People in monogamous relationships often experience a visceral reaction to the idea of their partner cheating on them. Even single people will feel a pang at the thought of their future love leaving them for another. Cheating is a unique type of betrayal because it threatens the physical, emotional and mental sanctity of your body. When we commit to a person in a relationship, we are essentially allowing them exclusive access to our body. This is why so many people fall into a pattern of dependency with their partner, relying on them to feel happy and secure. Unfortunately, this mentality often has the opposite effect in the long-term. Whether we are in a relationship or not, we continue to grow and develop as individuals. Eventually, one person is growing in a direction that doesn’t naturally complement their partner. The outcome of this situation is often a “push-pull” effect: one person holds on to what they expect or want of their partner, causing them to pull farther away into who they actually are.
This painting by Leonid Afremov is a visual metaphor for how our bodies blur together when we are passionately in love. In those rare occasions when we truly let ourselves go, we are able to get lost in the other person temporarily. This is arguably one of the greatest human experiences we can have. The problem occurs when we expect our relationship to feel this way all the time, resulting in inevitable disappointment. What’s actually happening is a self-created delusion. We learn that losing yourself in love feels good, relieves stress, and takes away insecurities. Later, we realize those negative things still exist when we don’t have the distracting presence of love, and like a drug, we crave our next hit.
So what happens to the love couples have when one person decides to cheat?
People who have experienced cheating describe feeling a mixture of betrayal, shame and disgust. The most immediate thoughts often center on, “Why am I not good enough?” Considering how the blurring of boundaries in a relationship, it makes sense why we feel like insecure victims. We are left with bruised egos, crushed expectations, and the heavy burden of re-evaluating our lives. Many of us end up “giving love a second chance.” We assume it is our fault somehow. The person lies to you, betrays your relationship, and has sex with someone else, yet somehow it is your fault? Sure, in some cases it is purely physical, and the other person is Angelina Jolie. So what? That is no reason to find flaws in yourself. Jennifer Aniston is still gorgeous without Brad Pitt. There are many beautiful people in the world, just because someone cheats on you doesn’t somehow devalue who you are. On the contrary, I think it is far more compelling evidence in support of the other person’s issues. Nevertheless, I don’t think judgment of the cheater is worth much time either. The overarching point I want to make is that there is one common underlying issue with all cheaters: the unwillingness to sacrifice immediate gain for shared future goals.
We get into monogamous relationships to build a life together. Whether you want children or not, we ascribe to the ideology of monogamy because we value meaningful connection with another person who values similar things. A cheater sends the message that their satisfaction in the moment is more important than any commitments in the future. So when you are considering whether you want to take someone back who has broken your trust, it is important to understand what it is exactly they are denying you. Instead of focusing on insecurities about our appearance or social image, we should assess the most important issue: why we are in a relationship in the first place. This is the paradox of cheating. We actively choose to commit to someone, yet the action of cheating negates the very point of our investment.
No matter how in love you are, neither one of you has ownership of the other’s body. We may buy into the illusion because possessiveness can mask itself as security, giving us fleeting feelings of being in an unbreakable bond. In reality, the only thing your partner truly owes you is the integrity of their commitment to your shared future. I argue that “not cheating” is just a natural sacrifice of a committed relationship, much like enduring bad habits, evil mother-in-laws or financial crises. We all have the option to cheat if we want it, we choose not to when we believe the future is worth the sacrifice.