Pop Theory: It’s All About Sex
We don’t have to look too far to find someone who will declare that affairs are all about sex or lust. In fact, when the subject of infidelity arises we’ve probably all heard commentary that stems from that very notion:
- He must have been sex starved at home.
- Her husband was probably bad in bed.
- Monogamy is unnatural.
- Men will be men – they have needs.
- She must be a nympho slut.
- He’s a sex addict.
Affairs, especially when referencing male cheaters, are popularly but incorrectly understood as driven primarily (or even solely) by a pursuit of sex. This message is created in part through general misunderstanding, partly by a pop culture fed by the salacious depiction of affairs in the media and, more recently, by the lucrative ‘sexual recovery’ industry that continues to conveniently diagnose increasing numbers of cheaters as sex addicts.
While most affairs (though not all) do have an element of sexual interest and reward, it is not by any means the sole or primary incentive. In an affair, a cheater seeks to satisfy a variety of motivations less overt than sexual desire, especially in the long term emotional affair.
It is perhaps in the drunken one night stand where sex might be considered as the sole driver, but even in this situation there are other components informing the choices that led to that event.
So if sex isn’t what affairs are all about, what else is there?
Cheaters develop a narrative about why they cheated and they confess this rationale fully expecting that it will be accepted as brutal honesty – the product of deep introspection. Not surprisingly, these admissions frequently take the form of tortured angst intended to convey a certain pathos. However subconsciously constructed, the cheater tries to preserve as positive a self view as possible by confessing what they feel are potentially the least damaging indictments of themselves, laying claim to ‘brokenness’ as the cause of their infidelity.
These conveniently palatable narratives can range from how they were miserable for years, to staying for the kids, to sex addiction. One such popular smokescreen that we encounter at IHG is the cheater claiming that they were too fearful of causing upset to their spouse by addressing their concerns, or by leaving the marriage honorably. The intent of this open admission of cowardice is to sound honestly self-critical while still evoking a degree of empathy for their plight and dilemma.
So let’s look at the non-sexual issues that rear their ugly heads in the course of an affair:
1. Power and Control
There is often an undercurrent of resentment in the cheater’s decision to have an affair, so affairs commonly have a retributive element to them. There are often power struggles within the marriage and even regular compromises can build resentment. In exploring these issues with cheaters directly, it is apparent how they often use the affair as a way to exercise their personal power in their lives – they’ve made a significant choice for themselves without having to consult their spouse or compromise their own desires.
During an affair, the cheater has all the control. They possess all the facts and decide who has access to that same level of information. They decide what they tell their spouse, what they tell the affair partner, and what the rules are for the affair. They withhold access to information that might give others power in the situation, and use that withholding to preserve their marriage while enjoying the escape and sanctuary the affair represents.
Whilst few will admit it, an affair is often the cheater’s own private rebellion against societal norms, familial expectations, religious teachings, and their obligations, fueled by their own dissatisfactions. This can covertly undermine the relational dynamic in which the cheater believes themselves trapped or in some way disadvantaged by their participation in that relationship.
None of us live perfect lives, absent disappointments, stress, and dissatisfaction, but how we respond to our internal and external stressors is largely governed by our beliefs and world-view.
Cheaters feel entitled to respond to their stressors by breaking their promises of monogamy while pretending to their spouse that the agreement is still in place. Their pursuit of their own satisfaction is not limited by their agreements and commitments or their duty of care to others – they believe they are entitled to pursue their own desires without first extricating themselves from any conflicting commitments, simply because they want to enjoy the benefits of both relationships.
Cheaters not only feel entitled to continue to benefit from their marriage and spouse while enjoying the pleasures of their affair, but they feel entitled to do what it takes to create and maintain the conditions necessary for that to happen. They happily feed misinformation and lies to their spouse to maintain the secrecy of the affair so that their marital benefits are secure and undisturbed.
However, entitlement is a mindset that permeates decision making in general and doesn’t suddenly and solely manifest in an affair. As we explored in Affair Fog Theory: Character Change, entitlement is a pervasive mindset that can result in a slew of other behaviors. When talking to cheaters it is easy to identify all manner of minor and major examples of entitled thinking and behavior:
petty theft, embezzlement, outrage when things don’t work in their favor, sneakiness, debt problems, believing any personal punishment is largely unfair, fraud, shirking their share of childcare/household duties, promise breaking, carpe diem approach to life, blaming bad behavior on alcohol/addiction/peer pressure etc, selfishness, believing that ‘petty’ social rules don’t apply to them
This leads us to another issue in the affair megafecta:
Feeling entitled to control the secret of an affair results in a power imbalance in the relationship. Further weight is added to this by the cheater’s deliberate intent to exploit the trusting nature of the marital relationship.
The cheater knowingly employs manipulation to engineer a response in the faithful spouse. Gaslighting is a common manipulation strategy employed to keep the faithful spouse off balance, in the dark, and in place. While many cheaters employ these manipulations as a means to an end (keeping the spouse in place), there are those to whom the manipulation itself is the end. The satisfaction, power, and sense of superiority gained by manipulating someone can validate and reinforce someone’s personal narrative and world view.
Cheaters can be highly manipulative and skilled liars, who have the wherewithal to tap into the faithful spouse’s own weaknesses, dreams, and prejudices to engineer certain outcomes for themselves. The insidious nature of being manipulated by a spouse in this way is severely damaging and can affect the faithful spouse’s mental state in the long term.
We should also accept though that we all have the capacity to manipulate situations and circumstances in line with our own agendas – but why aren’t we all employing similarly damaging strategies to get what we want? This question leads us to the ‘absent parent’ in affairs:
4. Ethical Behavior
General stresses and dissatisfaction don’t negate our capacity to make ethical choices. When people make unethical choices they choose to deliberately ignore the ethical structure that they otherwise use to navigate life.
Cheating is fundamentally an issue of ethics. That a cheater chooses to behave in abusive and manipulative ways is clear evidence that they are prepared to put ethical behavior aside in order to satisfy their own desires. That is sufficient reason to make any notion of reconciliation contingent on clear, observable and sustained change in the cheater’s thinking and world view.
The cheater might prefer to avoid those consequences, but avoidant choices aren’t necessarily fearful. We might avoid certain situations because they’re not enjoyable, not because we feel threatened by them. We might avoid marriage not because we fear it, but because we prefer to remain single. We often avoid ending unhealthy or unfulfilling relationships not because we are pusillanimous, but because we want to avail ourselves of the benefits we perceive from that relationship.
Put bluntly, a cheater chooses to have an affair instead of addressing their issues ethically, in order to avoid any detrimental consequences to them. Using fear to justify an affair is a red herring: if you want something other than your marriage but fear the consequences of exiting it and decide to stay, then work within the marriage to resolve any marital or internal issues. Frankly, going outside the marriage by having an affair will increase the likelihood that you will face what you claim to fear.
Divorce does have a cost but if you want to exit your marriage, do so honorably and ethically. In that way you avoid paying the additional price of your integrity, your ethical principles, and the respect of others. You also avoid the long-term, highly affecting psychological and emotional price that your infidelity will cost your spouse.
When we tie all of this together into the unpalatable bundle of an affair it’s hardly surprising that the faithful spouse reacts so severely. Facing the reality of how low they are on the cheater’s totem pole in terms of merit can damage the faithful spouse’s sense of identity. Learning that they are considered as acceptable collateral damage in the cheater’s pursuit of their own enjoyment and satisfaction, and that they don’t merit honest, honorable or ethical treatment, is devastating. An affair clearly signals that the cheater does not consider their spouse deserving of such basic treatment.
An affair is evidence that the cheater will happily exact a price from their spouse in the pursuit of their own enjoyment. It demonstrates how high a value the cheater places on their own satisfaction and happiness, and how little they value that of their spouse. It is a clear indication that the cheater has invested their energy and emotional commitment in their affair partner and that they considered their spouse’s emotional well-being as less important.
It’s easy to characterize oneself as selfish and be somewhat satisfied with that because it connotes notions of self-preservation and survival. What is less easy to brush off is that an affair’s inherent selfishness is one thing, but the resultant message to the faithful spouse is one of value and trade. An affair communicates that a cheater is willing to trade what they perceive as having lesser value, -their spouse’s well-being- for what they perceive has greater value, -the cheater getting their jollies-.
While cheaters often characterize their affairs as a fantasy, their marital situation is an ever-present reality. At every interaction with the affair partner, and at every affair maneuver, they reinforced their willingness to mistreat their spouse to facilitate their own gratification. The cheater considers the potential cost to their spouse as an acceptable price for the questionable (and typically short-term) ‘gains’ of their affair.
Particularly after discovery, cheaters profess ownership of their choices, a focus on their spouse and marriage, and a desire to change but it’s worth noting that many are actually rather well-versed in Reconciliation Speak, gleaned from support boards or marital therapists.
So many of these apparently informed and ‘personally accountable’ cheaters are staunch advocates of the Reconciliation-Speak narrative, but it is of serious concern that they are rarely able to adequately or consistently address even the most basic examination of their ethics and manipulations, or the issues of retribution and power and control.
It’s uglier and less appealing to discuss cheating in terms of control and resentment than it is to describe it in terms of escapism and fear (which veers dangerously close to victimhood). When pressed in discussions with us, the overwhelming majority of cheaters fall back into their default narrative – those narratives are typically that they were driven to it in some way, and their unmet needs, mental health, or upbringing.
It’s normal and healthy for people to seek a level of personal power and control in their lives. However, it’s wise to look at how we go about it, where we lack it, and how we can healthily achieve it. The factors described here should prompt a more authentic line of self exploration in the cheater than the substitutions they often make with the far more palatable concept of ‘their fear’ or ‘brokenness’.
Unsurprisingly, redirecting people to the harsher realities of the underlying causes of affairs can bring vehement denial and opposition. What is particularly worrying, however, is not that the cheater clings to the prettier narrative, but that the faithful spouse seeking reconciliation does so.