Why Do People Cheat on Spouses and Partners?

A Q&A With LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS.  Psychologist and Lic. Clinical Social Worker

Q:  Dr. Wish, you have counseled couples for many years.  What are the top reasons that men like Tiger Woods cheat?

A:  It’s a good question-especially since recent headlines about cheating men include celebrities such as Tiger Woods and David Letterman.   The heart of the question, though, is why does anyone cheat?  It would be so simple to say that there is a “type” of person who cheats.  The roots of cheating lie in a person’s unique combination of early childhood environment, temperament, later experiences and the coping mechanisms that the person uses to deal with life’s anxiety and disappointments.

Q:  Could you give some more details about this combination?  And are we all capable of cheating?

A:  We all have human failings, so, yes, in theory, we all have the capacity to cheat.  But not all people who are unhappy in love end up cheating.  An imaginary, perfect recipe for a cheater would be:

  • One gallon of a childhood that included parents who fought, separated, divorced and had multiple partners and who neglected, rejected, abandoned or abused the children.
  • Another gallon of a parent who expected too much or too little-and seriously over-favored or under-favored the child (When parents over-favor or over-invest in a child, the child can grow up to feel entitled and invincible-and, paradoxically, UNABLE to live up to such high standards.  When parents under-favor a child, that child might grow up searching for too much approval.)
  • Two gallons of a childhood with a parent who cheated and was emotionally distant and who demonstrated a lack of respect and trust in men, women, marriage, intimacy and the world in general.
  • About half a gallon of an anxious, defensive, hyper-active or addictive personality that cannot self-sooth.
  • Another half gallon of poor coping mechanisms such as anger, avoidance, withdrawal, substance abuse or denial.
  • Two to four cups of disappointments and betrayals in love in adulthood.
  • One cup of a marriage or relationship that was entered into too quickly, after the death of a loved one or at a critical life phase such as women hearing their biological clock ticking or men feeling that the “next step in life” is to get married.

Q:  Fascinating.  So what are the top reasons that a man or woman cheats?

A:  Here is a good list: People cheat:

  1. To get a sense of feeling valued and appreciated that they can’t get in their relationships.
  2. To fill the bottomless “hole in their soul” that got dug early in their childhood.
  3. To feel alive and vital.
  4. To “tempt fate” and live “on the edge”.
  5. To get back at their partners for their cheating.
  6. To satisfy a sexual addiction.
  7. To “heat up” a dead relationship emotionally and rock the boat to get an emotional response from their partner.
  8. To create emotional distance in their relationship and protect themselves from getting hurt or too close.
  9. Because they’ve used cheating as a way to reduce their unhappiness in the past.
  10. To relieve anxiety stemming from current life situtations such as financial woes or death of a loved one.
  11. Because they never really made a commitment to the relationship.
  12. Because, unconsciously, they want to end their current relationship and don’t have the emotional courage to discuss and manage their unhappiness more maturely.
  13. Because they’re high on drugs and act impulsively.
  14. Because they are self-destructive.

Q:  Do married women cheat less than men?

A:  Statistics vary-after all, they’re based on people telling the truth about their love life!  But, in general, about 20 to 30 percent of men cheat, and about 20 to 23 percent-and climbing-of women cheat.

Q:  Are there some common scenarios that a marriage counselor could spot, if for example, a dating couple came in for counseling before or during the marriage?

A:  I would tell counselors to “trust their gut reactions.”  If the “picture doesn’t make sense” to you, perhaps cheating is involved.  There is not necessarily one magic clue that someone is cheating. Often, the “proof” rests on many hints. Here are some behaviors for counselors to observe:

  1. One of the persons doesn’t want to attend therapy sessions.
  2. The couple doesn’t do their homework or cancels appointments often.
  3. You learn from their history that one of the partners:
    • Is absent a lot, always has  meetings-especially late ones at work (long hours working together often breeds intimate relationships)
    • Has changed their sexual behavior
    • Suddenly seems “different”
    • Doesn’t have the same amount of money to spend on the family, is short money or pays the credit card in installments suddenly
    • Locks the cell phone
    • Has unusual charges on the credit card bill
    • Is on the Internet alone and late at night
    • Ends phone conversations abruptly and is evasive about them
    • Doesn’t have as much energy or commitment to the family
    • Wants to postpone the wedding
    • “Forgets” birthdays and anniversaries
    • Lavishes gifts on the spouse or partner suddenly
    • Insists on a great distraction such as having a late in life child or building a home suddenly

But remember-there ARE people who are masters of disguise.  We’d all like to think that “we’d know if our partner were cheating on us.”  Yet, we all can be fooled.

Q:  Is this behavior ever an indicator of who has the most power, i.e., one spouse is wealthy and the other is not?

A:  People of all incomes cheat. Wealth and fame, however, seem to increase opportunity by attracting more willing adventurers!

Q:  Are women more likely to stay in the marriage if their husband cheats versus a husband remaining in a marriage if the wife cheats?

A:  Again, statistics vary, but roughly a quarter to a third of marriages recovers from infidelities. Men do, it seems, have greater difficulty dealing with their partner’s sexual indiscretions.  Women tend to be more forgiving when the “other women” are prostitutes, one-night stands and so-called “it-didn’t-mean-anything-and-I’m-so-sorry” encounters.  However, both men and women struggle greatly to manage the emotional pain of knowing their partner had a longer term love match.

History, however, is filled with women who “stood by their man” regardless of the level of intimacy that the man had with other women. These women go through an emotional review of their unique relationship “balancing act.”  They ask themselves, “Do the benefits of staying out-weigh the advantages of leaving?”

Q:  Is the quality of a marriage ever the same after a spouse cheats?

A:  The road to healing is often a long and difficult one.  Some marriages are able to use the affair as a serious “wake up call.”  It takes a tremendous amount of maturity and commitment to integrate successfully this jarring experience.  In many ways, discovering that your partner has been cheating is a form of trauma.  The revelation shatters the peaceful assumptions about trust in the world, love, yourself and others. Time and new behavior are the best medicine.  Counseling can also be very valuable.  It’s helpful for counselors to address this sense of a whole world of security and safety being blown to bits.

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, MSS  is a social worker based in Sarasota, FL. She has been a speaker for non-profit, corporate and university organizations. Dr. Wish offers sound, research-based relationship advice that makes sense — specializing in issues such as smart dating, women’s relationship advice, career coaching, healthy families, sexual dysfunction, and leadership training.  Dr. Wish is a Columnist, “Relationship Realities” and Member of the Advisory Board of Quality Health.com, a Top Ten Health site.

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The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, D.C., is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world with nearly 150,000 members in 56 chapters throughout the United States and its territories. It promotes, develops, and protects the practice of social work and social workers. NASW also seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.

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