A reader posted this question as to whether serial cheaters can change. In thinking about it I realized the answer is not a simple yes or no. Many factors enter into the prognosis for serial cheating such as the characteristics of the cheater, whether the cheating is part of an addiction, the motivation to cheat and the motivation to change.
Cheating in general is so common that it further complicates separating out what is serial cheating and what is just the normal state of affairs (as it were). The statistics I have seen are from the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy:
• Percentage of men who admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had: 57%
• Percentage of women who admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had: 54%
• Percentage of men and women who admit to having an affair with a co-worker: 36%
• Average length of an affair: 2 years
As if that weren’t enough, they also cite the following:
• Percentage of men who say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught: 74%
• Percentage of women who say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught: 68%
Defining serial cheating
So what constitutes “serial cheating” in the addictive sense?
Is it simply a pattern of repeated infidelity over time? Certainly someone who continuously seeks out extramarital sexual relationships or hook-ups seems to be by definition a serial cheater.
This of course leaves aside the kinds of relationships or sub-cultures in which having multiple partners is accepted by all the participants. In such cases affairs are not cheating per se since there is no betrayal of trust although subtle forms of manipulation can sometimes be taking place. Alternatively in these cases it sometimes happens that two people in a relationship are both sexually compulsive or that they are part of a group of people who engage in sexual acting out behavior.
But sometimes the cheater is just an opportunist who is takes advantage of whatever pleasures come along without knowing or caring what anybody thinks. In this case the infidelity itself may not be a sexual addiction but may just represent pervasive pattern of immaturity, impulsivity, self-centeredness or antisocial behavior. He or she may cheat once or many times but the prospects for change may be poor. Such people may find it easiest to simply get better at covering their tracks or may move on to a new spouse to escape any consequences. (See also my blog post “How to Tell a Cheater from a Sex Addict“).
But assuming the person is not a pathological narcissist or an out-and-out sociopath then it will be important to ask whether the cheating is part of a larger pattern of problematic sexual behaviors.
I have sex addict clients who engage in an array of sexually addictive behaviors with occasional cheating as one of them. If the cheater is also a heavy porn user or goes to prostitutes, flirts compulsively or is otherwise preoccupied with sex then an initial assessment will most likely reveal that the cheating is part of a compulsive pattern of sexual behavior. In this case it is easier to include even one or two extramarital affairs as part of a sex addiction.
I will look at some of the underlying motives for sexually addictive serial cheating, the motives for stopping and when treatment can be successful.
The Psychology of Serial Cheating
Most people who qualify as sexually addicted, including those with infidelity as one of their sexual behaviors, have certain core negative beliefs. They feel unworthy, feel no one can genuinely love them and so on. As a result of these insecurities, all addicts tend to avoid intimacy and to compartmentalize and split off part of their sexual, romantic or intimate life. Being intimate with a spouse is problematic for them and they find an escape.
I have long been struck by the fact that serial cheaters I have had as clients (mostly men) are usually married to beautiful women. Often these women are also accomplished and very bright. These addicts are not looking for something better and in fact often cheat with someone less attractive and less desirable than their spouse. As one addict put it: “I married a 10 and I cheated with 2s”.
You might say that they cheat for one of two reasons. Both are built on deep insecurities.
• Some cheaters feel intimidated by their spouse. This is not anything the spouse is doing, the addict simply feels inadequate and seeks out a sexual connection of some sort with an inferior companion. This could be an affair partner who is less attractive, has fewer resources or has a lot of problems. Or it could simply be a commercial sex worker or a casual hook-up of one sort or another who is non-threatening. Any of these kinds of cheating can serve to temporarily make the addict feel more powerful and less insecure. Instead of wondering if he is good enough, the addict who cheats gets to feel like a big shot. In some cases the cheating is also an expression of resentments against their spouse whom they see as too powerful. These addicts may carry on long term liaisons which seem to defy understanding.
• Another motivation that I commonly see in serial cheating is that of sexual self-objectification. The serial cheater needs the constant validation of being seen as sexual. It’s not that the addict is insecure about his or her sexual prowess. The addict feels deep down that he has nothing to offer other than his sexual attractiveness. This type of addict will very likely be addicted to flirting and inappropriate behavior generally and will be irresistibly drawn to people who find him attractive. I have had such addicts tell me that the experience of feeling a woman is attracted to them is totally intoxicating. Because these addicts feel they are worthy primarily as sex objects, they continually seek to sexualize all relationships, even business relationships. And they tend to move quickly from one proto-relationship to another as the initial rush of attraction fades.
Prospects for change
No matter what the motivation for cheating as an addictive behavior, the prospects for change are good. But it is vitally important that the cheater as well as the spouse understand that the problem is not really about sex. Like all sex addiction, cheating is a dependency on a drug to escape pain, fear and other negative emotions. The prospects are very good if addicts give up all the related behaviors and get treatment that addresses their insecurities and their fears around intimacy; in other words the “deeper work”.
As with all recovery, it takes time and treatment to change a lifelong adaptation. It also takes vigilance. Even well into recovery, addicts may still be drawn to sexual validation and be vulnerable to sexualizing behaviors such as flirting, ogling or “cruising”. But these behaviors will also continue to fade away over the years.