Why Would They Cheat in a Good Marriage?

Betrayal and infidelity leaves most of us wondering, “why?”

If you type “why did they cheat on me” into Google, there are 259 million results. Anyone who has ever been cheated on has probably found themselves asking, Why? Why did they cheat on me?!  Some of us get answers, but sometimes there isn’t any rhyme or reason (at least not one our partner can name for us), and we find ourselves online at two in the morning asking the internet for help. 

One woman wrote to me asking for insight into her husband’s infidelity. Her husband of ten years had an affair the previous year. She asked, “Can you give insight on why a man with two beautiful daughters, a decent marriage, thriving business and supportive family might choose to have an affair?” 

Betrayals and affairs are incredibly challenging and still sort of taboo to even talk about, and the most difficult idea to accept is that the person who cheated is not a villain. We’re all capable of lying and cheating. We wouldn’t want to admit it, because we’re just terrified of that part of ourselves that’s capable of hurting. Instead of turning toward it, we hide any deviance or sexual desires in the shadows, and then they come out in situations like cheating. 

There are many reasons why people cheat (hence the 259 million Google hits). And we can comb through each and every one of those reasons, but in this woman’s particular situation, there’s no way of knowing if it actually was “a decent marriage,” or whether a decent marriage was fulfilling for that person. What we identify as a “great relationship” may not actually be that great at all. Maybe you’ve seen people who are married for seventy-five years and effing hate each other. They don’t talk, they don’t really even acknowledge or pay attention to each other. But as soon as one person works up the courage to leave, we all go, “I don’t know why they left. Can you believe this?!” 

Cheating can be a way of sabotaging things, especially for someone who feels trapped in their life, or feels like they don’t have a “valid” reason for leaving the relationship. As a society, we still shame people who decide to leave a relationship. It doesn’t matter the reason, we still throw them in a tank and tell them they don’t deserve to find love again. 

Cheating can also be a way of getting attention. If you’ve been together for a decade, the demands of work and family may have made it hard to spend time together. Maybe you’ve gotten into a rut and aren’t sure how to get out of it. In some instances, people leave relationships without actually leaving them by starving their partner of connection. Then they wonder why the partner goes off and has an affair. For some, misbehavior was how they got attention growing up, so they step out of the relationship knowing on some level that even the punishment they’ll get is a form of attention and love. 

There’s no arguing that infidelity and lying are destructive to both individuals and relationships. And yet it serves a purpose if we’re willing to turn toward it and notice the truths brought forward. 

Sometimes we create this reality where we believe we’re in a good relationship, but in actuality things are not okay. The infidelity or betrayal makes us realize things were not as they seemed. We were asleep. We weren’t noticing. Pain and grief causes us to notice what we may have missed. It shows us how to pay attention to life. It sucks and it hurts, but it’s also a gift. 

In our society we’re taught you shouldn’t feel negative feelings. We’re taught that if you feel bad, there’s something wrong with you. If you’re hurt, then there’s something wrong with you. But if we’re constantly chasing positivity and ignoring the other side of the coin, we’re not actually grounded or paying attention. Grief, pain, dysfunction, and things falling apart causes us to drop the chase and see it for what it is. Some people turn to numbing agents to avoid actually feeling what comes up when you’re in the depths of grief, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, sex, video games, porn, overeating or overspending, whatever your flavor. If you actually stay sober in those moments, take a deep breath, and pay attention, you’ll find an invitation to feel, to sit still, to slow down. 

And in these moments we can investigate the questions we may have been avoiding: What is actually going on? When did I stop noticing the truth? Why did my husband have an affair? Why did I have an affair? Why do I inappropriately text people? Where am I out of integrity and why? What will it take for me to get back into integrity? What matters to me in life? What do I value? How do I want to live my life? 

We sometimes forget to ask the important questions until things start to fall apart. Some people will go back to sleep, turning back to their old numbing agents. But if you open up and pay attention in those moments, you can wake up to who you are and what you actually want. The stereotypical ‘mid-life crisis’ often afflicts those who never stopped to question what it is they actually want out of life. They wake up at age forty-five or fifty-five in a story that wasn’t theirs, and have to figure out how to live in a system that doesn’t accommodate change. A society that says divorced people suck and if your relationship falls apart you’re a disaster. But none of that is actually true. What’s true is that relationships end. There’s no need to sugarcoat it, or pretend it doesn’t happen. And there’s definitely no need to judge anyone for the end of a relationship.