Why do happy couples cheat? And can it ever be a good thing? Kate Demolder speaks to three people who have cheated in past relationships, asking why they did it and did it make them happy.
Graham (32) first cheated on their partner nine years ago. It was a number of casual hook-ups, nothing serious, but the iterations changed his way of thinking.
"It was a long-distance relationship where we were in regular WhatsApp contact, but he was on another continent", he tells me. "The sex we did have was very unsatisfying for a number of reasons, including shame, but I was very much in love with him.
"I don’t necessarily regret it, but I do see a benefit in cheating, in choosing a path that suits your relationship and changing the narrative on monogamy. "
"That’s the bit I regret, that I didn’t have the bravery or self-awareness to actually sit down with the person and say 'there are solutions to this’. I was too scared to say it aloud, in case he would leave me."
Why do people cheat? It’s the eternal question that each new generation tries and ultimately fails to cheat, as the parameters of dating and relationships shift with each attempt to define them.
"Adultery has existed since marriage was invented," psychotherapist Esther Perel said in her 2015 TED Talk Rethinking infidelity... a talk for anyone who has ever loved.
"And so too, the taboo against it. Infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy, so much so that this is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible. Once for doing it and once just for thinking about it."
A renowned relationship expert, Perel’s talk sought to answer provocative questions: How did the romantic couple become the primary unit of organisation in society? Can romantic desire truly be sustained? And is infidelity ever a good thing?
Once strictly pragmatic institutions, modern-day romance now centres around the emotional well-being of the couple. We also, in modern times, place great value on the romantic needs of the pair (something never considered before) which, in turn, allocates a layer of need for self-actualisation.
Emma (30) experienced the same feelings as Graham. "When I cheated, I was in a stage of my relationship where I wanted to explore but my boyfriend didn’t. I really regret hurting my boyfriend but I don’t regret my actions overall.
"I think it made me realise that we weren't meant to be together, while also allowing me to foster a disbelief around monogamous relationships in general. I think you can be in love with one person and still be attracted to other people. And in a terrible way, I see how people get addicted to the thrill of it, even if it is so hurtful."
It’s a thought process Perel sees with a number of couples. As they attempt to navigate the changing narrative of relationships, former rules don’t apply. "We come from a model where relationships, in our village lives, in our communal structures, were very clear," she once told the New Yorker. "The community gave you your sense of identity. You knew what was expected of you, and you knew how to behave."
Jill’s (28) experience with cheating was purely for attention. "I wanted to feel wanted, regardless of having a boyfriend who was able and willing to give it to me. I regret it now, but in the moment it didn’t even cross my mind. I think I was too naive and immature to realise what love actually was.
"Divorce and separation was also pretty normal in my family so I never witnessed 'true love’. Saying that, I would never see myself doing it again. A few months ago I had my first heart break with a boyfriend I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. It ended and I have never felt rejection like it. This is was made me really realise the heart break."
Eleanor (27) was the same. She had kissed a co-worker at a Christmas party. It was only when she was in a taxi back to his place that she realised her mistake.
"I wasn’t happy with my relationship, but I only realised this about a year later, when my boyfriend and I eventually broke up. I never thought I’d be someone to cheat, but I realised it was sort of a symptom of something for me, rather than anything else.
"Before we kissed, it never felt like cheating, but I would also go into work hoping he was there, so we could flirt during our shift. I think I just wanted someone to notice me. It’s a lot greyer than it is black and white."
Motives behind cheating differ from various factors such as biological wiring to too much drinking that day, so says dating and relationship expert Callisto Adams. "However, cheating is a decision. A decision taken due to excitement for something new, due to fulfilment of the need for validation, habit, revenge, need to fill a void the one cheating feels", she told RTÉ Lifestyle.
It doesn't mean a lack of love for the partner, she continues. However, it is a sign of disrespect. "Most of the time, cheating has to do more with the person committing the cheating, rather than the cheated partner.
"There’s a lot of arguing by different scientists over whether humans are meant to be monogamous. According to our ancestors, we’re not really built to be. But we’re also not really biologically built to work a 9-5 job, but we’re doing it anyway. We adapt, and we’ve adapted into monogamy."
In today’s world of open relationships, polyamory, dating, sexting and self-love, the possibilities have never been more open to curious lovers. This is, predictably, both a blessing and a curse. It’s a joy to love so freely, some will tell you, but the choice and freedom can too be crippling. The nature of relationships continues to change, and thus, our feelings around them too.
The difficulty, for most people in monogamous relationships I spoke with, seems to lie in the belief that one person should be our everything; our lover, our intellectual equal, our best friend, our confidante. It's a role that defies identity, and continues to change all the time.
To engage in sexual activity with another person then, is to say to your partner that they do not fit all of those roles, whereas the reality may not be all that deep to the cheating spouse.
Adding to this, estimates of the number of people who cheat on their partners range, unhelpfully, from less than 20% to more than 70%. Reliable data is scarce, given cheating’s ambiguity (does flirting count? How about an Instagram like?) and a cheater’s unlikelihood of candour.
What is considered definite, however, is the consensus among social scientists that infidelity has been rising in recent decades – something mostly attributed to the fact that modern life has increased and democratised the opportunities for illicit sex.
The crux of the issue remains however: to love is to be vulnerable, and to assume yourself to be the sole progenitor of your partner’s desire, rather than merely its current recipient, appears more foolish by the decade.
Whether there is a potential benefit to cheating also appears vague. For many of the contributors I spoke with, they largely regretted the hurt they caused, but don’t regret their action, as it acted antidotal to a deeper issue at hand.
This may appear selfish, but such is the quixotic message of the modern day: do whatever it takes to make you happy, instead of committing to a viable option, like our ancestors did.
This, in turn, has turned upside down the institution of marriage; that one can, should and will feel to engage in emotional security, in lieu of the financial security marriage gave before women could pursue careers.
Perhaps it is foolish to consider your current feelings a permanent state. But isn’t love a devoutly foolish act? As boundaries change, and so do we, allow this bold new world to create a canvas all your own, and finally construct a relationship that works.
To err is human, and to forgive divine, but to tailor a union so rigid in its scaffolding that society’s pressures can’t move it? That, and only that, can soar past the boundaries of the fickle divine, owing its rigidity to both the realism of yore and the euphoria of now.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.