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Photo: The Gender Spectrum Collection
Life

Why Do So Many People Cheat on Their Partners?

Cheating is more common and complicated than we realise.
Amée Zoutberg
Brussels, BE
October 18, 2021, 8:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

Affairs leave scars on everyone involved. Both parties are judged, and sometimes stigmatised. So why do they happen so often? Why do people persist in carrying out affairs? And how do you return to living, dating and loving, after the fact? 

Having been cheated on myself by an ex who still hasn’t been honest with anyone about the affair, I understand that taking responsibility for cheating on a partner — which is still seen as a mortal sin, despite around one in five people in the UK alone admitting to having had an affair — is not only hard to do, it’s also a stigma that can stick to you for the rest of your life.

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To find out more about who cheats and why, VICE talked to Peter, Jeanine, and Maaike who conducted affairs for various reasons. (Their names have been changed to protect their identities.) We also spoke with a pair of relationship experts who’ve spent considerable amounts of time in their professional lives trying to understand what makes people cheat and how they live with the consequences.

Psychologist, relationship expert and author of The Reasons Behind Feelings Joke Bruggenkamp views cheating as “almost a physical response: your body yearns to be held and desired again”. She describes cheating as a strategy that people deploy subconsciously when their relationship has hit a rough patch. “When you find someone who reignites that flame, you go back for more.”

Peter*, a 38-year-old who was married for 22 years and is now divorced after having had an affair, echoes this sentiment. He says that he and his wife’s libidos were unmatched, leading to feelings of sexual rejection. It was, as he puts it, “as if my penis wasn’t allowed to exist”.

He describes having an affair as being like “a whole new world suddenly opening up to me, a world in which I was now worthy of attention. The other woman made me feel sexy in a way I’d never experienced before.” 

Every act of cheating is different. Not all affairs come from a place of rejection, and not all cheats conceal their actions from their significant others. Jeanine, 63, was married for 30 years. She had multiple relationships during the course of her marriage, entering into a pact of silence with her husband while they were engaged.

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The agreement was sparked after she ran into a former lover in the park one morning. They hugged, felt a spark, and he asked her out. Jeanine went home and told her fiancé about the encounter. Having expressed regret that she didn’t feel able to take her ex up on his suggestion, Jeanine’s partner was surprisingly sanguine about the whole thing. “He said, ‘Do whatever you want, but leave me out of it.’”

Not everyone’s partner is so permissive. “When my wife found out, I lost absolutely everything,” says Peter. “Everyone around us saw me as the perpetrator, and I even saw myself like that for a while too. My side of the story wasn’t interesting to anyone and I felt brutally rejected by the world around me.”

While society might not look kindly upon the “perpetrators’” relationship counsellors talk to them — and their partners — on a daily basis. You might say that these counsellors know more about cheating than anyone involved, including the cheaters themselves. One such expert is Vanessa Muyldermans, psychologist and sexologist. “Cheating isn’t a situation in which one person is the victim and the other is the perpetrator,” she says.

There’s usually a long incubation period — a series of events you can’t trace back to the exact the moment things went wrong, to the first domino that fell. People who cheat are often shocked by their own behaviour.

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“In the moment, they weren’t aware of the damage they were doing to their partner,” says Muyldermans. “Most of them don’t have the intention to leave their partner, but see their cheating as a separate event, or as a way to distract themselves from issues that are at play within the relationship.”

This doesn’t seem to negate the feelings of guilt that can arise in the aftermath of an affair that’s come to an end. “I was so in love that it seemed like I was mentally unwell,” says 28-year-old Maaike, reflecting on the early days of an affair. “When I told my husband I was going to stay over at a friend’s house, but secretly went to see the coworker I was cheating on him with, I felt simultaneously delighted and terrible.”

She describes her relationship with her married coworker as “passionate but very complicated”. Though it lasted four years and she introduced him to her husband, nobody in the boyfriend’s life was allowed to know about her existence, let alone their relationship. This pressure cooker of secrecy eventually led to the end of her coworker’s marriage. “They found out after reading an email I’d sent him,” Maaike says. “It destroyed his whole family. The damage I’ve caused can never be repaired.”

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Bruggenkamp says that pretty much “everyone” who has an affair feels some sense of guilt during or after it because “it was never their intention to cause sadness and anger”. She says that anyone looking to assuage their guilt needs to really reflect on it. “You have to experience and endure guilt, examining what exactly it is that you feel guilty about.”

If you’ve dwelled on those feelings and decide that you want to attempt to rectify things and revive the original relationship, you need to be prepared for things to get ugly. “What is important when it comes to trying to repair the situation, is that you genuinely understand what your actions have done to your partner,” Bruggenkamp says. “You’ve got to allow them to get really mad at you.”

Interestingly, Bruggenkamp goes on to say that any hope of the relationship returning to the unspoilt days before anyone strayed is dependent on those feelings of anger eventually dissipating. “There will also come a time in which the cheated partner has to let go of their anger, otherwise there can be no renewed connection and trust,” she says.

Jeanine is keen to stress that not all affairs end up with mutual destruction. “I took both my husband and my boyfriend to my PhD graduation. I don’t give a shit if people don’t accept it. I am who I am and I refuse to hide it.”

She adds: “People need to realise that monogamy isn’t the only option. I don’t judge people who cheat.” This free-spirited approach to interpersonal relationships chimes with Peter. Despite the erosion of his marriage, he still feels that the wider world could learn a thing or two from people who stray. “Cheating is often the result of fear and powerlessness, and the inability to put yourself first,” he says. “Our society isn’t actually ready for real, free love.”

Whatever the individual’s overall attitude towards the acceptability or otherwise of cheating on a partner, one question remains a constant: do you own up to it, or is it better for everyone if it’s kept under wraps?

According to Bruggenkamp, you should try to figure that out for yourself. If you’re able to leave your cheating ways behind and maintain your connection to your partner, you could choose not to tell them. “But when you can’t get past it and have to stay alert around your partner to make sure they don’t find out, well, that’s really just a waste of energy.”