It’s crazy. You thought you knew your partner. You thought the relationship was in a decent place. Sure, you have your fights from time to time. But this? How could they have cheated on you? You never could have imagined it would happen.
Or – are you the one who stepped out of the relationship, and you’re wondering how you could possibly have done something so horrible? After all, you love your partner. You really do. You can’t believe what a terrible, terrible mistake you made. And you are desperately trying to answer the question – why? Why did you do this?
There are many reasons people cheat – even when they truly do love the partner they have committed to – and although sometimes it means there’s a problem in the relationship that needs to be addressed, just as often it has nothing to do with the relationship or with their partner, but instead has to do with their own “stuff.”
Let’s take a look at some of these reasons below:
1. Emotional disconnection in the relationship
Even the best relationships go through normal ups and downs. And the only way to keep things moving up overall is to keep putting work into the relationship. When couples fail to plan intentional time together, to keep in touch about the random details of their daily lives, to talk about things beyond who’s picking up the kids today, they lose touch with each other and drift slowly apart.
Although many people assume that an affair is about sex, it very often is not. (Emotional affairs, where there is no physical contact at all, can still be quite devastating to a committed relationship.) People who are lonely will often find comfort in the arms of another person. People whose emotional needs are not being met may get them filled elsewhere – sometimes by looking for it, and sometimes when it just finds them.
According to our cultural scripts, for women it’s often about feeling desired. They may feel like their spouse doesn’t pay attention to them anymore, or their significant other doesn’t seem to engage with them about anything beyond practical matters.
Then, when the guy at the gym starts making eyes at them, pursuing them, wanting them, the emotional draw can be overpowering.
For men, on the other hand, the general (though not universal) thrust in our society is that men want to be successful. They want to know that they are doing right by their partners and making them happy. If most of what a man hears from his partner is criticism, that is a major rebuff. If they try to be helpful around the house, buy the right gifts, and generally do what their partner wants but they get no respect or appreciation for it, they feel pushed away.
Then what happens is that his coworker laughs at his jokes, thanks him for his help on the last report, and admires his work ethic, and he can’t help but feel attracted not just to his coworker but also to the excitement of actually being able to please someone.
When a person feels their partner is not meeting their emotional needs, it is easy for them to fall into an affair with someone who can.
2. Sexual disconnection in the relationship
Although we noted above that affairs are not always (or even often) about sex – sometimes they are. People who are sexually unfulfilled do tend to seek out other outlets for their sexual needs.
The sexual disconnect in a couple could be about different levels of desire – when one partner wants more frequency than the other (and they don’t have a could framework for managing such an issue in their relationship), one solution people turn to is extramarital sex. Or, it could be about different kinds of sex – one person specifically wants to do X in bed, the other person does not, so the former finds someone else who will.
Or, any number of sexual issues can be at hand – pain during sex, a history of trauma, or simply just sex that isn’t satisfying.
This does not mean that a person needs to satisfy their partner’s every sexual whim to keep them faithful. In fact, it’s critical to be clear that someone who doesn’t want the same quantity or type of sex as their partner is not responsible for their partner’s affair. If there is a problem in the sexual relationship, that is not license to violate an expectation of exclusivity (assuming that there is one).
A person who steps out of the relationship because of sexual issues remains solely responsible for that choice.
(It is also critical for the betrayed partner not to make the mistake of trying to save and/or secure the relationship by providing the “right” quality/quantity of sex. Doing things you don’t want or like, especially in the bedroom, is a recipe for some pretty bad feelings towards one’s partner and oneself.)
And it is possible to still love your partner, yet make such a choice out of feelings of sexual frustration. Love and sex are not the same thing!
3. Personal Issues
It is very possible that the motivation for cheating was something more deep-seated than a disconnect in the relationship – potentially even something unconscious, that the person is not even really aware of.
An affair can address certain needs or pain points that a person carries around inside themselves. Perhaps there is a pain they are looking to numb with sex, or a need they are subconsciously hoping it will fill. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of common examples:
a. Fear of Commitment
Sometimes you have a really great relationship that is blossoming and moving towards a real commitment, and then one of you goes and blows it up by cheating on the other. This can be super confusing when the relationship is going so well, and is showing a lot of promise, and maybe you’re both young and attractive and the sex is great. What happened?
For some people – in our culture, these people are usually men – commitment is terrifying. It can bring up a whole lot of big feelings of all different kinds, fear often being a central point: what if I’m making a mistake? What if I find someone better? What if I’m not ready? What if I can’t be a good partner?
Fears like these can push someone to run in the other direction, even when they have strong feelings of love and connection to their partner. This reaction is sometimes an escape from the pressure of the looming commitment; other times it’s an active (although possibly subconscious) attempt to derail the solidifying relationship in order to relieve themselves of the burden it’s putting on them.
b. Sex Addiction
Sex addiction is itself an indicator of some deeper problem going on – feelings of inadequacy, self-blame, etc. It could also be a result of sexual trauma earlier in life – for example, children who were molested sometimes become hypersexualized, and as adults find themselves unable to self-soothe without sex. Sex can also help numb emotional pain they may be carrying around from any number of personal experiences.
Many people who struggle with sex addictions truly are loving, caring people – who have a problem they cannot control. Just as someone who has an alcohol or drug addiction may make choices that negatively impact their loved ones despite truly loving them, because they are out of control – so too with a person struggling with a sex addiction. (The impact on their partner, of course, is very different: when your partner has sex with someone outside the relationship, that is a very different hurt than if they go on a drinking binge and get a DUI.)
c. “Daddy Issues”
This colloquial term refers to (mostly) women whose father was absent or abusive, or otherwise did not fulfill the role of father. Women who were raised in that context may seek out comfort, protection, and validation from men (usually older men) – and then discover that what they are missing can’t be provided by anyone outside of themselves. (That’s why simply finding a committed partner doesn’t put out that fire.)
We can never rewrite our past; seeking a replacement for a parent or other important figure from our childhood tends not to work well. But feelings aren’t rational, and they drive us to such behaviors anyway, even when we are in a loving and meaningful relationship.
We all at times behave in ways that don’t make a whole lot of sense in response to emotional motivations we don’t fully understand. For example, some people find it very difficult to spend money because of the messages they got about spending when they were younger, or because they grew up in poverty, or for any number of deep-seated reasons.
The fact that they don’t like buying presents doesn’t mean they don’t care about their family; it’s simply that their behavior is being driven by something under the surface (which is generally a lot more powerful than our conscious motivations).
If you don’t experience the same internal forces, you may have a difficult time understanding their stinginess and how it aligns with caring about their family – especially if gifts for you are a meaningful way of connecting with others. But the fact that they have these internal drives doesn’t mean that in their mind and heart they do truly care about their family.
The last category I want to discuss is possibly the most important one to wrap our heads around.
Sometimes there is no deeper reason for the affair.
Freudian psychologists will no doubt disagree with me and say that ultimately it’s because of what happened during someone’s childhood that is swimming around in their unconscious mind that made it happen.
We addressed some of those possibilities above. And the truth is that everything we do does have some reason that we could find – perhaps very, very, very deep down. But often you don’t need to go down that deep to make sense of something. Did you ever look up a video online then end up binge-watching for an hour before realizing it? You don’t need to look to your childhood to explain such behavior – it’s just the (intentionally designed) pull of the moment.
This can be the case with infidelity as well. You’re at work and your coworker is attractive, flirtatious, and interested in you. Temptation is a powerful force. You may love your partner and be committed to them, but that doesn’t mean you don’t find other people attractive.
Commitment means that you choose to pass up on other attractive people, not that you suddenly don’t notice them ever again!
Commitment also means you put up appropriate boundaries to preserve the relationship you have – because in the absence of those boundaries, even loving relationships can be infiltrated. This means, for example, that one-on-one “business” dinners with a coworker of the opposite sex may not be a good idea if you’ve got a marriage you’d like to protect.
Related to temptation is the issue of boredom and novelty. No matter how much you love your spouse or partner, the nature of monogamy is that it is high on stability and low on novelty. (Esther Perel speaks about this at length in her book Mating in Captivity.)
When something new and exciting comes along, it can be hard to turn away from it. We are wired to get excited by novelty. That is no contradiction to the love and deep connection we can experience at the same time. It just requires conscious attention to avoid falling into such a trap.
Are There Other Reasons?
Sure. We could probably go on forever listing all the reasons that have ever led to affairs. It tends to be most confusing, however, when you’re in a loving relationship and yet an affair happens. It doesn’t take much to understand how someone could cheat on their partner when the relationship is a wreck. (Indeed, sometimes an affair can be purely someone’s attempt to spite their partner – but if you are reading this article on how loving partners cheat, that probably doesn’t apply in your situation.)
In a relationship that is generally going well, there are also some explanations that usually do not apply that I think are worth mentioning, because especially if you are the victim in this situation, you may be worried about some of all of these.
It’s not because you’re not attractive.
I mean, maybe you’re not, but that’s not the reason your partner cheated on you. In many situations of infidelity the affair partner is markedly less attractive than the significant other (which may actually just add to the painfulness of the situation). I have seen people cheat on a decently attractive spouse with a person who is morbidly obese. It’s really not about looks.
It’s not because they’re a bad person.
Again, they might be. You might be married to a sociopath, or even just a run-of-the-mill jerk. But if so, they probably don’t really love you either, and the whole question kind of evaporates. Good people do stupid things. Bad things too. You’ve made stupid mistakes in your life; it doesn’t mean you’re a rotten person. Betraying someone’s trust is in most people’s books a bad thing to do. But doing something bad and being a bad person aren’t the same thing.
It’s not because he doesn’t love you.
That’s what this whole post is about, isn’t it? It can be very hard to understand how your partner could do something like this if they love you, or, how you could do something like this if you love your partner.
The critical point – the one that betrayed partners have a lot of difficulty accepting – is that an unfaithful partner may truly love their significant other and cheat on them.
Really it’s not such a foreign idea, I think. Contradictory feelings can and do exist inside us. Haven’t we all felt real anger, perhaps even hatred, to someone we love deeply? And we all act on those feelings in smaller ways.
Have you ever been annoyed at your spouse and they called you and you ignored the call because you were angry at them? Isn’t that rude and spiteful? It is, but you’ve done it anyway (I’d wager everyone has at some point or another).
I am not comparing ignoring a call to having extramarital sex, of course. It’s not even close to the same order of magnitude. But it is a similar dynamic – you do something you know is hurtful to your spouse even though you love them.
Accepting such a possibility doesn’t take away the pain of the betrayed partner or the responsibility of the betraying one. It’s just a framework for understanding the reality that infidelity doesn’t mean the unfaithful person doesn’t love their partner.
If you are the victim in this situation, you may be thinking, “I could never do something like that.” That may well be true. That doesn’t mean that your partner couldn’t.
It is important for people in a relationship who want to understand each other to recognize that they do not think and feel exactly alike. Some people can sleep when there’s a stressful day coming up, and some cannot. Some people can have sex with one person while they feel love for another (as well, perhaps, as guilt, shame, and other feelings) – and some cannot.
In order to get through this kind of crisis in a relationship, it is vital to be real with the fact that people just are different in this way; trying to understand someone else through the template of your own experiences, perceptions, and feelings is bound to give you a distorted picture.
First of all, don’t despair. Your relationship can recover from infidelity. I’ve seen it happen many times over.
It’s not easy. It hurts like hell. But there is happiness again on the other side.
Second, get help. The path ahead is full of obstacles and pitfalls, and having a guide who knows where they are and how to avoid them is invaluable in getting through such a difficult time in your life.
It’s not impossible to make it through without a professional’s help. But why risk it? This is important. This is your marriage. This is your significant other.
Your best bet is finding someone who can give you the best chance of success at saving and revitalizing the most important relationship in your life. Please reach out to us if you’re in this situation!