The other day I was talking to one of my patients about infidelity. She was convinced that her husband had cheated on her because she'd behaved badly in the marriage, being both overly critical and overly demanding. I agreed that her previous behaviour had been unacceptable, but explained to her that the reason he cheated had more to do with her husband than with her.
It's too easy to say that people cheat because they're unhappy in their marriage. In the movie Unfaithful, Diane Lane's character is happily married to Richard Gere, but still enters into a torrid affair with Olivier Martinez. This rare, realistic approach to relationships on film demonstrates a phenomenon that is less uncommon than one might think.
In my years of experience as a therapist, I've observed that there are a number of reasons why people cheat, and these have everything to do with the character of the person cheating and the way that they deal with their feelings and their relationships.
I've identified five main reasons why people are unfaithful, and most of them are interconnected. They are: unresolved emotions, cowardice, inadequacy (including laziness, weakness and selfishness), sexual addiction and an anti-social personality.
Many people engage in infidelity in an attempt to deal with difficult emotions arising in their relationship. These emotions can include unhappiness, frustration or anger. When a partner is unhappy in their marriage, they might look for relief in an affair.
If they're angry, cheating is a good way of sticking it to the person who's hurt them. If the person is sexually frustrated, they could look to someone outside the marriage to meet these needs.
Of course, if the individual had been able to face and deal with their emotions, they wouldn't have to cheat. If they talked about their unhappiness with their partner, or if they confronted them around the behaviors that were angering, frustrating or disappointing them, they wouldn't need to stray.
The alternative to cheating is to deal with the problems in the relationship, or if they prove too difficult to resolve, to make the choice to end things. These options may be scary to some people, but they're much less hurtful than engaging in an affair.
The second reason for cheating is cowardice, and it overlaps with the first one. When someone is hurt, angry, frustrated or unhappy in their relationship, but too afraid to face the truth or to talk to their partner about what's going on, their feelings and needs build up until they're channeled into an affair.
Inadequacy is another reason for cheating. If a person sees having flirtations or affairs as the only way to boost their flagging ego, then they won't be able to resist the temptation to stray. If they're too lazy to deal with their relationship problems or even to invest emotionally in a good relationship, they can choose infidelity as an enjoyable distraction.
Selfish people have affairs because they feel entitled to do so. They see themselves as superior to others and don't believe that the normal rules apply to them. These people are unable to empathize with their partner or fully grasp how hurtful their behaviour is.
If someone is a compulsive philanderer or a sex addict, it's because they're approaching infidelity in the same way as an alcoholic uses drinking. They're attempting to fulfill a need that actually can't be met in this way. What would help them more would be to take the issue up in therapy and work on developing self-worth in a more positive manner.
The final reason why people cheat is because they simply don't care about right or wrong. People who have anti-social personality traits aren't capable of normal loving feelings toward others, and therefore they do whatever they want, regardless of whom they might hurt.
They have no remorse for their bad behavior and aren't compelled by any sense of human decency to be honest or respectful to their partner. They might pretend to care, but they really don't. People like this break the rules in other areas of their life, not just in their marriage. They often cheat, lie and steal, manipulate and disrespect others.
Some individuals have a combination of inadequate, selfish and anti-social traits. A number of stories in the media lately describe wealthy, famous or powerful individuals who've been revealed as serial adulterers. These people appear to be enormously entitled, desperate for affirmation and utterly contemptuous of the institution of marriage.
Cheating, then, is not really about being unhappy in a relationship. Unhappiness might drive the decision to cheat, but this decision, as opposed to dealing with the issues, is entirely up to the person to make. They could just as easily choose to do the right thing, which is why cheating is always a reflection of the cheater, and not their partner.