As a culture, we’re both appalled and fascinated by cheating. It’s one of the most condemned transgressions in a relationship, often thought to sound a death knell for a couple’s chances of staying together. For politicians and people in positions of power, its discovery can force resignations and even end careers. And there are countless hours of music (think Beyoncé’s Lemonade and basically the entire country genre) devoted to unpicking its impact. Why do people do it? Does it only happen in “unhappy” relationships? And is there ever any way back?
It’s pretty rare, then, to hear a famous person stick their head above the parapet and get brutally honest about affairs and what drives them (without resorting to platitudes about “lessons learnt” and now being “stronger than ever”, at least). But in a recent interview with The Times, comedian Mark Watson did just that.
His comments on his three-year affair don’t try to put a glamorous spin on his behaviour; there aren’t any references to the rush of someone new, the thrill of sneaking around or any of those adages that are often trotted out to give cheating a Mills & Boon-style romantic gloss. Instead, he makes the whole thing sound pretty banal, motivated by ordinary, recognisable flaws. “It gives me zero pleasure to admit it, but I just wanted to win at everything – but the reality was I was doing badly,” he said. “It was humiliating having to accept the fact I wasn’t special but was just an average man suffering cliched failures and problems. Having an affair was a way of avoiding all that.” (Watson and his ex-wife, who share two children, underwent marriage counselling but eventually divorced in 2019.)
Watson’s experience is more common than you might think. In a YouGov study carried out in 2015, one in five British adults admitted to having had an affair in the past; the proportion of men and women who’d cheated was pretty similar (20 per cent vs 19 per cent), apparently putting paid to stereotypes about errant husbands and long-suffering wives. But estimating just how many people cheat in long-term relationships and marriages is a difficult endeavour. Any attempts to survey infidelity is contingent on the respondents being honest about behaviour that requires, well, a certain element of dishonesty and admitting to something that is socially frowned upon.
A few centuries ago, marriage was a largely practical institution, entered into for economic reasons. But in the modern world, when we have the chance to make romantic partnerships rather than pragmatic ones, it has come to symbolise lasting love and compatibility. “Infidelity today isn’t just a violation of trust,” the therapist Esther Perel wrote in her 2017 book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. “It’s a shattering of the grand ambition of romantic love.” Adultery, then, becomes all the more devastating because it flies in the face of all of our ideas about romance.
The reasons underpinning an affair will inevitably differ from couple to couple. “Some people like the thrill and the chase, whereas others might cheat because they’re looking for something that they aren’t receiving in the relationship,” says Chantal Gautier, certified sexologist and relationship therapist. “Cheating can serve as a symptom of unmet needs, whether they are sexual or emotional in nature,” she adds. “Thus, it can be a wake-up call for the couple that the ‘old’ isn’t working as well anymore, or at least not for the one partner.”
Ali Ross is a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy who has worked with couples and individuals impacted by infidelity. In his sessions, he tends to see three reasons for affairs crop up again and again. The first, he says, is that “somebody basically isn’t really up for monogamy, but hasn’t realised that themselves”. That might be because they’ve never seen any patterns for relationships that go beyond the conventionally monogamous mould, or because they don’t feel like they can open up to their partner about their desire for something different.
The second is when one half of the couple is struggling to be vulnerable – in these cases, Ross explains, an affair can act as a means to “preserve distance” between partners, almost as a form of self-sabotage. “One way of sabotaging that intimacy, that vulnerability, is to have relationships outside [of the couple],” he says. “It might even be because the relationship is going well, [that] they then have to sabotage it, because they can’t handle being loved, being cared for, being vulnerable.”
At an unconscious level, I did not believe I was lovable. I did not believe that I deserved happiness
Of course, he notes, this won’t be at the forefront of a cheater’s mind at the time. Transformation coach and author Noor Hibbert agrees. “It’s really important to understand that there’s a lot of unconscious psychological factors that actually lead people to having affairs,” she notes. She’s happily married now, but in her teens and early twenties, “before I met my husband, I cheated in relationships – even on the partners I really loved. I understand now that it was because at an unconscious level, I did not believe I was lovable. I did not believe that I deserved happiness.”
And the third factor that repeatedly crops up in Ross’s therapy room? Communication issues. “Essentially, you’re not feeling seen, understood, recognised, considered by the other [person],” he explains. “Then maybe you find that connection with somebody else … You might still care about [your partner], you might have previously felt connected to them but no longer do.” Or, he adds, “you might have realised that you never did feel connected to them”, and your new romance might throw that into stark relief.
Sometimes, the cheater doesn’t “have the confidence to address and resolve challenges within their relationship”, suggests divorce coach Amanda Gardiner, founder of The Divorce Hive. An affair might then be a way of forcing a relationship to end, manoeuvring a break-up, although Ross cautions that this is quite rare – and that when it happens, it is often motivated by a fear of hurting the other party. “It sounds counterintuitive, right?” he says. “If you don’t want to hurt someone, you probably don’t have an affair. But when you’re so stuck, and you’re finding it difficult to reconcile your responsibility to communicate, people sometimes would rather not confront [their problems] and have the affair.”
Might cheating be a symptom of something wrong in a relationship rather than a cause? A study by researchers at Tilbury University in the Netherlands released last year seemed to suggest so, at least. Surveying German couples over an average period of eight years, they collected data on 1,000 “infidelity events” (academia-speak for affairs) to explore how participants felt before and after cheating. They found that infidelity tended to be preceded by an increase in conflict and a dip in how satisfied both parties felt with the relationship.
The findings chime with Ross’s practice. “Most of the time when I’ve really got deep with someone who either had been cheated on or was cheating, they realised that there were all sorts of other things that they just overlooked,” he says. “The infidelity was just one aspect that wasn’t working … It obscured that there were all these other things that were sometimes equally or sometimes more important to attend to in the relationship.”
Sometimes those “other things” might be extremely simple. Couples often “slip into working harder and then losing time together, they stop going on dates, making effort for each other,” Ross says. Divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag, founder and president of law firm Vardags, agrees with him. “I think one of the most common reasons [behind affairs], and perhaps the simplest of all, is change,” she says. “Relationships are at their most vulnerable when the racy stages of the relationship have fallen away, revealing in their wake a much less palatable serving of dried-up conversation, minimal effort and missed date nights … The spark dulls out, but everyone on the outside remains shiny and new.”
One of the most common reasons [behind affairs], and perhaps the simplest of all, is change
The language that we use to talk about cheating is “laden” with value judgements, Ross suggests, with the label of “cheater” implying “a shameful act” – and this doesn’t always aid in attempts to have a nuanced conversation about such behaviour. And the victims of cheating aren’t immune from this judgement either. “Very often, my clients fear the opprobrium of being married to a cheater more than the actual experience of being married to one,” Vardag says: they might feel looked down on if they choose to stay, whatever the intricacies of the situation. Or they might even blame themselves. “Women often come to me saying that the affair was their fault”, Gardiner says; they might suggest that they “had become unattractive or maybe … their attention was divided between the [partner] and other commitments, such as kids, work, ageing parents and so on”.
Perhaps we need to move on from this blame game altogether. Indeed, Vardag believes that we need to start thinking about adultery differently – although, she cautions, “this is not to say that those who are deeply affected by cheating shouldn’t be”. She has had first-hand experience, and knows “how infidelity can be hugely destructive to one’s self-worth”, but still believes that we “now have the opportunity, in a country and a time where both women and men can marry and divorce on their own terms, to throw away these anachronistic assumptions and decide our own feelings towards monogamy. It’s important, also, to remember how difficult it is to sustain a marriage in the modern day. We’re looking at 100-year life spans now if we’re lucky.” And that’s a very long time, she says, to stay perfectly in sync with another person, “to keep coinciding with another being in the phases of one’s life”.