In my early 20s I had a lot of boyfriends... most of whom I really liked. Still, I cheated on all of them. I've got my reasons for my stupidity: low self-esteem, a constant fear of getting my heart stomped, selfishness, you get the picture. By pre-empting the hurt, I told myself I was keeping myself from being blindsided.
We've all got stories about cheating, details of which (and excuses for) vary. Yet in the broad scope of these tales, which range from the innocent to the cruelly intentioned, we too often forget to dig deeper than the storytelling and circumstance in order to figure out the psychology behind how cheating happens.
I've struggled in the last several years to come to terms with my own compulsions to do things that hurt people I cared about. And in so doing, I've discovered cheating is often born out of something very different from viciousness. I also found some experts willing to unravel what actually goes on in cheaters' heads to make them do the unthinkable.
All infidelity starts with denial
Every relationship that suffers infidelity has also suffered denial. It begins with someone's needs not being met, and that deficiency not being addressed. What gets left unsaid eventually gets brought elsewhere.
"I think that when one partner makes the decision to start cheating, it's worthwhile to examine how the other partner might have contributed to this decision," says Sonya Kreizman, relationship expert and co-founder and CEO of Crush Mobile. Let's be clear here -- the decision to cheat is ultimately made by the cheater alone. Still, it's certainly fair to ask what factors played into this betrayal.
Dr. Elizabeth R. Lombardo, celebrity psychologist and author of Better than Perfect, says anything left to fester in a relationship is "a red flag to start addressing relationship issues." So ask yourself: What about the relationship left one or both partners unsatisfied? Why weren't people comfortable discussing their feelings?
When someone feels his or her physical and/or emotional needs aren't being taken into account, it's an early sign they may stray later on.
Cheaters often feel ignored, solitary, or underrepresented
Motivators of cheating vary wildly, but most people who cheat feel unfulfilled in their existing relationships. And experts say this sense of something missing leaves people wanting something new. "Sometimes they are not feeling love from someone else, sometimes they're feeling lonely," says Dr. Lombardo.
The rigors of work can also take a toll. Kreizman says that it's easy for the hours required by today's fast-paced, entrepreneurial environment to drive wedges between couples. "When one partner becomes emotionally and physically unavailable for an extended period of time, the other partner will begin to seek out a connection with someone who is available," she says.
Humans are naturally inclined toward novelty; the "bright and shiny new toy," if you will. And Kreizman says boredom and isolation can make almost any other pasture appear greener.
Which is why it's so important (ESPECIALLY in long-term relationships) for everyone to make a conscious effort to keep things interesting. It's a requirement for ensuring healthy, satisfying bonds.
Cheating is resplendent in justifications
It's no news that the act of cheating is ultimately done for selfish reasons -- to be happier, feel more attractive, chase a few thrills, be admired, or more simply to get their rocks off. In the process, we become really good at justifying our wrongdoings so we don't feel guilty.
"What happens when people deviate from their values is they start to rationalize their decision," Dr. Lombardo says. "They develop beliefs that it's OK to do, or they deserve it, because the cognitive dissonance is too tough. Cognitive dissonance refers to acting in one way despite believing something else. And this can be extremely stressful. In an (unconscious) attempt to reduce this stress, people justify their actions. As a result, they may be more likely to continue an affair because of this cognitive attempt at protecting themselves."
So we convince ourselves that cheating is somehow OK because our partners didn't do X, Y, or Z. But instead of communicating or putting the work in to fix it, we just fuck it up instead.
If only my early-20s self could hear this right now.
Cheating doesn't mean the relationship is doomed… necessarily
Sure, it's possible a cheater turns out to be a sociopath who doesn't GAF about your feelings. This is very rarely the case -- but when it is, there's obviously nothing to salvage. In other cases, my expert panel says relationships can certainly survive infidelity.
IF both partners are willing to put in the work.
"It's possible for the couple to come out of it better and stronger," Kreizman says. "The couple must sit down and go over the reasons why one person strayed. Both parties must work together to make sure each person is satisfied and will not feel the need to cheat again because they are missing something in their relationship."
That means ditching blame, not turning into a crazy person/stalking your partner's phone/email/social media, and actually listening to each other. Oh -- and not going out and cheating some more.
"An affair is a symptom of relationship issues, not the cause," Dr. Lombardo says. "Couples can certainly survive cheating if they go through the steps of forgiveness."
If saving your relationship is your top priority and both you AND YOUR PARTNER are willing to do whatever it takes to fix your relationship, anything is possible. Trust isn't lost forever.