The making of a cheater

published Oct 20, 2010, last modified Mar 27, 2018

Why do people cheat? What causes affairs? Towards a greater, more useful understanding of cheating and affairs.

In our current society, a cheater does not usually get scrutiny beyond "He's a man-whore" or "She's a bitch".

I have come to the conclusion that the above is the wrong approach. It does not provide wronged people with real closure, nor does it provide them with an understanding of what caused their relationships to fail. It does not help people who might become victims of cheaters, and it does not help cheaters clean up their act.

So, I believe it would be extremely beneficial to understand the topic of cheating beyond those simplistic epithets. And I've researched the topic a lot, both through theory and through experience. What follows is the result of my research. Please do not misunderstand this research as somehow justifying the immorality of cheating -- cheating is categorically an immoral act regardless of how well we explain and understand it.

Why is this useful to you? Well, armed with the following knowledge, you will be able to reliably predict if someone is going to cheat on you, how the events in the affair will unfold, and hopefully help you stay out of relationships with these people, or nip them in the bud and then get out, or perhaps (though unlikely) help them overcome their issues.

How do I know all of this? First of all, I can be wrong — there's the contact form to correct me if that's the case. That said, I studied this problem extensively, because I had the misfortune of experiencing it -- the family history, traits and behaviors of the person I modeled here as a cheater are 100% faithful to what I know from her. And it also happens that I have people in my family who have cheated too -- unsurprisingly their family history and behaviors fit the criteria for a cheater too.

The pathology — poisonous beliefs and circumstances — behind the cheater

Let's start with definitions. A cheater -- a person who cheats on her partner -- is someone who systematically deceives his partner (we call this having an affair, emotional or otherwise). She usually has a specific psychopathology profile.

(Subsequently, I will use "she" to refer to the cheater, but you can mentally switch genders if you are into men.)

Remember your grandpa's quaint advice of "You need to get to know the family of your girl"? Well, guess what -- he is sort of right, her family environment and history tend to be reliable indicators of whether she is going to cheat. A cheater will experience one or more of the following factors.

A cheater was neglected and emotionally abused in her childhood. The neglect is usually perpetrated by the father, and the emotional abuse is usually perpetrated by the mother. The abuse is very specific: it's attacking the kid when the kid tries to express negative emotions. The neglect is also very specific: it's abandonment.

These circumstances produce a child that feels "wrong" or "bad", with poor self-image. At the same time, because of the emotional abuse, the child learns to deal with his negative emotions by self-censoring / suppressing the thoughts that prompted those emotions (because if he expressed them, he would quickly be punished by his internalized "mother voice" telling her that "saying bad things makes her bad"). In other words -- the child learns to deny himself the opportunity to express his feelings, and eventually denies the reality of his thoughts. This coping mechanism is very effective to sustain the unhealthy relationship with the mother -- let's remember that the kid has no choice but to relate to the mother -- because it prevents disputes and punishments. Note that this thought suppression does not actually suppress the emotions themselves, but it does handicap the ability of the child to be aware of her thoughts and to deal with them rationally.

This is the recipe to get a kid -- and an adult -- who is propense to mood swings, dissatisfaction and unhappiness, but is completely, literally, unable to explain why she experiences these emotions... which, of course, makes dealing with the root causes of her negative emotions very, very difficult. You can see why the expression of these emotions, internal or external, would trigger her coping mechanism, and to "punish" herself with even worse emotions.

We add to the above, that the mom has essentially taught the kid by example that lying is OK if the liar does not get caught, or that lying is OK if it spares someone else's feelings. Say, for example, the kid asks mommy if daddy is going to pick her up after school, and the mom deliberately lies to the kid by saying that the kid should get dressed and ready for the father to pick her up... but the father -- who has abandoned them -- never actually shows up. Or mom concocts false stories to tell people about her beloved daughter, perhaps to preserve her reputation. The kid will unconsciously internalize, by example, that lying is OK in those circumstances, even though the kid knows rationally that lying is wrong.

Furthermore, the parents' relationship also establishes a pattern of infidelity. Kids do pick up, even if they suppress it, the fact that the father is abandoning them because he is going to get something somewhere else. If the mother repeatedly takes the father back after each abandonment episode, that unconsciously establishes in the kid's mind that it is OK to deal with your emotional needs by abandoning what you have, and establishes that cheating is OK. Undoubtedly, living in an environment where affairs are repeatedly tolerated and enabled, leads a person to believe it is OK.

Finally, the mother infects the child with the poisonous belief that it's OK to be duplicitous and to hide feelings, thoughts, decisions and actions from people that the child ought to trust. All the mom has to do is tell the kid a phrase like "You never tell anybody the whole truth, because that person will betray your trust." and that's enough to enshrine in the mind of the kid the belief that hiding or deceiving her partner is OK. Later on in life, this kid's relationships are marked by the fact that she is never fully honest with anybody, and she learns to "distribute" her confessions in a round-robin fashion to her relationships, who will never get a complete picture of who she really is.

These forms of abuse get imprinted unconsciously, deeply, in the child.

The consequences of the pathology: how it manifests in a relationship with a cheater

As you can see, regardless of how well the cheater knows that she is committing a moral wrong when she lies or deceives, she's got a Molotov cocktail full with disaster in her head: (1) the mechanism to suppress that moral self-judgement that would prevent healthy individuals from acting on wayward desires, (2) the beliefs that enable her to continue the deceit and compartmentalize / justify her actions, (3) and the motivation to feed her own poor self-image with the attention of other people.

And so, the adolescent cheater-to-be, with poor self-image, needs reassurance. There's vandalism, there's drug use, there's alcoholism, there's self-inflicted cutting, there's attempted suicide and other forms of escapism, and there are rage fits that can supply her with the needed attention (all of which happen to reinforce her self-image as a bad person).

Now, when she becomes an adult, those behaviors are harder to engage in, because they are not socially acceptable. Since she can't get the reassurance she seeks in a healthful way, she will inevitably look for that reassurance through the attention of other men (which is equally socially unacceptable but can be done covertly). Men who give her what she unconsciously perceives she lacks will be the suppliers of that attention. Of course, one man is not enough, because the need for attention and love is pathological, because of her abandonment issues that cause her to feel threatened with abandonment, and because women have a natural drive to have two different partners.

A healthy person in a healthy relationship would not normally experience desires to cheat, or at least be able to detect that she is falling for someone else, introspect and discover the root causes for her need of validation, quickly find why she is dissatisfied with her official relationship and address it if possible to fix what's wrong, or break up if it's not possible.

However, the potential cheater is unable to stop and think about her feelings, and as a result she is unable to fix relationship issues healthfully, she is unable to talk about her issues openly (remember -- she feels as if confessing what she feels will cause her partner to judge, betray and dump her), and she is unable to control their desires to look for satisfaction outside their relationship. She feels trapped, is quickly angered, can't find the validation in her relationship, she feels despair, she snaps back at her partner when he attempts to establish dialogue about those issues, and she is completely unable to even explain why she feels these things, or why they come and go, or sometimes is unable to describe even the feelings themselves. The potential cheater can talk about everything with his partner, so long as it's not about her negative feelings because doing that causes her grave psychological discomfort and this prompts her to attack or abuse her partner. She's just playing back the recording of "How to cope with the world" she learned when she was a kid.

People who cheat or feel the desire to cheat universally know that they are doing wrong or heading down the wrong path (we know this because they always hide their activities from their partners, whom they supposedly trust but really don't). But, unable to explain why she feels the way she does, has the impulses she does, and acts the way she does, she (1) compartmentalizes the desires to cheat and deceitful actions, yet, at the same time (2) reaches the only possible conclusion one could reach under those circumstances: "I am bad and broken". It's a negative spiral that reinforces itself. The compartmentalization is so strong, and the inner conviction that she is bad is so poignant, that the cheater may even attempt suicide if she is confronted with reality.

Eventually, and if the partner does not put a stop to all this, the cheater realizes that the relationship with his partner is destroyed and abandons him -- generally changing living arrangements or even flying across the globe to escape her disaster. But she almost universally never makes a clean break with her partner -- cheaters deeply suspect that they will be discovered for what they are by their new partners, so they like to keep their options open.

The always-predictable script for an affair

Affairs always follows a very specific and reliably predictable script.

The first step is a dissatisfaction that the cheater experiences in her relationship. Seeing as we know that the cheater is propense to experience feelings of inadequacy, that could be a cause. Another cause could be that the partner is genuinely not fulfilling some need that the cheater has. Yet another cause might be the natural tendency to seek other partners (human beings are not naturally monogamous, and the two sexes have different polygamy strategies).

The point is that what prompts the first step doesn't actually matter that much. At this point, healthy honest couples discuss their needs and reach either an agreement or a mutual breakup. But cheaters can't do that (we've examined why before).

What cheaters do is they start seeking contact with other people (essentially, she starts doing things, consciously or otherwise, that generate opportunities for contact with other people). This could be as innocent as talking about her issues with a girlfriend of hers (instead of talking about these issues with her partner), or as middle-of-the-road as spending more time with a coworker or friend, or as obvious as making a date with an ex where the ex has hinted that there may be sex involved. The important distinction of this stage is that the cheater still has plausible deniability and is likely not even self-aware of her own true intentions and ultimate goal.

After she's engaged another person successfully, their shared activities provide the cheater with the relief she is seeking for (which, believe it or not, is not actually about sex at the beginning, but rather about intimacy that she just cannot have in her relationship as long as her issues persist). At this point, with or without physical contact, an emotional affair is already taking place, the cheater is already systematically hiding her activities, and the wronged partner usually starts feeling jealous.

This situation, of course, causes the wronged partner to enter a state of brutish desperation. He gets struck by fear of abandonment and limerence. In his haste to keep his partner from straying, he will do anything to keep their partner around, essentially becoming a doormat and a pussy. Which is a normal reaction to being abandoned and neglected. But this reaction does not help with the relationship at all, as the wronged partner's actions make him very unattractive to the cheater, so the cheater has even less of an incentive to stop her activities and may even start despising her partner.

Of course, as it happens with people who spend time together and listen to each other, passion and romance starts. This is just normal -- spending time together generates these kinds of bonding feelings. When this is happening, the cheater is genuinely in love with the other person, and genuinely out of love with the partner. The only way the cheater could avoid this process is basically by stopping all contact with the other person, and spending more time with her partner so as to re-generate those feelings of passion and romance with the partner... but the cheater is unable to stop, because she is in love with the other person, and she sees her partner as an undesirable obstacle.

Note that the cheater does not actually drop her partner. The PEA hormone causes the feelings of passion that she experiences with her affair mate, while oxytocin mediates the feelings of security she derives from her partner, which makes it altogether impossible for the cheater to abandon her partner. Two different brain drugs, can't drop either of them. However, the relationship between the cheater and the partner is badly wounded by now -- they don't talk (as talking would reveal the obvious issues that both have been so carefully dancing around), they don't have sex (as having sex with the partner would make the cheater feel as if she was betraying the other person), they fight constantly.

If at any point in this script, the cheater is caught, she will inevitably either deny everything or admit to minor infractions in the hopes that being forgiven for them can translate to forgiveness for the major, still-unknown transgressions. There is literally no other way the cheater can cope with her situation, as admitting the full truth that an affair is going on would break down the compartmentalizations and rationalizations that the cheater has carefully made up, causing the cheater an overwhelming amount of psychological pain. I've even heard of cases where the cheater has been caught in the act, and has tried to convince the wronged partner that he is the victim of a delusion. Yes, that is how bad the denial can get.

At this point, the cheater is leading a double life. She lives one life with her partner, and another completely different one with the other person. Key to understanding why the affair continues is that the cheater gets a dose of excitement from sneaking around that reinforces the affair and also gets the best of both worlds, without having to show herself completely to either one. Unsurprisingly, once the cheater decides to completely leave his partner for the other person, the excitement of sneaking around wanes and reality settles in, and inevitably that new relationship fails catastrophically -- precisely because the un-addressed issues of the cheater continue to be a problem in that new relationship.

There are a few more steps after that, but I've decided to omit them in the name of brevity, as after this last step the relationship is essentially fucked -- if the wronged partner takes her back without her addressing these issues, it would only subconsciously confirm to the cheater that the partner is a doormat and can be fucked with easily. Subsequent cheating episodes will only be more blatant and unrepentant than the first.

The cure for a cheater

By now, if you've been wronged and feel like you want to continue the relationship with the cheater, you are likely asking yourself: what's the "cure"? I personally believe there realistically isn't any. We can rule out the "I now have good intentions", the "I promise I won't do it again", the "try harder", the "understanding", and the "forgiveness" strategies as ways to get the cheater to stop, because those strategies at worst enable the cheater and at best do not eradicate the underlying causes for her behavior.

A complete cure that would actually stop the cheating is this: The cheater needs to heal from the abandonment issues, re-establish a sane and healthy self-image, fully discard the poisonous beliefs she has held for so long, replace them with morally good beliefs, accept her actions, come clean to the people she has betrayed, and truly live with the consequences of what she has done. Then, the cheater needs to replace her bad habits with good ones, and do whatever her partner asks of her, to demonstrate that she is trustworthy.

Unfortunately, most of the time she won't actually achieve these goals, because her coping mechanism for abuse will prevent her from visiting these pain points, and she won't get rid of the abuse and poisonous beliefs until she actually understands that it is her family of origin that poisoned her, and removes them from her life. And I've yet to see one cheater reform himself or herself in this way -- most of them are deeply attached to their behaviors, coping mechanisms, and family members, all of which all but guarantee that the cheater will not prosper.