Many people, both men and women, cheat on the person they are in a relationship with; at least 20-30% admit it depending on which data you are looking at and how the research questions are phrased. Some people cheat very rarely and others cheat a lot.
Some people cheat repeatedly but do not meet the criteria for sex addiction.
Others who cheat repeatedly use cheating as a sexually addictive behavior and can definitely benefit from being given appropriate treatment.
So how do you tell the two apart?
The generally accepted clinical criteria have to do with things like being preoccupied with and unable to resist the urges to do certain behaviors, escalation of the behavior over time, inability to stop despite negative consequences, and distress if prevented from engaging in the behavior. But many of these criteria would be hard for a spouse or partner of a cheater to see.
For sex addicts cheating, or having “serial affairs,” is part of a larger pattern of using sex as a drug. The majority of sex addicts who cheat usually have some other form of sexual behavior in addition to affairs, such as porn, internet sex, phone sex, flirting, sexual hook-ups, and so on. And in general they tend to view the world through sex colored glasses, sometimes without realizing it.
Serial cheaters on the other hand may or may not engage in other kinds of sexual behavior and their cheating tends instead to be part of a larger pattern of behavior that is impulsive, self-indulgent, irresponsible or amoral. Sex is not used as a drug but is one of many forms of manipulation and opportunistic self-gratification.
Now I can hear some people saying “yes, but sex addicts are self-serving and amoral too.” It is true that both cheaters and sex addicts can be masters of deception but I believe that there are differences.
Some signs that your cheater may be a sex addict
- Although sex addicts have a long standing pattern of using sex as a way to cope with feelings and with life generally, they also typically experience their sexually addictive behavior as in some way “ego-dystonic,” meaning that the addict does not really want to see himself as a cheater. In other words for the sex addict, the behavior doesn’t fit his self-concept. He rationalizes it and lies about it to himself as much as to others.
- Addicts who cheat very frequently have other addictions besides sex. Dr. Patrick Carnes found that the overwhelming majority of sex addicts had at least one other addictive behavior such as drugs, alcohol, nicotine, work, etc. Scientific evidence is beginning to show that there are neurophysiological and even genetic bases to addiction and that all addictions are similar on some level. So the sex addict cheater will likely show signs of addictiveness to other things.
- Sex addicts typically have a core belief that sex is their most important need. One way this will be observable is that the sex addict will find it hard to completely hide his or her preoccupation with sex. He or she will often tell sexual jokes more readily than people normally do, make sexual references in social conversation when it may not be entirely appropriate and talk privately about the sexual attributes of people to an unusual degree.
- Sex addicts who want to hook up or cheat as one of their sexually addictive behaviors will almost certainly sexually “objectify” the people they meet. This means that they will be sizing everyone up as a sex object or potential sexual partner. This will be most visible in the form of staring and fixating visually as well as flirting in a predatory way. It may be even subtler, taking the form of “intriguing” in which the addict tries to connect in subtle ways like eye contact and innuendo.
Sometimes a cheater is just a cheater
Repetitive cheaters who do not have a sexual addiction may decide that it is a good idea to quit cheating, but their quitting is determined by self interest rather than by treatment or basic change. Some cheaters may just “mature out” of the behavior. Cheaters who are not addicts probably cheat in a lot of areas of their lives. They may be secretive but only because it would be very inconvenient if their partner knew the truth.
Cheaters are not obsessed with sex and they are certainly not riddled with self doubt and shame. They are not acting against their value system because they genuinely feel that what they are doing is justified. They do not wish they could stop; rather their motto is “if you can get away with it, do it.”