Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Why People in Romantic Adult Loving Relationships Cheat

Why people in romantic adult loving relationships cheat – commit infidelity – involves many factors and has numerous answers, each typically unique to each and every situation. Understandably, it is extremely difficult to directly research the topic – it involves shame, embarrassment, guilt and denial, among other factors, and as such is very difficult to investigate in a definitive sense. Nonetheless, in recent years it would appear to have been escalating (due to increased access to other people such as via the Internet) and indeed has received more attention in our society – there’s even a relatively popular TV program and website, Cheaters, devoted to it.

Infidelity is literally a breach of faith. Fidelity, derived from the Latin word for faithfullness, is the principle of “not deceiving one capable of being deceived.” Moreover, infidelity is a breach of good faith that applies in a number of other contexts (e.g., religious). To wit, cheating is “any violation of the mutually agreed-upon rules or boundaries of a relationship.” It does not require sexual behavior to qualify as infidelity. Moreover, the definition of what constitutes an act of infidelity varies between and within cultures. People in a close relationship may have very different ideas and perceptions of infidelity (e.g., see Blumstein). While adultery involves “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a partner other than the lawful spouse,” in one of the two companion self-help books I currently am writing, Our Adult Loving Relationship, I discuss the differences between a physical affair, a psychological affair and a sexual affair.

Fidelity also refers to the accuracy and integrity of self-representation, honesty or candor in an intimate, committed relationship. Integrity may be defined as “the inner sense of wholeness deriving from honesty and consistent uprightness of character.” Infidelity is a breach of that integrity through the use of deception by one party to a committed and not necessarily monogamous relationship. This breach is experienced as a betrayal of an explicit or implicit agreement between the partners to not keep secret those matters now the subject of deception. “Deception is the covert manipulation of perception to alter thoughts, feeling, or beliefs.”

Some authorities (for example Frank Pittman in “Grow Up” Golden Books) suggest that infidelity is involved in 90% of first time divorces. A 1997 study with Kristina Gordon found “more than half of the marriages that experience infidelity ended in divorce.” By contrast John Gottman, in his 35 years of research into marriage, is reported as saying “Only 20 percent of divorces are caused by an affair. Most marriages die with a whimper, as people turn away from one another, slowly growing apart.” Fifty UK divorce lawyers were asked to name the most common causes of their cases in 2003. Of those who cited extramarital affairs, 55% said it was usually the husbands and 45% said that it was the wives who cheated. In addition between 10-15% of children are conceived in an affair.

In my 33 years of work as a licensed psychologist, I heard many answers to the question, “Why do people cheat and have affairs?” For example:

“I was out of town at a convention and got drunk – I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“I could, and I thought I could get away with it.”

“It was the only way I could get his (or her) attention.”

“He (she) came on to me and I couldn’t help myself.”

When a couple addresses one of them having had an affair, dealing with the Who? What? Where? When? and How? questions are relatively easy to address. The “Why?” question, however, is extremely difficult, and sometimes the answer is never found and sometimes even when it is, it doesn’t help.

Question: Why do you think people in romantic adult loving relationships cheat?



Cole Reising said...

Why? I don't think there is a universal answer nor do I think knowing is always the way to 'curing' it if you will.


Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hi Cole,
Good point... in most instances it is an individual matter. Inherently, nonetheless, you do raise an interesting question as to whether an affair or cheating is "curable." I've heard many people say, "We've worked through and past it," yet I don't recall anyone ever saying "things were the same" (as they used to be).
Thanks for stopping by... fascinating phenomenon that's for sure,

DH said...

I think it is basically about selfishness...people in a relationship not getting what they "want" and putting their "wants" ahead of their partner or relationship. Also, an element of immaturity...doing something wrong and not caring or knowing the full consequences of their actions. Just my own personal theory... DH

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello DH,
Excellent extensional thoughts (as usual). Selfishness, immaturity, questionable values, and low internal self-control indeed could be considered part of the individual's makeup. I also have seen, when such attributes turn around, the sense of guilt and remorse can be overwhelming.
Thanks for the visit and enlightening considerations of the topic,

Bailey Stewart said...

I have no idea. Selfishness, immaturity, no self-control, - missing that inner censor - all seem to be adequate answers. I think only those who cheat could answer this.

insideout said...

I think a lot occur at a time when one spouse is traveling. Away from the house, kids, responsibility and bills. Maybe the thrill of the adventure. Maybe the want or desire to be and feel atractive to the opposite sex. Living in a moment and falling pray to your desires. The guilt comes after the fact...I/O

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello I/O,
And if a person is aware of contributing factors such as those you mention, then it would be helpful to take out some “insurance policies” to protect oneself from oneself – e.g., when at a conference, share a room with a good friend who knows you and your family. And like many other things in life, the “guilt” comes afterward (versus “anticipatory guilt” beforehand which can have some preventative qualities).
Thanks for sharing your thoughts,

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hi Bailey,
And wouldn’t it be great if we could find cooperative “ex-cheaters” willing to tell us the truth and thus possibly identify helpful preventative strategies.
Glad to hear from you,

Anonymous said...

I agree with Cole, there is no universal answer. However, I strongly believe that cheating is a symptom of greater problems within the relationship and with the person who cheats. I think some reasons would include lack of excitement and trying to feel 'good enough.' I think we all try to be good enough, it's just we all find different ways to satisfy that need. If we aren't getting it from our partner, I could see someone looking elsewhere for it.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Nienke,
Your astute observation reminds me of something I address with couples who are struggling with one of them having had an affair. When I suggest that both of them need to look at what they were doing and not doing, the person who didn’t have the affair typically says, “Why me? He (or she) is the one who had the affair.”
I then suggest, “Why should we assume that he (or she) woke up one morning and thought, ‘I’m in such a wonderful relationship… I think tonight I’ll just go out and have an affair.’ If either of you chooses not to be part of the solution, then you may be or may continue to be part of the problem.”
I do not hold the “innocent person” responsible for what the person who had the affair did, but I do suggest that the chances of it not happening again will be much greater if he or she is part of the solution.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,
I have cheated in a few past relationships. I did it at the end of the relationship, when I was very unhappy. Usually alcohol was involved. I have/had poor self esteem issues and this seemed, at least at the moment, to make me feel good. I should have just left the relationship. Each of those people found out and wanted to continue the relationship, in all 3 circumstances I left. I felt horrible about it. The last time I appologized after I left (we are still friends and I still appologize for my behaviour) and like to use it as a reminder that I never want to do that again, for so many reasons. I really hate the way I feel about myself afterwards. I feel like I am a really good person that occasionally make some really bad choices. I must add that I have been in many relationships that I did not cheat. And I have worked hard to stop the "triggers" that lead me astray. I have been in a relationship now for 3 years and have never considered it an option.

I have also been in relationships where I have been cheated on. I have completely forgiven that person and we remain close friends. We both agree that the reason behind it was his way of keeping distance and not getting hurt- as long as he wasn't fully invested he was safe. His mother was an alcoholic and his father left at an early age so there are definitely some intimacy issues. For me there was are many issues as well- dysfunction, depression, sexual molestation... I know it is easy for people to label all cheaters as selfish, but I think it is much more complex than that.

Sorry this is all a ramble. And sorry to keep it annoynmous :)

P.S from what I have seen, people who are happy in their relationship do not cheat. I think it is definitely a sign of bigger problems in the relationship....

Anonymous said...

I think once it's all said and done, the cheater is looking to satisfy some need. One can only hope that the person that you are in a "loving" relationship with will do that – be “loving," and think of you as much as they think of themselves.

I agree with Dr. E's comment - while it's certainly not the innocent party's fault, that innocent party can and should play a role in the solution, preferable before cheating occurs. It's important to know where your partner's head is at. John Travolta says that he and his wife right down lists of what they want. I didn't see the list, but I would think mine could be something like "more hugs, a chance to talk at the end of the day - a de-briefing, and help cleaning up after dinner..." Forget the guess-work "if he REALLY cared, he would just KNOW what I want" - come on! Communicate! Be honest! What do you have to lose? More importantly, look at all you have to gain! If this is the person that you want to be in this loving relationship with, assuming they equally want to be in it with you - then let them know. AND know what they want. Care - and then deliver.

I remember another tidbit of advice I received - relationships are not 50/50. It's 110% and 110%. When one partner knows that he is getting the others ALL, then and only then will the other give his ALL. If you're feeling short-changed, you're going to start holding back. You won't drain the well if you know it's not going to be replenished. Care and love your partner to give your all - and trust that your partner will do the same. If not - communicate.

What does all this have to do with "why people cheat?" I think in most cases, needs are not being met - deep emotional needs, or just plain old physical needs. Ask, communicate and LOVE your partner enough to meet those needs.

In the cases where it's pure selfishness, I would bet that this selfish streak is seen in many other areas of life. Worry about that, don't wait until they actually do cheat. And then, let them clearly know the consequences if it ever does happen. Love YOURSELF enough to not tolerate being uncared for by this selfish person.


Dr. Bill Emener said...

Anonymous and Jordana – sorry for the delay in posting your Comments and offering my reply comments. My son drove in from Macon, Georgia Thursday night up to when he left this morning we spent two days off shore fishing and playing in a softball tournament Friday night. Needless to say, I had a great weekend. (Now I need a long nap though!)

Anonymous – it sounds like you not only apologized for your transgression but learned from it. Good for you! I also appreciate your anchoring of the notions that in many instances affairs arise out of less than desirable relationships and that if a couple chooses to work through them they both have to take some responsibilities for the affair and its resolution. It also sounds like you have felt the sting of both sides (and all the more wiser for it). Thanks for your openness (not only with me but with yourself)! Bill

Jordana – wow, your points are so on the money! I guess there’s no substitute for being in a relationship with an insightful and psychologically healthy person. (And in many instances anything short of that means that trouble may be just around the corner.) It may be important to remember though, that just because something is “understandable” doesn’t mean it’s “okay” and “it is therefore something with which I must live.” If people were as insightful and understanding as you… no question: it would be an easier and happier world. Thanks Jordana, Bill