It’s a Saturday afternoon. You’re at a barbecue with your friends. While you wait for the grill to get fired up you start playing “Never Have I Ever.” It’s a dumb game you’d play in middle school, but alas there you are as a twenty-something going around, daring others to come out with their secret. And then someone plays the cruelest trick by saying, “Never have I ever cheated.” The entire table bursts into nervous giggles and glances. What’s best, to lie or to just say admit it confidently?
We could say that, one way or another, we’ve all been guilty. Perhaps we haven’t gone through with the whole endeavor, but we’ve thought about it. We might have fantasized with another, and not just sexually. It’s possible that we have even considered all the pros and cons of doing it. For some the only thing stopping them isn’t ethics but fear of consequences. Regardless, we can’t deny that when we’re taken over by this unexpected urge and desire, our brain can only think about finding release through infidelity. There are many possible outcomes that can happen afterwards, but once it’s done, we can only ask ourselves what was happening to us that made us feel so desperate to do it in the first place?
Helen Fisher is an anthropologist who is dedicated to studying the effects and emotions that come with love. Cheating might seem like a far cry from romance, but the person that’s going through this decision process might not see it the same way. Fisher explains that, for the brain, lust, romantic love, and attachment do not need to be related, or be about the same person. “You can feel deep attachment to a long-term partner while you feel intense romantic love for somebody else, while you feel the sex drive for people unrelated to these other partners. In short, we're capable of loving more than one person at a time.”
From an outside perspective, it appears as if the person who is cheating or thinking about cheating does not care for their partner. But, according to psychotherapist Philipa Perry, the act of infidelity could be a cry for help, a way to externalize feelings that they cannot put into words or feel comfortable sharing. “It’s probably true that the straying partner does not prefer their one-night stand to their long-term lover, but it might mean that they do have unresolved issues with their partner, that they could not find a way to articulate or have heard.”
Often times, our restrictive social construct does not allow us to be open to the people around us about our fears and mortifications. We’re left to deal with these emotions on our own. But, one way or another, they find a way of coming out into the light. This includes the act of cheating. It’s not necessarily a tantrum, but more a form of letting go of resentment or issues they have yet to resolve as a couple.
But cheating isn’t always a spur of the moment mistake. It doesn’t always include a late night at the office or one too many shots at a friend’s bachelorette party. Some people know in advance that they are willing and capable of being unfaithful. According to a study by David Buss and Todd Shackleford, people who felt unfulfilled in their relationships had already made their peace with cheating or being cheated on.
So, are we wired to cheat? Well, it’s a little more complex than that. When we disregard our emotions and bottle ourselves up rather than communicate, our brain finds a way around it. Hence, if you have a problem with your partner but you can’t face them or don’t want to be confrontational, you’ll still end up hurting them but in a different way. This does not necessarily mean that the relationship is over. Couples can get over infidelity, even while society holds an uglier stigma over those who stay with a person who’s cheated on them.
What’s true is that we need to be honest with ourselves and our partners in order to understand the brain processes that are driving us to cheat. If infidelity is a result of unsaid and unacknowledged emotions, then perhaps dealing with them can prevent the avalanche of consequences that unfaithfulness can bring.
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