IS IT ONLY HUMAN TO CHEAT? Keep an open mind for this in-depth look at cheating and why it isn’t always black or white.
Cheater = monster, right? Not so fast—there are more nuances to infidelity than we allow ourselves to think.
Nadia* knows all too well the savage destruction infidelity brings—she has been cheated on four times, and it has hurt like a motherf*cker each time. When with friends, she swears off the offending exes; to her, they are dead and their good standing with her could never be redeemed.
That is easy enough for her to say when the vino is flowing and the girlfriends are blubbering about their own romantic sorrows at the hands of men. What is harder for Nadia to declare is that she was once a cheater herself.
Granted, she was a teenager then, it was her first relationship, she didn’t know any better. But bottomline was, she still cheated: went behind a boyfriend’s back, lied to him about being home when she was really out with another man, and felt the thrill of being with someone and the ensuing guilt of having betrayed the other.
But Nadia doesn’t consider herself a bad person. She made mistakes, that much she admits, but a bad person? The kind of despicable, morally inept monster that the grapevine and relationship articles paint out to be? Surely not. Which is why she’s not so certain she should paint her cheating exes as such, either.
It is easy to bandy moral absolutes around when talking about cheating, because for people who’ve been devastated by infidelity, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that someone you loved so much could hurt you so hard. But to dismiss the cheater as inherently bad is grossly oversimplifying why cheating happens in the first place.
Evolution is in the Equation
Selena Gomez may lament that the heart wants what it wants, but when it comes to love, it’s really the brain that does all that wanting, and it doesn’t just want one thing— it wants three things.
“Humans have evolved three brain systems related to mating and reproduction: first is lust or sex drive, second is romance, and third is attachment,” says Dr. RJ Taduran, biological anthropologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia. “Lust makes us look for lovers that would help us pass on our genes to the next generation; romance enables us to focus all our time and energy to a love interest; and attachment brings us feelings of security and assurance with a partner.”
Here’s the zinger: Dr. Taduran says that “these brain systems are not always connected to each other, so it is possible to feel lust, romance, and attachment toward different persons at the same time.”
With all these desires playing a tug-of-war within us, it’s no wonder monogamy seems like a concept at odds with human nature.
Frances Ramos, cultural anthropologist at the University of the Philippines Diliman, says, “Monogamy is unnatural in the sense that it defines the boundaries within which sexual intercourse can take place.” But then again, could you imagine if we didn’t have monogamy to keep our libidos in line? “Without the constraints of monogamy, the rules of engagement vis-à-vis sexual intercourse are up in the air, and people are expected to have multiple partners and more libertine attitudes toward fidelity,” she goes on.
Dismissing the cheater as inherently bad grossly oversimplifies why cheating happens.
inside The Mind of a cheater
Given that we grew up in a society that practices monogamy yet we’ve all been equipped with these desirous brain systems, how come not all of us end up actually straying? What makes some people go against their better judgment, disregard relationship rules, make like that classmate in college algebra, and cheat?
Speaking to TIME, Mira Kirshenbaum, psychotherapist and author of When Good People Have Affairs: Inside the Hearts & Minds of People in Two
Relationships, reveals this about her clients who have had affairs: “People say, ‘I never meant for this to happen.’ They’re being honest when they say that. Typically, they’re in a committed relationship, but they aren’t perfectly happy. No one who was perfectly happy in their primary relationship gets into a second one.”
Aileen Santos, relationship coach at aileensantos.com, says that people who cheat do so primarily because of unresolved personal issues—not because of the relationship they had found themselves in. “They’re grappling with issues within themselves,” she says. “And they would have done so with or without a partner—whether they were married or not married, in a good relationship or in a bad relationship.”
Psychotherapist Dr. Esther Perel is more optimistic about infidelity as a path to achieving the transformation a troubled person ultimately seeks. In a piece in The Atlantic adapted from her New York Times bestselling book The
State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, she shares the story of a client in a great marriage to a great guy who nonetheless is cheating on her spouse with a man who “drives a truck and has tattoos.”
“As I listen to her, I start to suspect that her affair is about neither her husband nor their relationship,” Dr. Perel writes. “Her story echoes a theme that has come up repeatedly in my work: affairs as a form of self-discovery, a quest for a new (or lost) identity. For these seekers, infidelity is less likely to be a symptom of a problem, and more likely an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation.”
“Love is messy; infidelity more so,” Dr. Perel concedes. “But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.”
It looks like the cheater-cheatee dichotomy as monster versus angel is not as clear-cut as the grapevine and relationship articles would have you believe. In the midst of the mess created by infidelity is one person’s inner crisis, of which the attempt to resolve, unfortunately, leaves at least one heart broken in its wake.
Banish cheating from your Bond
It’s clearer now that cheaters are just struggling souls like, well, basically the entire human population. Still, no one wants to welcome a person into their world only to have it turned upside down by deception. So how can you avoid getting involved with someone who’ll eventually just sleep around?
The solution is simply to get to know a person before committing. It might sound basic, but you’d be surprised how many people bypass the basics just because they’ve fallen hard.
“You have to know a partner well enough to know that it is in their nature to be committed and to be a person of their word,” Santos recommends. And it’s not enough to know your partner— you should know yourself enough to realize what traits you value in a partner, too. “When people are not selfaware, they choose the kind of partner that they’re just excited to be around; they don’t look at whether or not they’re really going to be happy in this relationship in the long term.”
Once you’ve found someone you’re sure won’t be banging other girls behind your back, it still pays to have an honest conversation to find out what counts as cheating for both of you and set boundaries from there on out. Because while all-day texting with a male friend might be NBD for you, for your guy, it might be a stab in the gut.
What if you’re already in a relation- ship yourself, and you fear that you’ll someday find yourself careening off the straight and narrow and ending up in Cheatersville? Know that it’s only natural to feel a little tingle when that cute coworker’s around, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless to resist his charms. You always have a choice. You’re equipped with a conscience after all; you’re capable of higher thought; you can make that choice to turn away before that little tingle grows into full-blown lust.
To cheat may be human, but to stay faithful to a partner you’ve promised your loyalty to is not only divine—it feels fantastic.