Why People Cheat & What It Means For A Relationship

Why do we cheat—even when we're happy?

When we say "infidelity," what exactly do we mean?

Why do we think that men cheat out of boredom and fear of intimacy, but women cheat out of loneliness and hunger for intimacy?

Is an affair always the end of a relationship?

I have worked extensively with couples who have been shattered by infidelity. An affair is a simple act of transgression that can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness, and their very identity. Yet, this extremely common act is so poorly understood.

Adultery has existed since marriage was invented. Infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy. How do we reconcile what is universally forbidden, yet universally practiced?

Monogamy used to be one person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time.

We used to marry, and had sex for the first time. But now we marry, and we stop having sex with others. Initially monogamy had nothing to do with love. Men relied on women's fidelity in order to know whose children these are, and who gets the cows when I die.

I am constantly asked what percentage of people cheat. But the definition of infidelity keeps on expanding: sexting, watching porn, staying secretly active on dating apps. Because there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes an infidelity, the estimates vary from 26-75%.

I define an affair in three parts: a secretive relationship; an emotional connection to one degree or another; and a sexual alchemy. Alchemy is the key word, because the erotic frisson is such that the kiss that you only imagine giving, can be as powerful and as enchanting as hours of actual lovemaking. As Marcel Proust said, "it's our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person."

It's never been easier to cheat, and it's never been more difficult to keep a secret. And infidelity has never exacted such a psychological toll. When marriage was an economic enterprise, infidelity threatened our economic security. But now that marriage is a romantic arrangement, infidelity threatens our emotional security.

Infidelity hurts differently today. We have a romantic ideal in which we turn to one person to fulfill an endless list of needs: to be my greatest lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confidant, my emotional companion, my intellectual equal. And I am it: I'm chosen, I'm unique, I'm indispensable, I'm irreplaceable, I'm the one. And infidelity tells me I'm not. It is the ultimate betrayal. Infidelity shatters the grand ambition of love. Infidelity has always been painful, but today it threatens our sense of self.

We are relying on our partner's fidelity with a unique fervor, but we've also never been more inclined to stray. And not because we have new desires, but because we live in an era where we feel that we are entitled to pursue our desires—this is the culture where I deserve to be happy. We used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier. Choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.

If we can divorce, why do we still have affairs?

The typical assumption is that if someone cheats, either there's something wrong in your relationship or wrong with you. But millions of people can't all be pathological. The logic goes like this: If you have everything you need at home, then there is no need to go looking elsewhere—assuming that there is such a thing as a perfect marriage that will inoculate us against wanderlust. But what if passion has a finite shelf life? What if there are things that even a good relationship can never provide? If even happy people cheat, what is it about?

The majority of people that I work with are not chronic philanderers. They are usually deeply monogamous in their beliefs. But they find themselves in a conflict between their values and their behavior. They are people who have been faithful for decades, but one day they cross a line that they never thought they would cross, and at the risk of losing everything. For a glimmer of what?

Affairs are an act of betrayal, and they are also an expression of longing and loss. At the heart of an affair, you will often find a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.

When we seek the gaze of another, it isn't always our partner that we are turning away from, but the person that we have ourselves become. It isn't so much that we're looking for another person, as much as we are looking for another self.

There is one word that people who have affairs always tell me. They feel alive. And they often will tell me stories of recent losses. Death often lives in the shadow of an affair, because it raises questions around mortality. Perhaps some affairs are an attempted antidote to death.

Affairs are way less about sex, and a lot more about desire. Desire for attention, desire to feel special, desire to feel important. The very structure of an affair, the fact that you can never have your lover, keeps you wanting. The incompleteness and the ambiguity is a desire machine.

Even when we have the freedom to have other sexual partners, we still seem to be lured by the power of the forbidden—if we do what we are not supposed to do, we then feel like we are doing what we really want to. If my patients could bring into their relationships one tenth of the boldness, the imagination, and the verve that they put into their affairs, they probably would never need to see me.

How do we heal from an affair?

Desire runs deep. Betrayal runs deep. But it can be healed. Some affairs are the death of a relationship that was already dying. But others will jolt us into new possibilities. Ultimately, the majority of couples who have experienced affairs stay together. Some of them will merely survive, and others will turn the crisis into an opportunity for a generative experience.

In the immediate aftermath of an affair, this new disorder may actually lead to a new order. Many couples will have depths of conversations with honesty and openness that they haven't had in decades. And, partners who were sexually indifferent find themselves suddenly so lustfully voracious, they don't know where it's coming from. Something about the fear of loss will rekindle desire, and make way for an entirely new kind of truth.

When an affair is exposed, what are some of the specific things that couples can do?

Ending the affair is one thing, but the actual healing begins when the perpetrator acknowledges their wrongdoing. Expressing guilt and remorse is essential. From my experience, a lot of people who have affairs feel terribly guilty for hurting their partner, but they don't feel guilty for the experience of the affair itself. And that distinction is important. The person who had the affair needs to hold vigil for the relationship. They need to become, for a while, the protector of the boundaries. It's their responsibility to bring it up - to relieve the betrayed from the obsession. Showing that the affair isn't forgotten begins to restore trust.

For deceived partners, it is essential to do things that bring back a sense of self-worth, to surround oneself with love and with friends and activities that give back joy and meaning and identity. But even more important, is to curb the curiosity to mine for the sordid details -- Where were you? Where did you do it? How often? Are they better than me in bed? -- these types of questions will only inflict more pain, and keep you awake at night. Instead, switch to what I call "investigative questions," the ones that mine the meaning and the motives -- What did this affair mean for you? What were you able to express or experience there that you could no longer do with me? What was it like for you when you came home? What is it about us that you value? Are you pleased this is over?

Every affair will redefine a relationship, and every couple will determine what the legacy of the affair will be. Affairs are here to stay—they're not going away. The dilemmas of love and desire don't yield simple answers of black and white, good and bad, and victim and perpetrator. Betrayal in a relationship comes in many forms: with contempt, with neglect, with indifference, with violence. Sexual betrayal is only one way to hurt a partner. The victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage.

I think that good can come out of an affair. Which often promts the question: Would I ever recommend it? Now, I would no more recommend you have an affair than I would recommend you have cancer, and yet we know that people who have been ill often talk about how their illness has yielded them a new perspective.

I look at affairs from a dual perspective: hurt and betrayal on one side, growth and self-discovery on the other -- what it did to you, and what it meant for me. And so when a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair that has been revealed, I will often tell them this: Today in the West, most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?

Photo credit: iStock

Adapted from Esther Perel's TedTalk, Rethinking infidelity ... a talk for anyone who has ever loved