broken heart plaster: why do people cheat and does it mean the end of the relationship

Affairs are “universally forbidden but universally practiced”, says author of State of Affairs and world-renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel.

An affair, cheating, infidelity, being unfaithful, adultery, having extramarital relations… no matter what you call it, the pain and distress it can cause is all the same. And too many people have had an experience of being betrayed or straying.

A crucial starting point for any couple, no matter your sexual orientation, is defining what infidelity means to you. For one couple it could be a partner developing an emotional attachment to another person, and for another couple it could be if a partner is seeking out sex and pleasure from someone outside of the relationship.

For any couple, understanding their relationship boundaries and what it would look like to cross them is crucial in order to navigate situations should they arise throughout the relationship. It’s also important to know that it’s not just men who cheat, or that men cheat more… women and men cheat pretty much equally.

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We are all responsible in our relationships for expressing and adhering to boundaries and being open and transparent with one another about where we are at; but this is of course an ideal situation and so often cheating is secretive, hurtful and damaging to fundamental parts of a relationship, such as trust.

What happens when you discover your partner is having an affair

Cheating brings with it so many unpleasant and distressing emotions. Shame, guilt, or fear are just some that could be experienced by the partner who strayed, and anger, betrayal, anxiety, disappointment or hurt to name a few could be felt by the person who was strayed from. The perspective we had of our relationship gets shattered in an instant when we discover our loved one has been unfaithful, and it can truly shake us to the deepest sense of ourselves.

Unfortunately, with the advances in technology, 24/7 access to communication, social media and information, infidelity in this day and age can be even more brutal than it was 50 years ago. Most people have access to the torrid and horrible timeline of an affair just by searching on their partner’s device. You get every detail, and each time it deals a blow and elicits more painful emotions.

Why do people cheat?

I’m often asked why people cheat, and the answer isn’t a simple one. For some, they are feeling rejected by their partner and so seek out the affection and desire of another. For others, they grew up seeing this behaviour in their home and it becomes almost a familiar experience for them. And for others, it’s done in the hope (often unconsciously) that their loved one will find out and finally ‘see them’.

Whatever the reason, the emotions are always hard to feel. Most people talk about ‘feeling alive’ when they are cheating; feeling a sensation (physical, psychological etc.) that they haven’t felt for a long time.

So, if you’re the partner who is having an affair, ask yourself the following:

  • What is missing in your primary relationship that you are getting elsewhere? And are you able to communicate this to your partner and feel heard?
  • How would you feel if the roles were reversed?
  • Do you believe that you and your partner can work together to have the relationship you’re longing for?

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And if you are the one who has been betrayed, ask yourself:

  • Was there something happening in your relationship that could have lead to this happening?
  • Can you put yourself in your partner’s shoes to understand what they are longing for or needing?
  • Could you work towards a place of reconciliation with your loved one in order to heal and move forward after such a betrayal? Or does this feel irreparable to you?

Often couples believe that cheating is the end of a relationship. But just like Esther Perel, I believe that it can actually be a major opportunity to reflect on and work on what’s happening in the relationship. Now I’m not saying this is true for all experiences of cheating, and sometimes there is no coming back from the destruction that an affair can cause.

But it could actually be an opportunity for healing to take place, and so often happens as a result of the dynamic in the relationship.

Catriona is an accredited clinical sexologist, psychotherapist, sexuality researcher & speaker. She is an expert in the field of sexual behaviour, intimacy, relationships and mental well-being, with a particular interest in helping people create or reestablish sexual intimacy and empowering women to embrace their sexuality. She has delivered her expertise across media, business and private platforms and is a globally recognised voice in the field of sex, pleasure and relationships. She runs a global practice online, consulting with clients from around the world, but has a practice in Johannesburg, South Africa and London, United Kingdom.