They may be discontented with themselves.
I’m not a fan of secrets.
As a child, I’d shamelessly tattle on anyone. If anyone shared anything with me in confidence, I’d run to whoever was closest as quickly as possible to tell them the goods. After I’d had my share of consequences from being a leaky secret keeper, I’d then warn people: Tell me and you’re telling everybody.
I’ve reined in this character defect (today I’m a steel trap), but I still don’t love secrets. There is nothing hot or alluring to me about having one. It is more like having a bug bite that that itches incessantly.
With how uncomfortable secrets make me, I’ve always wondered how long-term cheaters could handle that level of deception and why. To me, it seems like it would feel almost unbearable.
Further, I’ve wondered how people could say they are perfectly happy in their relationships, yet step out on them.
I’ve always looked at cheating as symptomatic as other problems (lack of emotional/physical connection/intimacy, discontent with the relationship for other reasons, etc.), but what if it isn’t always? What if a person who is truly happy with their partner and their relationship could still find themselves in bed with someone else?
It’s a frightening thought because it can mean that all of our romantic relationships are vulnerable. We could do all we could, make our partner deliriously happy, and they may still cheat.
And science proves it’s possible. In one study, among people who engaged in infidelity, 56% of men and 34% of women rated their marriage as “happy” or “very happy.” Worse, only 15% of cheaters are not romantically with their partner while being with their affair partner at the same time. This means your romantic life could be as amazing as always, and you’d have no idea that you were sharing your partner with anyone else.
But since we can’t look at problems within our relationship as a defining reason for why the cheater cheats, then what could it be?
Esther Perel, renowned couples therapist and author of The State of Affairs, says that the cheating often has everything to do with the cheater:
“Instead of thinking that the person who cheats is unhappy with their partner or with their relationship, it is sometimes important to think that they may be unhappy with themselves. Or, at least uncomfortable, restless, longing for something else, longing to reconnect with lost parts of themselves, longing to transcend a sense of deadness that they are feeling inside, longing to experience a sense of autonomy over their life.”
This makes sense for the individual who’d waited until marriage to be physically intimate and then finds themselves wanting more, or someone going through a mid-life/identity crisis, personal tragedy, or feeling otherwise unhappy or discontented with the state of their life instead of their relationship.
My husband and I have discussed cheating a lot. He was cheated on by his first wife and his two serious girlfriends after her, so it’s something that was on his mind when we first started dating. He prides himself on being a faithful man, and he has told me multiple times that he could never cheat on me.
“It’s all because of post-nut clarity,” he told me one day (Forgive him. He was raised in the country).
“What?” I asked.
“You know. Right before, a guy is all about the lust and excitement, but as soon as he nuts, the reality would hit him. That’s why I know I couldn’t do it. As soon as it was over, I’d be hit with so much guilt. I never want to go through that. I’d never want to put you through that.”
But research shows he could. Anyone could. Natasha Sharma, a therapist and relationship expert, argues that “we’re all still human beings who have the capacity to be unfaithful.”
I know there is truth in this because I've cheated. I’d filed for divorce from my ex-husband three months earlier, and we were in a weird transitional stage: we lived together, said we were going to work on things, but neither one of us was. Then I got to know a co-worker better, and that working relationship bloomed into a flirtation, and then I left my ex-husband before the other thing became physical.
I never would have thought I would have cheated. I would have thought I was better than that, incapable of that, but I wasn’t.
My husband could spend every day worrying I’d cheat on him because of my past, but instead he’s always told me, “Just leave me first.” Cheating is a bad act; it doesn’t make a bad person, though we always want to jump to eternally demonize the cheater (“once a cheater, always a cheater.”). If it’s possible for someone to be an ex-alcoholic or ex-smoker, then it’s certainly possible that someone can be an ex-cheater.
The fact that I’m happy in our marriage, that my husband says he’s happy in our marriage, and the fact that can really mean nothing is scary.
But what the science does show is how important it is to live in today. For those of us who are in committed relationships, we have to make a choice every day to be with our partner or not. We have no control over what might happen, but we can at least control that.