“The Dark End of the Street”: Cheating Is Still a Major Threat to a Marriage but We Don’t Fully Understand It

Broken TrustInfidelity is still one of the major reasons marriages break up. But we don’t understand “cheating” as well as we think we do.

Why People Cheat

Is it true that infidelity always indicates unhappiness with the marriage? According to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, men often cheat simply because an opportunity presents itself, even if they are entirely happy with their marriages. Fisher found in her research that 34% of women who had affairs were satisfied or very happy in their marriages versus 56% of men who had affairs. Logically, this means women are more likely to seek an emotional connection with their lovers because something is lacking at home.

(Warning: statistics on infidelity are always suspect. “Surveys” can be based on small samples and may not have been conducted according to the best scientific principles. Did the participants answer questions honestly? We cannot be truly sure how many people cheat on their spouses.)

Cheating is not always, by any means, all about sex, either. Often the reason people cheat has more to do with discontent with themselves than with their spouses. They cheat to counteract feelings of low self-worth, fear of missing out, or simply because they want a thrill in their lives.

These days intense emotional “affairs” can develop over the internet between people who have no physical relationship or may never even meet in person. Something other than sex is more important to these folks: an intense, forbidden, emotional involvement; an escape from a dull, routine life; a doorway into agreeable fantasies that will never be tested in the real world.

Types of People That are Unfaithful

Nor is it true that it is always the powerful CEO with a breathtaking income, who is most likely to cheat. According to a 2011 Indiana University study, the percentage of both men and women who stray in marriage is close to 20% each. A 2015 American Sociological Review study found that a man whose wife is the breadwinner is three times more likely to cheat than a woman whose husband is the breadwinner. Not exactly the image of a high-flying business mogul jetting off to his mansion on the Riviera with his latest 22-year old conquest while the wife keeps the home fires burning!

On the other hand, according to psychologist Esther Perel, author of The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, most married people who are unfaithful are not cold-hearted serial philanderers. They’re often people who were faithful in the marriage for years and then made a bad mistake. Nor is it true that once a spouse cheats, he or she is doomed to continue to do it over and over.

Yes, some married people are always on the lookout for the next fling, but a survey of 700 men and women in long-term relationships in the Archives of Sexual Behavior concluded that, among those who had cheated in a previous relationship, 70% had not cheated on their current significant other.

Less sophisticated or self-aware marital partners do not always realize they are in the process of falling into an adulterous relationship. They may regard initial encounters as harmless flirting, unless a friend says, “You’re leading him/her on, you know.” If an emotional connection occurs and then grows unchecked through subsequent encounters, it can readily lead to a physical relationship almost before a naïve spouse fully realizes what is happening.

What Happens Next

Finally, although infidelity remains one of the significant causes of divorce, it does not inevitably result in divorce. Often whether the marriage can be sustained depends on how intense the extramarital relationship was and how long it continued. Was the third party someone known by both spouses? Can both partners come to understand why it happened? Can the betrayed partner forgive, if not forget? Can the betrayer end the affair and commit to fidelity in the future?

The discovery that one’s spouse has committed adultery is the emotional equivalent to having the roof of your house suddenly collapse on your head. It is devastating. Infidelity blows up one of the essential elements in any close relationship, trust. Rebuilding a marriage under these circumstances requires time and a lot of hard work.

The betrayed spouse is in a very vulnerable state of mind and should avoid going to a divorce lawyer who responds to that hurt by automatically encouraging the immediate filing of a divorce petition. A good family lawyer should have enough experience to help any potential client understand all of his or her options.

According to Esther Perel, partners sometimes even find, in time, that a closer marriage results from confronting the crisis and managing to continue together. They are forced to open up with each other and express their most heartfelt feelings. In time, the marital bond may not only remain but may become stronger than it was before.