Cheating is always a topic of conversation, because while it happens all the time, it still manages to feel like a shocking heartbreak.
Either it’s happened to you, or you’ve cheated on someone, or your friend’s wanker ex cheated on them, or your entire office is chatting about the Seann Walsh and Katya Jones kiss (have you seen Rebecca Humphries’ response, though?).
Every time it happens, there’s usually one big question: Why? Why do people cheat? Why don’t they just end their relationship if they’re miserable? Why do they stay with people they can’t stop cheating on? Why? Why? Why? Sheela Mackintosh-Stewart is a matrimonial consultant and a divorce lawyer, so she’s heard more than her fair share of cheating stories.
She’s noticed that there are certain triggers that can lead to infidelity.
It’s not that there’s something wrong with a person’s partner so they look elsewhere, but that they don’t know how to deal with an unmet emotional need.
‘Modern relationships undergo constant pressures, whether that’s handling the demands of everyday life, having to constantly juggle a hefty work-life balance or dealing with pressures on social media,’ Sheela tells Metro.co.uk.
‘It is these stresses that can sometimes accumulate and lead to a relationship breakdown, and in some cases, infidelity.
‘For Strictly Come Dancing’s Shann and Katya – who are both in serious long-term relationships – their kiss has been a result of intense stress, increased proximity and of course going by the telling of events, alcohol. ‘In general, though, cheating encompasses a wide range of relationship-straying, from emotional cheating (surreptitious texting of an intimate nature) to sexual cheating (casual one night stands to prolonged sexual affairs).
‘Common triggers I have seen include boredom, loneliness, depression, marital unhappiness, the need to spice it up’and escape from the ordered predictability and humdrum of daily life, and domestic routine with the intoxicating edge of danger and thrill.’
Sheela notes that many cheaters are looking for validation, often out of a place of insecurity and anger. Often infidelity will occur when a person is feeling particularly vulnerable and doesn’t feel their additional emotional needs are being met – such as when a parent dies, when work becomes stressful, or a midlife crisis.
‘Cheating is often just a symptom of a much greater underlying rot that has set into relationships which haven’t been properly communicated or dealt with by the couple, including feeling neglected, trapped, unsupported or having needs unmet,’ she tells us.
Makes sense. But while an outside expert can look at cheating and say ‘yep, that’s all down to insecurity’, it’s tricky to keep that distanced, rational view when it comes to encountering cheating firsthand.
You might not get a neatly packaged explanation tied up with a bow.
You might cheat and not really understand why. Amy*, who’s cheated on her current partner multiple times, recognises that her behaviour isn’t healthy, and is working to understand why she cheats.
‘Largely it’s meeting up for a drink and then going to their place/a hotel. It fizzles out a few months later but the odd text, then one night it will start back up again,’ Amy tells us.
‘I knew it was awful of me and that I was risking everything, but I was bored and sad and wanted attention.
I think at the time I thought “well if my boyfriend’s not interested maybe somebody else will be”. ‘It’s definitely because I’m depressed and I do it for a distraction.
When someone new and exciting (and usually European so with a sexy accent) is interested in me then it’s lighting up a different part of my brain and distracting me from how shit I feel otherwise.
‘The shame and guilt the next day is the worst comedown, but I still go back for more. It’s like MDMA or something.
‘Also I think because my mental health is bad and I’m feeling worthless, I don’t care if they treat me horribly because it’s what I deserve.’ Amy has spoken with her therapist to look into why she keeps cheating.
She feels intense guilt, but that hasn’t taken her out of the cheating and self-hating cycle.
‘My therapist says it’s because I don’t feel like I’m good enough for my boyfriend, so am trying to sabotage the relationship so that it can come down to a “well you cheated” and not “you’re not good enough”,’ she says.
‘I feel guilt all the time, and it’s definitely even more damaging to my self esteem. I probably let my boyfriend get away with stuff (nothing bad, just like, watching eleven hours of football) that I wouldn’t if I was faithful, but because I cheated I end up thinking “oh it’s fine, let him have that, you cheated on him you heinous woman”.’
Like many people who have cheated, Amy is beginning to wonder whether a monogamous relationship is right for her.
‘I don’t think monogamy is realistic in a very long term relationship,’ she says. ‘If he cheated and it was just sex, I wouldn’t mind. If it was an affair with emotional connection then I’d be devastated.’
For Adam*, who’s cheated on past partners and his current significant other, repeated infidelity has brought him to the realisation that he doesn’t want to be in a monogamous relationship.
He’s now working towards polyamory with his partner. ‘I deeply love my current partner, yet I also feel romantic and sexual attraction to other people,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘I’m currently on a journey to make an open relationship work for us.’
But that discovery took a lot of time, communication, and pain. ‘I didn’t come clean with the past relationships, and I was not found out,’ Adam explains. ‘With my current relationship she found out before I could come clean about it.
‘At a personal level it affected deeply my relationship, and we even considered breaking up after 7 years. I felt bad for the pain that cheating gave to my partner. ‘I found that we’re now both more engaged than ever, and I am hopeful that this will work.
I find that many times we put unrealistic expectations on our partners, and even though monogamy works for many, we should be more open to a wider variety of relationship configurations.’
Of course, not everyone who cheats will cheat again. Contrary to the ‘once a cheat, always a cheat’ belief, there are people who make a one time mistake, feel awful about what they’ve done, and vow to never do it again. Take Sarah.
She cheated, and then her boyfriend cheated on her right back. It was brutal, but it’s made their relationship stronger.
‘I was on an intense course with a handful of other people – we all became best friends, siblings almost, so we spent a lot of time together,’ Sarah explains.
‘And where there’s hard work, there’s partying. ‘I was doing this while my boyfriend of about 18 months was living in London, we’d been long-distance right from the start and saw each other every six weeks.
‘One night I was partying with them, and I was so drunk, horny, and missed my boyfriend so much I kissed some random guy. I don’t even remember what he looked like.
‘I immediately felt so, so guilty. I’d been really badly cheated on before and remember the heartbreak I felt from it, and couldn’t bear the thought of hurting the person I loved.
‘I came clean the next day and we cried, a lot. He ignored me for a few days, then we soon saw each other and worked it out.
‘I don’t think I can justify the cheating really. It was a stupid moment in which I was blackout drunk and really missed that feeling of being loved and wanted.
My friends were getting it all around me, and my boyfriend was hundreds of miles away. It was easy. ‘Being cheated on affected me to the point where I still suffer with anxiety, depression.
My boyfriend cheated on me a few months later, probably because the cheating really affected him on an emotional level, not because he wanted to get back at me.
I was lucky the guilt consumed him and he told me the same night, he was so, so upset – he even threw all his clothes away that he was wearing on the night.
‘Cheating has made me realise that you need to work for your relationships, and sometimes people f*** up but that’s okay.
‘I’m getting married to him now, and I really believe those drunken kisses have been the making of us. We’re brutally honest with each other, which he made me trust and love him even more.’
People cheat for all kinds of reasons. They’re upset with their partner, they’re trying to find a way to cope with stress, they want to end a relationship but don’t know how to do it, they’re unbearably horny, or they’re working out their own boundaries when it comes to monogamy.
Just as each relationship is a unique set of people’s emotional baggage, timing, and circumstance, every cheating incident is different, too. The key is talking through it, regardless of the outcome.