It can be tempting to cheat, I know. After over 40 years as a therapist, I’ve heard many, many reasons that people (even people who say they love their partner) give for cheating. There’s the thrill of the forbidden, the notion that what’s out there may be better than what you’ve got, the affirmation that comes from feeling attractive to someone else — especially when self-esteem is shaky, the satisfaction of someone preferring you to the partner they’ve got, and the itch to explore what could have been or could be sexually with someone else.
Whatever rationalization you tell yourself, cheating seldom works as an answer to any of those concerns. After the thrill or comfort or self-discovery, most affairs end with a crash and a burn. Cheating hurts. It often hurts all three people involved: The cheater feels guilty, the cheated on feels betrayed, and the paramour feels ever anxious that what was done with them will someday be done to them. There is a better way.
Let’s first define cheating. In cards, cheating is doing something that is meant to defraud the other player by doing something fundamentally dishonest. A cheater unilaterally and secretly violates the rules of the game.
Cheating in relationships isn’t different. Every couple has a stated or implicit set of rules for sexual fidelity in their relationship. Such rules are highly personal and aren’t always what other people consider “normal” or the “way things should be.” But every couple does have a “deal” about what is and isn’t okay in their relationship.
The form that your deal takes doesn’t matter as long as it’s truly mutual. “Open” relationships where partners are permitted by each other to have sex outside the relationship can work if both people are clear and comfortable with it. Polyamory works when all of the people involved feel respected and loved. Monogamy works when both people agree about its importance and are committed to it.
Whatever deal you make about how you will conduct your sex life, being faithful means being committed to the rules that you and your significant other(s) have agreed you will follow in your relationship. Anything you do that violates the sexual deal you’ve made together is cheating.
Are you inclined to cheat despite the promises you’ve made? Instead of acting on the impulse, think. You can take some positive steps to become a more faithful partner and to renew the relationship you’re in or you can decide to betray your partner’s trust and act on your impulses — with all the messy consequences that are sure to follow. It’s up to you.
How to resist the temptation to cheat:
Recognize that cheating is a decision: No one is “making” you cheat. No one and nothing. Not your partner. Not friends or family members who see nothing wrong with it. Not your hormones. Not your background or your DNA. It’s not because you got drunk or high or because you got caught up in a moment. It’s because you made the decision to ignore your deal with your partner and to avoid taking responsibility for what you decide to do.
Get treatment if it isn’t a decision: Sometimes cheating isn’t a conscious, rational decision. Mental illness can push aside a person’s values and beliefs and create havoc in a relationship. Someone who is in the grip of a manic episode, a psychosis, or a dissociative identity disorder isn’t themselves. Someone who has unresolved sexual trauma (PTSD) may be reverberating from that history. If that’s what’s driving the cheating, get treatment for the disorder. As difficult as treatment can be, it’s a better kind of difficult than a repeated pattern of cheating. If this is you, you already know the damage that cheating does to your self-esteem and to the people you’ve loved.
Get out if you should: In relationships where there is abuse, your temptation to cheat may be an effort to leave with some emotional support and protection. But leaving an abuser for someone else can set off an abuser’s rage. It’s dangerous for you. It’s unfair to someone else to pull them into your dangerous situation.
If you can’t extricate yourself safely on your own, get help from a domestic violence program. You’ll be protected from the abuser and you will help your own recovery by finding the strength and resilience to take care of yourself.
Get some personal help: If you’re not mentally ill and you are not in an abusive relationship, it’s time you took a look at why deciding to cheat is so tempting. Contrary to common beliefs, not every affair has to do with something being wrong in your relationship or in your partner. If your self-esteem is shaky, or you have a pattern of avoiding conflict or addressing problems in relationships, or if you are insecure sexually, or if you are in a midlife crisis (to give only a few examples) the problem is inside you. Find a therapist and do your personal work. If you could have found other ways to deal with your inner issues, you would have done so already
Cheating won’t solve the personal problem you are avoiding. In fact, it will only layer a new problem on top of whatever is already amiss in your life. You’ll eventually have to deal with having hurt someone badly and violated your own moral code. Further, any personal issues you tried to resolve by cheating will likely be brought to the next relationship.
Get some relationship help: Sometimes the temptation to cheat is an alarm bell going off that is telling you and your partner that your relationship needs attention. Find a couples therapist. Cheating can’t resolve problem; the support of a therapist can.
Every committed relationship, even a very healthy relationship, goes through rough patches. It’s not necessarily a signal that you’ve fallen out of love or that you are at an irreconcilable impasse. Usually it only means that people are growing and need to work those changes through with each other so they don’t grow apart.
Couples therapy can help you and your partner explore new ways to communicate, new ways to explore and deepen your intimacy and sexual partnership, and new ways to nurture your love and your commitment. You may find, as many do, that couples work results in having a new “affair” with the one you are with.