- Infidelity is one of the top reasons both individuals and couples begin therapy.
- Many popular sources encourage people to actively try to prevent infidelity in their marriages—which cannot work.
- Infidelity isn't always about sex.
Every week for the last 42 years, I have spoken with one or more clients who have cheated or been cheated on.
As long as there have been committed couples, there has been infidelity. Broken vows of sexual exclusivity is a recurring theme in Greek tragedy, the Bible, medieval literature, Shakespeare, Victorian potboilers, and the modern tales of Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Sinatra, and Taylor Swift.
Survey data regarding cheating keep changing as social definitions of cheating evolve. And the invention of cars, telephones, and the Internet—not to mention mixed-gender schools and workplaces—have multiplied people’s opportunities for a broader range of physical and emotional relationships.
Infidelity is one of the top reasons people see a therapist, either alone or with a partner. I do believe I’ve heard every possible reason for it, every possible excuse for it, and every possible reaction to it. Most people think they know something about infidelity as a general subject, but when it actually occurs in someone’s life, they need to shed any common myths about it quickly.
Since almost everyone cares about infidelity, here are challenges to some common myths about it.
Myth 1: A vigilant partner can prevent infidelity.
Is your mate going to cheat? It’s less likely if the relationship is enjoyable, your mate is healthy, the two of you can talk about everything, and the sex is satisfying. There’s no guarantee.
But some partners try. They examine their mate’s mobile phone: records of texting, geo-locaters, email, and actual phone calls. What Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t give for that source of clues! Or they tell their partner “no one-on-one dinners with anyone of the other sex.” Or they demand to check in on a partner at will. When all else fails, they hire a private detective.
It doesn’t work. If your mate is going to cheat, they’re going to cheat. And even if you could prevent infidelity with the right amount of surveillance, is that how you want to live?
Myth 2: Infidelity is always about sex.
While different, better, or more sex is the reason for much infidelity, people cheat for other reasons, including anger, a need to prove that they’re attractive or youthful, the need for affection or touching, the need to feel loved, and the need to prove their autonomy.
There’s also a situational dynamic for some people: “I wasn’t looking for it, but when it fell in my lap, I just couldn’t (or didn’t want to) say no.”
When a spouse discovers they’ve been betrayed, they often imagine that it’s been for someone who is younger, sexier, or more attractive in one way or another. They are then surprised when “the other woman” or “other man” isn’t. What betraying spouses often tell me is that the central benefit of the affair was feeling listened to, or important, or sane—not any amazing sex.
Myth 3: Some people are just "sex addicts."
Some people who cheat over and over and over are responding to a diagnosable mental health problem. They may be medicating their depression, or managing their anxiety, or expressing bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Cheating may be the way a person with borderline personality disorder navigates stressful life situations.
But “addiction” is a state in which a person’s body has seized control of their decision-making. Heroin and nicotine are good examples. When people describe themselves or another as a “sex addict,” they usually mean “someone who keeps making sexual decisions with consequences they don’t like.”
Why do people do that? Typically because they don’t want to face life without the deception, self-indulgence, and denial that would stop protecting them from realities they don’t want to face. Repetitive promise-breaking may look like addiction, but it’s typically a desperate attempt to avoid the consequences of keeping promises—whether they involve boredom, rage, hopelessness, despair about aging, or a sexless relationship.
Myth 4: It’s always better to admit an affair.
It depends on what someone is trying to accomplish. If someone’s goal is simply to rid themselves of guilt, that would be pretty selfish—assuming they end (or have ended) the affair with no collateral damage.
Of course, if an affair is discovered by the betrayed partner, it’s generally better to acknowledge it, as the additional lying and coverup can easily make things messier and more complicated, and it usually fails. The betrayed partner can also use the additional coverup as evidence that the cheater can’t be trusted in the future, which makes eventual reconciliation almost impossible.
Opening the subject of having, ending, or considering an affair can be a powerful way to start a conversation about wanting to improve a relationship. It certainly will get a partner’s attention.
Myth 5: Once a cheater, always a cheater.
Surveys estimate that someone who has cheated before is three times more likely to cheat again, compared to those who have never cheated.
On the other hand, my clinical experience is that many cheaters are themselves devastated by the outcome of the affair’s discovery. Whether because of their partner’s grief, their own sense of shame, or both, some cheaters are shocked into fidelity.
Well, first they’re shocked. Then they have to go through a process—therapy, or a spiritual awakening, or a dark night of the soul. If they emerge with a new understanding of themselves, or of intimacy, or of betrayal, they’re then in a position to commit to fidelity. Some of the best marriages are (eventually) built that way.
But even acknowledging that some people cheat again and again—it is completely inaccurate to say that every cheater does so. And it would be a shame to assume that a one-time cheater is, by definition, a hopeless case.
Myth 6: Marriage can’t survive infidelity.
If that were true, marriage would be a poor gamble. And marriage counseling would be a poor investment.
There are two kinds of relationships that survive infidelity. In the first, communication is poor; expectations are low; there’s family or cultural pressure to stay together; or there may be financial or other dependence. This is a relationship that wasn’t very good to begin with. The couple may not work to improve it or to understand each other even after the disruption of infidelity.
The second kind of relationship that survives infidelity is almost the opposite of the first. In it, people work hard to understand what happened, and why. They are introspective to at least some degree. At some point they start listening to each other. And they eventually talk about what they want in the new couple they’re in the process of creating.
Working with those people is a lot of work, but it can also be thrilling and life-affirming.
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