'I love my partner. But I'm having an affair.' Why happy people cheat.

In 2017, iconic couples' therapist Ester Perel suggested that sometimes... happy people cheat.

"In session after session, I meet people who assure me, 'I love my wife/my husband. We are best friends and happy together,' and then say, 'But I am having an affair'," she wrote.

She even reiterated this point on Mamamia's No Filter podcast, saying while people often cheat because of marital dysfunction, sometimes it can happen even when there's no problem with the relationship at all.

"Straying isn't necessarily a symptom of a relationship gone awry," Perel said.

"It's the quest for lost parts of one's self, it's the quest for a sense of aliveness, for vitality. It's a quest to reconnect with the unlived lives."

Watch: 3 relationship mistakes made are divorce. Post continues below.

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As a renowned psychotherapist, New York Times bestselling author and the beloved and trusted voice in the ears of millions who listen to her podcasts, Perel's thoughts on why happy people cheat were incredibly thought-provoking.

In these situations, cheating isn't about compensating for something that's missing in a partnership or setting up an exit, it's about self-discovery.


For these people, infidelity is less likely to be a symptom of a problem and more likely to be about growth, exploration, and transformation, Perel explains.

"We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves. The Mexican essayist Octavio Paz described eroticism as a 'thirst for otherness.' So often, the most intoxicating 'other' that people discover in an affair is not a new partner - it's a new self."

When Perel's perspective on this topic went viral, it inspired countless think-pieces from fellow therapists, relationships experts, psychologists and more. Some agreed, others did not.

But the conversation certainly made people reflect on their own experiences - was my ex-partner unhappy or happy in the relationship when they cheated? Why did they cheat? 

Isiah McKimmie is a couples' therapist, relationship counsellor and sexologist. For years now she has been helping couples navigate challenges in their relationships, one such example being infidelity. 

From her perspective, she thinks the idea that 'happy people cheat' is perhaps too simplistic.

"Psychologist Shirley Glass and therapists like Dr John and Dr Julie Gottman talk about a slow disconnection in relationships that often builds up or creeps in slowly. This is what ultimately can lead to infidelity. I was talking to a couple recently who said they were quite happy in the relationship, but not entirely satisfied - like the boiling frog syndrome," Isiah explains.


"I certainly have never seen a couple who have experienced infidelity, where there weren't some underlying issues with their connection, their communication or their sexual intimacy."

Perhaps, Isiah suggests, it's more accurate to note that people in relatively stable and comfortable relationships can cheat too. It's not just those whose relationships are marred with conflict and division.

"The most common cause of divorce and separation is actually couples slowly growing apart," she says. 

"Where I agree with Perel is that a couple doesn't have to be arguing or fighting for disconnection and infidelity to happen. Very often it's that the couple has stopped talking to each other in ways they did at the start of their relationship. So they seek that connection and validation elsewhere."

Another potential reason is that in happy relationships, someone might cheat - not because they are dissatisfied with their partner - but, because they are dissatisfied with themselves.

From Perel's perspective, this isn't to say the person is unhappy within themselves, but instead they're yearning for more passion in their life.

"I often say to my patients that if they could bring into their marriage one-tenth of the boldness and the playfulness that they bring to their affair, their home life would feel quite different," she wrote.

Isiah sees this reasoning for cheating as a quest for validation. 

"People might be very happy with their lives, they might have no intention or desire of leaving their partner. They might love the family they've built together, for example. But there's an opportunity - a connection, excitement and validation that is being offered elsewhere. They're coming from a place of emotion rather than logic," she tells Mamamia


As for whether infidelity always has to signal the end of a relationship? Both Isiah and Perel stress that it doesn't have to.

Of course, if the cheating has occurred within a relationship where there was already a breakdown in trust, and there was disconnection, conflict and division - it can be far harder to come back from. But not impossible.

It's those quote-on-quote 'happy people' who cheat on their partners that potentially have a greater chance at rekindling the relationship from feeling like comfortable roommates to lovers once more. 

"Infidelity can be overcome. Couples can build stronger relationships together by being willing to do the work that it takes to recover from infidelity," says Isiah.

"It is a valid decision to decide to leave your partner after you've found out they've been cheating. But I think equally valid, and something that often is harder for people around us to accept, is that we might choose to stay with a partner who's cheated. Expelling the shame - that's the most important thing for both parties."

Feature Image: Getty.

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