WHY CHEATERS CHEAT (HINT: IT’S NOT ABOUT THE SEX)

One of the biggest questions haunting betrayed partners, often for months and even years after discovery of the betrayal, is why. Why did he cheat? Why did she have that affair? Why did he see prostitutes? Why did she sext with all those guys? Why is he a sex addict? 

Part of the reason for this is that the behaviors seem to contradict what you know of your partner. It is hard to understand why your heterosexual spouse may have had same-gender encounters. Or why the loving father of two has been visiting a massage parlor every Tuesday afternoon. Or why the man who pastors the church down the street has been viewing pornography for several hours every single day for the past five years. Or why the award-winning lawyer and mother of three has had a string of emotional and sexual affairs.

Cheating behaviors come in endless varieties and variations. As a result, the question of why is a hard one to answer. While there are some specific categories to think about that help with examining that key question, the true motivations for infidelity are uniquely individual. Each person has a specific ‘why’ to explore and understand. 

The reality is that addictive sexual behaviors are rarely about sex. We mistakenly think that since so much time is spent in the pursuit of, engagement in, and recovery from sex, the addiction must be about sex. It is also easy to think that the cheater must be rejecting sex with the partner for sex with someone else. So again, we think that cheating is about the sex itself. 

Most of the time, however, this is not the case. 

Instead, sex is the canvas that is being used to paint a picture revealing the deeper emotional world of the cheating partner. The sex and sexualized relationships are in many ways a metaphor symbolizing the cheater’s internal relationship with self, which is then externalized in relationship with others. When explored with honesty and curiosity, a cheating partner’s sexual acting out history can provide a rich understanding of how that individual deals with self-perception, emotional needs, and relational vulnerabilities. 

This examination, when undertaken fully and honestly, exposes the deeper wounds, shame and insecurities that the individual is carrying from past events that are still unhealed and as a result get channeled into addictive or illicit sexual behaviors. 

One of the most important things to understand is that the cheating behaviors are not random. Your wife did not just stumble into that affair. Your husband did not just ‘end up’ using escorts. Whatever sexual behaviors your partner has been engaged in, those behaviors have meaning – at least part of which is that they are being used to meet an unconscious need or to assuage an unconscious wound. 

Most sexually addicted or unfaithful individuals are unaware of what is driving their sexual behaviors. It isn’t until they spend some time exploring the meaning of their behaviors while also looking at their history that colors begin to show up on the canvas and a picture starts to take shape. 

As unfaithful partners begin to explore their behaviors and tell their secrets, often for the first time, they become ever-more curious about how they ended up where they ended up. As the exploration continues, they start to see patterns take shape. Dots connect, and suddenly things begin to make sense in a whole new way. 

The work of understanding why a person cheated or why an addict acts out sexually in specific ways is a vital part of recovery. As cheating partners begin to understand that their behaviors are rooted in their history and have clear and usually profound meaning, their shame begins to diminish. Their confusion about behavior that has confounded them clears, and the unconscious power and pull of the behavior abates.

For betrayed partners who desperately want to understand why the cheating happened or why the sexual behaviors occur, this work is equally imperative. However, betrayed partners can also feel some ambivalence about this process. 

On the one hand, understanding what is driving the sexual behaviors is helpful in reducing confusion and shock. When betrayed partners begin to see not just what their partners have been doing but why they have been doing it, the behaviors start to make more sense and the feeling that their cheating partner is a stranger diminishes. 

Understanding what the behaviors are truly about also helps betrayed partners with their feelings of rejection and insecurity. Once they understand what is driving the cheating and see that it has little to do with them or anything they are doing or not doing, they can release some of the fear and shame they have about the cheating behaviors. 

On the other hand, being told about the underlying childhood trauma that drives the sexually compulsive behavior or the deep insecurities that motivated an affair can cause betrayed partners to feel like they are being asked to let the cheater off the hook. As if the fact that the cheating is rooted in pain, neglect, abuse, and other forms of trauma somehow gives the cheater a free pass.

This is not in fact the case. Understanding what drives a behavior is vital for addressing and changing that behavior. But it does not eliminate or diminish responsibility for the behavior. Cheating partners are still responsible for the pain and damage they have caused. Doing the work to understand and answer the why question is part of the responsibility-taking that must be done to heal both the self and the relationship. 

Over the next few weeks, we are going to delve into the why question. I am going to give you several broad categories to think about that may help you, as a betrayed partner, understand more about what drives your cheating partner’s sexually compulsive or cheating behaviors. My hope is that this information will help you in your healing and in understanding and knowing your partner better. 

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