Why People Cheat
Author: Becca Edwards
Jessica” had been with her husband for 10 years when she had an affair. “I was not looking to be unfaithful,” she began and then paused and looked down at her ringless hands. “I had been out with my husband. He decided to go home early, and I decided to stay out. I met a guy and it just happened. He was so complimentary and sweet, and he made me feel [pausing again], comfortable.”
There were many signs—from the tone of her voice, to the thoughtful way she chose her words, to her mannerisms—that Jessica felt a tremendous amount of guilt. She said she had been going to counseling for several months to resolve her feelings, and when asked if she thought women felt guiltier than men about committing adultery, her answer was heartfelt.
“Sure, with women there is more of a stigma, but I don’t condone having an affair. I wish I hadn’t done it. I am devastated that I had the ability to hurt [my ex-husband] so much… and I am not sure if I’ll ever marry again, because I never want to hurt another person. I am scarred. I’ll feel guilty for the rest of my life, even if he is now in a better place.”
SECTION 16-15-60. Adultery or fornication.
Any man or woman who shall be guilty of the crime of adultery or fornication shall be liable to indictment and, on conviction, shall be severally punished by a fine of not less than one hundred dollars nor more than five hundred dollars or imprisonment for not less than six months nor more than one year or by both fine and imprisonment, at the discretion of the court. (www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t16c015.php).
The way we view adultery varies from culture to culture. It is punishable by death in some countries and, as in the case of South Carolina, punishable by imprisonment in some U.S. states. Yet other places and people refer to an extramarital affair as a “liaison”—a word that is defined as either “a person who helps organizations or groups to work together and provide information to each other,” or “a relationship that allows different organizations or groups to work together and provide information to each other,” or “a secret sexual relationship.”
If you look at the etymology of words synonymous with the word affair, you get equally interesting interpretations and lineages. For example, the word “infidelity” began in the fourteenth century and referred to an “unbelief in religion” and then took a more patriotic turn in the fifteenth century when it meant unfaithfulness or disloyalty to a sovereignty. It was not until the sixteenth century that the word began to be associated with personal relationships, but still was much more applicable to matters of church and state.\
Other synonyms and euphemisms include tryst, fling, rendezvous, secondary relationship, two-timing, hanky-panky, a bit on the side, fooling around, getting some strange, playing around, and dirty weekend.
Whatever we call it, regardless of our different backgrounds, belief systems and/or biases, we can all agree that, in the end, there’s nothing romantic about having an affair. It simply results in too much heartache for everyone involved. Therefore, the purpose of this article is not to defend or offend, but rather to dig a bit deeper and discuss the issue—because statistically people do cheat, and in increasing numbers. It is estimated that 22 percent of all married men and 14.7 percent (which is a 40 percent increase from 2010) of all married women engage in extramarital trysts. But why?
Morally objectionable vs. a feeling of excitement
Ask yourself: Which is more innate and/or louder, our morally objectionable inner voice or our “f**k it” inner voice? And moreover, why or when do we choose to listen to either one? Is it situational? Is it more dependent on the person?
Dr. Jocelyn Evans, who counseled my husband and me at our 15-year mark (and not because of infidelity, but because we believe in cleaning house every seven or so years), shared her insights.
“Most of the time, when someone cheats, people think they are scumbags; but that’s simply not true. I’m not trying to justify adultery, but we need to understand that infidelity is a symptom of something happening,” Evans said.
As she talked about the adrenaline rush and sense of youthfulness, sexiness and excitement that comes with an affair, I thought about everyone I know who has fooled around. And then I thought about people who haven’t acted physically upon their desires, but admit to anything from reminiscing about old flings, to fantasizing about co-workers, graduate professors, neighbors or the spouses of close friends. This then arouses the question, can we have emotional affairs? The answer, according to Evans is, “Yes. You are expending an emotion fantasizing about someone when you should be talking about it with your spouse.”
Evans went into more depth discussing social media and its wake. “We are living in an emotionally starved state,” she explained. “Everything is too quick, too fast. People are becoming numb.”
Listening to her, my mind first shifts to the farce existence often portrayed on Facebook (which can be anything from, “Oh, look at our beautiful family and our wonderful vacation!” to party pics that make us seem like quasi celebrities) and other social media platforms, to dating sites like eHarmony and Tender, to a site I discovered while researching for this article called Ashley Madison (which bears the tag: “Life is short. Have an affair.”).
According to Evans, social media is also causing us to be “over-sexed,” and much like the rowdy boys in Lord of the Flies, we are becoming desensitized. “When everything is out there,” Evans said, “it means sex and romance don’t always go together, and that’s a problem. Plus, it used to be that people got to know each other and then slept together. Now people are sleeping together to get to know each other.”
And that’s not the only cultural shift. Let’s start with the term “helicopter parenting.” Whereas past generations—like our parents—put more emphasis on the marriage, now we hyper focus on our children. We can get so bogged down in our children’s lives that we forget to give some love and attention to our sex lives and to sustaining a healthy relationship with our spouses. This, in turn, is detrimental to our children’s success.
“The most beneficial thing you can do for children is to respect your partner,” Evans said. “That gives them the tools to have healthy relationships.”
This brings us to another cultural shift—“platonic parenting.” Sites such as coparenting.com, modamily.com and familybydesign.com act like dating sites, bringing both heterosexual and homosexual people together, not to fall in love, to be intimate or to even live together, but to form a business-like partnership to raise a child. While I find this concept disturbing and fascinating all at once, I am forced to reflect on the dynamic shift in sexual identities and the constantly morphing modern family. I like to think of myself as a progressive person, but I would be remiss to not ask the question, “Could these ever-changing roles be causing marital instability?”
Another interesting factor is the Great Recession, which officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, and is still affecting not only our economy but also our families. According to the Department for Professional Employees, “In December 2014, there were over 73 million working women in the U.S. While women were just under half of the general workforce (47 percent), they represented a majority of those in professional and technical occupations (51 percent).” So not only are women entering the workforce at record numbers, but they are securing high paying positions. Equally noteworthy, a 2014 Pew Research Center study found that the number of stay-at-home-fathers has doubled since 1989 to over two million.
“There are two points to make here,” Evans said. “Women entering the workforce can be emasculating for men, and more women in the workforce means more exposure to men.”
Aside from the fact that financial insecurity is one of the leading causes of infidelity, there are two other economy-related pieces of the infidelity puzzle. First, transient jobs. Thirty-five percent of men and women admit to infidelity on business trips. Second, the cost of divorce. With finances already strained from the recession, people are more likely to stay in a failing marriage and have a lover.
Psychological factors and gender differences
Of course, there are some contributing factors to adultery that are age old. Children whose parents cheated are more likely to cheat because of “repetition compulsion,” a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again.
There is also the concept of “family of origin” and it refers to the significant caretakers and siblings that a person grows up with, or the first social group a person belongs to, which is often a person’s biological family or an adoptive family.
“Family of origin has a huge impact,” Evans said. “People tend to imitate the relationship they had with the parent they had the most conflict with. They subconsciously gravitate to the same people with hopes of creating a different ending.”
And then you have gender differences. During our first year of marriage shakedown, my husband and I went to see a marriage counselor. At the conclusion of our first session, he looked at us and said, “You really don’t need me. You need to read this really cheesy but true book called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.” So we did. And what we learned was not rocket science, but a latent logic—women and men are different.
“Men want respect, women want attention,” Evans said. “If there is a breakdown in either need, people can and will stray.”
When I asked Jessica why she had her affair, she was forthright. “I needed an escape, and I don’t mean take a cruise for a week. I think ultimately we needed to get divorced, but I regret the way it happened. I wish I had never hurt [my ex-husband]. I don’t condone cheating in any way shape or form, but I understand now why it happens, and it happens more than you think.”
Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer and owner of b.e.WELL+b.e.CREATIVE (bewellbecreative.com).