DEAR DR. JENN,
My last relationship ended because my partner cheated — and it wasn't the first time I've been cheated on either. It makes me skeptical to get back into the dating game. I'm worried I won't be able to spot a cheater coming and will be blindsided again. Are there telltale signs I should be looking out for? — Looking for Old Faithful
These are a few very clear patterns, personalities, and issues that are very likely to lead to cheating. Oftentimes, when people I work with look back on their relationship, they can point to very specific warning signs that led up to the indiscretion.
So my number one piece of advice: Don't ignore those early signs. People are surprisingly honest on the first few dates, especially now with the new post-quarantine honesty bombing trend. When someone tells you they have always struggled to be monogamous and monogamy is important to you, run for the hills. Early on in the relationship, if you see signs that the person you are dating is dishonest, deceitful, or sneaky in other areas of their life, especially with people they have a personal connection with, consider that a red flag.
Please understand, I do not condone cheating. It is a painful brutal violation of trust in a relationship. In sharing with you the most common reasons why I see this take place, I am not excusing any of them — I am merely reporting what I have seen in three decades of clinical experience.
Here, are nine of the most common reasons why people cheat.
1. Lack of emotional connection.
The number one reason why people cheat is a lack of connection in the relationship. Most people do not realize how important creating, maintaining, and nurturing a connection in a relationship is. There will always be temptations, but when a couple is feeling connected, the odds of acting on those temptations go down significantly. Studies show that only 7% of cheating women and 8% of cheating men cheated due to sexual dissatisfaction alone. The vast majority cheated either because of a lack of emotional connection in the relationship or a combination of a lack of emotional and sexual connection in the relationship.
2. Lack of sexual connection.
Most couples get lazy about sex. Once they figure out how to get each other off and the initial sexual excitement of a new partner passes, most couples get complacent about their intimate life. For sex to be great over time, it takes a willingness to continue to grow and learn. We need to bring new techniques, fantasies, toys, and experiences to the table to keep it fresh. In addition, our needs, fantasies, and the things that turn us on change over time, which is why it's so important for couples to communicate about sex on a regular basis. Without ongoing communication, small sexual desires may slip through the cracks or you may be too nervous to express something big that you want to try. This can leave one member of a couple more likely to look elsewhere to get their sexual needs met. Sometimes, it is easier to ask a stranger to do something kinky or even just to direct them more explicitly about how and where you'd like to be touched.
Keeping the communication high and the judgment about preferences low is crucial to meet each other's needs. One great way to keep that communication going is the sexual inventory I created for couples, which you can find in my book, The Relationship Fix: Dr. Jenn's 6-Step Guide to Improving Communication, Connection & Intimacy. This is a great way to keep your sex life fresh and exciting and I recommend couples do it once a year.
3. Bad boundaries with people outside the relationship.
Every season on VH1 Couples Therapy with Dr. Jenn, I do a group therapy session with the couples about what I call "incoming missiles." These are the threats, usually from outside sources, that come at your relationship. These threats come in a lot of different forms. It's the in-laws who live in your home for months at a time forcing you to give up privacy. It's the inappropriate person at work that doesn't care that you are in a relationship, or the ex who keeps sliding into your DM's. It is up to you to make boundaries with people who are disrespecting your relationship or acting like you are single. It is your partner's responsibility to make boundaries with these people who approach them, as well.
4. Fighting unfairly.
Conflict in a relationship is inevitable. How this conflict is handled, however, often determines how much damage is done and ultimately how long the relationship lasts. People do not want to stick around in a relationship where their partner hits below the belt when conflict arises. Being disrespected, hurt, or verbally abused leaves people vulnerable to acting out with others.
When we get hurt, angered, triggered, or scared, we are most likely to lash out. The goal is to learn to recognize those moments and to have the impulse control to stop yourself so you can turn a difficult moment into a productive discussion, instead of escalating it.
6. Making assumptions about your relationship status.
Too often, we make assumptions about the status of our relationship. We think because we slept with someone that automatically means it's committed. Or that once an "I love you" has been uttered that means we are monogamous. Do not make any assumptions about the status of your relationship without having a clear conversation with the other party. Also, if you are in an open relationship, make sure that you define cheating very clearly. In order to have a successful polyamorous, open, or non-monogamous relationship, the rules must be very clearly defined. Without those clear conversations and specific rules, you are setting yourself up for hurt and disappointment.
7. Unresolved childhood issues.
Sure, who doesn't have unresolved childhood issues? That said, we have an obligation to our own mental health and the well-being of anyone we potentially date to work through core issues and trauma that prevent us from being capable of having a loving relationship and keeping our agreements. I always recommend everybody have one year of weekly therapy (if cost is a concern, check out mental health clinics in your area that will see you based on ability to pay), even if you have not experienced trauma. Certainly, if you have experienced childhood abuse, neglect, abandonment, are a child of divorce, or grew up in a home with substance abuse this is especially important to do. We are not responsible for the harm that was done to us as children, but we are responsible for healing our past.
8. Sex addiction.
Is sex addiction really a thing? Well, here's how I conceptualize it. People who struggle with sex addiction, or as I prefer to call it, sexually compulsive behavior, violate their own morals, go against their values, and risk the people and things that are important to them in order to get their sexual fix. Like an addict, they have a pathological relationship to their drug of choice, which in this case is sex. Sex is a mood altering experience and those who are compulsive, whether with a substance or a behavior, tend to not be very good at tolerating feelings or regulating emotions. Their ability to tolerate emotional closeness, the ups and downs of a relationship, or emotional intimacy are challenged. Being with someone who struggles with sex addiction, and is not in recovery or in serious therapy, is signing on to be cheated on.
The same thing goes for addiction of any kind, like drugs or alcohol. People who are caught up in addiction are not emotionally available for a relationship of any kind and are unlikely to keep relationship agreements. Oftentimes their judgment is impaired by their substance of choice. Again, this does not excuse the behavior, but if you are with someone who has a substance-abuse problem and they are not getting help for it, the odds of them breaching an agreement with you is high. As a colleague of mine who works in substance-abuse once joked, "How do you know an addict is lying?" The answer is, "Their mouth is moving." The hallmarks of addiction are deceit, dishonesty, and denial.
If any of these issues are present in a potential partner or in a relationship that you are currently in, you are more vulnerable to being cheated on or doing the cheating yourself. And if you're worried your partner is being unfaithful, check out these telltale signs of cheating.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.
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