Infidelity: Why we cheat

If infidelity has touched your life in some way, you probably have asked yourself why people would engage in extra-marital affairs.

The answer, of course, is as individual as a single person, but there are some broad reasons people cheat — and many do. It’s hard to pin down how prevalent extra-marital affairs are, but an Ipsos-Reid/CTV poll in 2001 found 12 per cent of men and six per cent of women said they had an affair during their marriage. Here’s a look at four theories about why people cheat.

The biological perspective: Biologists have long understood that monogamy is rare in mammals. But the husband and wife team of behavioral scientist David P. Barash and psychiatrist Judith Eve Lipton, in their book The Myth of Monogamy, examine new DNA evidence that even birds, which have often been thought to be monogamous, are really not.

So there may be some truth in the idea that biology and societal expectation are at odds, and those who cheat are on some level listening to their “natural” instincts. Barash and Lipton suggest that the strong societal code against cheating has been developed by human culture to counteract the biological drive.

The needs theory: Another theory is that people cheat because they are not getting their needs met in their current relationship. Some of those needs may be a need to feel attractive, to feel young, or to connect through shared interests. According to Dr. Willard F. Harley, Jr., who has created the Marriage Builders® website and program, “there is usually a dissatisfaction with marriage that stems from the failure to meet an important emotional need.”

He talks about “love-units,” or the way that people feel appreciated and connected within their marriages (some people need conversation, for example, others need concrete acts of service or romantic gestures). When a partner is not hearing that they are loved in a way that makes sense to them, they become vulnerable to an affair.

It’s all about proximity: With many of us working harder and longer hours, it may be no surprise that many affairs take place in the workplace: “46 per cent of the unfaithful wives and 62 per cent of the unfaithful husbands in my clinical practice had an affair with someone whom they met through their work,” says Shirley Glass, author of NOT Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering your Sanity after Infidelity. Unless individuals maintain strong boundaries it may be that the intimacy and time together in the workplace leads people to fall into flirtatious and ultimately adulterous behaviour.

Personality rules the day: Then there are Dr. Irwin Marcus’s views, laid out in his book Why Men Have Affairs. He states that he believes that “affairs are not the result of ‘maleness,’ but, rather, a deliberate, conscious decision influenced by the troubles and weaknesses which are within them.” He identifies 10 types of men likely to stray: The Adulteen, the Playmate, the Pleasure Seeker, the Conquistador, the Sample, the Yankee Doodle (needs independence), the Daredevil, the Ponce de Leon (anxious about aging) and the Groom (looking for a new partner). All of these personality types see affairs as a part of their self-definition, and most believe they will not get caught.

Although these theories are all different, they agree on common approaches to prevent infidelity. Both partners must genuinely commit to monogamy, seek to express their own drives within the marriage, and listen and respond to their partner’s needs — even when this is difficult or causes conflict.

Photo © Brian Jackson

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