Why do partners in committed relationships cheat? I’d like to consider, here, the proposition that in some instances, when one partner cheats, it’s one part of a corresponding set of messages that both partners are transmitting back and forth between themselves.

When a relationship is failing, much is at stake. The disappointments of a failing marriage or partnership can become too much to bear, or too much to permit oneself to “know.” When you can’t allow yourself to know something and can’t allow yourself to speak about something, the message doesn’t just disappear. More often, the message gets enacted with behaviors. Cheating can be a way for both of the partners to communicate about their terrible disappointments in the failing relationship.

For the cheating partner, his or her behavior directly impacts the other and impacts the relationship. Cheating brings a relationship to a screeching halt—literally, or symbolically. For the cheating partner, the one often blamed for the end of the relationship, cheating may be a way to shine the bright light of day upon the struggling relationship. And, no matter whether the couple seek reconciliation or divorce, it’s inevitable that—at the very least—the cheating will bring about a reckoning with respect to the relationship.

What about the non-cheating partner? More often than not, the non-cheating partner has participated in bringing about the cheating. In a relationship in which communication is lacking and intimacy and mutuality have disappeared, the non-cheating partner may unknowingly prompt the cheating with unconscious signals. He or she may do this in order to cause an eruption or a disturbance that’s too big not to see, and too big not to communicate about. The cheating, as painful as it may be, becomes the tool for the badly needed reckoning. It brings things to a head.

So, it often happens that one partner becomes the one who helps to bring about the disruption, and the partner becomes the one to enact it. Said differently, each partner plays a role in bringing to a head the fact of the failing relationship. It’s as if both have tacitly agreed that something drastic must be done so that the truth can finally be named.

For some, naming the truth might mean calling it quits. And for some, naming the truth might mean finally getting down to work in correcting and healing the failures. The tragedy is in the undeniable pain that infidelity causes—even where both partners, as described here, have tacitly participated in it.

Infidelity, almost more than anything else, breaches a fundamental principle of trust that traditionally links the partners. Infidelity plays to the deepest insecurities in all of us, raising profound questions of our own self worth, value, attractiveness, and lovability. Infidelity creates deep rifts of resentment and guilt that last for years and are difficult to heal.

Marriage counseling or couples therapy brings each partner together in a safe and well-regulated space. Good, effective marriage counseling provides a framework to speak about the painful truth of the failed relationship. Armed with the truth, good, effective marriage counseling makes it possible for each partner to evaluate whether to move forward with healing or to separate and seek divorce.

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