Why do people cheat?

Following the theft of the details of 37 million Ashley Madison members, women all around the world are learning that their husbands actively sought someone to cheat on them with. And we say women because we know that men were vastly overrepresented on the “dating site” that dealt exclusively with affairs, to the tune of 6:1.

That’s not to say that women don’t cheat, but of all those wannabe adulterers that have now been revealed, the vast majority are men. And they’re everywhere. They work at schools, for our government, in the defence force. We know this because they were stupid enough to use their work email addresses. Sigh.

As a result, in countless living rooms and bedrooms, couples are facing the truth about their partner’s infidelity. And even if nothing ever came of their paid membership to a cheats’ hook-up site, it still counts as cheating, right?

Esther Perel, a psychotherapist, has been studying adulterers for 10 years, trying to understand infidelity and answer the question: why do people cheat?

“Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, and so, too, the taboo against it,” she says in her brilliant TED talk. “In fact, 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. So how do we reconcile what is universally forbidden, yet universally practised?”

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Once upon a time, infidelity was a part of life. Men bragged about it, women hid it, and quite often they died for it.

But along came modern society and the notion of marriage for love instead of the business of life. Suddenly adultery took on a new form.

In today’s world, cheating can happen in so many ways: sexting, watching porn, talking to women in other countries via the internet or through sites like Ashley Madison. However it comes, Ms Perel says the definition of infidelity is three elements combined: a secretive relationship; an emotional connection; and a sexual alchemy.

“And alchemy is the key word here, because the erotic frisson is such that the kiss that you only imagine giving, can be as powerful and as enchanting as hours of actual lovemaking.”

Depending on the definition you apply to the word “infidelity”, Ms Perel says between 26 and 75 per cent of people will cheat on their partner.

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So why do they do it?

In part, says Ms Perel, it’s to do with today’s sense of entitlement – the notion that we deserve to be happier, and, if our partner is no longer providing us with everything we need, then it is our right to seek what we’re missing elsewhere.

But the Belgian therapist, who works mostly with “accidental” cheats who are deeply monogamous in their views right up to the moment they end up in someone else’s pants, says there is often a deeper underlying cause.

“When we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partner that we are turning away from, but the person that we have ourselves become. And it isn’t so much that we’re looking for another person, as much as we are looking for another self.”

She also says infidelity is as much about betrayal as it is about loss. “[The people I work with] often will tell me stories of recent losses – of a parent who died, and a friend that went too soon, and bad news at the doctor. Death and mortality often live in the shadow of an affair, because they raise these questions: ‘Is this it? Is there more? Am I going on for another 25 years like this? Will I ever feel that thing again?’”

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The aftermath of the Ashley Madison leak is likely to be messy, not unlike the relationship of the million or so Australians who have been exposed. Ms Perel says infidelity in the modern age is “death by a thousand cuts” thanks to the public nature of it all, and the emails, text messages and other evidence that can collect.

One would hope that those caught up in the scandal will be brave enough to confess their sins to their partners before they are ousted in public. Whether they will learn from the experience is anyone’s guess.

Tell us, could you forgive and infidelity? Have you ever had to?