In fact, experiencing the emotional cataclysm caused by “cheating” often ranks with the loss associated with death. Whether termed: “betrayal” or “infidelity” or “cheating” or “adultery” or “sucker-punched”, it all means the same thing – a whole lot of heartache after a partner strays. And while experiencing infidelity isn’t as guaranteed as experiencing death at some point, it’s close. According to recent research, the probability of someone cheating during the course of a relationship lies between forty and seventy-six percent. That means four to seven people out of every ten (men and women) will experience all that goes along with the complex phenomenon that is “cheating.”
Angela Bininger, sharing her own experience in How the Pain of Infidelity Surpasses the Pains of Death, describes the psychological impact cheating can have on a person. She points out how the internal experiences and monologues of cheating victims change. According to Bininger, the faithful party wonders if anything was ever real. The faithful party wonders things like, “Why? Why wasn’t I worth the truth? How could you do this to me?… How could you lie to me all those times I asked…?” Faithful parties are also victims of a lot of psychological counter-attacks, causing the person to reflect, “You made me think I was crazy!” Finally, a cheating victim often begins to question his or her own worth, with the nagging question, “How could you throw away everything we ever had for someone who meant nothing?”
Do “good people” cheat?
If infidelity can have such a rattling effect on a person’s sense of psychological content, and the results of infidelity are often described as emotionally debilitating, how can it be that so many still do it? Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier, PhD graduate at the University of Montréal’s Department of Psychology and principal investigator of four recent studies surrounding infidelity, comments the high percentage of people who are unfaithful in a relationship indicates that “even if we get married with the best of intentions, things don’t always turn out the way we plan.”
Ruth Huston, “faithful” partner and author of a book offering warning signs to those suspecting infidelity, asserts that no marriage is immune. “Infidelity,” says Huston, “knows no boundaries.” Not only is it possible for “good” people to cheat, Huston learned from her own experience that it can even occur in marriages considered to be happy marriages – both by the couple themselves, and by outsiders. Infidelity can touch relationships of any race, color creed or economic circumstances. “Rich or poor, young or old, newlywed or approaching a fiftieth anniversary – infidelity can happen to anyone,” says Huston.
With this type of pervasiveness in mind, psychologist Beaulieu-Pelletier set out to explore why people are willing to act unfaithfully when the act(s) could be detrimental to themselves and to their relationships. Specifically, she wanted to know if the type of commitment a person has with his or her loved ones is tied to the desire to engage in extramarital affairs. Her findings? Interestingly, people’s level of commitment to others, despite seeming earnest at face value, is affected by something pretty deeply-rooted. “The emotional attachment we have with others is modeled on the type of parenting received during childhood.”
Put a little more simply, if deep bonds were formed with others (usually parents, but not always) as infants and toddlers, a person is more likely to exhibit deeper bonds with others later in life – whether those bonds involve friendships or romantic relationships. It has been hypothesized in behavioral health circles for a long time that individuals with avoidant attachment styles, being uncomfortable with intimacy, are more likely to engage in multiple sexual encounters, increasing the likelihood of cheating. However, this theory has never been substantiated scientifically, so Beaulieu-Pelletier attempted to do just that in a series of four studies.
In the first two studies, results indicated a strong correlation between infidelity and people with an avoidant attachment style. From findings, she surmised that “infidelity could be a regulatory, emotional strategy used by people with an avoidant attachment style. The act of cheating helps them avoid commitment phobia, distances them from their partner, and helps them keep their space and freedom.”
These two studies were followed up by additional research aimed at understanding the motives for infidelity. “The will to distance themselves from commitment and their partner was the number one reason cited.”
And yes. Women cheat, too. Surprisingly, perhaps, research reveals no significant differences between men and women when it comes to the complex and often devastating act of infidelity. In Beaulieu-Pelletier’s, study, “Just as many men and women had an avoidant attachment style and the correlation with infidelity is just as strong on both sides.”
Still, other investigations pepper the debate with theories that men and women cheat because of their… biology?
That’s right… other social scientists chasing answers regarding the confounding act of cheating have found that men may stray from their partners due to an innate, driving need to “spread their seed,” while women may cheat more around the time they ovulate – both because of a visceral instinct to propagate the (human) species.
This, as well as Beaulieu-Pelletier’s study, supports the notion that cheating isn’t necessarily the result of someone’s stubborn resolution to be a dirty dog. In fact, research overwhelmingly points to motives swirling more in a person’s subconscious than something cheaters just “decide” to do.
But… all the “reasoning” in the world doesn’t seem to matter much when the real-life experience of betrayal hits.
While it’s valuable to know that not all “cheaters” are ogres, hellions or s/he-devils, it’s hard to convince someone whose heart feels virtually massacred by the act to look at the practical side of things. In fact, most who have attachment issues stemming from childhood, or those who are in a partnership with someone who has these issues (and who are more likely to stray because of them)… probably don’t even know it. And… try telling a man whose wife has just cheated that her instinctive call to produce a child led her to sleep with his best friend, and be prepared to duck!
What if it happened to us?
Unfortunately, anytime there’s a situation involving vulnerability (emotional or otherwise), a lot of people see a lot of opportunity. Because of this, there’s heaps of information out there about life after divorce or “self-help” after cheating and subsequent divorce – the most prescribed outcome. Unfortunately, it’s harder to find resources that support the notion that… it’s okay. The relationship can heal. While the process necessarily involves a long road of emotional (and often spiritual) soothing for all parties involved – relationships can survive cheating. In fact, if there is a strong love driving it and equal investment for all parties involved, the process of rebuilding trust usually leaves couples with stronger, healthier, happier relationships than before the infidelity took place. After all, novelist John Le Carre succinctly reminds us, “Betrayal can only happen if you love.”
Some great books for couples seeking to heal through the hurts:
And… because it’s true that prevention really is the best medicine…
Amie Martin is a master-level social worker, freelance writer, and mom/stepmom to five, wonderful, quirky, interesting children.