“I was stuck…”
“I was lonely…”
“I was cheated on first…”
“I was drunk and horny…”
“It was new and undefined...”
“I was still processing trauma…”
“I was depressed and anxious…”
“I don’t know why I cheated, exactly.”
We recently took to our Instagram to ask our community if they’ve been cheated on, if they have cheated themselves, and if they did, why did they cheat? Almost 4,000 people responded (thank you!) and we found that 47% of our sample had been cheated on, and 33% had cheated themselves. These numbers are too high to believe that the act of cheating is uncommon, despite it being an act that is associated with deep shame, regret, and isolation. In fact, Psychology Today has reported that more than 90% of Americans believe infidelity is unacceptable, yet 30 to 40% of people have cheated at some point in their lives. Additionally, a national survey conducted by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy claims that 15% of married women and 25% of married men have had extramarital affairs, and this number is 20% higher if you include emotional and sexual affairs that do not include the physical act of intercource. To borrow a line from fictional sex writer and past cheater Carrie Bradshaw, we couldn’t help but wonder: if cheating has the potential to hurt you and your partner, while being so socially and morally unacceptable, why do so many of us partake in it?
Lucky for us, other curious people have already started to connect the dots. Esther Perel is a world-renowned psychotherapist who wrote The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity in 2017. While Perel makes it clear that she doesn’t celebrate or sensationalize the act of infidelity, she wants to understand it, and create a safe space to discuss the topic without stigma. “The idea is not to become more tolerant of infidelity. The idea is to question: Why are we so tolerant of multiple divorces and so intransigent about the slightest transgression sometimes? Is it really better to break the life of everyone who belongs to a marriage because of an affair? Is it really better to shame women and even more so men who choose to stay with a partner who has strayed? These are the questions that I ask,” she wrote in the Washington Post.
Perel believes that there is more to cheating than the most common themes, like falling out of love with your current partner or having an intense, irresistible connection with your secret hook-up (although either of these reasons could be true!) Rather, she believes affairs can be a form of self discovery. “It’s not that the individuals having the affairs want to leave their partners, but the people they have become. They are looking for another version of themselves—which is the most powerful variety of “other” there is,” Perel told Goop.com.
We were overwhelmed with gratitude by the responses we received from our community about why people cheated, and many seemed to have used the experience of infidelity as a way to prompt self-reflection, make big life changes, end or work harder on their existing relationship, start practicing polygamy, find the courage to start a brand new relationship, or process triggers that may have led to their initial decision in the first place. It’s all imperfect, because in the end, someone often gets hurt, but as Perel said, “Through the worst, we try to understand the best, and through broken people, we try to understand whole people.”
We’ll take an uneducated, wild guess and venture that as long as there is monogamy, there will always be cheating, but perhaps, if we can share more of these stories and disassociate the deeply-embedded shame, we can understand more about ourselves and each other as sexual, emotional beings. Perhaps, through that open exploration, we may find less of a reason to cheat in the first place.