The general thinking about why people cheat on a committed relationship partner is that there is a problem with either the cheater or the relationship. Often, we assume that cheaters have a pathology, some unresolved trauma/dysfunction, or at best a form of emotional immaturity that pushes them into infidelity.
Other times, we assume that the primary relationship is flawed in some significant way that creates a perceived need for external sex and intimacy. Either way, we tend to view infidelity as symptomatic of underlying problems. The cheater and/or the relationship is troubled, and cheating is the result.
And guess what, more often than not, this is the case. Sometimes the cheater has an attachment deficit disorder. Sometimes the cheater has unresolved childhood trauma and uses the excitement of illicit sex and romance as a distraction from painful feelings.
Sometimes the cheater knows that he or she is in a lousy relationship and uses those feelings to justify the infidelity or to locate a new partner before abandoning the old one. Sometimes the primary relationship lacks sexual fire or emotional intimacy, so the cheater has a one-night stand or an affair to fill the void. And so it goes.
That said, the cause and effect model described above doesn’t fully explain all infidelity. Over the years, I’ve had countless clients tell me that they love their spouse, they have a great relationship, they enjoy each other’s company, they respect each other, they’re attracted to each other, the sex is good, and there are no money or family or other obvious relationship problems. The only real issue is that they’re cheating and they can’t, or don’t, want to stop.
So there the cheater sits, happy in his or her relationship but still cheating and wondering why. “Surely,” the cheater says, “there must be something wrong with me or with my relationship, or I wouldn’t be doing this.” And typically, a therapist will start to explore those possibilities with them, searching for an obvious underlying problem to explore and address.
What I have learned over the course of nearly three decades as a therapist specializing in sex and intimacy issues is that infidelity is often a symptom of a flawed personality or relationship, but not always. Some people are reasonably emotionally healthy and in a wonderful primary relationship, and they still choose to cheat. And this is true for both men and women.
Esther Perel, who verbalizes this idea in her book The State of Affairs, suggests four reasons why people who are generally well adjusted and happy in their primary relationship might nevertheless engage in infidelity, risking their marriage, their home, their family, their standing in their church or community, and more.
The seductive nature of transgression
The allure of lives not lived
Feeling new (or exiled) emotions