In my previous posting to this site I discussed the ways in which men who engage in sexual infidelity justify their behavior. Essentially, they tell themselves that what they are doing does not qualify as cheating because they’re only hooking up online, or they’re only having oral sex, or whatever. They seem to think that if they’re not having in-person vaginal/anal intercourse, then they’re not betraying the trust of their spouse or partner. Or they believe that evolution has programmed them to spread their seed as widely as possible, regardless of negative consequences to a primary relationship. Or they think that what their spouse or partner doesn’t know about can’t possibly be a problem – despite the fact that the emotional distancing that accompanies cheating is incredibly destructive to relationships. Etc.
Sadly, even when the lies that men tell themselves to justify sexual infidelity are debunked, they often continue with their behavior. This begs the question: Why do men really cheat? Why do they start cheating? And why do they continue to cheat even after they’ve been caught and experienced reprisals?
In general, a man who engages in sexual infidelity (the keeping of sexual secrets in an intimate partnership) does so for one or more of the following reasons.
- He has some sociopathic tendencies (i.e., he lies without remorse). Sometimes a man never intends to be monogamous, despite his stated commitment to fidelity. He either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care that a vow of monogamy is a sacrifice made to and for the relationship and the other person. He sees monogamy as something to be worked around rather than a promise to be upheld no matter what. In short, he wants to have his cake and eat it too, regardless of the outcome.
- He is insecure and/or narcissistic. Sometimes a man secretly feels that he is too old (or too young), not rich enough, not powerful enough, not handsome enough, etc. As such, he may seek out an endless stream of experiences that cause him to feel desired and wanted. Essentially, he uses extramarital sex as a way to bolster his foundering ego and feel better about himself (albeit briefly).
- He is reenacting early-life trauma – neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc. – in some way. In other words, his childhood and adolescent wounds have created attachment issues that leave him either unable or unwilling to fully commit to one person. Or he may be using the intense excitement and distraction of sexual infidelity as a way to self-soothe the pain of both old wounds and current stress and emotional discomfort.
- He is sexually addicted. Sometimes a man has ongoing problems with alcohol, drugs or an addictive behavior, and this affects his decision-making. For instance, alcohol is a disinhibitor that occasionally facilitates bad sexual decisions. Or he may be sexually addicted, meaning he compulsively engages in sexual fantasies and behaviors as a way to numb out – i.e., as a way to not feel stress, emotional discomfort and/or the pain of underlying psychological conditions like depression, anxiety, unresolved trauma, etc.
- He doesn’t understand the difference between love and sex. Sometimes a man mistakes the neurochemical rush of early romance (i.e., limerence) for love. He just plain doesn’t understand that in a healthy long-term relationship limerence is replaced over time with less intense but ultimately more meaningful intimacy – honesty, trust, emotional connection, etc.
- He wants to end his current relationship in a passive/indirect way. Sometimes a man who wants out of his relationship will cheat in an effort to “send the message.” Usually a man like this is emotionally immature and afraid of healthy confrontation, so he opts for what looks like the easy way out. (That viewpoint is wildly inaccurate, of course.) Even a man who is not afraid of confrontation may choose to cheat before the end his current relationship, simply because he doesn’t want to be alone – i.e., he wants to have a “replacement relationship” lined up before he ends his existing relationship.
- He has unrealistic expectations. Sometimes a man thinks his spouse should fulfill his every need and desire, 24/7/365. He doesn’t understand that his spouse or partner may also have a busy life. When his significant other inevitably fail in this “duty” to keep him perpetually satisfied, he seeks fulfilment elsewhere.
- He lacks male social support. Sometimes a man drastically undervalues his need for supportive friendships with other men. He expects all of his emotional needs to be met by his wife or partner. He doesn’t understand that he also needs the support provided by healthy male-bonding. When he doesn’t get that support, he seeks external sources that may be sexual in nature.
- He is selfish and self-entitled. Sometimes a man thinks he deserves something special that is just for him – a few hours with porn, or an affair, or a prostitute, or whatever. Usually he feels put-upon in some way (overworked, unappreciated, undervalued, etc.), and he uses this feeling to justify a “well-deserved reward.”
Sadly, most of the men who engage in sexual infidelity have little to no understanding of the damage their behavior is causing. One study of wives who had recently learned about their husband’s serial infidelity found that most of these women experienced acute stress symptoms characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder. Serious stuff! And this is true whether the infidelity takes place online or in-the-flesh.
Needless to say, the emotional and psychological damage wrought by sexual infidelity is difficult to overcome, even with the help of an experienced psychotherapist. Nevertheless, many relationships do survive sexual infidelity – even serial sexual infidelity – as long as the cheater is committed to a future life of honesty and lasting behavior change, and both partners are committed to a process of healing and renewing relationship trust.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and coauthor with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.