To cheat on a partner… You’ve done it, and now you’re falling into a place of confusion, exhaustion, and guilt and/or shame. Infidelity is a painful and lonely experience for both parties. So, why is it so common?
The statistics on infidelity vary, but one thing is sure: sometimes, people cheat. And when they do, they feel horrible about it.
You exclaim your love for their partner and want to make it work, but holding this with the reality of infidelity feels almost impossible. How is it that both could be true: You love your partner, and you cheated?
How many times have you had plans with someone that you were looking forward to, they cancel last minute, and you are furious? You brainstorm all sorts of reasons why: they’re rude, they’re inconsiderate. And yet… you had plans with them just a couple of weeks ago and you canceled. Does this mean you’re rude and inconsiderate? No, of course not. You were just sleepy. They know you meant well…
This is an example of the actor-observer bias. Humans tend to assign characterological flaws to others, while situational difficulties to themselves. This is natural and isn’t really an issue… until it is.
With infidelity, humans tend to think of a handful of reasons why to cheat on a partner was morally acceptable: “My partner has been too busy to pay attention to me lately,” “My partner cheated on me once before we were married,” “I think my partner is probably cheating, too.”
While these things may be true, the brainstorming of reasons makes it really difficult to 1. Take accountability, and 2. Explore the root of the issue, whatever that may be. Together, these two things make it much more likely that infidelity will perpetuate and grow.
You are your partner’s everything
You’ve probably heard that the institution of marriage was initially created to secure economic or political advantage. Marriage was foundationally just a stepping stone to get elsewhere in life.
Now, however, marriage is anything but. In Esther Perel’s book, Rethinking Infidelity, she helps her readers understand the crucial shift that has taken place in marriages. Instead of economic opportunity, a marriage now exists as a whole community tied up into one person/one relationship. We expect our partners to be our lovers, our parents, our friends, our leaders, our students, among other impossible roles.
Meanwhile, so many preach the institution of devotion, love, and complete security in a relationship. You watch romantic comedies or read books about how people devote everything to their “true love” or “soul mate,” and you hear your friends and family talk about how they were “meant to be” with their partner.
These conflicting messages can make our heads spin! While there is no right answer, a huge part of being in a healthy relationship is to acknowledge each other’s limitations. You cannot be someone else’s everything. This is healthy but needs to be communicated. Without communication, built-up pressure and/or disappointments are inevitable.
Lack of communication of needs
People are always talking about this one, right? How many times has a friend or loved one said something like “you just need to communicate better!” You hear this whether you cheat on a partner or not. And yet, this can feel harder than it sounds for a few reasons.
First and foremost, being in love and expressing your needs is vulnerable. Vulnerability feels a lot scarier to some people than it does to others, so it is really common to shut down and avoid. Second, some of us don’t always know what they’re feeling. This can come from nature or nurture and makes it very difficult to know what you want when you want it. And finally, it is possible that you and your partner did not create a safe space for needs expression.
Either way, check-in. Can you talk about your needs? Do you know what they are? And if you do, are you willing to take the risk of vulnerability and getting hurt to express them?
Something in your relationship isn’t working
Maybe your partner has been working more than usual recently. You haven’t seen them in a few days or weeks, and you’re overwhelmed with your own career and the kids.
Or, maybe you don’t feel wanted. You and your partner haven’t had sex in quite some time, and you’re beginning to feel they’re just not interested in you anymore.
Or… maybe it’s that you’re developing in your career, and your partner isn’t supportive.
Either way, something wasn’t working, and that’s most probably what made you cheat on a partner. Take a moment to assess: were you content prior to your infidelity, or was something missing or not working? Were you seeking for something that was missing elsewhere? Can you find this in your marriage?
So in the end
Take a step out of self-blame and shame. These patterns of thinking and feeling are not only uncomfortable, but they are doing a disservice to both you and your partner. They inhibit curiosity, which makes it impossible to explore the root of the infidelity, and makes it much more likely that the infidelity will happen again.
If you’re feeling stuck in this, give us a call! We specialize in helping you and your partner explore your relationship as a whole, where the foundation is cracked, and how to repair and heal what has been harmed.
Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW