Infidelity is as old as the institutions it violates. Many, many people throughout history have been hurt by a partner’s choice to step outside the boundaries of their relationship. Understandably, many betrayed partners are plagues by the question of why it happened.
There is no one answer for all cases. Sometimes there is no satisfying answer even for an individual situation. However, there are some common explanations we can look to in order to understand why an affair happened. Here are some of the most frequently encountered explanations for why people cheat.
Note that I am presenting ways to understand why some people do what they do. I am neither condoning nor condemning those choices. If you are looking for moral judgment, ask your local neighborhood ethicist; my goal here is just to offer a little clarity, where there is clarity to be had.
1. They’re unhappy in their relationship.
This one goes right at the top of the list, but it is still only one reason. Dissatisfaction with relationships is very widespread. It is an unfortunate reality that the skills needed for a long-term relationship simply aren’t taught to us as we grow up. (Instead, in high school we get calculus. Which subject seems more relevant to our daily adult lives? Maybe we’ll talk about that in another post one day.)
When the spark is gone from a relationship, people often seek fulfillment elsewhere. If someone doesn’t feel loved, cared for, valued, admired, or respected by their partner, they may choose to seek out someone who loves, cares for, values, admires, or respects them. Simple as that.
The rest of the reasons listed here are, perhaps surprisingly, applicable even when people love their significant other and are generally happy in their relationship. This is important to recognize because you might very well be doing everything right in the relationship and yet your partner goes and does this! It is hurtful any which way, but it may not be a reflection on you at all.
2. They’re unhappy with themselves.
For some people an affair is a way to feel better about themselves, even when they love their partner and the relationship they’re in. The need to know that “I’ve still got it” drives many people to prove themselves in ways that put them outside the boundaries of their relationship.
Someone who has low self-esteem is susceptible to this kind of affair. Needing to feel attractive can lead a person to try and show the world – or, more critically, themselves – that they have what it takes to reel in a sexual partner.
3. They don’t like how their life is turning out.
Sometimes an affair is a way of reclaiming a part of our lives and ourselves that has been lost. In your teens and 20s you might have sought adventure, gone backpacking, acted spontaneous. In your 30s and 40s somehow your mortgage and your dental plan take up more mental space than your next spur-of-the-moment road trip.
It’s normal to miss the freedom we had in our younger days. For some people, an unexpected fling or a secret relationship with a younger partner brings back those vivid feelings. One of the most common ways people describe the draw of an affair is that it made them feel alive.
When you miss your old life, an affair can provide a taste of how things used to be – carefree, fun, easy. That is a powerful pull for many people who are managing bills, bosses, and childcare. (Please don’t take this as a recommendation. If you miss your old life, infidelity is probably not the most effective way to find adventure and also keep your life in one piece.)
4. They are seeking excitement.
Another way in which the excitement can feel a bit drained from our lives is in the absence of mystique that often accompanies marriage and long-term relationships. This is a main theme of Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity – the tension between our needs for security and stability on one hand, and novelty and excitement on the other. Long-term relationships can feel boring in comparison to the rush of something new.
The truth is that the excitement of a new relationship is by nature something temporary. The love that is achievable in marriage is deeper and more satisfying than the fireworks of infatuation (which by definition fizzle out in short order).
But the zing of a new romance is certainly easier to find and to feel. Deep, lasting love is much harder work. Unfortunately, some people choose to pursue the quick fix of romance and infatuation. It’s understandable. It feels great. It’s just not a good long-term solution.
5. They fall prey to temptation.
For many people, an affair wasn’t something they sought out, nor is it fulfilling some missing element in their lives. Sometimes it is just a lost battle with temptation.
It is normal to feel attracted to other men/women, even when you’re married. It’s not like you stop seeing other people as attractive as soon as you say “I do.”
Committing to a relationship means choosing that relationship even when you have a desire for something outside it. (In fact, committing to a relationship also means avoiding things that would create such desire. If you are serious about your relationship, you probably should not be working late at the office with your attractive coworker.)
Sometimes people find themselves – or allow themselves to remain – in situations where temptation, and opportunity, are present. And sometimes people fail to make the right decision, then end up crossing the line.
6. They just don’t care.
Sociopaths, narcissists and other folks with serious personality problems don’t really mind causing other people pain. They have little to no empathy and are willing to do whatever pleases them so long as they can get away with it.
Some people are like this. It’s not a lot, so I would refrain from adopting this assumption if your partner or someone you know has been cheating. But there are people like this out there, and if one of them sees an opportunity for more pleasure, more power, more money, etc., they may just go ahead and take it without really concerning themselves with the effects on other people.
If you’ve been cheated on, you are likely searching desperately for some answers, for something to ground you. Hopefully this post has been helpful in that regard. If you need further help managing your emotions at this difficult time, please reach out to us today!
And if you’re the cheater, you may also be confused yourself about what you’ve done and why. We can help you too – no judgment. Please let us know how we can help!