Typically, when we hear about a man cheating on his committed partner, we assume there is a problem with the relationship, and that infidelity is symptomatic of these shortcomings. Much of the time, that is indeed the reality. But this cause and effect explanation of cheating doesn’t explain every instance of infidelity. In fact, countless cheating men can say they love their partner, they have a great relationship with their partner, they’re sexually attracted to their partner, the sex is good with their partner, and there are no obvious family, financial, or other issues pushing them away from their partner. The only real issue is that they’re cheating and they either can’t or don’t want to stop.
In her highly regarded book, The State of Affairs, Esther Perel states that infidelity is often symptomatic of a flawed personality or a flawed relationship – but not always. Some men are relatively emotionally healthy and in a relatively healthy and happy primary relationship, but still cheating. Perel suggests four possible reasons for this.
- Self-exploration: Searching for a new sense of self is the most powerful of Perel’s four reasons. For these men, cheating is a way to seek out a new (or a lost) identity. It is a way to explore never-before-experienced or long-repressed parts of themselves. Typically, these men don’t want to change who they are or anything major about their life, they simply want to escape those constraints for a short time. They want to feel young again, to explore, to learn new things about life. When these men cheat, they’re looking for themselves more than another person.
- The seductive nature of transgression: For many men, the excitement of sneaking around and ‘getting away with something’ is a bigger allure than sex or romance. They say they feel like teenagers again, chasing something exciting that they need to keep secret. They’re like small children stealing a cookie that their mother said they couldn’t have; the forbidden nature of the cookie makes it more desirable.
- The allure of a life not lived: Here, rather than the excitement of taboo and secrets, it’s regret over missed opportunities that draws cheating men in. They think about the one that got away, or the one that never was, or the life they could have if they’d made different choices. These thoughts cause them to feel limited by the life and relationship they’ve chosen, even when they genuinely enjoy that life and relationship.
- Feeling new (or exiled) emotions: Men can be especially vulnerable to the allure of new (or exiled) emotions, as they’ve often been told from early childhood onward to repress and not express their feelings. Basically, they’re taught to ‘man up’ and not feel. Unfortunately, as they do this, they tend to stifle joy and happiness as well as sorrow and pain. In such cases, the excitement of infidelity and the emotions that accompany that excitement are the drivers of infidelity.
Whatever the Reason, Cheating Hurts
Are some reasons for cheating better than others? From the perspective of the betrayed partner, probably not. To a betrayed partner, sexual betrayal is emotionally and psychologically painful regardless of the underlying cause. And for cheaters, there is never a good excuse for cheating. Whatever the underlying cause, choosing to cheat is not the answer. If there is a personal pathology, an underwhelming primary relationship, a desire for self-exploration, or any other reasoning for wanting to cheat, there are much better alternatives, such as communicating your feelings, entering individual therapy, and couples counseling, among other alternatives.
The good news is that infidelity is not fatal to a relationship, especially a relationship that is built on a strong foundation. If both partners want to restore relationship trust and rebuild intimacy, that is quite possible. For information about healing after infidelity, we suggest reading both The State of Affairs and Dr. Rob Weiss’s book, Out of the Doghouse. We also suggest the free podcasts, webinars, discussion groups, and blogs available through our affiliated website, SexandRelationshipHealing.com.