When entering a relationship, we expect commitment and loyalty. Those are two very simple and often base expectations of being with another person, yet some people can't even manage those things. Why, though? Why do some people stray from their significant other? What are they chasing?
The reasonings are surely varied as we're all different people, but one therapist who's spoken to many, many men about their thoughts regarding cheating has identified some societal issues that might address the core of the issue.
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To cheat on someone is a major breach of trust. It destroys a relationship immediately and leaves the other party left wondering what they did wrong to cause their partner to cheat.
The reality is that they likely didn't do anything wrong, as the causes of cheating are very complex. There's also the precarious state of thoughts about cheating—different from the action itself—and why so many men experience them even though they don't actually wish to cheat on their partner.
A Rich History
Therapist Myron Nelson works primarily with and has spoken to men with a variety of histories, relationships, dynamics, statuses, and otherwise regarding thoughts of cheating. After compiling those stories, he shared his thoughts on why he thinks thoughts of cheating are so prevalent among men.
As mentioned, but still important to keep in mind, is that there's a strong distinction between thoughts about cheating and actually cheating. Those who struggle with mental health issues are also prone to unwanted, intrusive thoughts. Thinking about cheating or any other horrible thing is not always indicative of wanting to actually do it...despite what your brain may tell you when it happens.
The First Issue
Nelson explains that men are "socialized to be independent and solve problems on their own." This type of mindset often drives a wedge between men and the way they connect with other people as they have this running thought in the back of their minds that they have to be able to handle things by themselves.
This hyper-independence leaves them cut off from other people because they've been taught that even the slightest sense of emotional reliance is a weakness. This doesn't stop them from wanting to be close to others; it just prevents them from ever chasing it lest they be seen as less of a man.
This is potentially why we see many men having hobbies and interests that allow them to either express their feelings in the form of physical aggression (playing sports, working out, etc.) or extreme competitiveness (watching sports, video games, etc.). They don't feel like they can do anything else without their identity as a man being questioned.
Because men are discouraged from channeling and releasing their emotions in healthy ways, Nelson believes they also often turn to sex as a means of dealing with their feelings. Sex also allows them that connection with another person they're so deprived of otherwise. As he writes, "In the absence of other options, we often turn to sex to meet our needs for connection — to ourselves and others."
Nelson then shares that most of the male clients he's spoken to about thoughts of cheating haven't actually acted on them. After speaking to these men about why these thoughts keep popping up if it's something they don't actually want, Nelson saw that they almost always have some other distressing thing going on and their brains don't know how else to deal with the emotions born of that.
"Extensive conversations about cheating usually reveal that it would not be a cure-all to my clients' woes."
Physical Alongside Mental
For those who have acted upon their thoughts, it's often done while drunk or under the influence. Nelson describes the effects those things have as being "easy ways to shrink the gap between thoughts and actions; substances distort the relationship a person has with their body and behaviors."
He then explains that, alongside the isolation from their own feelings they experience as they're being raised, men are also not socialized to listen to their bodies. There are plenty of stories in sports of men being injured while playing but continuing to remain on-field, or downplaying the injury entirely. They're taught to ignore pain, as to acknowledge it would be yet another perceived weakness.
When you're not taught how to process feelings of grief or stress, and you're also not taught how to be in tune with your body's true desires, it's no wonder so many men believe the rush that comes from sex and cheating will fill the void within. That's not to excuse any act of cheating of course, it's merely an explanation of how they get there.
Nelson shared that thoughts of cheating seemed to rise in men when they feel "trapped, unappreciated, unheard, or disrespected in a relationship."
He then admits that he's not immune to this phenomenon either, having also thought about cheating a number of times. He links his own reasoning back to his childhood where he only received physical affection such as hugging when he'd done something well, so even in adulthood his brain is wired to think that he should also receive physicality as an adult when he accomplishes something.
Obviously, he knows this isn't actually the case, but it's not uncommon for our brains to run away from us like this, and shaming ourselves when it happens won't solve anything either.
Nelson's conclusion based on his own experiences and those of other men he's spoken to are thus, "Men think about cheating because we crave relational closeness, intimacy, physical touch, and co-regulation like any other human. But we think about cheating specifically or exclusively because a lack of physical connection is the only problem we are taught to identify. Instead of learning what specific issue is bothering us, we tend to externalize our problems onto other people or circumstances because we haven't been taught that the pain or discomfort might be coming from within."
The best thing anyone can do if they struggle with these unwanted thought patterns is to allow themselves time. Time to sit with their own feelings, time to unpack what they were taught growing up, and time to examine their relationship with their bodies and figure out what it is they really want.
We Are Not Our Thoughts
None of this is to say cheating always has a 'reason' and should be forgiven. It's still an awful thing to have someone do to you (or for you to do to someone), and you're right to be hurt by it should it ever happen. Nelson's dive into the psychology behind cheating is more about identifying the root cause, which appears to be faults in how men are often raised in modern society than it is excusing any of the behavior.
As mentioned, we all experience impulsive thoughts we would never want to act on. Our brains are fickle things, and though they control us, we don't control them.
This is an experience where the thought doesn't count. Our character isn't defined solely by our thoughts, but rather by what we do with them.
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