image of people having an affair

Extra-Marital Affairs: Why Do People Cheat?

Infidelity and Cheating is Widespread:

Statistics show that between 35-50% of all women or men in a relationship have had an affair. With such widespread occurrence of infidelity, affairs cannot only be attributed to some act of deviance or amorality, but must be looked at as a normal fact of life.

This begs the question “why do so many people cheat?” And, “What are the challenges to staying faithful and monogamous in a relationship?”

Is There Something Wrong with Cheating?

Over the years psychologists and sociologists have advanced many viewpoints on this matter. The current stance of many couples therapists seems almost naively moralistic and judgmental, focusing mostly on the “victim’s” right to feel angry and the perpetrator’s need to atone. They implicitly turn cheating into a simple selfish act, a violation of social norms, and a sign of immaturity.

And yet, aren’t we all fascinated by the forbidden? Doesn’t the forbidden actually enhance our eroticism? Have we not all been tempted by the lure of what might exist on the other side of the fence?

If we dig deeper into our unconscious we will find that most people, whether they admit to it or not, have been tempted to cheat, have fantasized about somebody else than their spouse, and have found secret emotional fulfillment with others without wanting their spouses to know.

Judging Our Desires Can Lead to Cheating

Oftentimes what propels a person into an affair is ironically their lack of ability to talk to their spouse about their deepest darkest fantasies. The prohibition against having an affair is thus often what makes it happen. The affair becomes the actual outlet, for what cannot be talked about within the existing relationship. What gets denied, goes underground, only to become expressed through actions and impulses in another setting.

A chronic problem in intimate relationships is the inability to openly admit to and share fantasies and urges that are not considered “right” or “proper”, and that one does not feel a decent human being “should” have. Because there is then no room for it within the relationship, there is also no room for a part of the person. This part is then forced to exist in secret and to be siphoned off to a parallel reality, whether it be internet porn, a secret lover, or a clandestine emotional encounter. People’s fears of confessing and being a 100% themselves within a relationship thus leads to a pressing need for more than one relationship to contain all parts of oneself.

In some relationships, this fact of life is openly embraced. Hence we have communities of swingers, people who agree to have open relationships, or people who agree to have threesomes. Some report that this greatly spices up their life and reduces the need for their partner to secretly cheat, but others suggest it comes with its own dangers, and leads to unmanageable jealousy that tends to ultimately break people apart.

Why Do People Have Affairs?

People who have been cheated on and have felt the betrayal of an extra-marital affair, may end up blaming themselves, thinking that they were deficient in some way. Oftentimes, however, partners who cheat are struggling with their own issues (like all of us), which make it difficult for them to get all their needs met with one partner, no matter who that partner is.

A common problem encountered by men is the “Madonna – Whore” complex, by which tender feelings originally felt toward a person’s mother, cannot be reconciled with a person’s “dirty” sexual desires. In this case, a person will thus have a need to relate to their spouse as a good friend and revered mother, and live out their sexual fantasies with a “lover” whose only function is to serve as a sexual outlet for these unaccepted desires. It is for example not uncommon for someone to not be able to have great sex with a person they respect, and to have great sex with someone whom they don’t really respect much as a person.

Another common situation is for a person to recreate a relationship with their spouse that makes them feel trapped, stifled, and in need of an escape. A person may for example unknowingly contribute to a relationship where they feel lonely and unloved, and find themselves in need of getting those needs met elsewhere. It is thus not uncommon to find that the person feeling lonely has withdrawn themselves and stopped sharing the personal thoughts and feelings that would have made them feel more loved and intimate. At the end of the day, we therefore sometimes unconsciously create the very types of relationships, which we then find insufferable. A true test of this is whether or not the next relationship tends to end in the same situation, making break-ups and infidelity a sort of coping mechanism that substitutes for dealing with one’s own barriers to establishing a fulfilling intimate partnership with someone.

A Common Factor that Leads to Infidelity:

The list of why we cheat is long and often involves complicated personal and interpersonal dynamics. But one thing seems to be true across the board: Cheating seems to happen when a part of the person cannot be expressed within the confines of a single relationship. There are many reasons why this cannot happen, but the root cause is often the lack of ability to create, and tolerate, intimacy, and the inability to be completely oneself within one’s existing relationship…

About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, Texas. I use a non-shaming and non-blaming approach to working with individuals who feel guilty about having an affair, and couples who are struggling with issues of infidelity. Click on this link to read more about my approach to couples therapy…

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