When damning photos recently surfaced suggesting Ewan McGregor was cheating on his wife of 22 years, fans were shocked. Many took to social media to express their dismay that the Hollywood heartthrob wasn’t the “good guy” they had once thought, while others posted messages of support on his wife’s Instagram. These reactions are typical of many tales of infidelity, which often have a similar result: sympathy for the cheatee and vilification of the cheater. But what about the perpetrator’s side of the story? As much as it hurts, infidelity carries heavy, but important, life lessons for everyone involved, including the cheater. While this doesn’t always have a positive impact on both parties, it’s an experience that leaves a lasting impression nonetheless. We spoke to five women who cheated to hear about their regrets, motivation, and, most importantly, lessons learned. We’ve changed their names to protect their identities. How did cheating change them, and what can they teach us about relationships and ourselves?
The Question of “Why”
Anyone who’s ever been cheated on knows the torment of that one question: Why did they do it? Cheating may seem like a morally black and white issue. But much like relationships, every instance is unique and can even be quite complicated. So why do people cheat? Is it because they’re bad people? If that was the case, then a lot of Americans would fall under that umbrella. According to one survey, 19 percent of Americans have cheated on a partner. But as much as the word “cheater” is thrown around as a derogatory label, cheating can happen for many different reasons. The five women who shared their experiences had very different stories to tell. One cheated as a response to being cheated on, another reached out to someone else at the end of a dying relationship, and there was more than one case of infidelity as a means to seek comfort from an abusive relationship.
Reason and Recovery
No matter the reason, Sofie says that cheating on someone is “never ever worth it—even if your partner is abusive or neglectful.” “The particular flavor of sickly guilt is awful, and it will make you a worse person to have to build up the hundreds of micro-lies needed to get away with it,” she says. Because of this emotional burden, Sofie isn’t optimistic about the future of any relationship where cheating has occurred. “I personally don’t think a relationship can recover fully from infidelity, whether it’s discovered or not,” she says. “As I said before, the relationship has now had to weather hundreds of big and little lies, and the cheater is always afraid of punishment—while the cheatee is always afraid of further infidelity.” Chelsea has also noticed that being unfaithful can wreak havoc not just on a relationship, but on a cheater’s mentality. “After I cheat, I always get an intense jealousy feeling, like how they mention the jealous ones are usually the guilty ones,” she says. “Because that’s exactly how I feel afterwards. When I don’t cheat, I don’t get that feeling at all.” One commonality between almost all of their stories is that the cheating was a symptom of a less than ideal relationship. Kat learned the hard way that cheating can be a lesson on “how to fall out of love with someone.” “I got so involved in the relationship, and everything felt so good, and I couldn’t possibly imagine how it would ever end, nor did I want to,” she says. “I see now how unhealthy that mindset was, and I understand how to be realistic about love.”
“Maybe next time (s)he’ll think before (s)he cheats.”
Cheating often happens when a relationship has stagnated. When things reach that point, it’s better to just end things rather than cheat. “A one-sided break-up is always going to be painful, but you are doing a huge kindness to your significant other by being honest and ending things without delay,” she says. Jess has cheated on multiple partners in the past and agrees that it wasn’t the right reaction to a loss of attraction. She says she should have instead realized that her desire to cheat was a sign that things weren’t working. “I should’ve broken up with my first and last ex when I felt very tempted to cheat, because I knew in my gut that I was unhappy in the relationship,” she says.
… it’s never had anything to do with my current partner.
However, cheating isn’t always about the other person. Sometimes infidelity is simply a reflection of what’s going on with the cheater. Zoe has realized that she has a tendency to sabotage her relationships by cheating. “For one thing, it was a step on the way to learning how deeply self-destructive I am,” she says. “I do things that I know are terrible because in some way, I want them to bring me down. It’s a problem. I’m working on it.” Chelsea says that her cheating has no connection to how satisfied she is in her relationship. “For me, it’s never had anything to do with my current partner,” she says. “We could have a perfect weekend away, and then an ex could text me, and I’d consider meeting up.”
The Picture of a Cheater
We’ve all watched enough movies and listened to plenty of heartbroken friends to learn that cheaters are always the villain of the story, right? Not always. It’s difficult to humanize someone who cheats without appearing to excuse their actions. At the same time, it’s important not to reduce someone to their actions alone. “Different circumstances lead to different actions,” says Sofie. “People change.” Much like Sofie, Jess doesn’t agree with the old adage of “once a cheater, always a cheater.” While she’s cheated in relationships in the past, she can’t see that happening with her current partner of three years. “There are many cheaters who cheat shamelessly and notoriously on many or all partners, but not everyone who cheats fall in this category,” she says. “It also doesn’t mean that the next relationship a ‘past cheater’ enters is doomed to also result in cheating.” Her previous transgressions were a reaction to what she now realizes were abusive relationships. She says she’s never come close to being unfaithful in her current relationship and has resisted advances from others many times since—even from one of her partner’s close friends. “I always decline their offer and refuse to give out my number because I’m happy and have no hidden feelings of curiosity about what else is out there,” she says. “Because my significant other is literally perfect for me, inside and out.” Jess’ partner is well aware of her cheating in past relationships. She believes you should always disclose past cheating in a new relationship.
… I wanted to give him the opportunity to choose to be with me or not, given the full disclosure.
“Not everyone agrees with being so transparent or talking about their past, but I saw a long-term future with my significant other and wanted him to know who he was getting in bed with every night and planning his future with,” she says. “This may seem contradictory because I don’t believe cheating defined me or the trajectory of my future relationships, but it’s a taboo in our society for good reason. It shows that the other partner may have a certain level of distrust for the partner who cheated in the past.” Being open about her history did make commitment a little more difficult in the beginning of her relationship. But Jess knew it was important to let her partner decide if she was the person he wanted to be with, baggage and all. “I didn’t want to mislead him by the omission of my two past cheating transgressions, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to choose to be with me or not, given the full disclosure,” she says. “We weren’t official for a few months as a result, but now it’s a non-issue.”
If these women’s stories tell us anything, it’s that our view of the heartless cheater isn’t always accurate. The circumstances surrounding their actions definitely challenge those negative assumptions, especially when abuse is involved. One surprising revelation is that cheating doesn’t always come with regrets—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is certainly the case for Jess, who cheated on her ex with her current partner. “I’m not proud of cheating, but I don’t regret it because I wouldn’t have been in the place in my life that I was when I met my significant other if I hadn’t been in a relationship with my ex,” she says. The stigma surrounding cheating dictates that it should always be regretted. A display of regret plays a big part in how likely they are to be forgiven or excused for cheating. If someone doesn’t regret cheating, then what’s to stop them from doing it again? The thing is a person can show remorse for their actions but still not regret them. By showing remorse, they fully acknowledge how they’ve hurt someone else and take full responsibility for their actions. As Jess has shown, it’s possible to feel remorse for cheating but still not regret doing it. She was previously in an abusive relationship; after discovering she’d cheated, her ex kept her captive for hours. Even so, she’d do it all over again to be with her current partner. “While our beginning was condemnable and morally wrong, and I lived through depression and PTSD from my ex finding me out, I would still live through that all over again and make those same choices to be with my current significant other.”
What Makes a Cheater?
Given that there are many factors that can lead someone to cheat, there’s really no formula to predict if you or someone you know is capable of cheating. Sometimes infidelity is a result of a toxic relationship, but other times it’s simply a reflection of one person’s issues. But they do provide some insights for people who feel they may cheat or have cheated before.
I shouldn’t have let it consume me because it doesn’t define ‘me.’
If you have cheated in the past, you might not be dealing with the issues that have stemmed from the guilt. This is something that Jess had to face for her own mental wellbeing. “I needed to learn how to forgive myself,” she says. “I carried a shameful burden for two years after cheating on my third ex for my current significant other.” Just like Sofie explained, Jess felt the weight of her guilt for a long time. “At the beginning, when I started cheating and sneaking around, I fell into a deep depression that stemmed from guilt,” she says. “It ate away at me on the inside—lying to my ex and leading what felt like a double life. I knew I should feel badly for what I had done, but I shouldn’t have let it consume me because it doesn’t define ‘me.’” Of course, the best way to avoid these issues is to stop before it goes too far—even if you think your interactions with that other person are innocent.
“Emotional infidelity is just as serious as physical and almost always leads to the latter,” says Sofie. “Don’t fool yourself that ‘nothing happened’ if you’re talking to some guy like he’s your partner every day.” She’s learned that it’s crucial to be realistic about how tempted you might be. “If you’re worried that you might cheat, just don’t put yourself in any stupid situations,” she says. “Don’t drink around the person you fancy. Don’t text them. Don’t feed the crush. If you need to get out of your relationship, do that first, then think about whether you still want to chase this new person. If you don’t want to leave your relationship, water the grass there.” Sofie’s message is blunt, but she speaks from experience. Cheating hurts, especially if that relationship is going to continue after the truth comes out. Zoe cheated on her partner five years ago and says they’ve since “come back from it.” For her, cheating showed her just how much power she had over her partner’s wellbeing: a discovery that hurt them both. “I realized how much power I have in my relationship, for lack of a better term,” she says. “I hurt him more deeply than I thought was actually possible. I knew he would be angry when I told him—and I did tell him, right away—but I didn’t realize he would be so sad.” “He really loves me. Like, a lot. That doesn’t seem like it should have been such a revelation after four years together, but there you have it. Whatever thrill it gave me to mess around with someone new wasn’t worth losing that.”