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.
You 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 deus ex machina 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 the above 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.
Although of course your experience of it is likely more complex and nuanced, a simple way of putting it is that you truly feel no one worthwhile could truly love you or want to be with you if they really knew you — you’re waiting for the day when your partner will realize what you’re really like, and leave you as a result. As a subconscious self-protective measure, you end up acting out and behaving badly on purpose, with behaviors like cheating, to accelerate this timeline and feel in control of it.
You’re proving your own internalized beliefs about your qualities as a partner to yourself, reinforcing to yourself that you’re the kind of person who treats people badly, and also trying to remain in control of your relationship dynamic. Although it feels bad to be left for cheating, it would feel even worse to try your hardest to be a good partner and still be abandoned because you’re inherently unlovable — something you feel certain, on some level, will come to pass unless you instigate the end of the relationship sooner. This has the effect of confirming all your negative perceptions of yourself, but also provides a kind of safety; you feel reassured that your understanding of relationships is accurate, and you don’t risk true vulnerability by genuinely trying to make a relationship work and putting your heart on the line.
If any of this is resonating with you, it’s imperative that you seek some kind of therapy that works with you to directly address and heal your attachment wounds. This kind of deep-seated relational pattern is common, and not your fault, but also something that can’t be “fixed” by just becoming more aware and mindful of it; until you do real work on this in therapy, it will continue cropping up in your intimate relationships.
You want to be in this relationship — but not exclusively
I almost hesitate to add this, because I think there already exist too many unfortunate conflations of cheating and consensual, ethical non-monogamy. It’s common for people to assume that any non-monogamous dynamic is tantamount to cheating, when in fact the harm of cheating comes from the non-consensual and thus violating nature of it. It’s also common for inveterate cheaters to blame their transgressions on a non-monogamous nature, claiming that they just aren’t meant to be monogamous, even implying that it was the cheated-on partner’s own fault for trying to “force” them to be monogamous against their natural way of life.
While the vast majority of the latter are simply dodging accountability — if they’re truly non-monogamous by nature, they could easily seek out relationships with other non-monogamous people, or broach the topic of changing relationship dynamics with their current partner — there are some people who want to build an ethically non-monogamous lifestyle and are just executing it poorly and harming their partner in the meantime.
How to tell if this is you (or your partner)? Relationship therapy or couples counseling would likely be very helpful; it can help you and your partner determine whether you want to try to work through this violation of trust, and if you do, whether your relationship to monogamy could be an element at play. In the meantime, though, try asking yourself these questions: In an imagined world where you and your partner are open or non-monogamous, and the indiscretion you’ve had isn’t an indiscretion at all, how do you feel about your partner doing the same? If you fully and vividly imagine your partner scheduling dates with other people, getting dolled up for them in your shared bathroom, and maybe spending the night elsewhere, does it feel a little uncomfortable, but like something you’re willing to work through? Or does it feel unbearable?
Similarly, if you imagine yourself in a fully and intentionally non-monogamous arrangement, you’re signing up for a high level of continuous and mindful communication and sharing. Picture yourself sitting your partner down for a dedicated check-in: you’re telling them how things are going with the other person you’re seeing, how serious you see it becoming or not; maybe you’re telling them that you’ve met someone else you’re interested in and want to ask them out, and maybe your partner is telling you the same. How does this scenario feel? Is it acceptable, or odious? Does the idea of seeing other people in this circumstance still have appeal? Or does it feel like this level of communication has “taken all the fun out of it,” and the thrill was mostly located in the secrecy and subterfuge?
If it’s the latter in either of these scenarios, it may be that you’re less interested in non-monogamy than you’re getting something out of the self-destructive thrill of lying; you may want to revisit item number 2 in this article. A relationship therapist could be helpful in discernment here, and in helping you both figure out the next steps depending on what you decide.