After almost three decades of working with couples decimated by infidelity, I can tell you that men who cheat on a beloved wife or girlfriend can be amazingly creative when they try to explain why. (Yes, I understand that women also cheat. I have written about that numerous times, including here. However, this article, based on my recently released book Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating, is about cheating men.) Sometimes cheating men tell me and the women they love that their behavior doesn’t really count as cheating because it didn’t involve actual sex. Other times, they find ways to blame others – their spouse, their boss, and even the other woman – for their choices.
As a therapist, I find most of the reasons that cheating men use to justify their infidelity fascinating. Because almost all of these reasons imply that the cheating was the only logical solution to their relationship issues and other life problems. I often find myself thinking, “Sure, cheating is an option, but only one among many. How about taking up a hobby, or volunteering and making the world a better place, or actually talking to your significant other about what you’re feeling and how the two of you might be able to craft a more fulfilling relationship? Wouldn’t any of those choices be better that lying, manipulating, and keeping important secrets from a woman you truly care about?”
But most men don’t have that type of insight. So when confronted, they minimize, rationalize, and justify their behavior with statements like:
Every guy wants to have sex with other women. And when the opportunity arises, he takes it.
It’s a man’s biological imperative to have sex with as many women as he can. Why should I be any different?
If I got enough (or better) sex at home, I wouldn’t need to cheat.
I’m not doing anything that most of my buddies don’t do. If you don’t believe me, ask them.
If my wife hadn’t gained so much weight (or if she was nicer to me, or more attentive, or whatever), I wouldn’t have even thought about going elsewhere.
If my job wasn’t so stressful, I wouldn’t need the release I get from online sex.
Cheating? Really? I mean, who would rationally call getting lap dance in a strip club infidelity? It’s just what guys do for fun.
My dad looked at magazines and went to strip clubs, and that wasn’t a big deal. Well, I have webcam chats and interactive sex. What’s the difference?
If the police had been out chasing actual bad guys, I wouldn’t have gotten caught in that prostitution sting. Why don’t they go after some real criminals?
I’m only sexting and flirting. Where’s the harm in that? I don’t meet up with any of these women in person. It’s just a game to me.
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In the therapy business, we have a name for this type of reasoning. We call it denial. From a psychotherapy perspective, denial is a series of internal lies and deceits that people tell themselves to make their questionable behaviors seem OK (in their own mind). Typically, each self-deception is supported by one or more rationalizations, with each rationalization bolstered by still more falsehoods. In the eyes of an impartial observer (such as a therapist like myself), a cheating man’s denial typically looks about as solid as a house of cards in a stiff breeze, yet these men will doggedly insist their rationale is sound.
This, of course, begs the question: Why? Why do men really cheat? And why do they sometimes continue cheating after they’re caught, even in the face of profoundly unwanted consequences like divorce, loss of parental contact, loss of social standing, and the like?
The truth of the matter is that all sorts of dynamics can play into a man’s decision to engage in infidelity. Generally, though, his choice to cheat is driven by one or more of the following factors:
Immaturity: If he does not have a lot of experience in committed relationships, or if he doesn’t fully understand that his actions will inevitably have consequences (like hurting his partner), he may think it is fine to have sexual adventures. He might think of his commitment to monogamy as a jacket that he can put on or take off as he pleases, depending on the circumstances.
Co-Occurring Issues: He may have an ongoing problem with alcohol and/or drugs that affects his decision-making, resulting in regrettable sexual decisions. Or maybe he has a problem like sexual addiction, meaning he compulsively engages in sexual fantasies and behaviors as a way to numb out and avoid life.
Insecurity: He may feel as if he is too old (or too young), not handsome enough, not rich enough, not smart enough, etc. (An astonishing amount of male cheating is linked, at least in part, to a mid-life crisis.) To bolster his flagging ego, he seeks validation from women other than his mate, using this sextracurricular spark of interest to feel wanted, desired, and worthy.
It’s Over, Version 1: He may want to end his current relationship. However, instead of just telling his partner that he’s unhappy and wants to break things off, he cheats and forces her to do the dirty work.
It’s Over, Version 2: He may want to end his current relationship, but not until he’s got another one lined up. So he sets the stage for his next relationship while still in the first one.
Lack of Male Social Support: He may have undervalued his need for supportive friendships with other men, expecting his social and emotional needs to be met entirely by his significant other. And when she inevitably fails in that duty, he seeks fulfillment elsewhere.
Confusion about Limerence vs. Commitment: He might misunderstand the difference between romantic intensity and long-term love, mistaking the neurochemical rush of early romance, technically referred to as limerence, for love, and failing to understand that in healthy long-term relationships limerence is replaced over time with less intense but ultimately more meaningful forms of connection.
Childhood Abuse: He may be reenacting or latently responding to unresolved childhood trauma—neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc. In such cases, his childhood wounds have created attachment/intimacy issues that leave him unable or unwilling to fully commit to one person. He might also be using the excitement and distraction of sexual infidelity as a way to self-soothe the pain of these old, unhealed wounds.
Selfishness: It’s possible his primary consideration is for himself and himself alone. He can therefore lie and keep secrets without remorse or regret as long as it gets him what he wants. It’s possible he never intended to be monogamous. Rather than seeing his vow of monogamy as a sacrifice made to and for his relationship, he views it as something to be avoided and worked around.
Terminal Uniqueness: He may feel like he is different and deserves something special that other men might not. The usual rules just don’t apply to him, so he is free to reward himself outside his primary relationship whenever he wants.
Unfettered Impulse: He may never have even thought about cheating until an opportunity suddenly presented itself. Then, without even thinking about what infidelity might do his relationship, he went for it.
Unrealistic Expectations: He may feel that his partner should meet his every whim and desire, sexual and otherwise, 24/7, regardless of how she is feeling at any particular moment. He fails to understand that she has a life of her own, with thoughts and feelings and needs that don’t always involve him. When his expectations are not met, he seeks external fulfillment.
Anger/Revenge: He may cheat to get revenge. He is angry with their mate, and he wants to hurt her. In such cases, the infidelity is meant to be seen and known. The man does not bother to lie or keep secrets about his cheating because his wants his partner to know about it.
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For most men, there is no single factor driving the decision to cheat. And sometimes a man’s reasons for infidelity evolve over time as his life circumstances change. Regardless of his true reasons for cheating, he didn’t have to do it. There are always other options—couple’s therapy, taking up golf, being open and honest with his mate and working to improve the relationship, even separation or divorce. A man always has choices that don’t involve degrading and potentially ruining his integrity and the life that he and his significant other have created. Still, knowing why he cheated can be helpful in terms of not repeating this behavior in the future.