There’s plenty of relationship advice out there about cheating — how to tell if someone is cheating on you, what to do if they are, whether it’s worth trying to overcome the breach of trust, and how someone can pick themselves back up and begin to heal if they’ve been cheated on. However, most of this advice doesn’t take into account the cheater themselves; if you’ve been struggling with urges to cheat or thoughts of infidelity, or if you’ve found this to be a recurring thread throughout your dating life, you may feel frustrated and alone as well as ashamed. Why, you wonder, can’t I stop thinking about cheating, and what do I do about it? Here’s what I’ve learned about why people feel drawn to cheat, how you can deal with it, and what it means for you and your relationship.
Maybe You just don’t want to be in this relationship
It may sound overly simplistic, but sometimes things really are that simple. If you’re finding yourself extremely aware of people outside your relationship, imagining repeatedly what it would look like to steal a few hours with someone else or even imagining an entire other relationship, it’s worth asking yourself — how are you feeling about the one you’re currently in? Even if you feel certain that you love your partner, are there other feelings — resentment, burnout, frustration, boredom — that come to the surface?
Sometimes we find ourselves drawn to others in a relationship we’re unhappy in the same way that we might browse job listings while we’re in an unsatisfying career that’s burning us out. You may even go so far as to imagine being found out or confessing to your partner — and when you imagine them breaking up with you in a huff, betrayed, you may even feel a surprising sense of relief.
If this sounds like you, it’s a sign that you want very much to not be in this relationship anymore, but feel like you can’t or won’t end it on your own — you may be fantasizing about providing your partner with a pretext to break up with you, as counterintuitive as that sounds. Maybe the idea of being the bad guy in the sense of being a cheater feels less scary to you than having to tell someone who loves you that you don’t want to be with them anymore, not because you were tempted elsewhere, but because you just aren’t fulfilled by them as a partner.
It’s actually very normal to feel this way; when we’re in a relationship that’s not making us happy but feel like we don’t have a “good enough reason” to end it, it’s natural to fantasize about a kind of de-ooze ex MAH-keyna that will end the relationship for us. Cheating is such a common cultural mythology that it may feel like something easy to tap into — easier than a thorny piece of direct communication with your partner.
As understandable as this is, this doesn’t change your responsibility; we owe the people in our lives integrity and to break up with them ourselves, even if it hurts in the moment. While in the short term, it may seem easier on both of you to just cheat and end everything, your partner doesn’t deserve the long-term baggage of constantly wondering why they weren’t enough for you, navigating trust issues and insecurity with all future partners, and dealing with jealousy possibly for years to come.
You want this relationship but feel destined to ruin it
You may feel this statement doesn’t describe you, because you know you feel passionately in love with and grateful for your relationship; you aren’t bored or resentful at all. However, there may be a part of you that feels it’s doomed to fail — not because you’re unsatisfied with your partner, but because eventually, they’re going to realize they’re unsatisfied with you.
If this describes you, you may also have a history of some kind of cheating — maybe you’ve historically cheated on your partners even though you know you loved them deeply and even wanted something serious and exclusive with them. Or maybe you’ve tried to avoid exclusivity and monogamy, telling partners you can’t possibly settle down and would just end up cheating on them if you did (even though your actions may indicate otherwise, with you becoming emotionally attached quickly and sharing a lot of intimacy and time with this person as if you’re in a serious relationship). When asked to account for why you’ve cheated, you may say you don’t even know and genuinely feel it’s true.
All of these are signs not of chronic cheating — although they may manifest as such — but of self-destructive, inhibitory urges in relationships. This is likely linked to an avoidant attachment style or a variation of it, like fearful-avoidant or anxious-avoidant.