Relationship experts explain the psychology behind infidelity
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Many of us like to believe we?re not the ?type? of person who would ever cheat on a partner.
But according to psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel, many straying partners don?t fit the stereotypical ?cheater? profile.
Not all people who cheat do so out of a grandiose sense of entitlement, an inability to empathize with others, or a narcissism that puts their own needs at the forefront.
This may be true of some cheaters, but it?s not universally the case, Perel says.
She?s worked with numerous clients who were sexually exclusive for more than a decade ? until suddenly, one day, they crossed a line they never envisioned crossing.
Before realizing their own capacity for infidelity, these very same clients would have been quick to judge others who cheated.
What causes people to cheat?
In Perel?s experience, people sometimes use affairs ?as a lousy way to communicate things for which they need a better language.?
So what exactly are cheaters trying to communicate?
Why don?t they just talk to their partners directly?
And what factors could drive someone to break the trust of the person they?re supposed to love deeply?
Here are a few common reasons why people cheat, according to relationship experts.
1. They?re dissatisfied with their current relationship
Those who feel unhappy in their current relationships tend to feel less guilt about cheating.
? Dr. Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat
The ?symptom? theory of affairs
According to the ?symptom? theory of affairs, cheating is a signal that something has gone awry in the primary relationship.
?In plenty of relationships, affairs fill a void, or compensate for some kind of lack,? Perel writes in her book The State of Affairs. ?Many adulterers are motivated by marital dysfunction ? whether that comes in the form of prolonged lack of sex, or years of rehashing the same old arguments.?
Similarly, Mark Rosenfeld, one of Australia?s top dating coaches, says that unmet needs are often at the ?very core of cheating.?
As he goes on to clarify: ?That doesn?t make cheating okay, but it does make it worth understanding.?
Why do people drift apart?
Unmet needs are not always sexual (although they can be).
According to Relate, the UK?s largest provider of relationship support, feeling like you and your partner have drifted apart is one of the most common reasons for infidelity.
In many relationships, day-to-day responsibilities such as work or childcare can end up dominating life. Couples? time together becomes less and less affectionate, and more and more functional. Eventually, they end up disconnected from each other.
At this point, feeling lonely and unloved could potentially leave you open to the affection of someone who seems to understand you better than your partner.
Is your relationship balanced?
Relate have found that relationship imbalance is another common reason for cheating. In an imbalanced relationship, one partner can take on more of a parental role, while the other behaves more like a child.
For example, if one person always ends up managing the finances, making important decisions, and organizing the home, they might become exasperated by their partner?s relative lack of responsibility.
As a result, they may feel drawn to strong characters outside the relationship who appreciate them, and who don?t seem to need so much ?looking after?.
On the flip side, the person in the ?child? position might feel smothered or micromanaged by their partner, and feel tempted to cheat as a way of regaining some independence and authority.
Why don?t cheaters just talk about their needs?
As Rosenfeld explains, sometimes cheaters aren?t fully self-aware; they don?t always recognize which of their needs are unmet. They simply act on the resentment, disappointment and frustration created by a continuous sense of lack.
In such cases, cheating often takes place in the heat of the moment. It?s a spontaneous decision driven by a subconscious desire.
In other situations, cheaters may realize what?s missing in their relationship, but struggle to resolve the problem in a healthy way by communicating with their partner. It might feel better, and easier, to simply look elsewhere.
Finally, in some cases, cheaters do articulate their needs to their partners, but for whatever reason, those needs remain unfulfilled.
In these situations, a person may become hopeless about fixing problems in the primary relationship, and choose an affair as an alternative.
2. They idealize the affair partner
The grass looks greener on the other side of the fence only because we don?t have to mow it.
? Shirley P. Glass, Not ?Just Friends?
?Over time, many married couples end up viewing their spouses with what I jokingly refer to as shit-tinted glasses,? writes Dr. Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, psychiatrist, addiction specialist, and author of Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat.
In contrast, an affair partner can appear utterly wonderful ? someone who can do no wrong.
As Rosenberg explains, this is a result of a psychological process called ?splitting?. We have a human tendency to ?split? complex, multidimensional human beings into all good, or all bad, characters.
How ?splitting? works in relationships
Early in a relationship, we often idealize the person we are with.
Smitten by the object of our infatuation, we attribute almost exclusively positive traits to them. Idealization is just part and parcel of the process of falling in love.
However, in order to stand the test of time, long-term relationships must progress into what therapist Shirley P. Glass calls a ?reality-based? love.
This involves sharing a past, working toward common goals, and accepting one another?s flaws ? which some people find very hard.
What is ?devaluation??
When we move away from idealization into the next stage of the relationship life cycle, many of us feel like we?ve fallen out of love. Some of us begin what psychoanalysts call ?devaluation?. It?s the opposite of idealization.
At this stage, our focus shifts to our partner?s flaws. Consequently, we find them intolerable, and a need to escape sets in.
In the meantime, if a new love interest arrives on the scene, we start idealizing them! And so the cycle begins again. However, a happy ending is no more likely the second time round.
?Starting over with a new love does not necessarily lead to a life of eternal bliss,? warns Glass. ?Seventy-five percent of all unfaithful individuals who marry the affair partner end up divorced.?
Similarly, as Perel confirms: ?When the sublime mixes with the ordinary and affairs enter the real world, most of them end.?
Recognizing idealization and devaluation as they play out can help us avoid getting caught up in them. It?s important to have healthy relationship expectations; nobody is completely perfect!
3. They want validation, or a self-esteem boost
We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves.
? Esther Perel, The State of Affairs
According to Relate, personal insecurities often give rise to affairs.
For example, if we have low self-esteem, we may feel dependent on other people?s validation for our happiness.
Unfortunately, sometimes ?the attention of just one person isn?t enough? to make us feel secure.
We may feel more confident around an affair partner
In some cases, an affair partner may view us in a more forgiving light than our primary partner ? perhaps because they haven?t spent as many years with us.
This can make us feel more confident around the affair partner.
As Glass explains:
In a new romance, we like how we see ourselves reflected in the other person?s eyes. By contrast, in our long-term relationships, our reflection is like a makeup mirror in which our flaws are magnified.
Thus, with an affair partner, we can avoid facing the complicated, messy parts of ourselves that come out in a more ?reality-based? relationship.
An affair can be a space to try out a new identity
Affairs can also be appealing because they allow us to experiment with new, exciting roles and identities.
?As children, we have the opportunity to play at other roles; as adults, we select a partner and commit to a story,? Perel says.
Later, if we feel confined in the story we?ve chosen, we become curious about other possibilities.
For example, ten years into a marriage, someone who has always played by the rules might feel tempted to try out a more rebellious or adventurous persona.
As Perel tells us: ?Often, the most intoxicating person that people discover in the affair is not a new partner ? it?s a new self.?
4. They find novel, forbidden situations thrilling
It isn?t that spouses are dull and troublesome and affair partners are brilliant and beautiful. The magnetism of forbidden love gives the affair partner an intrinsic advantage when comparing the two relationships.
? Shirley P. Glass, Not ?Just Friends?
Often, the most erotic situations involve breaking rules and violating taboos. According to sexologist Jack Morin, we?re most aroused when we experience attraction, but must overcome obstacles before we can fulfil our desire.
Hence, the fact that affairs are forbidden and frowned-upon is precisely what gives them their tantalizing flavor.
?As many of us remember from our childhood, there is a thrill in hiding, sneaking, and being bad,? writes Perel. ?As adults, we can find this a powerful aphrodisiac.?
What the ?shaky bridge? study can teach you about affairs
Sometimes, when we find a particular situation exciting or adrenaline-inducing, we also end up wrongly attributing that thrill to the person we are with at the time.
Psychologists call this the ?misattribution of arousal.? One particularly famous study shows this process in action.
In the study, some men crossed a shaky wooden bridge which was swaying in the wind 250 feet above rocks and water.
Other men crossed a different, solid bridge which was not so high up.
After crossing the bridge they?d been assigned to, each participant met a woman who offered them her name and phone number.
Researchers found that the men who crossed the shaky bridge were more attracted to the woman; they were more likely to call her afterwards and ask her out on a date.
Interestingly, these men assumed their physiological response to the thrill of their environment was caused by desire for the woman they?d just met.
Are you genuinely attracted, or are you on a ?shaky bridge??
?For decades, social scientists have recognized the tendency for adrenaline to make the heart grow fonder,? writes Rosenberg.
But what does this have to do with affairs? Well, understanding this mechanism could stop you being misled by your mind, as in the common scenario below:
When you meet a new lover you say, ?He excites me in a way my husband just can?t. I must have married the wrong man!?
You ignore the adrenaline of this forbidden chance encounter, the uncertainty of his desire for you, the pulse of the new music, the exotic new cocktail you ordered, and the unseen corners at the darkened bar.
Instead, you attribute your desire to the new person. You forget that you?re meeting this new person on a kind of shaky bridge.
5. They give in to temptation on impulse
Finally, it?s worth understanding that a lot of cheating happens spontaneously.
In one study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, ?it just happened?, ?I was in the heat of the moment?, and ?the opportunity presented itself? all appeared in a list of ?top 50 reasons why men and women have sex?.
?Depending on how impulsive you are in day to day life, the risk factor can increase,? writes Rosenfeld.
For this reason, Glass recommends maintaining firm boundaries, and avoiding situations in which you know you would find yourself tempted.
If your relationship is damaged because you cheated, salvaging it won?t be easy ? but it?s not impossible, either.
Ultimately, taking responsibility for your actions, and examining the root causes of your behavior will give you the best chance at making sense of things.