Can Cheating Improve Your Relationship?
Some people claim that infidelity helps their relationships. Academics and matchmakers say they're the rarity.
Photo by Jovo Jovanovic via Stocksy
History and literature shows that cheating ends relationships. Henry VIII executed his wife Anne Boleyn after accusing her of adultery, John Proctor's affair with Abigail Williams ruined his marriage in The Crucible, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's affair ended Pitt's marriage to Jennifer Aniston. Some people, though, claim affairs helped their relationships.
Caroline—a 22-year-old student from Pennsylvania who asked us to change her name—is one such person. A few weeks into a new relationship, Caroline's partner cheated on her with her best friend. He came forward and confessed. Caroline forgave him, but started comparing herself to her backstabbing BFF. She doubted her relationship with her boyfriend. "I felt like I wasn't good enough, and I had internalized that a lot," she says. "If you don't love yourself, you can't love anyone else."
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She stayed with her boyfriend, though, and they both moved to different towns later in their relationship. They chose to give long distance a go. In her new city, Caroline cheated. But while her boyfriend's fling affected his bond with Caroline, she says her infidelity helped them.
At first, she felt guilty. She had to force herself to apologize to her boyfriend and also forgive herself. The process led Caroline to a revelation: She needed to love herself, and loving herself meant forgiving herself. "Cheating for me was something to love myself for when I learned to love myself," she explains.
Relationship experts agree that affairs can lead to clarity. Sameera Sullivan, the CEO of matchmaking service Lasting Connections, knows one couple whose love was heightened after the husband cheated. (She did not match them, but knows them both socially.) He had been married for several years and was failing to communicate with his wife. On one business trip, he got drunk and cheated on his partner. He immediately told her; they then had a conversation about long simmering issues in the marriage. "When her husband cheated on her, something came to light, and they were able to make their relationship better," Sullivan says.
It's sad that we place so much weight on fidelity.
She points out that they lasted because they went to counseling and worked hard to stay together. "They had to do a lot of work," she says. They made it through, and have now been together for 35 years. "They're very happy now," Sullivan says. "They're very happy at this point in their lives."
Why did they succeed while others fail to patch up their relationship? Sullivan believes the length of their partnership boosted their chances, and more than anything, they both agreed to work towards a happier marriage. "They both wanted the relationship," she says. In her experience as a matchmaker and relationship expert, Sullivan considers their story an anomaly. She knows no other example of cheating helping a relationship.
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Dr Zhana Vrangalova, an adjunct professor of sexuality at New York University's Department of Psychology, agrees that cheating rarely helps a relationship. "There are a lot of different ways that an infidelity can play out," Dr Vrangalova says. ""[Staying together is] not the predominant outcome, but it can happen."
In the rare instances where cheating leads to a positive outcome, Dr Vrangalova sees the revelation of a communication breakdown, followed by a couple discussing an issue that they have long avoided. Most the time, though, couples view cheating as a cardinal sin. Dr. Vrangalova believes people may forgive a drug addiction or financial troubles, but most refuse to forgive a cheater. She hopes people will reevaluate cheating and realize sexual deviance doesn't equal a partner falling out of love.
"I do think that a lot of infidelity, despite what people think, is not an indication of being unhappy in the relationship," she says. "It's sad that we place so much weight on fidelity."