Once a Cheater Always a Cheater?

This is a continuation of my series on infidelity. Read previous posts here!

If someone cheats once, are they more likely to do it again? At least one bit of research says, yes, if you cheat you’re more likely to cheat again. However, that same piece of research also says that people who have been cheated on once are also more likely to be cheated on again.

So what does it mean?


If you’ve read my previous posts about infidelity you might already know how I feel about this cliché. I don’t think that cheating once has any indication on whether or not you’re going to cheat again. I think it’s a statement used to shut down discussion of infidelity and shame the person who was unfaithful. Not super productive to understanding why the infidelity happened or how to prevent it.

In fact, the person who belittles the infidelity by saying “they did it once so they will do it again” is missing out on an opportunity to ask questions about why it happened so it doesn’t happen again. It falls into the narrative that people who cheat are inherently bad people.

It’s easy to blame infidelity on the person who did it rather than the situation that led to the infidelity. It prevents both partners from examining how to have better relationships in the future. If each partner is equally likely to experience infidelity again, discussing together (or with a therapist, or with friends) why they think that the infidelity occured is especially important.

To be able to do this we need to destigmatize infidelity, at least enough to be able to have some kind of conversation about it.

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Reframing Infidelity: What Counts as Cheating?

Earlier this month I reached out to my readers and my friends and I asked them to tell me about a time that they were unfaithful. I encouraged them to use my definition of infidelity: anything you did that you wouldn’t have wanted to tell your partner about.

When I ask people about a time they were unfaithful, using this description, most people have something that comes to mind immediately. I am very appreciative of everyone who took the time to message me their stories to be quoted in this post ❤️

I wrote a paper on infidelity and it was thrilling, guys.

I wrote my senior thesis on infidelity. Specifically, I wrote about a theme of guilt that appears in stories women tell about being unfaithful, and how that guilt is gendered. I found that women experienced guilt before, during, and after infidelity in ways that felt unique because they were women.


Guilt before infidelity: Women felt guilty that they couldn’t hold their marriage together. There is a lot of implied responsibility for women to provide the emotional structure of a relationship. If needs aren’t being met they may be called needy or greedy or over-attached. Women expressed guilt over their inability to “just be happy with what they had” even if what they had was a loveless, emotionless relationship.

Guilt during infidelity: Women felt guilty in ways that fell deeply inline with the virgin/whore dichotomy. They believed that the physical act of being unfaithful made them less than they had been before. Many women expressed guilt at wanting to feel good during sex. This is echoed in a lot of poor sexual education that does not encourage women to put their pleasure first (or even explain to women what pleasure is.)

Guilt after infidelity: Women felt guilty for disrupting the narrative of the happy home. They put a lot of pressure on themselves to hold their relationship together even if their male partner was not putting in similar effort. At times that weight was magnified if they had children, a large conservative family, or if they were active in a church.

Why infidelity, and what now?

I wanted to write about infidelity because it’s a subject that not many people talk about openly and honestly. Most of the time it’s a conversation that gets shut down by someone saying “if you do it, you’re a bad person, and you just shouldn’t do it.” It didn’t make sense to me that everyone who cheated was this archetype villain who set out to hurt the person that they loved. Everyone in my immediate friend group had a story about being unfaithful. So where was the in-between?

In my thesis I focused on physical infidelity. Not all infidelity is physical. Referring back to my definition at the top, infidelity is anything you wouldn’t want to tell your partner about. We’re all adults here and we can navigate that definition in ways that make sense to us. I’m not talking about surprise parties or that time you went into the other room to fart.

The goal of my research, and my continued interest in infidelity, is to open up some discourse on infidelity.

If we learn more about how infidelity occurs, we can better prevent it from happening.

The Starting Emotion

There is typically a starting emotion that occurs prior to infidelity. Someone who is in a long-term committed monogamous relationship doesn’t just walk into someone else’s penis by accident. There is almost always a fault. The crack in the ceiling.

Some starting emotions from the submissions I received:

  • I was with an abusive guy in a controlling relationship. I had been with him since I was 18 and he made me desperately unhappy.
  • His needs always came first and he gave no interest to what made me feel good.
  • [My fiancé] never partied and didn’t like that I did, so by matter of association,  I felt like I couldn’t be myself with him.
  • I felt as though I had been pulled into the relationship either by pressure, security or comfort.
  • I didn’t feel super happy with the relationship but I didn’t want to break up either.
  • I realized that I was compromising all of the time for him but he would never compromise for me. Being unhappy was so normal that I started to forget I was unhappy.
  • This guy at work was showing me attention that I felt I hadn’t gotten in a long time.
  • He moved away and started relying on new friends to help him through the tough times instead of his partner. I didn’t feel appreciated anymore.
  • I shared with him only the happy me, the one that he met that night at the party.
  • I didn’t realize I wasn’t myself around my boyfriend until I found someone I could be myself around. After that all I saw was how little my boyfriend tried to relate to me.

In previous posts I’ve written about the starting emotion as being unhappiness. In most of these examples, it’s easy to pull out that sense of unhappiness. Usually it’s reflected in some kind of need not being met. Often it has something to do with not knowing exactly what is wrong but feeling a sense of wrongness.

We aren’t taught how to deal with these feelings and often they can feel like a normal part of a relationship. While they are common, they should not be normal.

The Opportune Moment

Following this moment of unhappiness, or realization that some need is not met, an opportunity presents itself.

Some examples of opportunities from the submissions I received:

  •  I was at a friend of a friend’s house (with the friend) and sex came up.
  •  It was one summer in high school- I attended two summer programs, back to back.
  • I met a guy at a party, and we hit it off really well.
  • There was one particular coworker that caught my eye.
  • I found myself befriending and becoming infatuated with someone I worked with.
  • I met a new friend and we immediately clicked.
  • On my 21st birthday a friend threw a huge house party “for me” and invited about 50 people that I didn’t know.
  • We would go to this karaoke bar and dance and sing the night away and he would drive me home, kissing my cheek when he dropped me off.

Dim the lights and shine the flashlight up your face because this is the scariest part of all. The opportune moment is basically happening all the time. It’s sitting in a car with someone. It’s being at the same party. It’s working in the same office. It’s anything that puts you into close proximity with someone else.

A lot of people understand that this is how infidelity begins and they cope with this by becoming absolutely over-the-top controlling. You can’t see her! You can’t talk to her! I’m going to go into your account and block all the women!

Bless their hearts. They’re doing it all wrong.

Controlling what someone does isn’t going to make them faithful. It’s only going to make them resentful.

Every couple should define their own boundaries together, and as your relationship goes along you may create new ones when you find a situation makes you uncomfortable. You can’t never go to work, never meet other people, or never go to a party. And you shouldn’t avoid these situations. Meeting new people and engaging with new people is fun. And it’s what I think is an important part of a functional relationship. A good support system is critical.

And, anyways, the opportune moment can’t operate on it’s own. If you put someone in a happier, more adjusted relationship into any of these situations, they’re going to come out the other end much differently.

Turning Opportunity into Apocalypse

This is the singular moment when the door of opportunity opens up and you put your dumb dumb foot in:

  • You’re at a party and your significant other is getting tired. They’re ready to leave but they want you to stay and have a good time. Instead of calling it quits early, you take them up on the suggestion, and get yourself another drink. There’s a guy that you think is really cute and he’s sitting alone so you take the opportunity to get to know him a little better. Ten minutes into the conversation you find yourself with your legs draped over him, wildly gesticulating about how funny he is. You go home and tell your s/o that it was a pretty boring night after they left.
  • You’re sitting with your co-worker talking after work and you decide to get drinks. You feel a strong sense of chemistry. You want to keep talking to her because she’s making you smile and it’s lighting up this energy you haven’t felt in a long time. You text your s/o to tell them that you’ll be home later because you’re getting drinks with work friends, a lie through omission.

This is the landing zone for infidelity. You’re clearly doing something that you don’t want to tell your s/o about. You’re also opening the tiny little slit of opportunity and making it worse on purpose.

For a lot of people, this New Relationship Energy is what drives the opportune moment past the breaking point. New Relationship Energy (NRE) is that giddy excited feeling you get when you start connecting with someone new. It’s that sense of chemistry.

If you’re in a long term relationship, you may not have a lot of NRE. It fades over time and it might require a little more to get the same buzz. A sustainable long term relationship, I think, depends a lot on committing yourself to reviving that NRE over and over again.

But when you catch yourself in this moment, with this new person, and you feel that feeling, you may not even realize that it was gone. All you’ll know is that you want a quick fix. And if you go back again for a second fix, you might start to question yourself. Do I feel this way because I love this person? Do I feel this way because I don’t love my person? 

Constantly chasing NRE is a really easy way to avoid the real work and responsibility of a monogamous relationship.

After this point things can go a couple different ways. No relationship is the same and no infidelity is the same. Maybe the girl who threw her legs over the guys legs ends up kissing him that night. Maybe the boy who goes to get drinks with his co-worker sleeps over and lies about a late night video game marathon with the boys. Maybe they realize what a terrible decision it was and maybe they keep chasing that feeling.

This should be a book

There are so many things I’m leaving out. Boundaries vary. Relationships vary. Some people are poly. Some people are open. Some people never talk about boundaries. Some people are in healthy relationships and infidelity happens. Some people are unhealthy relationships and infidelity happens. Sometimes infidelity is the way out. Sometimes they never tell. Sometimes they do. Most people seem to feel really, really bad when it happens. Even when they shouldn’t. (A whole section of my thesis was about how even physically or sexually abused women feel guilt for cheating on their abusers. I won’t tell anyone how to feel, but I think there should be some serious absolution here.)

What I’m pretty sure any infidelity does have in common are these two factors: a sense of unhappiness or some kind of need not being met, and an opportune moment.

For some people, flirting is no big deal. Am I going to smile extra hard at the barista when I’m in a good mood and hope they throw some extra shots of espresso in? Uh, maybe. But my intent isn’t to get in their pants. It’s to get a good buzz. Equally I feel no discontent in my partner throwing his charms for a mood boost.

But there are other circumstances, and you’ll know them when you find them.

They make you feel dark and grey inside. You know they are wrong and you’ll wonder how you managed to find yourself there to begin with.

Better understanding yourself and how to handle these situations could, in the long run, prevent something unfortunate from happening. 

Learning to take your unhappiness seriously can also help prevent infidelity.

It’s easy when you’re in a long term relationship to push aside feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction as just a normal part of a relationship. If you’ve been in a consistently unhappy relationship where you constantly feel like you are putting in more work than your partner is, that’s cause for concern.

Take your unhappiness seriously. If your relationship has a blister, don’t go walking around on it all day. Talk to your partner about the things that are concerning you. Talk to your partner about what you want your relationship to look like.

Finally, don’t tell your partner you’ll never cheat on them. Because that’s what everyone says, and it still fucking happens. What I find much more realistic, and much more romantic, is committing to your partner that you will always be truthful to them, you will always be honest with them, and you will always confront difficulties in your relationship together, as a team. To me, that’s essentially the same thing as saying “I’ll never cheat on you.” But, it also encourages you to break down what cheat means and discuss the pre-infidelity-vibes when they start to happen.

Do you have a question about sex or love? Submit now and I’ll answer it on my blog! Want to read more of what I’ve written on infidelity? Click the #infidelity tag on this post!

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Going to Couples Counseling Even if You Don’t Have To

If my phone is recording and analyzing everything I say all day long and is capable of running reports on content, you would see a recent uptick in sentences that begin with “my therapist said.”

I spent a good portion of my youth complaining about math. Maybe I just wasn’t stemmed hard enough or stem didn’t exist yet or I had too many people encouraging me to do exactly what I wanted in my life. And, I mean, who really really really wants to do math? (I know some of these people, we’re constantly at odds.) My deep hatred for math began when I almost got held back for not being able to learn subtraction. I remember very clearly having to stay in at recess and after school as the teacher tried to explain the concept to me.

Teacher: How many pens are there?

Me: Five.

Teacher: (takes away two)

Teacher: How many pens are there now?


Teacher: No. Right here. How many are right here. In front of you.

Me: There are three pens here but there are five pens YOU JUST HID THEM BEHIND YOUR BACK. Why are we ignoring the fact that there are still five pens. They didn’t disappear. They’re still here. I can actually see them. Red. Blue. Green. Yellow. Purple. Five colors, five pens.

You can imagine my disgust when I was forced to learn imaginary numbers.

The neuroscientist who taught me subtraction

It wasn’t until I signed up for an advanced neuroscience course I had no business being in that I learned a very rudimentary concept. We have to learn math because it develops a part of our brain that would not develop if we were not forced to think in that way that math makes us think. I failed neuroscience but I did learn why subtraction is important so it was probably worth the thousands of dollars I spent that year.

There are a lot of things that we have to learn growing up. Some lessons come sooner than others and some never come at all. Like how to do our taxes, how to navigate boundaries in relationships, how to find the g-spot, and the very super secret reason people actually have sex. It’s not to make babies like my health teachers said all those years. If only we’d known.

We also need to learn about how to communicate our feelings internally (to ourselves) and externally (to others). We talk about our feelings a little bit in school, but it’s kind of in a super secret closed door way. Like when your 7th grade teacher sees you writing a suicide note and sends you very publicly to the counselors office to talk. (This is a true story. It didn’t happen to me, but it did happen to a girl in my class.) Therapy is more or less shamed from the moment you first hear someone you know is going to therapy. They’re in therapy. They’re attending therapy. They’re being analyzed. We shouldn’t think about therapy in this “OoooOOooOOOOoh you got called the the principals offfiiiiiiiceeeee” kind of way. We should think about therapy more like, uh, downloading an app to our life that makes us better people. Therapy is like yoga for the brain.

Going to therapy doesn’t mean you’re broken on the inside, or: we’re all broken, actually.

Due to the assumptions about therapy and the fact that it’s a little terrifying talking about yourself to a stranger, a lot of people don’t go to therapy until it’s too late. Too late is sort of a wishy-washy way of saying that people usually go to therapy after they’ve hit a max of what they can handle, or something has happened and they are in crisis.

So you’re in therapy and you’re talking about this horrible thing that is going on in your life and then you realize that after a few weeks you’re starting to make progress on this one thing. At this point you can segment this one horrible thing off from the rest of who you are as a person, or you can admit to yourself that this one horrible thing is a part of a much larger picture of who you are. And you keep going. And you keep going, and you keep going. This is what I call maintenance therapy.

Crisis therapy: I’m going to attend therapy until I feel like I can tackle my crisis.

Maintenance therapy: My whole life is basically a crisis tbh.

So I started going to therapy so long ago that I think I can quantify it in months now. And though I feel like I did go for crisis, or a particular reason, I honestly can’t remember what that reason was. As soon as I was there, the importance of having some uninvolved third party to talk to became super apparent. So I just kept going.

Attending Couples Therapy even if you don’t have to: YTMND

Then, one day, and I don’t know why I always put the point of my post at the bottom, but I brought my partner to therapy with me. I had been to couples counseling before, but I had only ever been to couples counseling in crisis. We sat in the waiting room together and my therapist welcomed us in. Here’s the thing, here’s the spoiler about long-term relationships: never fool yourself into thinking you know everything about your partner. Never fool yourself into thinking there are no surprises left.

First: You can know someone very very well but there is always something you don’t know. Second: Never tell your partner that you know everything about them because this is basically transmitted as “there are no surprises left, you could not surprise me.” Which is, kind of, y’know, a bummer. Thirdly, if you’re in a relationship that is dynamic and thriving and changing, your partner will be meeting new people, learning new things, and will be growing and changing as an individual. I believe a sustainable long term relationship requires falling in love with slightly different versions of your partner over and over and over again.

Like any other couple there are things we disagree about or we aren’t super clear about and it was helpful to be able to just have another person in the room helping guide us through a conversation. I learned some new things about him and he probably learned some new things about me too. This is the new kick I’m on. Maintenance therapy for couples. Just be wary, because if you go into therapy thinking you know everything about your partner and sunshine literally comes out of your asshole, you’re probably in for a rude awakening.

Finally, and this is important, but you can skip it if you’re in a hurry: I want to be better than the person I was yesterday. That means that I have to come to terms with the face I make when I hear the word math or chemistry. I made a promise that if I had children I would not recoil in fear when I saw a spider because I wouldn’t want to pass down my fear of arachnids. If I had children, I would also want to find somewhat honest enjoyment in math. So far this has been the most effective form of birth control. Don’t try to be better than anyone else. Just try to be better than you used to be. Attend therapy. Attend couples counseling. Write in a journal. Conquer a fear. Do your taxes before the day they’re due. Avoid that moment where your life becomes a crisis.

Have a question, need advice? Submit now! at Ask Suggestive and I’ll answer it on my blog.


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