Cheating—an affair, a sexual indiscretion, or side-play—is one of the most commonly cited reasons for ruptured relationships. And despite widespread disapproval of infidelity(three out of every four American adults believe extramarital sex is always wrong, according to 2016 data from the General Society Survey), it occurs with sweeping regularity. In fact, that same survey found that around 16 percent of Americans report having sex with partners outside of their marriage. (Of course, the full spectrum of cheating includes much more than simply having sex, which means the percentage of Americans who “cheat” is much higher.)
In my experience as a couples therapist, individuals report having affairs for a variety of reasons, including the desire to seek new sexual experiences, a longing to reconnect to the light-hearted and free spirit they used to be, or as a response to prolonged suffering in a high-conflict relationship.
Most of what we learn about affairs happens in the wake of them; thus eliciting reactive responses, rather than proactive and preventative ones. In reality, relationships require ongoing evaluation. Just as our driver’s licenses and gym memberships necessitate renewal, so do our relational commitments. A vital partnership demands reassessment and renegotiation of the arrangement consistently and intentionally. What isn’t measured doesn’t get monitored.
Here are five key questions you can ask your partner if cheating is suspected or you simply want to “check in” in order to develop a more trustworthy relationship. Unlike questions like “where are you?” or “why didn’t you answer my call?,” which kick up your partner’s protective defenses—inevitably leading to a fight (defend) or flight (deny) response—the following questions are preemptive, empowering, and effective in averting secrecy and betrayal. While there’s no one strategy for how to prevent cheating in a relationship, these questions are a great place to start.
What does “cheating” mean to you?
One avoidable pitfall is that we assume our partner has an identical understanding of an experience as we do. Specifically in relation to “cheating,” partners with different cultural backgrounds, attachment styles, and histories of being cheated on, may also have dissimilar definitions of the act. Instead of presuming, make the implicit explicit.
Consider which, if not all, of the three features of an affair are problematic to you: your partner having a sexual relationship with another, your partner fostering an emotional connection with another, or them being dishonest with you about their actions? Then, “name it to tame it” in order to identify your boundaries and express your limits. Designating what cheating is and is not increases the clarity of relational boundaries and decreases the probability of misinterpretation.
How are you feeling during sex? And how do you want to feel during sex?
Happiness is defined as the distance between how we appraise where we are and where we want to be. Identify if you are feeling: good/bad, stimulated/bored, vanilla/kinky, rough/soft, powerful/disempowered, present/distracted, sexy/undesirable, wild/tamed, playful/serious, or imaginative/uninspired. Building awareness of our reality is the most important strategy for altering it.
Exploring these difficult questions is not meant to be comfortable, but instead, offer an opportunity to flip the relationship’s script and create new pathways for fostering a more satisfying connection.
What are your sexual fantasies?
We all inhabit rich and imaginative internal worlds, many of which remain unexplored and therefore unrealized. Meanwhile, sharing our sexual fantasies can have bountiful benefits in our relationships. Talking about our secret desires alerts our partners, directly or indirectly, to how we hope to feel during sex.
In order to be collaborative and consensual in the exploration of your fantasy world, ask your partner how they want to receive your fantasies. Would he prefer a seductive or playful tone? Should you describe it to her in a detailed letter? Would they wish for you to show rather than tell, with consent? Sexual fantasies can be discussed before, during, or after sex. Exploration need not be feared if we remove the pressure to act on them.
What parts of you were nurtured before we got together that aren’t now?
Dominant culture perpetuates the narrative that individuals are cheated on because their partners think they are “not good enough” or the relationship is lacking. On the contrary, one study published in the journal Sex Roles found that 35 to 55 percent of people report being “happy” or “very happy” in their monogamous relationships at the time of an affair. People may wander out of their relationships because they want to reconnect with a different version of themselves and crave distance from the person they have become, not from the person they are with.
Consider the ways you were different before you entered your romantic relationship. Recall the activities you participated in, the friends you spent time with, the energy levels you had, the nights you went dancing, the outfits you wore, the things you read, the foods you ate, the places you traveled, and so on. Which of the elements of what made you “you” before you became “we,” do you want to bring from the past into the present? Couples therapist Esther Perel reminds us that the more parts of our identities we carry into the relationship, the less likely we will be to hunt for the lost ones outside of it.
What are your feelings about monogamy and polyamory?
Our races, cultures, communities, and family histories help predict if we prioritize the needs of the collective versus the individual. Identifying if your partner’s values align with loyalty, interdependence, closeness, cooperation, and generosity may be an indicator of his/her/their willingness to remain committed to the monogamous union.
Simultaneously, those of us committed to monogamy can learn from the polyamorous ideal of radical transparency. By putting language to our relational belief systems and “forbidden” desires, we are empowered to choose the terms of our partnership rather than be a victim to an arrangement that we may be participating in but haven’t clearly agreed upon.