Cheating can totally destroy a relationship. And though there's a lot of debate about why people cheat, it typically comes from the point of view of the wronged partner trying to understand their partner's actions — it's less common to talk about the motivation from the perspective of the cheater. But the truth is, even if you've cheated, you may not even understand why you did it.
“There is not one single reason or path for cheating in a relationship," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and Host of The Kurre and Klapow Show tells Bustle. "However, there are a collection of very distinct psychological patterns that cover the vast majority of reasons why people cheat."
And for many, cheating turns into a cycle. Once you start doing it, it doesn't seem like as big of a transgression. It's easier to do it in your next relationship and the next one and the one after that — especially if you don't fully understand or confront the issues behind it. If you realize that you're in a cheating cycle, it's important to confront the issue ASAP.
"I think if you find yourself cheating in every relationship, it’s time to admit you have a problem!" relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, tells Bustle. And, if it's not addressed, it's likely to continue.
So how can you break out of a cheating cycle? Here's what to keep in mind, according to experts.
Identify The Problem
It's important to identify the reason why you're cheating first — and that's different for everybody. "Sometimes it’s about a compulsive relationship to sex and/or a need for constant validation," Hartstein says. "Sometimes it’s about risk-taking. But often it’s a way to ward off intimacy. If you are used to always cheating in a relationship then keeping it closed and monogamous is going to feel emotionally scary."
Some people also cheat to avoid conflict. "People cheat often out of fear of facing conflict," Dr. Klapow says. "They know there are problems in the relationship. They have dabbled with addressing them. They don’t see a change, but they don’t know how to dive in deep with their partner to address conflicts in the relationship. Cheating allows them to escape."
Perhaps one of the trickier reasons for cheating is to hurt your spouse. "Instead of addressing their anger directly with their [partner], they feel justified in cheating as a way to 'even the score,' If they are unhappy in their marriage but too afraid to end it, they may cheat in hopes (conscious or subconscious) of getting caught," Lauren Dummit, LMFT, co-founder and clinical director at Triune Therapy Group, tells Bustle. It's pretty grim — but it happens.
If none of these reasons strike a chord with you, pay attention to what happens the next time you get the urge to stray. "Once you start to feel the pull of cheating, try to figure out what’s stimulating it," Hartsein says. "The thrill? Are you feeling too intimate and vulnerable with your new partner?" Maybe it's that you do it when you're angry with your partner or when you want to break up with them but don't feel brave enough. Instead of cheating, try to take a breath and identify the root cause — that's the first step toward getting somewhere.
Be Open About The Problem
Once you have a sense of why you want to cheat, you can start to be open about it. "Be honest and open with yourself that you have a problem," Hartsein says. "If you can be open and honest with your new partner that can really help too." Try to be honest with yourself about times that you've cheated and the pain that's caused people — rather than brushing it aside. Then, talk to your partner about your history and your urges so you have a chance to face the situation as a team.
If you're currently single, try talking to friends or confiding in someone you care about to get their input and support.
Address The Problem
Finally, it's time to address the problem. Obviously, the way that you confront the issue will depend on its cause — if you do it to punish your partner, you may need to confront your anger issues and you definitely need to start communicating more. If you want to break up with your partner and you don't have the nerve to, it's time to get more comfortable ending things that aren't working. But no matter what the cause — and especially if there are issues with intimacy or communication — it may be helpful to consider getting a professional involved. Licensed marriage and family therapist Meredith Silversmith tells Bustle that some people should consider seeing a couple's therapist to help them identify and deal with the root causes of cheating, If you feel like you can break the cycle through talking to your partner, that's great — but if it's been a habit for a long time, then don't be ashamed to seek out professional help.
A cheating cycle can be a terrible place to be — both for you and your partners. So if you find yourself doing it again and again, it may be time for some brutal honesty. Find out what appeals to you about cheating, what itch your trying to scratch, then reach out for the help you need to resolve those issues.