Are private DM's considered cheating? How about the occasional friendly conversation with an ex you haven't mentioned? What about secretly staying on a dating app? Or watching porn behind your partner's back? According to Esther Perel, a prominent psychotherapist, there is no universally agreed upon definition as to what constitutes as infidelity. But what we can agree on, according to her, is that cheating is on the rise. We live in an era where we feel entitled to pursue our desires, in a culture that believes 'I should be happy' at all costs. No wonder we are now, more than ever, tempted to stray.
But if divorce has become more widely accepted, why do people cheat?
There is no clear cause-and-effect answer to this question. In the past, it was assumed men cheated out of boredom and women out of loneliness. But the reality is, there is a myriad of reasons why people stray. And contrary to popular belief, it's not always about sex (although sometimes it is). Perel, however, believes affairs are way less about sex and a lot more about desire. Desire for attention and desire to feel special. Affairs are also an act of longing and loss, she says. “At the heart of an affair you will often find a longing and yearning for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy, or a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves,” she says.
The idea of straying to reclaim a former part of ourselves or explore a repressed part of ourselves is an interesting motive that comes up a lot. It means that cheaters aren't necessarily unhappy in their relationships or with their partners - they're just trying to escape this current version of themselves for a little while. In fact, some people cheat so that they can feel better about their current relationship! Perel explains it quite poetically: “When we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partner that we are turning away from, but the person we have ourselves become. It isn’t so much that we are looking for another person, so much as we are looking for another self.”
Dr. Sailaja Menon, a licensed counselling psychologist at Lighthouse Arabia, believes that it also goes a little further than that. People aren't just cheating to look for a way to escape the constraints of who they are. In her opinion, partners stray in search of something that is lacking in their existing relationships, such as: an emotional connection; the ability to communicate their wants and needs with their partners; getting stuck in a monotonous life cycle and losing sight of each other or taking each other for granted. And because we can never openly be with that person we are having an affair with, the illicit nature of the relationship remains exciting, invigorating – a little bit of a shake up in an otherwise still existence. The irony, according to Perel, is that if we put the same amount of imagination, boldness and passion into our relationships as we do in our affairs, we wouldn’t have the urge to stray.
How does one compete with a desire mill such as an affair?
If you've been cheated on, you may still be reeling from the discovery. Maybe you've decided you're done. Or perhaps you are thinking about how to repair the relationship. There is no wrong move or decision here. But if you are unsure on how to handle the situation, start here:
Talk to your partner about what happened: avoid the nitty gritty details and instead try to understand the motivation behind the affair.
Ask your partner if they want to stay in the relationship. Some people cheat as a way out of the relationship, so this is an important question.
Ask yourself if you want to stay in the relationship. Ultimately, the question here is: if it could be fixed, is this relationship worth fixing?
if you decide to give it another shot, be unflinchingly honest about your wants and needs. Don’t let shame or fear of hurting your partner get in the way of communicating the failings or missing elements you see in your relationship. We can always find a way to say what we must say in a respectful manner.
If you have cheated on your partner, consider the reason why. Then take some time to ponder the following questions:
Do you still want to be in the relationship?
Do you see yourself cheating again? (if the answer is yes, do not commit to working things out).
Consider individual and couples therapy