Brace yourselves: another celebrity has admitted to having an affair. Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted that he fathered a child with a household staffer while he and Maria Shriver were married. It happened ten years ago but was revealed this year. Maria moved out immediately, and now they’re planning to divorce.
I wonder, though, if cheating has to mean the end of a relationship. I think it’s a complicated question, although to some the answer is a simple and automatic, “yes.” Delving deeper into the question requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to acknowledge your hurt and to look at what you made it mean about you when your partner cheated. Let’s look at some of the reasons people cheat.
They’re bored sexually. Variety is the spice of life and an essential component to sexual satisfaction in the long run. Men are visual creatures; they are stimulated by visual variety. Over time, people who are bored sexually begin to believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.
They’re feeling neglected sexually. People have different libidos; the person with the more active libido in a relationship inevitably suffers, because the person with the lowest libido controls the amount of sex the couple has. While cheating isn’t the only solution, it is a common one.
They feel unappreciated by their partner. This is a deeper problem than the first two. With the first two reasons, it’s purely sexual. The partner may be perfectly content to be socially monogamous. But when someone feels unappreciated by their partner, turning to another person for attention and support starts you down a slippery slope that often ends the original relationship.
They’re getting back at their partner for an earlier betrayal (revenge). This is the most emotionally immature reason to cheat. If someone cheats out of revenge, they probably don’t have the maturity to work out an alternative solution to divorce.
They feel incapable of monogamy. Some people are hard-wired to have multiple partners. The truth is that humans are not naturally monogamous. Very few (maybe 5 percent) are committed monogamists, another 5 percent or so are utterly incapable of monogamy, and the rest of us fall somewhere in between. Determine where you stand and be sure your agreements match your desire.
They secretly want the relationship to end. The person cheating may not even realize they want the relationship to end, but they sabotage it by cheating. This happens when the person either doesn’t take the time to process their emotions or is ashamed or embarrassed (usually due to cultural or familial beliefs) at the thought of divorcing.
Many people believe that if their partner cheats, it means the end of the relationship. It doesn’t have to be that way, in my opinion. Instead, try to consider it a cry for help. You’re likely to need professional assistance in moving to the next stage of your relationship. You’ll have to be willing to dig deeply into the dynamics of your relationship, and you’ll have to be willing to forgive your partner. You’ll have to learn how to trust each other again . . . yes, both of you will have to learn how to trust the other. Here are three steps to moving past an affair and healing your relationship.
Understand all the components of your reaction to the affair. You may feel betrayed, jealous, embarrassed, angry, afraid . . . look at all aspects of your reaction. Use a journal as well as a coach or therapist to understand and own all of your feelings. Understanding and owning your feelings is the first step in forgiving your partner and yourself.
Learn to communicate authentically with your partner so they understand how the affair impacted you, and so you understand what led them down that road in the first place. Rarely is cheating only, or even primarily, about sex. If you don’t delve into the underlying dynamics, you’re doomed to repeat the pattern. Authentic communication is one of the keys to a successful long-term relationship.
Commit to making changes that ensure honesty in your relationship. Whether it means changing your agreement to allow for extracurricular sex, or changing your behavior in the bedroom to bring the excitement back into your sex lives, make agreements together to improve the relationship. Extend these changes past the bedroom to create an extraordinary relationship.
And finally, whether you decide to work things out or not, know that romantic relationships are the crucible through which we uncover our true selves. Go through the three steps of moving past an affair even if you have to do it on your own, so that you don’t have to repeat the pattern with your next partner.