Why people cheat: The psychology of infidelity

What are the true motivations of people who cheat, and why do even happy spouses do it?

Esther Perel: So I wrote a book in which I wanted not only to look at infidelity from the point of view of the impact and the consequences but also from the point of view of the meanings and the motives.

Why do people do this? Why do people who often have been faithful for decades one day cross the line they never thought they would cross? What’s at stake? How do we make sense of this? How do we grow from that? Can it ever become an opportunity? Can a couple ever glean something that ultimately may strengthen it, rather than only seeing it from the point of view of the cataclysm?

To write a book where I try to understand infidelity doesn’t mean that I’m justifying it. And when one doesn’t condemn it, it doesn’t mean that one is condoning it. But this experience affects so many people. I have worked with hundreds, thousands of people who have been shattered by the experience of infidelity. And I thought there needs to be a better way that is more caring and more compassionate for the crisis that so many people face.

So at the heart of affairs, what is infidelity? That is the question people often ask me. How do I define it? And interestingly there is no universally agreed upon definition of infidelity. And, in fact, the definition keeps on expanding with the advent of the digital. What is it? Is it staying secretly active on your dating apps? Is it watching porn, but not when the other person is live? Is it massage with happy endings? Where is the line? It’s never been easier to cheat, and it’s never been more difficult to keep a secret. So this diffuseness is very much at the heart of trying to define it. But there are three elements that are always present. And the more important one, the constitutive element of an affair, is the fact that it is organized around a secret. The structure of infidelity is its secrecy. That is why it is such a major difference from the conversation about monogamy or consensual non-monogamy. Those are two separate realities.
So an affair is organized around the structured element called secret. The second element is that there is a sexual aura, an alchemy. Not necessarily the presence of sex itself; it’s not the bodily experiences, it’s the energy much more than the performance. And three, that there is an emotional involvement to one degree or another—from a deep love affair to even a transaction in which one pays for the other person to leave. But there is always a meaning to it. That is what I call the emotional involvement. Even when you try to make something mean nothing, it means a lot.

Our current model of thinking says if you have found “the one and only” it means that you’re willing to forego everything else for that person and you no longer miss anything else. If you have everything you need there is no need to go looking elsewhere. If you have gone to look elsewhere there must be something missing—either there’s something missing in you or in your relationship.

We are very wedded today to looking at infidelity and transgressions from a symptom perspective. It’s the symptom model. "There must be something wrong.” But I often was thinking that millions of people can’t all be pathological. So if it is not the case that it is always a symptom, what is it? And one of the great discoveries and surprises in my research for 'The State of Affairs' was to notice that people would come and say, “I love my partner; I’m having an affair.”

That sometimes people even in satisfying relationships also stray—and they don’t stray because they are rejecting their relationship or because they are reacting to their relationship. They often stray not because they want to find another person but because they want to reconnect with a different version of themselves.

It isn’t so much that they want to leave the person that they are with as much as sometimes they want to leave the person that they have themselves become. And what one reads in the book is that the more parts of yourself you can bring into a relationship, the less likely you may then be to go looking for the lost parts elsewhere. And that’s when I began to say, even people in happy relationships cheat as well. It isn’t always about the other or about the relationship.
At the heart of affairs you will find betrayal, lying and deception and loss. But you will also find yearning and longing and self-discovery and exploration. And it is those two experiences that make this most complex conundrum of infidelity: “What it did to you” and “what it meant for me”.

We all know what infidelity is, but a universal definition is difficult to carve out—especially in the digital age. Is watching porn cheating, or is it only cheating if the person on the other side of the screen is live? Each scenario is subjective, but psychotherapist Esther Perel crystalizes the three elements that lie at the heart of all cheating: secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotion—even if the person don't think so. Cheating is typically interpreted as a symptom of a bad relationship or of something lacking in a partner, however one of the biggest revelations for Perel in researching her latest book, The State of Affairs, was that happy people also stray. Even people in satisfying relationships find themselves crossing the line they never thought they would. So what gives? "They often stray not because they want to find another person but because they want to reconnect with a different version of themselves," she says. "It isn’t so much that they want to leave the person that they are with as much as sometimes they want to leave the person that they have themselves become." Esther Perel is the author of The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. See more at estherperel.com.

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