Haven’t we all wondered why people cheat? We’ve all asked, “Why did he do that?” Or, “Why did she?”
There are many obvious answers — sexual addiction, an open marriage agreement, or a disbelief in (or respect for) monogamy. But I know of another reason for infidelity that never makes it into the press or “expert advice” on the topic.
And that reason is — people cheat in order to dilute the love in their existing relationship.
Many people feel deeply uncomfortable with intensity of a relationship fraught with conflict, desire, and rejection. One “solution” to that uncomfortableness is to find a third person—someone to direct some of that intensity toward. Spread it around, feel less “need” of the existing mate, and siphon off some of the intimacy from them to someone new.
When couples dealing with infidelity for this reason make it to my office, the cheater has difficulty explaining why he (or she) took up with someone else: “I just wanted to. No reason, I just wanted to.”
Well, sorry, that doesn’t fly. The existing partner can never trust that the cheater won’t do it again. She thinks her husband wandered off with absolutely no concern for her feelings. More importantly, she wonders if he loves her. You can imagine how unlikely it is that she’ll believe that he cheated because he felt too much intensity in their relationship, not too little.
I start asking couples questions, and out comes his tearful declaration of his love for his wife—how infatuated he was when they met, how incredible he felt when she agreed to marry him. He goes on and on about the meaning of their relationship, and how he can’t live without her.
He reaches for her hand. She pulls it away, of course. She shakes her head astounded. Are you kidding? Because to her, it is extremely obvious that if he “loved” her he wouldn’t go to bed with someone else. And worse, not only did he have sex with someone else, he actually saw this woman for a long time. That is an affair of the heart and the body.
All her friends tell her she is right, right, right. Any article she reads on the matter will likely advise her to leave and get away from this psychopath with no conscience or regard for their commitment.
Yet here he is, crying. Are they fake tears, trying to manipulate her into believing him, taking him back, letting him stay?
Perhaps … but I have seen men (and women) who are just so afraid of true closeness and intimacy with one person that they feel they must spread it around. Of course, this isn’t a healthy use of sexual energy, but it is an answer for those who love too intensely.
If you have read my writing about Attachment Theory on my website, you may know that “Anxious Attachment” includes intense need and dependency on your partner. It is distressing to feel this kind of need—thinking about her all the time, distracted from the rest of life, or waiting for the text, email or call.
Waiting, waiting, waiting.
Spreading that kind of attachment around lightens its hold, like a form of decompression. Have you felt anything like this …
You fall in love with someone new but find it oddly relieving to flirt with someone other than this person. You really are monogamous, but that little diversion feels so good. Why?
You won’t tell him (or her) because, of course, you don’t want to cause hurt.
But at the same time, you don’t want to feel so bloody focused on this new person in your life. What if he (or she) isn’t what they seem? What if they really aren’t as committed as they say? What if they do something to hurt you (as past loves have done)?
Honestly, I have compassion for people who are nervous about love. How painful for them. They live with guilt, shame and worry, and feel distant from the one they love. I’m glad when they come to my office so I can explain different safety maneuvers to help them heal.
I help them talk to their lover, explain the fear, and create boundaries to limit the intensity. I show how to ask for support. They explore how to feel safe with their partner, and how to ask for the partner’s assistance.
And, I help the betrayed partner see that the tears are real; the guilt and shame are real. Then she can develop trust as she sees his engagement in healing the wounds from what he did.
Betrayed people can re-grow trust when the two heal together. Trust doesn’t come from relying on promises. Trust is rebuilt by understanding the cause of the betrayal, seeing changed behavior and sharing in ways that lets each partner know the truth.
The betrayed partner must grasp that her spouse really doesn’t want to cause hurt, and will do everything necessary to make ensure this doesn’t happen again. Rebuilding trust is very difficult—sometimes impossible—after affairs. But when the motivation was diluting intense love, though, healing is truly possible.