You may have heard by now about the Ashley Madison hack, which exposed the desire, or actual fulfillment of extra-marital affairs of millions of men and women (mostly men.) So why is it that people cheat? And, most importantly for many women we work with, how can you make sure that you aren’t dating or with a cheater, and how do you deal with your own cheating?
There are three main reasons why people cheat:
- They are in a relationship with someone who cannot fulfill a specific sexual desire (gender, activities, etc.)
- They aren’t actually monogamous.
- It is a coping mechanism they use to deal with difficulties in a relationship, or to end a relationship.
You may meet a woman who is, for instance, married to a man and isn’t willing to disclose that, but careful assessment will raise red flags (she never invites you to her home, she inconsistently contacts you, she’s choosing places to meet far from her home, etc.) These are red flags you should not ignore.
As to the second reason, the truth is, many (most?) human beings are not inherently monogamous. This may be more true for men than women (and that may be socialized, rather than inherent.) Our closest primate relatives, Bonobo Chimpanzees, are pansexual and polyamorous. In fact, monogamy is frequent in some animals (mostly birds,) but relatively rare in primates, our own order of mammals. Our culture assumes monogamy, and looks down quite strongly on polyamory, so it might be difficult for someone to really come around to understanding that they aren’t actually the monogamous type.
The third reason is probably the most common. Some people, when faced either with difficulties, conflicts and tension in a relationship, or with a dearth of physical intimacy, turn to having affairs when this happens. Some people do this serially (in other words, they do it in every relationship, and/or many times in a relationship,) and for some people, this is their way of ending relationships.
So how do you approach this? First, be really clear and honest with yourself and people you might date, or your partner, about your own orientation toward monogamy. And make a clear agreement with your partner about it. Some couples want to make clear agreements to be monogamous. Some couples are fully polyamorous, and some are “monogamish” – open to other arrangements if or when they arise. Get in touch with your own feelings about jealousy, and also notice if you tend to project onto your girlfriend or partner. Many women that we’ve worked with who have had affairs in the past are vigilant and fearful that their partner is going to have an affair.
When dating, if someone confides in you that they have had affairs in previous relationships, how they speak of it will tell you if it is a red, yellow, or green flag. If they say they have learned from it, understand what was underneath it, and they have worked through it, then it’s not so red anymore. But if they act as if it isn’t important to talk about, or isn’t a big deal, or they feel bad about it but haven’t delved into why it happened, then it’s still a red flag.
If you are someone who has cheated, get in touch with why you cheated. Understand that this is in your hands – you can make choices about it. Perhaps the choice is to find someone with whom you can be polyamorous. Or perhaps it’s learning how to cope with difficulties in relationships without using cheating as a mechanism to cope or end the relationship. Learning key relationship skills can make a big difference in how you can approach conflict or difficulties in a relationship.
Cheating is not necessary. You can have a happy, fulfilling relationship without significant conflict or tension, with the physical and emotional intimacy you want, and be completely honest with each other about your desires. You can learn to have this kind of relationship. We can help.