Why Spouses Cheat?
I lead a group on Monday nights with a group of clients who have cheated on their wives by engaging in affairs, sexting, pornography, prostitution (nicely called escorting) and other forms of sexual or emotional affairs, i.e. acting out. We typically discuss ways to build the trust back with their wives and talk about current challenges. This past week, I challenged the group to explain the infamous “why question.” Why did you do it? What were you thinking that caused you to betray your spouse and your wedding vows? How long did you think you could get away with it before your spouse found out?
The room fell silent, dumbstruck at these penetrating questions. The, off the cuff. answer was, of course, “I don’t know!” So, in digging deeper we began to explore other possibilities like the need for connection, loneliness, “it’s my wife’s fault,” “it’s only sex, not a “real” emotional relationship (until it became emotional, now what do I do?). The denial was deafening. Did you feel entitled, justified in your actions for some reason? Possibly!
I began to ponder the answer to this question and would like to share some of my perceptions with you and get your feedback. Lori Gotleib, a writer and psychotherapist in private practice, writes in New York Magazine, 5/1 1/17, that when a client comes to her office and mentions sexual infidelity (confirmed or suspected) her first instinct is to wonder what other infidelities may be present in the marriage. Not sexual infidelities but the more subtle ways of straying from the partner that can threaten the marriage. She says that most people have affairs not because they’ve found someone else hotter or more perfect, but because affairs make people feel alive and seen, counteracting feelings of numbness or disconnection. All of these more subtle issues, like pornography, alcohol, or a drug problem are ways of coping with what we can’t bear any longer; feelings of loneliness, blandness, unfulfillment in a career, choices we’ve made, depression or anxiety. According to Gotleib, “an affair is often a way of working through a loss. Cheating is most common within a few years of a major loss – job, parent, youth, illness, freedom, intimacy or vitality.”
My approach in counseling is to explore what the relationship was like before the infidelity and the trauma and constant pain now endured by the betrayed spouse, giving her or him the support they need as they move through trying times toward reconciliation or divorce. I normalize the trauma, instead of pointing the finger at the irrationality of having to know every detail about what happened, with who, how many times, etc. This just causes more traumatic reactions in the betrayed partner; nevertheless she is still grieving which is perfectly normal.
So, while there may be underlying causes for infidelity in the relationship, that is no excuse for the choices partners make in breaking the trust in the relationship by having a sexual or emotional affair with someone else. It is not the spouse’s fault that the partner stepped outside the boundary of fidelity, yet there may be more subtle infidelities in the relationship which could have played a factor.