company of a kind co-worker increasingly more appealing until he acts on the temptation to invite her for an after-hour drink.
  2. Brenda leans on her best friend's sympathies, complaining that she feels lonely and neglected by her "emotionally distant" and "not-so-intimate partner." She fantasizes about meeting the "right man" until one day he shows up at her door to discuss the construction proposal for the home renovation she had planned with her husband. Now, brimming with flirtatiousness, Brenda can hardly contain herself.

The braver, mature option.

What do we do with what intimacy reveals about us?

The prescription: Ideally, we take advantage of this personally revealing information because it accurately mirrors the person we are–our level of emotional development and our skills of effective personal need management.

Like the precise and detailed physical findings of an MRI, intimacy's revelations point specifically at what we must do to further our emotional development and thus strengthen ourselves and our most valued relationship.

And in this way, intimacy is the best vehicle for change and growth.


Beck, A. (1988). Love is Never Enough: how couples can overcome misunderstanding, resolve conflicts, and solve relationship problems through cognitive therapy. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Publishers.

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