Cheating happens. And according to Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills-based family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, men are more prone to straying than women are.
Of course, they cheat for a multitude of reasons, because relationships — and people — are complex. “All kinds of variations and complications can come up in relationships,” Walfish says. “Relationships are the single most complicated [thing] to make work. It’s two people from two different families of origin, [and we] expect them to live harmoniously together under certain rules. It’s not easy!”
Generally speaking, however, the issues that lead to cheating fall into one of two categories: There’s either a problem with the relationship or a problem with the individual.
“Cheating is a symptom generally of relational problems, but sometimes cheating is indicative of an individual’s problem,” says Laurie Watson, sex therapist and host of the podcast Foreplay. “The philandering guy who’s got a girlfriend at every hotel for business, that’s a different kind of cheating than the man who has an affair with his colleague.” (And, it should be noted, neither of these are the same as the predatory cheaters who have dominated the news cycle as of late — Walfish says those types of men want to exert power and control subordinates or anyone less powerful than they are.)
If you’re currently trying to piece back a relationship, you might be wondering why your partner cheated in the first place — not that anything would excuse his behavior, and not that you shouldn’t still fantasize about engaging in some Carrie Underwood-style revenge. But in order to move forward, it helps to get to the root of the issue. Here are just a few potential causes:
1. He gets a rush from behaving badly …
People that cheat may simply like that it’s off-limits. “One reason people have affairs is that they get a high from the forbidden nature of cheating. Because it feels wrong, it feels good,” says Dr. Tammy Nelson, sex and relationship therapist and author of Getting the Sex You Want and The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity.
2. … Or he might be going through a “second adolescence.”
Feel like your partner is always making you out to be like…his mom? Is he hiding texts from you and trying to find ways to stay out late? That is a thing that can, unfortunately, happen — and it can be a reason for straying. “Some men cheat because they are struggling with what I call ‘second adolescence,'” Nelson says. “They ‘parentify’ their partner, sneaking around behind their backs, rebelling against the ‘rules’ of a committed partnership. These second adolescents are looking for separation and individuation, but want someone at home to make them feel secure.”
3. He may have narcissistic qualities.
If someone’s cheating, they may have an issue with empathy. “Anyone who cheats has a piece of narcissism to their personality,” says Walfish. (She says this is true for men and women.) “They’re not thinking about the impact of their own behavior on other people they love” — be it their partner, children, or the person they’ve become involved with.
4. There’s been a breakdown in communication.
“Typically, if someone’s cheating, it’s because needs aren’t being met in a marriage or relationship,” says Dr. Megan Fleming, licensed sex and relationship therapist. That can mean sexual needs — but it often means someone’s emotional needs aren’t being addressed.
Dr. Paulette Sherman, psychologist, author of Dating from the Inside Out and director of My Dating & Relationship School agrees: “If someone feels like their partner doesn’t care about their emotional needs or what’s happening with them on a daily basis anymore, they might try to find someone who appears more interested and excited about them.”
That said, it’s not on you to be his mind reader — it’s on him to be an equally communicative partner. If expressing needs and desires is difficult for him, it may be time for him to explore why with the help of a therapist.
5. He’s insecure.
“Many men may start to feel old and worry that life and adventure is behind them. Because of that, they want a woman who will make them feel young and like they’re at their prime again,” Sherman says. Walfish concurs that a man may simply be trying to puff up his self esteem.
6. He might not be built for monogamy.
Some people really do feel that they can’t be in monogamous relationships. “If you are in a relationship where your cheating partner claims they are not ‘naturally monogamous’ and they give you the ‘we are not born to be with one person’ speech, then it’s likely they are not ready, willing, or don’t have the capacity to mate with one person. And they might be telling you the truth, they might not be cut out for monogamy,” Nelson says.
You can explore the possibility of opening up your relationship, which is what some people do after affairs, Nelson says. But, there’s a catch. “To some partners, the ones who have been cheated on, an open relationship can feel like consensual infidelity,” she notes. “If the cheating partner is really asking to continue their infidelity, but with permission, this is not really an ‘open relationship.’ It’s not an open relationship when you are only using it as an excuse to keep seeing your affair partner.” Open relationships are also built upon trust and honesty — the very things that infidelity defies.
Watson says that plenty of ethical people cheat…and that they recognize that it’s bad. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to forgive them.
The path to healing is reliant on a few key things: true, authentic, genuine remorse, and a man taking ownership of his actions, says Walfish. A key word she emphasizes is “accountability.” That means really saying sorry, and making real, visible, drastic changes to the way he lives his life to positively impact his partner and the relationship. It’s also important to figure out whether the man is just sorry for how he feels or for how his life has been affected, or because it truly hurts him to see his partner hurting.
Nelson says that post-affair, people either “make up,” “break up,” or “wake up.” While infidelity can trigger a divorce, a marriage can emerge stronger once a couple works through it, assuming both parties want to repair the relationship.
“Whether couples can move forward after an affair depends on their values and ability to forgive and rebuild trust,” Sherman says. “Are both people willing to learn from it, communicate openly, and not cheat again when in pain? Will the cheater acknowledge his partner’s devastation and empathize with the hurt he caused? Many couples do continue to work on their marriage after the affair and decide to go to couples therapy for help earning back trust, improving communication and intimacy, and creating a shared vision going forward. Others may see it as a deal-breaker and not want to continue trying.”
In other words, like most of life’s challenges, this isn’t going to fix itself. Have an open and honest discussion with your significant other and decide whether his infidelity is something you can move forward from. Keep in mind that the solution won’t look the same for every couple — just because one couple opens up their marriage doesn’t mean you have to, and just because one woman lets her partner go doesn’t mean you have to do that, either. The one thing that does matter? That you feel like you’re going to be OK.
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