People who cheat on their partners constitute one of the world’s most hated and highly-criticized groups (cue the revenge songs). Yet, they’re more common than many would like to believe. In a 2018 U.S. General Social Survey, 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women said they’d had sex with someone other than their spouses while they were married — and that doesn’t include those who are unmarried but in relationships.
Marie Murphy, a relationship coach with a PhD in the sociology of sexuality, specializes in working with this demographic and, in her experience, the typical view of cheating as an act committed by selfish people without a conscience just doesn’t hold up.
“Often, the folks who come to me are married or in a committed relationship and they care very much about their partner; they care very much about their families,” she explains. “But they’re really confused about what they really want out of their romantic partnership. They’re confused about what they want out of life.”
A lot of the people who end up in this situation entered into marriage too early, for the wrong reasons or due to external pressures. Or, their relationship has been stagnant or sexless and they’re unsure how to get their needs met even after trying seemingly everything. Or, they’re unhappy and the cheating adds something positive to their lives. Often, they’re afraid of what others will think of them if they go after what they really want or how it will affect their families if they get divorced. “People feel a lot of shame and guilt about what they’re doing, and I help people sort through all these things without assuming there is one right answer,” she says.
“We think there is a right decision or a wrong decision when we’re faced with a given choice, when in reality, in most situations in life, any decision we make is going to come with results or consequences that we find challenging to deal with.”
The thing is, a lot of the time, there isn’t a clear right answer. Murphy’s clients end up arriving at a wide range of conclusions. Sometimes, people choose to leave the partners they’re cheating on and find something that better suits their needs. Other times, they seek to open their relationships so they can stay with their partners while also getting their needs met. Sometimes, people choose to stay in their relationships and continue their affairs covertly for the sake of their families, their mental health, or other factors.
“We think there is a right decision or a wrong decision when we’re faced with a given choice, when in reality, in most situations in life, any decision we make is going to come with results or consequences that we find challenging to deal with,” says Murphy. “And so no matter what we choose, it’s just a matter of being able to manage our mental or emotional relationship with what comes. I don’t have any sort of agenda for the person I’m working with other than for them to be honest with themselves and to make decisions they feel good about.”
Sometimes, taking care of broader mental health needs helps people to do this. Some people use sex outside their relationships to feel good when they’re anxious or depressed, and teaching these people to better manage their emotions helps them avoid resorting to behaviors that go against their values.
Murphy’s advice to those who are cheating? Guilt can actually backfire. “You can’t shame yourself into making sustainable positive changes,” she says. “You may be able to shame or scold yourself into making changes in the short term, but telling yourself that you’re bad or awful or a terrible person is not a great way to make a holistic change to the situation.”
Still, it’s important to take responsibility for your actions and to know that if you want your life to change, you’re going to have to change your behavior. “Change can be really hard, but there are two choices,” Murphy points out. “You get to choose the discomfort of the familiar or the unfamiliar, and only one of those choices presents the opportunity for growth and evolution and something truly different to occur.”
The other thing Murphy wants those who are cheating to know is that the cheating can be an opportunity to examine what you want out of your relationships and life. She recommends thinking about what needs the cheating is fulfilling and asking yourself how, ideally, you would like to get those needs met. Some people, for example, may have a need for a non-monogamous relationship, though she cautions against expecting this to fix the problems in your relationship. Others may have a need for more adventure in their lives or a more active sex life.
“Often, we’re on a hamster wheel of ‘get married, get a career, get a house, get a car, do the things, and this can become really alienating,” she says. Cheating can present an opportunity to get off this hamster wheel by forcing you to examine what’s important to you — if you let it be.
The key is to stop flagellating yourself over the experience and instead ask yourself what you can gain from it and what changes you can make.
Before you go, check out these six types of orgasms you might not have known about: