How To Stop Cheating: A Sex Therapist's Guide
It's easy to assume that everyone who cheats is just a bad person. But the truth is, cheating is much more common than many of us think: One 2015 study found one in five people admit to having cheated on a past partner. And it's important to remember that infidelity is based on dishonesty, so those who are surveyed may also lie to any researchers who try to investigate this question—so if one in five people are admitting to cheating behavior, it stands to reason that many more might have done it but refuse to tell.
In other words, cheating is very common. To chalk up the entire phenomenon of cheating to just a few rare bad eggs who can't be helped does everyone a disservice. As a society, we don't entertain any conversation about why cheating happens, which makes it all the harder for people who cheat to make sense of their actions, make proper amends, and seek to be better in the future.
Cheaters don't wake up in the morning and think about how they want to hurt their partner that day. (If they do, we are talking about someone who is a sexual narcissist or who is psychopathic—not "infidelic." Yes, I just made up that word.) A 2019 survey by Ashley Madison (who I work with as a resident relationship expert) found 96% of its affair-seeking members don't think of themselves as having low morals. That suggests many people who cheat aren't "bad" people but simply people who've made decisions that have hurt others. Some of these folks do want to change, but the problem is they feel they can't end their affairs without help.
Here's what to do. As with any harmful behavior, the key to stopping cheating on your partner rests on exercising your emotional skills. Whatever got you here, if you're currently in an affair, here are seven tips for how to stop cheating for good:
1. Figure out what you want.
Take a good hard look at your situation. Are you cheating to stay in your relationship or because you want out?
Some affairs are what I call "can openers"—a way to end your partnership even when you didn't know you wanted out. It's an unconscious way to wake yourself up to the fact that it really is over. Sometimes partners who feel they don't have a voice in a relationship will have an affair and realize they have been unhappy in their relationship all along, and this affair becomes the catalyst for a breakup, a way to find their voice, to finally express a need or desire, or to say to their spouse, "I'm done."
If you've been using this affair as a key to what you consider a closed-door relationship, be honest with yourself and with your partner. Tell them you want out and then have the new relationship you're seeking. Don't swing from branch to branch while you're still in the tree.
Some people also use cheating as a passive-aggressive way to get their partner to break up with them so they don't have to do the dirty work. First of all, understand that you're likely hurting your partner more with your affair than you would be with a breakup, and you also come off looking worse. There's no need to hurt someone on your way out the door. Additionally, if you're trying to use your cheating as a way to make your partner end things, understand that it's not only being dishonest with your partner—it's being dishonest with yourself. In the long run, you'll need to learn how to take responsibility for your actions, for your emotions, and for your needs if you're ever going to be able to have a happy and successful relationship. Start practicing it now.
On the other hand, sometimes an affair, once exposed, can open up and change the whole future of your current relationship. Some couples say that after some therapy and erotic recovery, the affair may have been "the best thing that ever happened to them." This may be because the crisis of an affair forces you both to talk more honestly about what you both want in the vision of your lives going forward.
Recognize this: Cheaters are not necessarily looking for someone else; they are looking to become someone else. Usually cheaters like who they are when they are with their cheating partner. They are really searching for a missing part of themselves, a part of their identity, a part of themselves they feel they can't be at home.
Most affairs are not really about the partner or the relationship, even when you might blame them. Cheaters are not searching for something that is missing in their relationship; they are searching for something that is missing in themselves. They may project that need onto their partner, but that is what we do, as people. We blame our unhappiness on the other. If they would just act the way we want, love us the way we want, then we'd be happy. But nobody's life revolves around you, and you can't expect even your partner to bend to make you feel alive.
You need to figure out why you can't live as a whole person in every area of your life.
2. Think hard about whether monogamy really makes sense for you.
It's hard to commit to one person. Are you finding monogamy isn't your thing? If that's the case, be honest with yourself and think about how a different relationship agreement might work better for you. A 2019 study found people who enjoy having a lot of casual sex with a lot of different people are actually more committed to their relationship when their relationship is consensually nonmonogamous. There are many ways that couples stay monogamous while at the same time having an open sexual agreement. (Here's our full guide on how to know if an open relationship is right for you.)
Are we born monogamous? Who knows. But we are going on a form of monogamy that is tied into a heteronormative Judeo-Christian tradition of marriage from 200 years ago, when we were living to be an average of 38 years old. Back then, by the time we got bored with each other, we were dead.
For couples today who are expected to live together for a lifetime, based on these traditional ideas of marriage, we have a life span of upward of 90 years. Can we stay desirous and monogamous for 90 years?
Monogamy is not a biological prison, nor is it a privilege. It is an agreement. It is a choice. It is something you choose every day. It is also designed to be a mutual decision, a gift you give to one another. A promise. Therefore, the agreement should be as explicit as it can be.
After an affair, talk about what you want in your new monogamy agreement. What constitutes monogamy for both of you? What is a secret, and what should be private? Are you sexually exclusive? Are you emotionally unique to each other? (In my book The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity, I give many ways to talk through some of these more complex conversations.)
Renew your monogamy agreement often. After all, we renew our driver's license every few years. Why not our relationship?
3. Shut down your tech.
I know! Sounds impossible, right? In today's world, "tech cheating" is easier than ever. We can cheat on our partner lying in bed next to them, on our phones and handheld devices. Try putting down your phone, turn off your apps, and just back off for a while. Shut down your social media.
Are you addicted to the excitement of cheating? The illicitness? The forbidden nature of cheating? Can you incorporate something adventurous into your life instead, to capture some of that excitement in a different way without sending naked selfies to strangers? Take up a hobby like hang-gliding, or ski some moguls. Affairs can be fun, but lying and hiding a secret life can make you feel terrible about yourself—not to mention destroying the very foundation of your relationship and hurting someone you ostensibly love.
One way to change your tech cheating is to break your relationship with technology. Stop liking everyone's posts, don't Snapchat, don't "friend" people, and stop posting selfies; let it all go, for a finite period of time. Let yourself go into withdrawal. Deal with all of the feelings that come up when you have nothing to occupy your time. Make eye contact with other people when you're talking to them.
4. End your current affair.
But do it right. You may owe them—and yourself—more complete closure. Thank them for your time together, apologize for anything you have done to hurt them, and tell them what you will or will not do going forward. (And never ghost. That's just not OK.)
Let them know that you appreciate the relationship. If you loved them, tell them it was true. Be honest about your boundaries going forward. If you have to see them every day, like at work, for example, tell them you'll be "light and polite," but you can't continue in the way you've been operating. Tell them why. If it's because you are getting back with your spouse, tell them you are making your marriage work. Let them know you need time to think things through.
It's OK to admit ambivalence. You probably have strong feelings both ways; you want to stay, but you know you have to go. Tell them. But be clear that you know the best thing for you right now is to end this affair.
Finally, change your behavior. Don't keep texting or calling or flirting at the water cooler. Really give them a chance to get over you, move on, and get another lover. Give them the space they deserve.
5. Talk to your partner. A lot.
This is the most important step of them all. Tell your partner how you feel. What do you want in your marriage or committed partnership? Lots of relationships fail when one or both partners try to avoid the conflict of bringing up uncomfortable topics.
One way to go deeper and stay connected to your partner is to use what I call anticipatory empathy. Let your partner know that you also imagine how they might be feeling. If you see them looking down one day, tell them, "I am wondering if you are having a tough day, and is it related to what is happening with us?" Ask if there is something you can do to help their recovery. Just showing empathy and validating their feelings can go a long way toward recovering after an affair. And it can keep you from cheating because it will bring you deeper into the relationship you are already committed to.
6. Go to therapy.
There are good therapists out there who are nonjudgmental about infidelity. They recognize that affairs happen. Find one who can walk you through what you really want.
In addition to solo therapy that you might have to go through to work out your own cheating motivations, go to couples therapy. The goals are totally different—individual sessions are for figuring yourself out, whereas couples sessions are for figuring out how the heck to make a relationship work.
There are several phases of recovery. The initial stage is the crisis, when you both may doubt you could survive and stay together. And you may not. But if you are hoping to make it work, you can't have some of the deeper conversations about your future when you are both in high-conflict arguments. A therapist can take you into the next phase of recovery—the "insight" phase, where you can go deeper into how the affair happened and why. Discovering the meaning of the affair will help both of you answer the more important questions of "why" and "what happened?" (Avoid the less crucial conversations around "when and with whom?" which can be painful and not very rewarding to either of you.) The third phase of recovery is the "vision" phase. This is where you can plan your new monogamy and move forward into a relationship that can work for both of you.
A therapist who is trained in this model will help you identify what stage of recovery you are in and help you move on to the vision of your future. Plus, just the act of being in therapy can create intimacy, and that might be what you are really craving.
7. Go to a weekend retreat with your spouse.
Find a two-day couples' workshop that focuses on intimate connection, communication, and sex. Go have some fun for two days. Be romantic. Sit in a hot tub. Work out your stuff.
You might wonder why your partner would want to go away with you when they are so mad at you they can barely make eye contact. A couples' weekend retreat is not a vacation. Save that for later. A two-day couples' workshop is led by a coach or a therapist and is focused on real healing. It will lead the two of you through a series of exercises that you can do privately, not in a group but in a group setting, that can help you talk, help you heal, and bring you to a new understanding of what true intimacy really looks like. After all, you may have been cheating all along because you have no idea what intimacy looks like, and you can look at this as a lesson. It's like intimacy school, if you will.
Sex in a long-term relationship can be enthralling, and this might be your opportunity to strengthen your sexual connection with your partner. You might find out that a real, committed, intimate relationship is the best high of them all.
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