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Did You Feel Bad When You Cheated?

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Illustrated by Anna Sudit
Haven’t you ever cheated? No but really? What, you’ve never followed your wandering eye, lived a little too much in the moment; used drugs and alcohol to excuse your behaviour?

The answer was a resounding No.

I recently had this conversation with my new-ish boyfriend, whose moral compass is practically biblical – or else he’s just a good person. As for me, I watched the colour drain from his face as I recalled cheating on either or both sides, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end, in every relationship or romantic dalliance I’ve had. Every time someone did it to me, it was painful, but every time I did it I felt (almost) nothing. The same way people who are bullied become bullies but it’s at the point now where I can’t remember if I began as the bullied, or the bully. And it was only after this conversation, while attempting in vain to defend myself against a romantic backlog of misdemeanor, that a long overdue guilt started to set in.

Because the highest degree of double standards arises from the subject of cheating. If our best friend is cheating on their long-term partner, we’ll say: “Look, you’ve been so unhappy, don’t beat yourself up ok? You’re only human”, but if it’s our best friend being cheated on we say: “He/ she’s a fucking dick, he/she’s a fucking loser, he/she always has been.” Few are bold enough to say: “Actually, you’re behaving like a dick.” And we tend to echo this pattern to ourselves, somehow convincing ourselves it’s ok when it’s us, and screaming bloody murder when it’s them.

According to Relate, the UK’s largest provider of relationship support, 41% of women and 35% of men reported being cheated on in 2015, with 44% admitting they have cheated physically or virtually.

Cheating, Relate says, is the result of lots of factors, including: “Fear of commitment, issues related to self-esteem, an imbalance in the relationship, feeling unloved, a disconnection/ lack of communication…” – and on and on. “Many couples,” they note in a thorough survey entitled The State Of The UK’s Relationships 2015, “come to the conclusion that their relationship has run its course – with the affair being a symptom of what was wrong, rather than the cause.”

It’s terribly compassionate of them to say so, but, I think, nine and a half times out of 10 it’s down to spite, boredom, and loneliness.

If you have been with someone for 20, 30 or 40 years and your spouse only cheats on you once or twice, your spouse is good at monogamy. Not bad at it. Good at it.

Dan Savage
“We cheat because we’re wired to cheat, just as our primate relatives are wired to cheat,” relationship expert and author Dan Savage said in a talk back in 2009 – incidentally we thoroughly recommend his Savage Love podcast.

He continued: ‘If you have been with someone for 20, 30 or 40 years and your spouse only cheats on you once or twice, your spouse is good at monogamy. Not bad at it. Good at it.’

There’s a whole host of relationship experts and psychologists, who, without exonerating cheating, go to great lengths to explain it – and always with the caveat ‘I’m not saying it’s ok… But.’

One explanation, from psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman Ph.D in an essay published on Psychology Today, is that cheating “has a lot to do with cognitive control.” Albeit I went looking for this theory, because I have wondered if my ruinous eating habits correlate to my ruinous cheating habits – I’m always eating the cake – but there is evidence to suggest that all of our impulses are related. “Why are some people better able at resisting this immediate temptation than others?” asks Dr Kaufman. “The default state is to act on impulse. Overriding this requires mental effort, and the more attractive alternatives you have (imagine all the offers Tiger Woods received), the harder it is to control your impulses.”

He continues: “Lots of conditions can impair executive control, including a high workload or stress. […] Imagine being a high-profile celebrity or politician with lots of sexual options and a stressful workload – that's essentially a formula for infidelity. This is not to excuse anyone, of course. But it does add a bit to our understanding.”
Kaufman concludes, bleakly: “The moral of this story? Resisting the temptation to cheat requires cognitive effort. If you've got a lot of executive control, you probably are less likely to cheat on your partner. If you don't have a lot of cognitive resources, you better hope you aren't attractive, rich, famous, under a lot of stress, or drunk.”

Or hope you’re not in a relationship with someone attractive, rich, famous, under a lot of stress, or drunk.

This isn’t a case of “there’s no right answer.” We all know the right answer, but sometimes just knowing isn’t enough. I know that eating the third slice of cake will result in me putting on weight that I don’t want, but it hardly ever stops me, and that is the basic nature of temptation.

We asked seven men and women how they felt when they cheated.

Isobel, 26

I cheated for about three months in my last year of university. My boyfriend was living in London and was none the wiser. I was seeing this guy for three months before I decided I had to break up with Ben and properly be with Lex. I dumped Ben. Then Lex dumped me and I thought I'd never stop crying. I actually still see Lex after all these years so there you go!
I feel bad now, but I didn't at the time. Now when I see Ben on Facebook or he drops me a text I feel really guilty. We lived together. We lived next to this bagel place in Stoke Newington and I swear to god I can't eat bagels because they remind me of lying. He was much older than me and I think he still thinks we should be married. Even now I feel awful, but I still see Lex so... I'm evil evidently.

Tristan, 30
When I was 24, I started seeing this girl. I was infatuated with her, and for a time we were happy. My cheating began four or five months after we'd started going out, when she told me that she'd slept with her ex.

During our 'honeymoon period', I remember us agreeing that if we ever cheated on one another, we'd never let the other one know, because that was just being selfish. Ridiculous on many levels, I know. Anyway, in order to exact some form of revenge, I cheated on her and carried on cheating on her with this girl that I'd known for a few years, as well as having a few other random encounters. It wasn't a conscious decision to start cheating, it just started one night when I was drowning my sorrows and it became (what I realise now to be) an incredibly immature, ineffective coping mechanism.

This behaviour lasted for the rest of the relationship (we somehow dragged it out another three or four months). I didn't feel guilt or regret at the time, in fact it was the ego boost I think I craved to sort of mask the hurt of her initial betrayal. However, this feeling would never last long and it did nothing to remove the image of her and her ex from my mind.

As the years have past, I still don't feel bad about it. And I never told her about any of it, as I'd once agreed. I'm not sure what it taught me, and it should have been already evident that that is not the way one should behave; nonetheless, I did resolve to never act in that way again. I don't keep in touch with my ex or the other girl.

Sophie, 25
I was about six months into a relationship that I was very happy in. I got incredibly drunk at a friend’s party and kissed an old flame. Weirdly, I think I did it because I was upset my boyfriend wasn't there, and I missed him. Not the best way to show it I know. I felt awful the next day, feeling so guilty. Looking back, it was just silly and people make mistakes so I don't hate myself.

Sam, 24
When I slept with someone else, I was three months into my relationship. I wasn't happy – I felt like the person I was with wasn't reciprocating what I was committing to the relationship – they didn't make much time for me, they seemed to be holding back emotionally, and they weren't as interested in my life as theirs. I was confused about whether this was just their character, or whether I wasn't doing it for them. Either way, it made me feel pretty hurt.

I slept with a friend on a group holiday a couple of times. I did it when I was drunk. I wouldn't say it was premeditated, but I would say that there was a spitefulness to it – I wanted to get one up on my partner, who had been making me feel lousy for some time.

In hindsight that sounds childish, but I didn't really regret it. After it happened, the person I was in a relationship with continued to treat me coldly, until I eventually broke up with them.

In a twisted way, the fact that I cheated gave me a sense of comfort in the months following the break up. While I was feeling bruised that this person had rejected my love, I held onto the fact that, in a small act of rebellion, I had rejected them.

I'm not friends with the person I cheated on, and I don't really feel bad about what I did – I know they had cheated on people before, and I've since heard that they're having an affair within a long-term relationship. I feel that I've grown up a bit since then, and would (hopefully!) be above cheating, especially for such childish reasons.
Joe, 31
Did I feel bad? No, not at the time. Not that bad now either. I’d been in an unhappy relationship for about four years, and had become so used to it being bad, that, even though I realised it was pretty rubbish, I just moseyed on, when I should have broken it off. I didn’t realise how miserable I was until I met my now girlfriend. I know it was wrong to become emotionally involved with someone else, but I fell in love and I’m not sure how much you can do about that. I just got on so much better with her. It wasn’t a physical thing, we just connected in a way that I hadn’t realised people do. And to be honest, the relationship I was in just paled in comparison. I felt like I’d met my person, and I felt so excited about it. I’m sorry for the person I left behind (of course they hate me now) but actually I can’t help but feel grateful that I fell in love, and didn’t mosey on. So many people mosey on. Lots of relationships end this way, it’s sad, it’s brutal, it’s cruel, but the alternative is never hurting anyone, and in so doing preventing your own happiness – and theirs too because of course they deserve to be with someone who would never cheat on them! So I was selfish, yes, but I can’t say I feel regret. Maybe ask me again in four years, when the person I think is my soul mate has dumped me for the person she thinks is her soulmate.

Fiona, 26
I was involved in cheating, but he was the one cheating. He was in a relationship with another woman, and was cheating with me; I was the mistress. At first that was quite a fun role to play because I got to be the fun one, the one who made him feel free, I was the object of desire and it made me feel great. Then, naturally, I felt shitty about myself. I tried to end it lots of times, saying it was unfair on his girlfriend. I did feel really guilty for a time, and really sad, like I wasn’t good enough, like I was a bit on the side, like he enjoyed my company but not enough. It went on for months and months until finally I called him and said “this is it now, break up with your girlfriend tonight if you want me, or don’t and don’t ever speak to me again, it’s too painful for me, and you’re hurting everyone.” I was really surprised, but he actually did. Now we’ve been together three years and we live together. I think she’s with someone else too.

Lily, 35
I was engaged to the father of my children. It was an emotionally abusive relationship. He bullied me when I was pregnant and made me feel bad about myself for years. We broke up once when our daughter was two, but got back together and had another two daughters. I wanted it to work for my children, but I felt depressed and like a terrible version of myself – and I didn’t want that for my children either. He had (finally) proposed and we were going to get married. Then I met a woman at work. I had been in relationships with women when I was younger, so that aspect of it didn’t bother me. She made me feel beautiful and loved and strong, she brought me back to life. We didn’t do much physical stuff until I’d broken up with my ex, but there was undeniable “emotional cheating” and I fell in love long before I did anything about it. I can’t say I feel bad. I feel good, at last.
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