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The Psychology Behind Staying Versus Straying

Across history and geographical lines, infidelity has stood the test of time. Heck, it predates the notion of marrying for love. Despite the socio-political risks, cheating scandals have enigmatically prevailed against threat of both real and imagined persecution. The reasons (and methods) for cheating, however, have changed significantly. Once upon a time, women were forced into loveless, and often times, abusive marriages, which cultivated into extramarital affairs as their only recourse from a passionless union. Similarly, closeted individuals who identify as gay or lesbian have also historically been pushed to marry members of the opposite sex against their wills, only to lead a double life by engaging in same-sex affairs--again, as their only recourse. Now that society upholds more liberated and liberal viewpoints -- in that the notion of marrying for love is now socially acceptable -- we are left to answer questions about cheating in much more complex and controversial ways.

This is undoubtably a tricky subject, one that many will understandably reject, whether due to cultural, religious, or spiritual ideals about what marriage or monogamy is about. Or, because they have been the victim of infidelity, and rightfully lack the emotional space to look at it through the other's lens just yet. Ironically, that happens to be the premise of couples therapy work, following infidelity. And, while I am by no means promoting infidelity, I am daring to shed light on the two sides of the coin, one of which happens to receive far less attention: (1) What really leads to cheating and (2) what compels people to remain in the relationship with a formerly cheating spouse?


It sounds frivolous and selfish, at best, to say it has to do with unmet needs and unmanaged expectations, but it is also much more than that. I've come to understand the nuanced nature of infidelity through my work with couples who are striving to make the marriage work (post-affair) and through the poignant work of Esther Perel, a famous sex and relationships therapist who has made an entire brand out dissecting infidelity.

A variety of factors are at play when considering the reasons people cheat, especially those identifying as happily married. One pitfall of monogamous relationships in our culture today is the litany of dichotomous expectations imposed on a given partner: we seek safety and stability, yet pine for mystery and obscurity. Such opposing value systems act as a set-up for perceived spousal failure. When these unrealistic expectations are not met, one might feel more entitled to stray, due to an erroneous perception of having been disappointed by their partner.

Gender stereotypes are basically irrelevant, though society seems to categorize men as the more likely cheater due to some falsified biological propensity towards cheating. Contrary to what mainstream media wants you to think, women are just as likely to cheat as men. The only real remaining difference is how it is received--and perceived-- by the masses. Needless to say, infidelity permeates across gender lines, with both men and women equally vulnerable and culpable.

So, why do people cheat when they are in relatively happy relationships?

Well, some of it is relates back to conflicting ideals. The heart wants to stay because it can’t bare the alternative reality of aloneness. The mind wants to leave because they can no longer go through the motions, nor can they bare the likely reality of sameness for the years ahead. The question, "what if there is someone better out there?" acts as a catalyst to playing with fire in the relationship realm. While the devil on the left craves the possibility of newness, of trading in the old for the new, the angel on the right still needs the reliability and predictability that only the (safe) relationship can provide. The inability to choose a course keeps couples perpetually stuck in a catch 22 state. Ending a relationship can feel like an impossible gamble. It is within this space that infidelity seems to be one’s only recourse: to preserve the familiarity of their committed, monogamous relationship, while simultaneously succumbing to their curiosity. Even the most loyal of human beings are susceptible to sometimes wonder--whether consciously or unconsciously--if there is a "better fit" for them out there, somewhere. In this fast-paced, instant-satisfaction, one-click-of-a-button kind of society, it is much easier than ever before to attempt to resolve this dilemma, especially since temptation can be found practically anywhere these days.

Gone are the days that women are sheltered from the workplace, and thus, from other men’s advances. Today, men and women are working in closer quarters, with many colleagues pegging the term “work husband/wife” about one another, without so much as a bat of an eye. The professional relationships between men and women have become socially acceptable, thereby allowing for a perfect alibi for one to stray (e.g., an affair occurs under the guise of a work-related conference). Many colleagues spend more time with one another than they do with their own families, which can also play out as a potential problem.


Nowadays, the question of "why did she/he cheat?" is being replaced with "why didn't she/he just leave, instead?"

While society is now quicker to accept divorce -- and is even (almost) ready to do away with the notion of "staying for the sake of the children,"-- it is less-than prepared to analyze or understand the psychology of infidelity. And, why would it, when cheating is a sin in most religions. In my family's country of origin (Iran), women accused of infidelity are still being stoned to the death at the drop of a pin. STONED. (Just have to point out what a privilege it is that I even get to write this blog; one that would surely have me spending out my days in a revolutionary prison had I been raised in Iran. But, I digress).

In the U.S. today, however, we are no longer judging others for cheating as much as we are judging them for actually staying after the fact. It is a reversal of the past idea that "boys will be boys" and that cheating would merely warrant a slap on the wrist. His wrist.

As hard as it is to wrap ones mind around cheating, it is just as difficult to understand why some elect to stay. This piece of the puzzle is just as important as the reasons they strayed in the first place. Couples therapy post-infidelity grants the couple permission to hit the reset button in their relationship, after taking an honest and raw inventory of the meaning-made by the affair.

Guilt and Shame - After the Affair

Often times, the infidelity pre-dates the onset of couples therapy. Sometimes, it is the impetus to seek the much needed help that was being avoided for years. In couples therapy after an affair, it is important to reduce the shame and guilt felt by the adulterer, in order to pay attention to the self-discovery process that unfolded in its wake. The reasons to have strayed can vary, but they usually have a few things in common: the desperation for passion, the lure of feeling desired, the high of getting away with it, the thrill of having your cake and eating it, too. Many pursue an extramarital affair because of the enchantment that obscurity offers, one which the minutia of marriage has ceased to provide. We hear it all the time, "cheating is selfish,” and while this is true, the adulterer often feels they are entitled to this experience, which takes the edge off of feelings of guilt and shame. Some feel they were left no choice but to stray, when their partner stopped paying attention to them, or when they no longer felt valued or wanted by their partner. The explanations have been paraphrased ad nauseam. Sometimes, the excuse to stray is as simple as “well, you cheated first.”

According to Esther Perel, if couples want to rebuild, they must first accept that they are actually building a new relationship altogether, and by doing so, they are also writing a brand new story about the infidelity, as well. The goal is for the betrayed spouse to begin to acknowledge the parts of the infidelity that had nothing to do with them or the relationship itself, and everything to do with their spouse's personal struggles. It is undoubtedly difficult for the betrayed spouse to make peace with such contradictory concepts. To separate these two pieces means using empathy and cognitive flexibility in a way that was never before fathomed. At this profound stage in the reconciliation process, the couple is enabled the tools necessary to create a new narrative, and to ultimately re-brand their relationship as a whole.


“Where Should We Begin?” Podcasts by Esther Perel -

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