It’s daunting to attempt to stay. It’s terrifying to attempt to leave.
My client, Susan, was cheating on her husband of 27 years. The affair had been going on for two years and even though she knew it was wrong and destructive and disrespectful to her husband, she wouldn’t turn away from it. It provided her the simple, but dangerous distraction from the emptiness that existed within her marriage. Her marriage wasn’t bad, it was just empty: no connection, no spark, no real communication.
So, why didn’t Susan leave the marriage instead of cheat?
If she doesn’t want to be with her husband, why not just leave instead of cheating and hurting him even more?
I can provide you that answer in one word: fear.
Fear that she’ll hurt her husband,
Fear that she’ll regret her decision,
Fear that what she wants in a relationship is an illusion, a fairy tale,
Fear that she’ll screw-up her children or that they’ll never speak to her again, and
Fear that the grass isn’t actually greener on the other side.
We think the people that cheat are just self-absorbed or hateful people because it feels better to vilify them than try to understand what’s driving the behavior. What they really are is someone living in deep fear. They’re afraid of doing the hard work to re-engage and fix their relationship, too afraid to face the truth of it, and they’re too afraid to leave it as well. So, they remain stuck and then distract themselves by finding what they’re missing in the arms of someone else.
I can say this definitively because I’ve worked with hundreds of these women and I have such a deep love and respect for them as individuals. They trust me because I don’t judge them. I’m more interested in what’s driving the behavior than its actual outcome.
Our fear – consciously or unconsciously – drives our choices, actions, and behaviors. And just because the fear is not acknowledged does not mean it remains silent in our most important and most intimate relationships:
We Don’t Make a Conscious Choice to Cheat.
Most people don’t actively go out seeking an affair, but the opportunity presents itself and we don’t turn away. We don’t stop and consider the only real options:
Option 1: Stay and attempt to work on my marriage so that it can feel good again.
Option 2: Acknowledge that the marriage is over and leave as gently and lovingly as possible.
Instead, we make the decision to not make a decision. We choose to not make a choice. In doing so, we don’t leave the marriage and we don’t turn away from the affair. And carrying the weight of that is incredibly destructive.
We Don’t Want the Discomfort of Fixing a Broken Marriage.
It’s daunting to think about whether or not we can do what’s required to fix a broken marriage; and we’ve done everything we know to do and it still hasn’t worked. Likewise, it’s terrifying to consider the option of leaving and facing all the judgments, doubts, and potential regret.
It’s daunting to attempt to stay. It’s terrifying to attempt to leave. And even though this in-between place where we are is also uncomfortable, at least this feels like a discomfort that we know.
Cheating Gives Us a Destination.
We say we’re not leaving for the other man or woman. We know the statistics about the percentage of those relationships that ultimately end. But we want some assurance that the connection and closeness that we want to feel and experience in our most intimate relationship is possible and right now this affair is the only thing showing us that evidence. We lean on this relationship to give us the assurance – the backbone – to do the hard thing of walking away from a relationship that no longer feels good.
We’ve come to believe that if we don’t know where we’re going we have no business getting into the car. And making the choice to leave a marriage to create a new life feels like more of an exploration than a point-to-point destination. Maybe this relationship is providing us that temporary destination so that we will get into the car and take the wheel of our own lives.
If we trace back all the decisions – and the indecisions – we make in our lives to their source, we will find each of our deepest fears. And there is nothing like our closest interpersonal relationships to bring those fears to the surface. I don’t see cheating as right or wrong, good or bad. I see it as fear taking the wheel. And if we can better understand the reasons behind our choices, then it opens the door to allow us to make different choices, ones that might yield better results.
*Sharon is a certified Master Life Coach and a Six-Time #1 International Best-Selling author, specializing in marriage and relationships. Click here to get the clarity you need to know if you should stay or go in your marriage so you can either make the marriage feel good again or lovingly release it.
FAQs about Cheating:
Can emptiness in marriage lead to cheating?
Emptiness in a marriage leads to either cheating or divorce. Cheating provides people with that distraction needed to fill the void in a marriage. A marriage without communication, mutual respect and excitement seldom survive.
Why do some women cheat instead of leaving a bad marriage?
Women cheat instead of leaving a bad marriage because of fear of hurting their husbands and children. Women also fear that they may find themselves in an empty marriage or relationship once more after they leave a bad marriage.
Are cheaters inherently bad people?
That’s exactly what one may think that cheaters are inherently bad people because they indulge in immoral behaviors. Cheaters are scared little creatures, who are afraid of facing the truth of their relationships. They are afraid of putting in any real effort to repair their relationships because they are afraid they will fail. They neither have the guts to keep a relationship nor leave it.
Do people make deliberate attempts to cheat?
There is no study to suggest that people deliberately make attempts to cheat their spouses. However, when an occasion for cheating arises, many people grab the opportunity instead of trying to make their marriages work again. Cheaters would prefer affairs over leaving their marriages for they are too afraid to take that step.
Do affairs lead to divorces?
Affairs can lead to divorces as they provide people with that sense of love and connection, which is missing from their marriages. People believe that their affairs are the closest thing to that feeling of love and intimacy they strive for in their marriage. It helps them end their marriages, which might be hard otherwise.
It’s still a black and white issue. You leave your current relationship before starting a new one. There aren’t grey areas.
All the fears you mentioned – that the grass ISN’T actually greener, regret upon leaving, hurting her spouse, ruining her relationship with her children, the new relationship not working out and leaving her alone… All valid fears. But, life doesn’t come with a safety net and trying to create one for yourself ends up hurting other people.
There are no guarantees in life. You have to take responsibility for your actions, accept the consequences, be honest with yourself and your partner.
And make the decision to stay or leave. Stop living in a place of fear. Take the leap.
If it works out, you’ll be happier. If it doesn’t, you’ll have taken one step towards overcoming your fears.
I have yet to meet a single person who lives in this beautifully correct but aspirational state of being – this black and white approach to life of never living in a place of fear. I think we would all agree that living in complete authenticity and never letting fear take the driver’s seat of your life is how we would all like to live. Unfortunately all of us must fight basic human biology and our reptilian brain because fear serves a purpose in our life too. I am not saying this lets any of us off the moral hook of course. I’m merely saying if it were that simple, we would all be cruising through life very differently. And by keeping infidelity confined to a moralistic dialogue which continues to drive all parties involved further into shame and secrecy doesn’t help. I think the part of the conversation that’s missing is HOW as a society and as individuals do we get more comfortable with letting go of things that no longer serve us, embrace the concept that in life there is no certainty, and to trust your intuition. If we could get good at those things earlier in our life’s journey, perhaps the collateral damage we inflict upon each other would lessen.
I totally agree. If we could speak whats true for each of us, we would cause much less harm and pain. But that class doesn’t exist, so now what? I have clients who would benefit if judgement didn’t exist for persons that are bi or gay…I have clients who would benefit if they wouldn’t be judged if they were gay. And I have clients who wouldn’t be in pain if they felt like their way of engaging in love was wrong. People get hurt because we can’t tell the truth to one another. People get hurt because we feel like we have to lie in order to keep the other person with us. People get hurt because we refuse to be honest and just f-ing say what we really want.
To the author,
You’re making excuses for chosen bad behaviors. We have enough people in this world trying to teach “tolerance” or sympathy for bad behaviors. We don’t need a trained professional. Sorry, but you’re wrong and it didn’t require a certificate or experience, just plain common sense.
I don’t judge people. You do. I don’t think people should live the way I choose to live. You do. I like peaches….maybe you don’t. Who’s right? Let me help you: it doesn’t matter. It’s just our own perspectives.There’s so much peace there.
This view always pisses me off because it’s an apologist view. Some things are black and white. Cheating is one of those things. When your marriage is bad you sit under a decision tree of things you can do about it and cheaters ALWAYS choose the lowest hanging fruit, or to take it a step further, the fruit that’s rotting on the ground.
You can have an adult conversation with your spouse and tell them you’re unhappy and why. If they ignore you, you procure a hasty divorce which is shockingly easy to do in these United States of America. You will not be beheaded or even belittled if you choose to end a marriage honestly.
Most cheaters are too cowardly and lazy to choose the decision high on the tree. They want to “try before they buy” or perpetually keep their cheating partner in limbo while they enjoy cake. They don’t want to lose half of their stuff or 401K either.
There is an honest way and order of doing things. You don’t start to date before your marriage is legally over because if want to get technical that is exactly what cheaters are doing. Let’s not make it more precious or romantic than it actually is. It’s cowardly; it’s lazy and people who make excuses for it are either cheaters themselves, or cowardly or lazy themselves.
How’s that for black and white?
I still (and frankly, always will) respectfully disagree. I look at it through this lens: The problem occurs when you’ve been pretending that you just want one partner, but really will never be happy with one partner. Then you’re lying to yourself and lying to your partner…nothing good will ever happen.
If you can tell the truth about what you really want – multiple partners – then all is well because you will find people that are down with that.
Unfortunately, it’s the weak men who will tell you they only want one partner but will clearly desire more than that that will make you cra’. And we believe them. That’s where we can do better, ladies.That’s where we can see how they’re always showing us who they really are, but we don’t believe them and then get all self-righteous about who they should be…when they’ve been showing us along who they really are…
If it’s all on him….you’re the victim and that will always feel like crap. But if you own your part in how you lied to yourself about what you knew before anybody told you, you have all the power.
If you want more than one partner, you have to state that. It IS a black and white issue and I’ll tell you why. Most people that have affairs don’t use protection. There is no gray area here. It is completely wrong to expose your unknowing spouse to STDs! My wife (now ex wife)cheated on me for months before I found out. She wore no protection at all and luckily I didn’t catch anything. She put her selfish needs before my health. No excuse here.
Sharon Pope says
I actually think that 99.99% of us go into marriage never actually talking about whether or not we’re really okay with only being with this ONE person until death…we just assume since that comes along with marriage that they agree by default. We need to start having more conversations up front (and not making assumptions) so that each can be clear about if they really do want monogamy or something else. I also think we break almost every other vow we make on that day except the “one person forever” and “till death do us part” in the first month of marriage. Go back and look at what you said on your vows and see if you’ve been upholding that…
But it NOT being a black and white issue….I know there’s a ton of grey because I’ve known hundreds of circumstances and you’ve really only known your own (which is completely valid, but it’s a data point of one). And to say that “most people” don’t use protection…I’m not sure where you would get that info outside of your own experience. I’ve not seen that study…..Please share it if you have it, Beastman (interesting name….)
You modern fefail feminazis are gross… liars, cheaters… you have no honor and thats why fefails will never be equal to men… you cannot be trusted and you behave like 13 yr olds
Katherine A Johnson says
Fear, sure. But not fear of hurting the spouse, because if they are lying and cheating they are already doing that.. More like fear of losing status, money and all the benefits they get from their marriage. They want to continue getting those benefits, while not honoring the relationship that’s giving those benefits to them. Cheating is always inherently selfish and dishonest, no matter how you look at it. Because doing it requires continual deceit and only thinking of yourself. Habitual lying IS a character issue, a weak character issue. If you will lie, here, then why shouldn’t we assume you will lie in other circumstance when it will get you something you want? There are many difficult situations in life, many things we fear, it doesn’t mean that makes it okay to be a liar and abuse others, which is exactly what is happening when the choice is made to cheat. You seem to have no compassion or concern for the partners that are being lied to and manipulated and basically stated that it’s not wrong to lie, cheat and hurt others, as long as you are unhappy or fearful. Make whatever excuses/rationalization you want, cheaters are still liars that are violating and abusing the person they’re married to. Personally I think lying and hurting other people is actually “wrong”. If I’m “afraid”, unhappy or not treated well at work, does that mean embezzling money from my company isn’t “wrong”? Does fear of abandonment constitute a pass for being controlling, even physically abusive? If I’m afraid of adult women, do I get a pass for molesting children? That’s the problem with your rationalization here. If being “afraid” justifies taking no responsibility for your behavior and chasing your id without honesty or any consideration for who you are hurting, then those other things should be excused as well. Basically what you are saying here, is do whatever you want, and don’t even worry about being honest, or who you’re hurting, because in the end, it’s all about you and getting your own needs met. Sounds like narcissism to me. There’s a lot of that going around these days.
Kevin Womack says
We have to stop making excuses for infidelities and cheating in general. Not holding people responsible for this is the same reason why men are “justified” in cheating and society accepts it and allows men to be brutally abusive in relationships/partners but for a woman they face damnation. This double standard uses excuses as opposed to addressing real issues. Yes fear probably has a lot to do with some of it but being accountable should preside over fear period. I’m a man by the way.
Katherine Anne Johnson says
Karen Duncan says
So what gets lost in so many of these articles, is the spouse that didn’t cheat was in that same crappy marriage before the affair. Their needs, wants, desire for importance and attention were not being met either, but they didn’t cheat. And I can pretty much guarantee that someone who is willing to cheat is a person who wasn’t doing a great job at being a spouse before the cheating occurred, instead blaming all the marriage problems on the other person when they should have been looking in the mirror and actually trying to fix that shit. That’s where my compassion ends. That person you were married to gave up all their other possible futures, loves, lives to be with your sorry self and you didn’t respect the gift you had been given.