Infidelity: Why Do People Cheat?

Infidelity: Why Do People Cheat?

In the past few months we’ve learned about two high profile politicians who engaged in sexual misconduct. Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a child by one of his household staff members.  That was an 11 year old secret (really!?!) and was the coup de grace to his 25 year marriage to Maria Shriver. Then we got the inane antics of Congressman Anthony Wiener, who tweeted pictures of his penis to a number of young girls. This was followed by 5 days of indignant and heartfelt denials until he finally ‘fessed up (at least Arnold diminished the media frenzy by coming clean).

What are we to think? What causes otherwise rational and successful people to engage in behavior that is so self-destructive, not to mention so enormously painful to their families? In these cases there is the added failure to respect and protect the public trust, fueling an increasingly jaded population, who has come to regard their government (for a variety of reasons) with cynicism and distrust.

Infidelity is not the sole purview of men. Both genders can and do cheat. I see many couples in my practice where one of the spouses has engaged in some type of extra-relational infidelity. The “why” of it can be complicated to understand. Infidelity, in the absence of a different agreement, is always a betrayal no matter what the cause, and responsibility for the behavior must be taken by the transgressor. Nobody makes you cheat. The underlying problems, however, are often linked to relationship dynamics. Both partners must take responsibility for any factors that may have contributed to a deterioration of the primary relationship. 

Infidelity may be a result of too much distance or even too much closeness in the primary relationship. A relationship can feel too distant or too smothering and the presence of a third person can be a way to relieve that tension. If neither partner is addressing the quality of the connection, the stage is set for transgressing the fidelity boundary. Lack of attention to the quality of the primary relationship can also manifest as too much internet involvement in chat rooms or on porn sites, and that increases distance and the likelihood of an affair.  Finally, there is often a history of infidelity in the families of origin. Whatever the cause, there is almost always denial about getting caught, and certainly denial as to the enormity of the emotional destruction to the primary relationship.

Then there is the growing understanding of infidelity as a result of sexual addiction. As scientists are able to observe and measure chemical changes in the brain, addiction has moved firmly from a moral issue of self- control vs. indulgence, to a disease model that affects about 10% of the population. Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, gambling, food or sex, certain people are genetically predisposed to addiction, and given the right circumstances will find themselves dealing with powerful urges that can take over and ruin their lives.  Managing an addiction for these folks becomes a life-long struggle.

While the high-profile cheater may indeed have a sexual addiction, there can be another component to the behavior. That component is narcissism. Narcissistic infidelity is based on an over-inflated sense of personal entitlement. This is a type of narcissism often observed in powerful men (maybe in powerful women, too, but they seem to be more discreet!). These men often see themselves as special, and may feel entitled to operate outside of normal legal and ethical constraints. There may be a sense that the rules do not apply to them. They may feel that they are too special to get caught, or if caught, they imagine that they will be easily forgiven.  As the central figure of their own worlds, they may put their own impulses and needs ahead of their core values.  Self-gratification trumps fidelity and comes at the expense of the people who love and rely on them.

All of us contain a degree of narcissism. It is the dynamic that motivates us to take care of ourselves and to achieve. Therapists call this “healthy narcissism” and without it we would not go very far in the world. The boundary between healthy and unhealthy narcissism has to do with the recognition, or lack of recognition, of the inherent worth and value of others as being equal to our own. When we gratify ourselves at the expense of others, we fail as responsible partners and citizens, and we become destructive forces in our families and in the world.

Clearly the underlying dynamics of infidelity are complex. Each case is different and must be evaluated on a multitude of criteria. When it comes to public figures, we know the facts, but not necessarily the reasons why. When it comes to our own relationships, paying attention to the quality of our relationships, and not ignoring warning signs is probably the best insurance that we won’t find ourselves caught up in such a painful scenario. Whatever the reasons, infidelity is always very painful, difficult and sometimes impossible to recover from.