Infidelity: Why Do People Cheat and How Does It Feel?

Infidelity is one of those taboo subjects that fascinates me, especially around this time of year as the seasons change and there seems to be noticeable spike in utter dispair. What has always frustrated me, personally, is our reaction to cheating. Using one of my favorite terms, what is the script for cheating? How do we deal with a broken heart? And why?

Obviously no one situation is the same, but it makes sense to feel hurt and betrayed when someone you care about hurts you. For the purpose of this post, lets define infidelity as when a partner in a relationship is physically or emotionally intimite with another person in such a way that they know is not appropriate for having a significant other. They lie, hide, and effectively “cheat” the relationship in order to obtain the outside satisfaction.

This definition excludes one possibility. What if you cheat, but you didn’t know you were cheating? This is an interesting one because most people enter into a relationship assuming that they have the same needs and desires. Much of “relationship politics” goes undiscussed because of the scripts already in place for a traditional relationship. For instance: When you start to date someone there is a nonverbal code for most people that says you will not sleep with someone else. The problem with this is that not everyone abides by the same rules and codes, and even if they do, it is not always apparent when you are switches from “friends” to “going on dates” and “dating” or “monogamous” – sometimes it needs to be verbalized.

The benefit that alternative couples have is that they must design the rules of their relationship. I believe that every couple should do this, even if they are wanting to be a “traditional” couple. What does a relationship mean to you? What does cheating look like to you? What is comfortable and what is not? What are your boundaries? What do you want and what don’t you want? It might sound silly, but I think it’s an important step in having your needs clearly communicated. You should only need to do this once as you become monogamous, perhaps again later on if your relationships shifts, or changes.

But lets stick with this model of pain and heartbreak, because that’s what really pisses people off. I would never condone cheating, and I agree with most people. Just don’t cheat. Don’t do it. There isn’t any reason to. If you’re unhappy, if you want something more, leave your partner and have that thing. But unfortunately for anyone who has ever had their heart broken (or has ever cheated) life isn’t simple. It’s sticky, messy, and decisions are made in the heat of confusion. I don’t think people who cheat are assholes. I don’t think cheating makes you an asshole. I think people who cheat made a bad decision and I think the factors that led up to that point are far more interesting than the actual physical or emotional act of infidelity. I also think that the act of cheating tears up the people who did it almost as much as the people who were cheated on. You know, spare the small percentage of people who just don’t give a shit. But lets not talk about them.

So, I decided to ask some people who cheated why they did it and how it felt. Mostly in an attempt to understand, but also in an attempt to humanize. We all say it could never happen to us until it does. No one gets into a relationship with the expectation that their partner might be unfaithful to them. We have hope, and we trust, and we’re blind to the faults in ourselves and our relationships. So lets look closer.

I decided the easiest way, without sharing too much, would be to bullet the key points that I grabbed. I’m doing this right now without having really thought about them, so I can look back at the bullet points afterwards to see if there are any themes.

  • I was at the end of a very long relationship that was heading south
  • I was looking for excuses to not be around my partner anymore
  • When I was cheating, I had a moment of clarity, it was wrong
  • I felt guilty after doing it, I knew it wouldn’t happen again
  • It made me realize how bad the sex in my relationship was
  • I had my heart broken and I dated many women at once
  • All of the women I’ve been with have taught me something important
  • I knew we were going to break up, but I wanted to make it work
  • I felt bad afterwards, I still loved him
  • It made me wonder why my partner wasn’t that physical with me
  • I found out I was being cheated on, so I decided to do what I wanted
  • The physical and emotional chemistry between us was so intense
  • I continued to emotionally cheat on my partner and my relationship felt toxic
  • I wanted to be with someone while I waited for someone else
  • I was very afraid of getting caught, very afraid of of regretting it
  • In the moment I was excited because it felt taboo and naughty
  • I felt bad for cheating, just because my partner did, didn’t mean I had to
  • I like how it reaffirms my masculinity to flirt with women
  • My sexual drive is stronger than my partners
  • I like discovering what buttons to push with new partners
  • I started to tell myself the relationship was over
  • I didn’t cheat until I knew the relationship was already over
  • I started to cheat to help me move on from my relationships
  • It made me feel unloved and used
  • Doing it once made it easier to do again
  • It was drunken stupidness
  • Cheating was not a good way to start a new relationship, I felt guilty

Alright, so there are some themes I’m picking out from these stories. First and foremost, almost everyone who messaged me cheated when they felt that their relationship was already over, which I thought was really interesting. I’m guessing that this is a case of being afraid to leave something or someone because you’ve been in it for so long. Getting caught up in a long term relationship – it can be hard to imagine how you’ll live or function without your partner, even if you’re unhappy. It can be too easy to get what out need outside of the relationship, rationalizing that you’re no longer in love and so it doesn’t even matter. For some, it can be an excuse to be a better partner. You’re getting your needs met outside of the relationship, so you can be a better husband or wife (or boyfriend/girlfriend) to your partner.

Second, almost every single person expressed guilt in what they’d done, whether or not they had enjoyed the experience. There were a lot of negative emotions and remorse associated to cheating. They did not enjoy the fact that they had hurt their partner, and they noted that the physical or emotional act of cheating hurt themselves, as well.

Lastly, the cheating helped people realize things about themselves and their relationships. For those who hadn’t already realized that their relationship was over prior to cheating, cheating helped them: end their relationship, move into new relationships, help them feel loved or cared for. It also made them feel poorly about themselves, created a cycle of need/dependency, or showed them just how poor their current sex lives were.

It’s obvious to me that cheating is a double sided coin. People are unhappy in their relationships and so they step out of their relationships either

1) As a way to end their relationship

2) As a way to find exactly what they are missing in their relationship

So how do we prevent cheating if it hurts ourselves and our partners? What are the alternatives? How do we make the alternatives more appealing, since people know there are other options? Endorse communication. This means talking to your partner about what makes you unhappy, about what your needs are. That means saying painful things like “I don’t like the sex, but I like you” or “I don’t feel anything with you anymore, I’m not sure if this relationship is going to survive.” And, of course, being your own advocate. Do you want to stay in the relationship? If not, how can you get out of it without making decisions that hurt you, and your partner?

And, as the person who was cheated on,  understand the reasons that your partner cheated on you. As you can see from above, infidelity doesn’t automatically mean that your partner doesn’t love you. Sometimes infidelity just means that your partner loves you, but isn’t happy in the relationship, and needs something. What does your partner need? Can you two make it work? Can you rebuild the trust that was lost as they were looking for what they needed?

I thought that the submissions were very interesting. Thank you very much to everyone who shared your stories with me and everyone else. If you did not get your submission in to me on time, I would be more than happy to publish your story anonymously on my blog if it’s something you want to share with other people. Email me at suggestivetongue@gmail.com

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9 Comments

  1. It was interesting to read thoughts from the other side. I’ve recently read the book “After the affair” by Janis Abrahms Spring and it was pretty interesting, this post sort of reminds me of the book. It was written for married couples, but even though my partner and I aren’t married, I found it helpful. The whole book is delivered nicely, each chapter has it’s own section for the person who cheated and the person who was cheated on. It offered a lot of perspective on what my partner may have felt like and it really opened my eyes.

    I was one of those people who thought that it could never happen to me, but it did. A lot of people want to blame the person who cheated, but there are many more factors that go into this. It takes a lot of time and talking to even try to begin to understand why it happened.

    I was at the point that I was tired of reading posts and books about how other betrayed partners had felt, it’s refreshing to run across content that covers more than just that,

  2. “I wanted to be with someone while I waited for someone else”

    That’s the worst one of them. I can empathize with the other bullets, but I am disgusted by people who use the script of a monogamous relationship as a safety net for their own broken self-image.

  3. Wow! Wish I could have contributed to this. Most of the bullet points apply. It is very hard on the cheater in the aftermath. Even though I found out I was cheated on prior, I still am wracked with guilt and haven’t dated for eight months while she was dating within two weeks. Long slow healing process trying to somehow reclaim the person you once were.

  4. Excellent post. Thank you. I cheat because the men I see outside my marriage give me attention and affection that my husband does not. At this time, I will not end my marriage because it works on many levels. I may end it in the future, though. It’s beginning to be unhealthy.

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