“Is my boyfriend cheating?” “Am I cheating?” “How do I catch my girlfriend?” “Why can’t I have my fun and my wife too?” “What are the signs?” “How do I confront her?” “How do I talk to him?” Over half of the letters I receive every week are questions about cheating and what to do about it. The stories are achingly familiar tales of betrayal, outrage, disappointment, fear, and sadness. Some people torture themselves and each other as they try to work through their suspicions and broken trust. Other people haven’t a clue that they are inadvertently supporting their partner’s affairs. Some relationships make it. Lots don’t. At least some are lost unnecessarily.
The Rules: When, exactly, is it cheating?
Unfortunately there is no “cheat-o-meter” that gives a clear answer to whether or not something is a “cheat”. There are two factors, though, that are common to all the troubled couples I’ve known:
It Breaks the “Contract”
Every relationship has a spoken or on-spoken “contract” about what is and what is not okay regarding sexual fidelity. If I’ve learned only one thing in 35 years of doing couple counseling, it’s this: It’s pointless to try to identify a particular arrangement that will make all couples happy for evermore. People are much too unique for that. Some couples agree to always be sexually faithful and to reserve all intimacy for their own special relationship. Others are fine with each having very intellectually intimate and deep friendships but draw a boundary around all things sexual. Still others are fine with sexual liaisons with others as long as both members of the couple are aware of the affairs and give the okay. Whatever their agreement, the key to happiness lies in a couple’s mutual commitment to honor and respect their own unique contract. Being committed to that commitment as well as to each other is what keeps couples stable and reasonably happy over the long haul. When one person unilaterally breaks the contract, however the couple has defined it, it’s cheating.
It’s a Secret
It doesn’t matter how it is rationalized, excused, or explained: If one person in a couple is keeping a secret about deviating from their special contract, it’s “cheating”. If one person deceives the other about another relationship that threatens the couple’s commitment to each other, it’s cheating. Whether a direct lie or avoidance of the truth, it’s cheating. Although contracts differ, the basis of a good relationship doesn’t. Relationships that last require trust and honesty.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to define cheating (or having an affair) as any sexual relationship that is secret and outside the couple’s agreement.
To the Cheater: Why do you “cheat”?
Wake up Call
Some affairs really are kind of accidental. These fall into the category of a “wake up call”. Feeling distant from your partner and unsure how to fix it, you reached for or responded to a good friend with whom there’s an attraction. You feel surprised, upset, and guilty about what has transpired but you’re also relieved to finally feel less alone. Is this cheating? Yes, absolutely. But in this case, your slip into a sexual encounter and your feelings of guilt and sadness may be a wake-up call that something has gone terribly wrong with your coupledom or marriage. If you still love your partner and still value the life you share, this kind of cheating is more about an unconscious move to tell yourself and your partner that you can’t ignore what is wrong in the relationship any more if you want to save it. Wake up calls only happen once. More than once? See below.
Issues of Character
Other explanations for cheating are more about self-centeredness, immaturity, dishonesty, or just plain meanness. These are issues of personal character, or rather, the lack of character. Here are some of the dishonorable reasons behind cheating.
You’d think that a commitment to being sexually faithful would be clear enough. But sometimes people who want to follow their impulses twist their thinking so they don’t have to acknowledge what they are up to. You minimize what happened. You make excuses. You blame the other person. You pretend that you weren’t really straying; just playing. Go back to the rules. Is it a secret? Did you break your contract? Is trust jeopardized? Yes to any of these? It doesn’t matter how you justify it or what you call it. You’re cheating.
Are you an excitement seeker? Do you always head for the roller coaster instead of the merry-go-round? Let’s face it: The beginning stages of any relationship, especially a relationship with sexual overtones, are exciting. Maybe you also find the breathless drama of sneaking around, barely getting caught, and pulling something off intoxicating. But it’s also unfair. In order to get the adrenaline boost that comes with sneaking, there has to be a victim – the person you are sneaking away from. There’s nothing wrong with liking excitement but there’s a whole lot wrong with betraying your partner to get it. A decent person will either find an extreme sport to feed the endorphin addiction or find a partner who also gets off on the drama of cheating.
To talk about morals can seem old-fashioned these days. In a time of situational ethics, it’s sometimes hard to know just what virtue and goodness mean. Are you clear about what is right and wrong? Are you clear that you should treat others as you expect to be treated? Do you believe that promises to be faithful should be kept – no matter what? People who are morally confused can talk themselves into just about anything – even cheating.
A boundary is a circle of trust that a couple draws around itself. The couple agrees that certain behaviors are reserved just for themselves and no other. If one person allows that boundary to blur, the couple can end up in trouble. For example: When both people in a couple work outside the home and especially when that work is intensely demanding and interesting, partners can easily start to spend more quality time and more creative energy with co-workers than with each other. The slope from co-worker to friend to lover can be a slippery one indeed if you don’t have clear boundaries and a clear moral compass. It’s flattering if an attractive person makes a pass. It may be hard for your partner to fully appreciate how brilliant and interesting you are at work when she or he is relegated to the more mundane aspects of your life (paying bills, disciplining kids, dealing with house repairs). But if you justify moving from intellectual sparring to secret sexual intimacy with a colleague or friend, you’re cheating.
Think it’s Normal
Up until recently, this thinking was more true of men than women but it’s beginning to change. If you come from a family where philandering is just what men do, you may not realize that your wife doesn’t agree with you. Once a man told me that at his father’s funeral, many women found a chance to privately talk to him about what a wonderful man his father was, how he had “helped them” feel sexually attractive and interesting and how important he had been in their lives. Having always sought his dad’s approval, he also tried to be a man as his father was, “helping” lonely women. Never mind that his mother ended up stoic and bitter. Never mind that his wife felt threatened by every woman he befriended. To him, being a real man meant being quietly but frequently unfaithful. In each case, father and son broke the contract with the woman he married. They were cheating.
Similarly, there are men who have been raised to believe that they should have two women in their lives: the wife at home who raises the children and a mistress who is available to be centered entirely on him. In some cases, the man may not even really want a mistress (they are expensive) but he lives in a world where he and other men expect that he will have a paramour. In some cases, the wives accept (even if they don’t like) the deal. But if she doesn’t accept it, if you promised to love and honor and keep it exclusive, you’re cheating.
The winner gets the girl (or guy), right? Some people feel they “deserve” to have more than one sexual partner. Maybe you have an idea that you are so special that no one person could possibly fulfill all your needs. Or maybe you believe that with success comes the bonus of not having to follow the societal rules of the rest of us. Back to basics. Does your partner disagree? Are you sneaking? Then you are cheating.
A “Gift” to the Partner
Perhaps you really want your commitment to a partner to end but want to inflict as little pain as possible. Maybe you are the kind of person who is willing to sacrifice your own reputation rather than hurt a perfectly nice person you find you just don’t love. You cheat. You get found out. Your partner gets to be the one to leave in righteous outrage instead of being left. Friends side with your wronged spouse. You get out of the relationship, feeling virtuous for having spared your partner’s feelings and feeling martyred for letting yourself be labeled as the cad.
A “Set up” for the Partner
Alternatively, maybe you are one of the mean-spirited people in the world. Such a person doesn’t want to deal with the stigma of being the one to break up a family or perhaps wants to really hurt the spouse. So you set up your partner by arranging to reveal an affair in a way the partner finds so humiliating that she or he has to leave but can’t share the reasons why with others. Ironically, you get the sympathy. You get to act like the wronged party who was left by an unreasonable spouse. Your partner is left hurt and with no support.
To victim of cheating: What’s going on with you?
Wake up Call
Sometimes it’s true that the partner of a cheater is an innocent victim. She or he made a commitment that the partner betrayed. In that case, the therapeutic work focuses on what the cheater was up to and whether it is possible for the victim and the couple to move past it. The major obstacle to this work is the broken trust. It’s an enormous challenge to rebuild trust with someone who has already proven he or she can break a vow. But when the crisis shows both people how much they really do want to be together, the marriage can be salvaged. With honest work, time, and a recommitment to each other and to the contract between you, it can be done.
Another kind of wake up call is when you, the victim, have to admit that you had a part in letting the relationship slide but regret it. For example: You know there has been distance in your relationship. You know you haven’t been giving it a hundred percent. You’ve let your relationship suffer from not-so-benign neglect. Perhaps you’ve made excuses for yourself as you have made your relationship less and less of a priority. At some point, you think your partner may even be having an affair or you’re tempted to have one of your own. To your surprise, it saddens you beyond measure. This is the wake up call for you. It’s possible to recommit to your partner and put more time and energy into making it work. Talking about it can be an important opportunity for the two of you to appreciate what you almost lost and redouble your efforts to make your marriage whole.
Sometimes it takes two to break a vow. Sometimes, though, the “Cheat-ee” has a role in an affair that is not so innocent. There are situations where the “victim” either inadvertently contributes to her (or his) own victim-hood or actively takes part in “helping” the partner turn into a cheater. This is not a case of “blaming the victim”. Rather, it is a recognition that sometimes unconsciously, or even consciously, the apparent victim played a part. Not too surprisingly, the same dynamics often apply to these willing, if unconscious, victims as to the cheaters themselves.
You have evidence your partner is cheating but you don’t want to deal with it. You hate conflict. You hate to be embarrassed. So you make excuses; lots of excuses. You lie to yourself and you lie to well-intended people who try to help. You help your partner keep his or her secret and by doing so help him or her break your contract. In your reluctance to deal, you help keep it going and probably help make things worse than they have to be.
Sometimes roller coaster riders find the perfect companions. The thrill of the hunt can create quite an adrenaline surge. You look for signs of cheating. You shock your family with speculations and revelations. You look for sympathy from your friends. There is drama and excitement in trying to catch your partner in a lie or in the act. But it’s also unfair. In order to get the adrenaline boost you have to help the cheater keep cheating. So you don’t ever find quite enough damning evidence or you have hysterical fights that never get resolved.
Sometime partners of cheaters find themselves questioning their own moral code. The cheater accuses the partner of being uptight, a prude, or not fun. Rather than be outraged, you get confused! Am I uptight? Am I old-fashioned? He/she always comes home so maybe it’s not a big deal. Stop! It is a big deal. Go back to basics. Did the two of you make a promise that you would stay true to your contract? Has your partner broken your trust? If so, the problem isn’t your attitude or the morals you were raised with. Your problem is that you are letting your moral compass get clouded instead of holding on to what you believe to be true. You’ll eventually come to your senses but while you are figuring out that you have a right to ask that promises be kept, you are unwittingly helping your partner cheat.
Boundaries that overlap too much can be just as destructive to a relationship as boundaries that are too permeable. Unable to manage time alone, too scared to venture into the world as a separate person, or too distrustful to believe in a partner’s fidelity, this kind of individual crowds and isolates his or her partner. Maybe you’re a woman who doesn’t feel whole unless you are with your man. Or maybe you’re a man who can’t bear to have another man even look at, much less be a friend to, your wife. If you are trapping your partner by your extreme need for exclusivity of all time, energy, and attention as well as for the special intimacy you promised each other, he or she may respond to someone who offers to set him or her free.
Think it’s Normal
Up until recently, this thinking was more true of women than men but it’s beginning to change. Perhaps your mother was a martyr to your father’s cheating. Perhaps there is a long tradition in your family of women putting up with philandering men because they believed they couldn’t survive on their own. Certainly there are lots of messages in the media that cheating is normal. Some women (and, more recently, some men) hate that the partner is having an affair but feel that it is just how it is. If you are this kind of person, you always expected that promises of fidelity would be broken. You contribute to your own sadness by accepting your partner’s affairs out of the conviction that only a rare few get to have a really committed relationship and that you can’t expect to be one of them.
This is the flip side of entitlement. So insecure in your own value, you can’t believe that someone would be faithful to you. You cling. You constantly look for reassurance. You quietly, or maybe not so quietly, demand all of your partner’s time and attention. In your anxiety, you are constantly on the alert for signs of betrayal. Your partner may feel increasingly crowded, exasperated, and tired of justifying him or herself. It’s a hard way to live. If a supportive, undemanding person comes along and the partner is worn down, he (or she) may try to get some breathing room by having an affair.
A “Gift” to the Partner
Recently, I’ve received some letters from women (and a few men) who really don’t want a sexual relationship even though they love their partners. These people are relieved that their partners have found a sexual outlet (internet sex, porn, an affair) elsewhere. If you’d like the relationship without the sex, looking the other way while your partner has an affair may seem to be an answer. In this sense, you think you are giving both of you a gift. He or she gets sex. You don’t have to deal with it. There are problems, of course, with this solution. The partner is driven into becoming a cheater and may feel horrible about it. And there’s always the chance that he or she will fall in love with the paramour.
A “Set up” for the Partner
Alternatively, maybe you are one of the mean-spirited people in the world. Such a person doesn’t want to deal with the stigma of being the one to break up a family or perhaps wants to really hurt the spouse. So you set up your partner by looking the other way and giving the impression that you approve of his or her affair. Then: Gotcha! You catch him or her in the act and let everyone, I mean everyone (family, friends, the boss), know how wronged you are. You get all the sympathy – and probably more of the assets.
What Do I Do?
Can a relationship be salvaged once the couple’s contract has been broken? The honest answer is that it depends on the couple’s desire to be a couple. With a willingness to be honest with self and partner, hard work, and the healing passage of time, couples can come back from the brink. But both people have to be committed to the process. A single person can’t save a couple relationship anymore than one person can shake hands without the cooperation of the person they want to shake hands with.
The place to begin is, as always, with yourself.
To the cheater: If you are the one who strayed, you need to take full responsibility for it. Your partner didn’t make you do it – no matter how difficult he or she can be. If you were unhappy, the honest thing to do would have been to say so and work out a separation, a divorce, or a new “contract”. You didn’t have to have an affair to make a change. It’s time to take a hard look at yourself and acknowledge what beliefs or personal issues led you to break the most basic of promises. Are you willing to confront yourself? Are you willing to bear your soul to your partner and make a commitment that doesn’t have an escape clause? If so, you may be able to salvage this relationship (if your partner will have you) or make a better one the next time around.
To the innocent victim: Your challenge is to refuse to be further victimized. It is absolutely within your right to insist on a genuine apology. You didn’t have a say in the breaking of your contract. For your relationship to survive, you must have a say in what happens now. What do you need from your partner in order to rebuild your trust? What kind of time do you need to heal? If you can clearly assert those needs and your partner can respond to them, your relationship still has a chance.
To the not so innocent victim: On the other hand, if you have been up to some mischief yourself, honesty requires you to acknowledge it. In your case, you and your partner are both to blame; your partner for cheating and you for covertly supporting it. Is your desire for the relationship at least as big as your fears? Can you squarely face old issues of insecurity, moral confusion, or a misguided need for drama? If so, your relationship has a chance.
Understanding Comes Next
The next step is equally difficult: Each of you must take a step back and try to dispassionately understand your partner’s point of view. You can’t fix the relationship unless you have some understanding of both sides. In my therapy sessions, I often ask each partner to convincingly and sympathetically argue the other’s position. The point is to help each partner walk in the other’s shoes in order to gain a broader perspective on what went wrong. Perhaps one or more of the reasons listed earlier in this article rings true. It’s okay to make guesses as long as you each let your partner refine your thinking. You’ll probably learn things about each other that you didn’t know or fully appreciate before.
Recontracting the Relationship
Finally, it’s time for that difficult talk; actually many difficult talks. Remember that you are not in a judicial process. You are attempting to heal your relationship. A judicial process involves accusations, anger, digging for “truth” and exacting punishment. Healing involves understanding what happened from both people’s perspective, allowing room for the sadness and hurt, but then redirecting your focus to what you want to do to make your relationship better.
Both of you need to ask yourselves whether you have been clear about your own expectations of yourself and your partner. You each need to develop a deeper understanding of the other’s needs and assumptions about relationships. Appropriate apologies must be made and accepted. Issues of trust and respect have to be clearly addressed. This is the kind of discussion that needs several attempts before it will be done.
Have patience. With issues as tender as love, trust, and commitment, it will take a few rounds before each of you has said what really needs to be said. It will take more than a few rounds for each of you to believe that you have been really heard. Once you’ve talked it through, you will each have the information you need to decide whether you want to try again or separate.
There are really only three possible outcomes:
Abandonment of the Relationship: Some couples decide that their differences and hurt are just too great and separate. Bent on revenge, some people only want to hurt back. Others, too discouraged and shamed to try, sadly give up. Still others find that when they get down to it, the assumptions of the two are so disparate they are irreconcilable. Couples in this group usually end up in lawyer’s offices, trying to sort out through the law what they couldn’t do through conversation with each other. Some people end their relationship sad but wiser. Others never give up their bitterness.
Maintain a painful status quo: Still others can’t stand the idea of exposing themselves to the kind of honest scrutiny that healing work requires and/or can’t stand being seen as a “failure” in marriage. They avoid or abort the conversation and go on living in quiet bitterness and disappointment, becoming more and more distant from each other. Yes, they stay together or married. No, they are not happy.
Make change: Some couples find the courage and wisdom to work on a healing journey on their own. They do the work, manage their feelings, and recommit. Through the experience they learn more about themselves and more about life. As a result, the couple is stronger, if less innocent. They are able to move on, focusing on the present and future.
Other couples want desperately to stay in the relationship but find themselves stuck in an impasse. Committed to their commitment and to each other, they look for help. These couples make an appointment with a marriage therapist. The therapy room, the regular therapy meetings, and the support of the therapist provide a safe haven for working through painful but necessary discussions. Because therapists see many, many couples over the years, they can often offer useful, practical suggestions for getting unstuck. Because they are professionals, they know how to stay objective but kind. Because they know how to be non-judgmental, they can also help the couple resolve feelings of shame and anger. When the work goes well, either the couple will find their way back to each other or they will agree to separate, but without the rancor of those stuck in hurt and revenge.
In Spite of it All, We Still Believe in Love
Sadly, we live in a time when it seems that the world conspires against relationships. Celebrities change partners as often as they change fashions. Most people marry but over 50% of those marriages in the USA end in divorce. The children of those divorces don’t have a model for what it means to work through differences and recommit over time. But by junior high these same kids look for boyfriends/girlfriends as a certification that they are popular and mature. Popular songs normalize cheating. Country songs speak to its pain. The U.S. culture claims to value marriage but then bars a significant group from doing it. In the USA, we’re really confused!
None the less, there is something in the human condition that desires above all else to love and be loved; to be special to at least one other person; to build a life and a history and a safe haven from the stresses of the world, to provide a safe nest for raising our children. It still matters enough that advice columns like mine receive plaintive requests for help from those who are doing their best to find that special someone who can be trusted to stay true. It still matters enough that issues around the meaning of marriage are part of the political debate. It’s a good effort. Being in a committed relationship over a long period of time is one of the most rewarding and deepening things people can do.
P.S. About kids and cheating:
Many of the letter writers want reassurance that finding out about a parent’s affair won’t affect their children. To do the topic justice is beyond the scope of this article but it would be a disservice to not at least acknowledge that the issue looms large. Suffice to say that whether the marriage/relationship survives or ends, the consequences for kids are multiple and often sad. Not only do the kids lose the family they thought they had, but their model of a committed relationship now includes duplicity and betrayal. Depending on how the adults handle it, they may also observe a model of appropriate shame, forgiveness, and problem-solving. Some kids are resilient enough to deal with their feelings and manage the situation. Others vow to themselves that they will never, ever let love fail. Many conclude that love doesn’t last and commitment doesn’t work. Having watched one of their parents get terribly hurt, they decide never to set themselves up for the kind of pain and avoid commitment. Alternatively, they might conclude that it’s better to be the hurt-er than the hurt-ee and take the role of the cheater. In some cases, it takes several generations for the reverberations of cheating to get worked back out of a family.