Why do people cheat?

By: Jeni Woodfin, LMFT

Recently, I was asked the question, directly, “Why do people cheat”?

Such a good question and so many answers. The question I hear from every single betrayed spouse I work with is the “Why?”

There are reasons, fairly well-understood reasons, and none of them bring comfort to the betrayed partner. But they are a good starting point when looking at what needs to be tweaked in the relationship and the betraying partner.

Some of the reasons I see are:

  1. The affair-involved spouse is looking for an exit to the relationship. Some people really struggle with ending relationships or feel they need someone to accompany them in the break-up process. We all have walls up to protect what we hold dear and the walls around that protect the relationship are down leaving room for an affair to bring comfort during a rough breakup.

  2. They want change in the relationship and have felt minimized, unheard, or have been too anxious/uncomfortable to ask for change so they, as I often refer to it, create an explosion that blows the relationship to bits (I don’t use the word bits). This is an unhealthy, messy way to begin the conversation about what they want different in the relationship.

  3. The connection of the relationship has been damaged or severed and the affair-involved partner is angry or resentful. Rather than continuing to try to repair the connection, they look for a separate, idealized connection.

  4. They are unhappy with who they are in the relationship and they find themselves having an affair and exploring new aspects to themselves. In the affair, they get to be sexually daring, bold, fun, young … And in the marriage, they get to be steady, reliable, predictable.

  5. There are also the affairs that stem from narcissistic traits, the “I want this so I deserve this” tendency. A bit of this trait is required for each type, but if there are repeated infractions over a long period of time, these traits typically play a larger part.

There are so many combinations of reasons, it’s very difficult to get to the bottom of the Why. It’s also an important piece to figure out if the couple would like to repair the relationship.

Recovery is an incredibly difficult process, but it is one that can be done successfully if both parties are willing to be open, vulnerable, and take risks.

If you’re asking the question, “Why did you cheat?”, it’s time to reach out. Figuring the answers out is a delicate process. Reach out now and let’s begin.

What Happens if You Stay After They’ve Cheated?

There are many different paths the betrayed partner can take.  In my experience, I see a few different outcomes for the betrayed spouse.  There are always outliers, but these are some common patterns.

First, occasionally is the spouse who stays in the marriage and also stays angry, resentful, and continues to punish their partner. This happens less often and the true outcome is two miserable people staying in a marriage out of fear or obligation.  These relationships can survive, but the betrayed partner may become highly controlling, short with their partner, and very unhappy.  

Or the betrayed partner will stay in the relationship but keep their emotional distance from their partner as a way to protect themselves. This is a relationship that looks great on the outside and even pretty good if you look a little closer. But there’s distance and a lack of true intimacy. With this path of recovery, I see two happy-ish people who are together in being lonely on the inside.  In these relationships, there is the potential for the betrayed partner to shift back into a connected relationship, but the willingness to open themselves back up the risk of trusting has to be present.  

These two outcomes happen less common and take intensive treatment to change.  The betrayed partner must have some willingness to accept this unwanted addition to their life story.  They don’t have to like it, but there must be an acknowledgment and acceptance that it is.  

And here’s the best, most common outcome I see. A couple will decide to be vulnerable, take risks, and stay in the discomfort that comes with recovery together. They realize the old marriage is gone and a new marriage has to be intentionally created. With these couples, I see the betrayed partner gradually become more themselves, more confident in their ability to survive very-bad-things, and proud of the work they’ve done to create a new relationship.

This partner uses the trauma of infidelity and changes the energy of the destruction to the energy of growth and creation. 

Oftentimes, the betrayed will exhibit many symptoms of PTSD after the discovery of betrayal.  They may experience:

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • No appetite

  • Nightmares

  • Clumsiness

  • Forgetfulness

  • Emotions that swing from one extreme to another

In the early stages of recovery, these are all normal.  

However, what I sometimes see in the end stages of recovery for the betrayed partner is:

  • A person more authentically engaged in their relationship

  • A person who knows they will survive if this happens again

  • A person who knows they have the strength to recover

  • A person who knows they have the drive to take charge of their life

These betrayed partners feel joy, contentment, and are glad they made the decision to attempt the repair.  

With therapy, talking with others, reading books, listening to podcasts, they learn to see the infidelity as something that belongs to their partner.  The cheat was something that did not have anything to do with them.  They see the infidelity not as demeaning or humiliating to them but saying speaking solely about their partner.  

Infidelity can demolish relationships and also be something that can be more than just survived.  For both partners.  

I don’t like to use ‘always’ or ‘never’ statements, but I will here.  No couple ever gets through recovery with complete grace.  There is always at least one moment that people look back on and think “yeah, I wish I had done that differently”.  Give yourself the gift of accepting your imperfections and accept, this process does not exist without a few moments you may wish you could take back.  

If you have this type of moment in your recovery, I find they become neutralized with apologies.  Owning your behavior and words, showing you are remorseful, and explaining how you’ll handle things going forward works to rebuild.  

If you’re on the fence about whether to stay or go, let’s talk. You don’t have to figure this out alone.