Cheating is many people’s greatest fear, and it’s also sadly common. Over the past decades, my clinical office has been full of couples and individuals working to make sense of and heal from this very confusing and wounding experience. This article isn’t about monogamy, but instead, a look at why people cheat.
Statistics show cheating occurs in as many as 60% of relationships. But cheating doesn’t even come with a universal definition, and most couples have never discussed the specifics of what they consider “cheating.” But, then again, I wouldn’t trust most people’s definitions to be healthy anyway. Some therapists even call porn use a low level of infidelity, so we clearly have some work to do to dismantling the unreasonable expectations we put on our partners.
Here’s why people cheat:
1. Monogamy is difficult
People are living longer and longer, which means our relationships are longer, too. This allows for more difficult opportunities and more work needed to maintain a sustainable sexual life with our partner.
2. Sex is a powerful human drive, energy, and force
Arousal is one of our most powerful drives — and sometimes it can even lower our inhibitions and override other priorities. Arousal will make us more comfortable putting body parts in our mouths that we wouldn’t otherwise, stay up too late online and miss important events.
3. Our culture is both sex-obsessed and sexphobic
Our culture is sexually uneducated. We treat arousal, sex drive and sexual anatomy as inappropriate topics, yet expect everyone to somehow understand how to manage being turned on, having sexual confusion and feeling sexually chaotic.
4. People aren’t taught how to engage with sex
All relationships must define their own boundaries. And if things weren’t difficult enough, technology creates new gray areas couples are just now learning how to navigate.
5. Fear of ending
Not all couples are willing to acknowledge when a relationship isn’t working. Leaving a relationship — even a marriage — isn’t a sign of failure. But staying in an unsuccessful relationship is. The health of a relationship, not its length, is what determines success.
6. We fear porn and under-appreciate masturbation
Solo sexuality, sex toys, fantasies and porn are all healthy forms of sexuality, and tools to support monogamy — not forms of cheating. By banning these forms of release is to impose unhealthy sexual limits and set up an unsustainable relationship.
7. Not everyone is built for monogamy
Monogamy, marriage and relationships are difficult. And it’s not always anyone’s fault, but the way we approach these institutions and the unrealistic expectations we carry. Monogamy doesn’t work for every person.
8. We undervalue sexual compatibility
Attraction to partners and lots of love don’t necessarily lead to, or create, sexual compatibility. Monogamy will be an ongoing challenge for a relationship that has partners with differing sex drives, sexual interests or a lack of sexual chemistry.
9. We also undervalue sex as a form of bonding
It’s not uncommon for a relationship to become committed and then allow sex to stop being a priority. A lack of sex doesn’t lead to lack of sex drive — and your sex drive will be expressed in other ways. Make sex a priority and keep your relationship erotic.
10. Inability to tolerate sexual vulnerability
Robust relationships demand discussion. You need to talk about how the relationship is going and, importantly, ask for the sex you want. Even if that means owning the fact that a relationship isn’t working or that there’s a desire to cheat. The mentionable is manageable.
This isn’t just a call for a free-for-all. We need to be able to know our commitments are made to be upheld. But the occasional failure should be expected and will need to be “worked through.” When a boundary violation occurs, you’ll need to either resolve the issue and reconnect, or release your partner and be better next time.