Of all the sins we commit in relationships, cheating is seen as one of the worst. But could it also trigger a reset that brings both partners closer together?
To most Brits—80 per cent of women and 64 per cent of men—cheating is unacceptable, per a 2019 BBC survey. One in ten UK marriages ends due to infidelity.
It’s not hard to see why. Cheating causes breakage: of trust and commitment, and perhaps our grand plans for what our life with that person could look like. However, it also forces pent-up feelings out into the open. Could this ever be a wake-up call to what needs fixing between two people?
I believe that it’s possible. But for a couple to emerge stronger from the wreckage, there needs to be an understanding that infidelity is nuanced—and, dare I say, a degree of compassion.
"Some may cheat out of malice, but for others, it could be a desperate attempt to have their emotional needs met"
We see cheating as so repulsive that we tend to frame it in binary terms: there’s wrong and right, a villain and a victim. Not all situations are so clear-cut.
After all, a lot of us cheat—one in five, to be exact. Hurt people cheat, happy people cheat, non-monogamous people cheat (yes, really—cheating is about violating trust and boundaries, which feature in all healthy relationships).
Some may cheat out of malice, but for others, it could be a desperate attempt to have their emotional needs met.
If you can try to understand someone’s reasons for straying, you can communicate openly and honestly with them about what happened. Then, you can start the work of healing.
Why people cheat
Nearly half of women cheat because their emotional needs are not being met by their partner
It may be that your partner’s infidelity has nothing to do with you at all. According to renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel, cheating can sometimes be a way for people to try and connect with another version of themselves.
In an excerpt of her book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, republished in The Atlantic, Perel wrote that one of the most common sentiments unfaithful people voice to her about cheating is: “It makes me feel alive”.
"Cheating can sometimes be a way for people to try and connect with another version of themselves"
When these folks turn away from their partners, she noted, they’re really trying to escape the person they’ve become within that relationship. Perhaps the affair makes them feel like someone who takes more risks, or whose life feels less fixed in stone.
Other times, people cheat because they feel they’re not getting what they need from their partner. In a 2015 YouGov study, 43 per cent of women surveyed said that they were driven to infidelity as they felt emotionally deprived in their relationship.
Moving forward together
Addressing these issues is hard work. It takes a willingness to forgive and change, and to be open to what comes next. But if you can do it, there’s a chance your relationship will become healthier and more honest.
You might see it as the two of you starting fresh; rebuilding the boundaries and promises that define your partnership. The unfaithful party might commit to bringing the parts of themselves they sought via their affair into your relationship, for example.
"It takes a willingness to forgive and change, and to be open to what comes next"
Patching things up isn’t always possible or desirable, and that’s OK. Sometimes, cheating is the final straw for a relationship already on its last legs. But it can be devastating in any case, and many relationships don’t survive it.
“Often when a couple comes to me in the wake of an affair, it is clear to me that their first marriage is over,” wrote Perel in her book. “So I ask them: would you like to create a second one together?.”
Read more: How to argue healthily with your partner
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