Daniel Maldonado
Cheating: why are we unfaithful?

Cheating: why are we unfaithful?

Couples swear allegiance to one other and then cheat, both men and women. There are plausible reasons for fantasising about infidelity

Matías Stuber


Monday, 23 October 2023

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The word 'affair' in a relationship comes as a sledgehammer blow from above. With a broad shockwave it tortures both the cheater and the cheated with negative feelings such as mental stress, pain, bad conscience, jealousy, anger, bitterness and, in the worst case, with the ruin of entire families.

Sexual relations outside the usual partnership and their consequences have always been a common thread in history and literature. In former times it was the lascivious wife who paid the price for an extramarital encounter. Rejection, expulsion, poverty, dishonour and, in many cases, even physical death awaited her. For centuries, it was not accepted by society. Affairs outside the relationship are related to desire and pleasure. Nietzsche already pointed out that all desire seeks eternity. That is why, for Oscar Wilde, happy marriages consisted of more than two people. In order to relieve women of guilt, attempts were made to justify their actions by relating men to macho attitudes in which women were simply treated as if they were the property of a specific person.

In Western culture, these arguments have weakened. Liberal democracies have moved what happens in bed to the private sphere. Only in paternalistic societies or dictatorial regimes is infidelity still punished as it was in the Middle Ages.

Statistically, the number of married men and women who have been unfaithful at least once is growing. Women have even overtaken men in this respect. But not everyone seeks their luck outside the narrow confines of monogamy because of a specific shortcoming. Many say they are happy with the relationship they have. Free from obedience to a supposedly higher authority, free from moral imperatives, what then are the reasons that lead to infidelity?

Esther del Moral, sexologist, explains the following reasons: "In long-term relationships, one of the things that is impossible to sustain is novelty. You can have a long-term relationship in which you have active sex with your partner, you can have sex in which you feel a lot of satisfaction, have a lot of security... but the novelty part is impossible to sustain. Seeking sex with another person is very present in us and is a very powerful activator of desire."

Daily obligations, worries about the children or work. Ingredients that emerge as elements that stifle the passion between two people. Especially once the phase of falling in love has passed. When the intoxication of feelings is diluted, the field opens up to seek outside what one believes one does not have at home. This is where, say the experts, the desire for more passionate sexual relations arises.

"Sometimes, we look outside for an experience, not only of sexual contact, but also a way of bonding with another person in a different way than we do with our partner," says Del Moral. The sexologist also refers to the initial state of falling in love and compares it to an "alienation". "Neither you are the same person you always were nor is the other person. You are both giving the best version of yourself," she adds.

Routine, she explains, might be essential and helps to cope with day-to-day life. Certainty, knowing what is coming, makes people save energy. But that, logically, is not exciting. Especially in something like sex, where animal instincts are present. A world closer to the animal, a basic conditioner for carnal desire and to deactivate the signals emitted by reason.

Concept of a partner

In the essay 'Parejas y rupturas en la España actual' (Couples and break-ups in modern-day Spain), family sociologist Luis Ayuso puts forward other arguments related to the transformation of the concept of the couple. "One of the most significant changes refers to the fact that, traditionally, the couple was formed on objectifiable issues, visible to third parties and around which relations between the sexes were institutionalised. Nowadays, on the other hand, the importance is given to subjective, emotional and communicative elements, with less need for social approval," he says.

Along these lines, Ayuso details that the "ideal type of classic couple that arises in modernity refers to the union of two people (monogamous), mainly a man and a woman, linked by an ethos of romantic love that gives meaning to the relationship (...). However, this ideal type is currently facing several debates due to the trends of the new digital society," he explains.

Digitalisation is emerging as a helpful tool. Apps such as Tinder or others, which directly channel specific desires and interests, make it much easier to break the traditional framework. Being unfaithful no longer means being an outcast of society. There is another element that has increased the risk of losing one's partner. With women adapting to the world of work, marriage loses, in part, the function of security it once treasured. The chain of dependency established by the old role distribution has been broken.

Elisa Godino, a couples therapist with a practice in Malaga, relates infidelity to the "type of attachment we had with our caregivers as children". "If our bond was more ambivalent, we need to feel very connected to the other person. If something is lacking and we don't feel important or cared for, we may look for that outside," she adds.

On a sexual level, he says that more confident and self-assured couples can talk openly about it to "try to strengthen sexual bonds" and avoid becoming sexually detached.

In a couple's relationship, says Godino, what guides everything are the codes that have been set between the two. If you opt for a monogamous relationship, infidelity "is one of the worst traumas you can have because it is provoked by one of the figures you have the greatest bond with". "Overcoming that situation of infidelity requires help in many cases because our brain gets stuck in that trauma and that doesn't help," he says.

In this context, a lot of suffering could be avoided if the occasional desire for another person is identified more as a troublemaker that one learns to control. Sexologist Arun Mansuhkani reminds us that fantasy almost always tends to exceed reality. Desire is based on an idealised perception of the other person, which then often turns out not to be true.

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