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Is Cheating an Addiction?

These days, people love characterizing everything as an addiction, from the frivolous to the frightening. In pop culture parlance, you can be a rage-aholic, a shop-aholic, and a choc-aholic. Addictions are serious things, but is cheating an addiction?
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After Governor Mark Sanford abandoned his state and his family to be with his mistress in Argentina, people applauded his long-suffering wife Jenny for kicking his lying butt to the curb. Yet even as she denounced his affair, she gave him a big gift … she called his cheating “an addiction.” 

Addiction is the inability to discontinue reckless or harmful behavior. Addicts can’t stop themselves from self-destructing, whatever their choice of poison may be. We don’t fully understand addiction yet, but we do know that there are genetic components, as well as social factors, that can contribute to addiction. When people think about addictions, the most common ones are usually drugs and alcohol. We know that physical addictions to alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes can literally change a person’s brain chemistry, shutting down certain areas of functioning. Physical addictions also alter nerve pathways to the brain’s pleasure centers, causing horrible withdrawal symptoms if people try to quit. 

Even though people also claim addictions to the internet, junk food, and sex, the American Psychiatric Association’s chief reference guide, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), does not officially recognize these as legitimate mental conditions. Mental health experts realize that many people struggle with these issues, so they classify them as impulse control disorders, a category that also contains pyromania (fire starting), kleptomania (compulsive stealing), pathological gambling, and shopping. Impulse control disorders are considered to be part of the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorders, and they are marked by sufferers seeking a short-term gain, even at the expense of a long-term loss. For example, pathological gamblers and compulsive shoppers are psychologically attached to the endorphin rush of rolling the dice or making a big purchase, and even though they know that their actions have negative consequences, they can’t help themselves. 

For some mental health professionals, it’s hard to think of cheating as a true addiction, and as a result, it can be hard to find any reputable information on the subject. Some professionals are reluctant to call it an addiction because it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what serial cheaters are addicted to. Some cheaters are lured by sex, while some others just seek the thrill of breaking rules. Some serial cheaters are bored by their current partners or have difficulty making a commitment to a relationship. Doctors speculate that some serial cheaters can be psychologically addicted to the “high” that accompanies new love—that flood of dopamine and norepinephrine that makes being in love feel so warm and fuzzy, yet thrilling and exhilarating. 

Disorder, or Deflection?
The attraction of labeling a behavior as an addiction is that it can partially absolve people of personal responsibility, and implies that people have no choice about their behavior. Social psychologists and cultural critics lament the rise of new addictions because it allows people to blame their bad behavior on an external cause, instead of taking responsibility for their actions. Normally, infidelity is a shameful act, but when you’re an addict, it’s the disorder’s fault, not yours. A culture in which everything is excused and rationalized as a disease or “syndrome” is a culture in which free will takes a back seat. Having free will means the ability to make choices, but some people inevitably make poor ones. The people who don’t make bad choices, and who manage to control their temptations, can take offense to the idea that giving in to every whim is a disorder that can’t be helped. They look at pseudo-addictions as a cowardly rationalization of bad behavior.  

Governor Sanford was unfaithful to his wife, as many men have been before. Does that qualify him as an addict? Calling his cheating an addiction makes it seem like he was a helpless slave to his passions, rather than a grown man who made a bad decision. Cynics say that it’s more likely that he’s simply a narcissist, his inflated ego leading him to believe that he’s entitled to have affairs. Others speculate that he’s just a regular sex addict, even though he doesn’t fit the profile for a typical sufferer. Sex addicts are usually adults who were abused as children, and often use sex as a pain or anxiety-reliever, not getting much pleasure from the act at all. In fact, they are more likely to feel shame and regret, even having sex with people when they don’t want to. 

Even though psychiatry doesn’t recognize sex or cheating as legitimate addictions, there’s no question that for some people, these behaviors are destructive and detrimental to their lives. Their actions hurt their families, their partnerships, and their jobs. There are support groups, such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, which aim to help people with sexual impulse problems learn to take control of their lives, and many people have found comfort and solace in these organizations. To put shame or stigma on true addictions is to discourage sufferers from seeking help, and those whose self-destructive actions are negatively affecting their lives deserve some kind of treatment. 

Many conditions take a while before the psychiatric community accepts them, and our understanding of the brain is an ever-changing process, in which we’re learning more and more every day. Future editions of the DSM may, in fact, accept infidelity as an addiction, just as they may accept internet addiction, thrill-seeking addiction, or a host of other yet-to-be-determined conditions. Of course, I’m no doctor, so it’s hard to know whether Gov. Sanford is a cheating addict, a sex addict, a narcissist, or something else. There’s only one thing that certain—he’s a lousy husband.

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