Why Happy People Cheat

As a therapist I have worked with many people who have been severely impacted by infidelity. Infidelity may be common occurrence, but for most people it is a shock that makes them question their past, future, and even sense of identity. Indeed, the tornado of emotions experienced in the wake of an affair can be so overwhelming that many symptoms resemble Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: obsessive rumination, hypervigilance, numbness and dissociation, inexplicable rages, uncontrollable panic. Intimate betrayal hurts. It hurts badly.

The damage that infidelity causes the partner who has been cheated on is one side of the story. For centuries, when affairs were tacitly condoned for men, this pain was overlooked, one reason was that it was mostly experienced by women. Contemporary culture, however, is more compassionate toward the one who has been wronged. In the focus on trauma and recovery from the affair, too little attention is given to the meanings and motives of affairs, to what we can learn from them. Strange as it may seem, affairs have a lot to teach us about relationships—what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. They can reveal our personal and cultural attitudes about love, lust, and commitment—attitudes that have changed dramatically over the past 100 years. For much of history, and in many parts of the world today, marriage was a pragmatic alliance that ensured economic stability and social cohesion. As for most modern Western partners, marriage and relationship is no longer an economic enterprise but rather a companionship—a free-choice engagement between two or more individuals, based not on duty and obligation but on love and affection.

Never before have our expectations of romantic and sexual relationship taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have an expectation for our love to remain unconditional, intimacy deep, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.

In the West, sex is a right linked to our individuality, and our freedom. By the time we get married, we’ve hooked up, dated, cohabited, and broken up. We used to get married and have sex for the first time. Now we get married and stop having sex with others. The conscious choice we make to control our sexual freedom is a proof to the seriousness of our commitment. By turning our back on other loves, we confirm the uniqueness of our “significant other”: “I have found The One. I can stop looking.” Our desire for others is supposed to miraculously evaporate and vanish by the power of this singular attraction.

The evolution of committed relationships has brought us to a place where we believe infidelity shouldn’t happen, since all the reasons have been removed; the perfect balance of freedom and security has been achieved. And yet, it does. Infidelity happens in dysfunctional relationships and happy ones. It happens even in open relationships where multiple relationships are carefully negotiated beforehand. The freedom to leave or divorce has not made cheating redundant. So why do people cheat? And why do happy people cheat?

Most people have the assumption that affairs happen only when something is missing in the relationship. If you have everything you need at home, you should have no reason to go elsewhere. Therefore, infidelity must be a symptom of a relationship which is unhappy or dysfunctional. This reinforces the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect relationship and that will protect us against affairs.

The stereotypical images and ideas people associate with cheating are: insecure attachment, conflict avoidance, prolonged lack of sex, loneliness, or just years of repeating the same old arguments. And then there are the repeat offenders, the narcissists who cheat simply because they can.

But in my experience many of these individuals were faithful for years, sometimes decades. They seem to be well balanced, mature, caring, and deeply invested in their relationship. Extramarital adventures are painful and destabilising, but they can also be liberating and empowering. Affairs can be seen as a form of self-discovery, a quest for a new (or lost) identity. What if the affair had nothing to do with the person cheated on? We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves.

Blaming a failed relationship is easier than grappling with our identity crises, our longings, our dreams. An affair is neither a symptom nor a pathology; it can be a crisis of identity, an internal rearrangement of one’s personality, having our old adolescent self rebel. The uncertainty, the thrill of breaking rules, the not knowing when we’ll see each other again—feelings we usually don’t experience in our primary relationship—fuel the sexual excitement and the romance. Because we cannot have our lover, we keep wanting. It is this just-out-of-reach quality that makes affairs desirable and keeps the flame of desire burning.

In my experience, most affairs end, even if the primary relationship ends as well. Without its delicious illegitimacy, can the relationship with the lover remain enticing? And then there are those whose dreams take them back to the missed opportunity and the person they could have been. This relates to our nostalgia for unlived lives, unexplored identities, and roads not taken. The thing we desire the most is not the lover but the part of ourselves that they awakened!

In the wake of devastating betrayals, so many couples tell me that they are having some of the deepest, most honest conversations of their entire relationship. It’s far better to address these issues before a storm hits. Talking about what draws us outside our fences, in an atmosphere of trust, can actually foster intimacy and commitment. Often when a couple comes to me in the wake of an affair, it is clear to me that their primary relationship in the way it existed is over. So I ask them: Would you like to create a different one together?

Reference: This article has been originally written by Esterl Perel and modified by Anisa Varasteh.

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