Inside the Mind of an Unfaithful Partner

May 11, 2010  

By Katie Simon
katies@smu.edu

What could a famous golfer, a motorcycle show host and a politician possibly have in common?

Well, they all seem to have each come down with the cheat-on-your-wife bug. Tiger Woods, Jesse James and John Edwards have all suffered from the wandering eye, which begs the question—are high profile people more likely to cheat than the average American?

While many might argue “yes”, especially since infamous cheaters such as Bill Clinton and David Letterman have always been around, what is seldom taken into account is the fact that their fame also leaves them more exposed than the average American. In the end, researchers and psychologists say cheaters are cheaters, famous or not.

“If we really compared the data from celebrities and non-famous people, they might not be that different,” said Dr. Margaret Pinder, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “It’s just that non-famous people don’t have others constantly checking up on them.”

The average American cheater, according to Dr. Pinder and Dr. Brian Gladue, the psychobiology director for the Office of Protection of Human Subjects at University of North Texas, goes astray for a number of reasons.

Some people like to take risks and see how far they can push the boundaries, so the reasons aren’t necessarily emotional. But for others, the reasons are completely emotion-based. Some partners feel that their relationship isn’t fulfilling a certain desire, while others are unhappy with themselves and seek another partner to find security.

Others, explains Dr. Pinder, are simply immature.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean there is something wrong with their partner,” Dr. Pinder said. “It usually means there is something wrong with connecting with yourself.”

Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us!

Dr. Pinder said that people too often forget that celebrities are human too. The only difference between the average person and the person in the spotlight, she explains, is their level of public exposure.

“High profile politicians, athletes and celebrities get caught and make the news because they are high profile,” Dr. Gladue said. “Nobody would care about your average golfer cheating on his wife, because who cares about some guy at the local country club?”

That isn’t to say, though, that celebrities don’t have a higher level of temptation. With fame and success comes more access to more people.

Dr. Pinder explains that famous people are more exposed to elements in their lives that may make some of them more likely to cheat.

“Sex, money and power are very related,” Dr. Pinder said. “So when one is caught up in money and power and celebrity status, there is just a whole energy around passion and they will always be surrounded by people who want a piece of them.”

In a recent survey of 17 students, eight believed celebrities cheat because they need constant excitement to feed their already busy lifestyles.

Another eight students, however, answered that people make a big deal out of celebrity cheating scandals simply because they are famous—not because they are more likely to cheat.

“You can’t just generally expect them to be morally depraved and promiscuous,” said Rusty Haake, a senior mechanical engineering and math double major at SMU. “But you can’t be surprised when it turns out that way, either.”

So if the difference between a celebrity and an average American is the television screen and the tabloids, then what causes people to turn to infidelity?

Risk Takers

For some people, cheating may not be caused by something unfulfilled emotionally. Rather, cheating may be just another risk taken to get a thrill.

Dr. Gladue explains that every person has a biological set point for how much stimuli and sensation gets him or her excited.

“The way we approach the world is organized a little differently for everybody in terms of how their brain functions,” Dr. Gladue said. “Some people like to go all in during a poker game. For others, it’s simply reading a book cover to cover.”

While some people are really high on the risk-taking scale, others are naturally lower.

And, while not all risk-takers necessarily cheat, they do have a higher genetic predisposition to be more likely to do so.

“It’s pretty basic,” Dr. Gladue said. “People who are risk-takers will manage their risk a little differently than people who are cautious. They may be more prone to cheat, gamble or drive at high speeds. People who are very cautious, careful and methodical are less likely.”

Dr. Pinder believes that risk-takers like the thrill of having an intimate relationship with someone else because they aren’t forced to share every detail of their personal lives with them.

“Sometimes there’s just the fun and attraction,” Dr. Pinder said. “They don’t know your secrets and you don’t know theirs.”

So even though some risk-takers may be in a happy relationship, they may simply not be getting enough stimuli from that relationship. Therefore, they turn to cheating to get their excitement.

“I imagine lots of people do it because they think they won’t get caught and it satisfies an immediate need or curiosity,” Haake said.

But for those who are seeking a particular need, the reasons for cheating may be more emotion-based on reasons rather than mere curiosity.

Unmatched Lovemaps

One of the most common reasons for cheating is because one partner is not fulfilling something for the other, so the other partner looks for that need elsewhere.

And, while somebody who is more risk-oriented is probably more inclined to actually take action and seek that need while still in their relationship, many people who normally don’t take risks can find themselves in a situation that leads to cheating as well.

“People who would never dream of cheating find themselves having an affair,” explained Dr. Pinder. “And they don’t understand how they ended up in such a mess.”

“Sometimes you’re just so comfortable in the relationship that you don’t want to end it. Your relationship is going well and everything, but you’re just unhappy, and infidelity is a way to make yourself feel better,” said SMU sophomore Marguerite Kleinheinz.

Even if only one area of a relationship is unfulfilled, it can still serve as enough to lead a person to cheat.

Dr. Gladue said that everybody has what is called a “love map.”

“It is the core concept of what turns them on, what they like in a person—whether a sex partner or a romantic partner,” Dr. Gladue said. “What they see is what they need fulfilled.”

And when somebody is mismatched with the wrong person, he said it can almost be guaranteed that the relationship won’t last. For some though, the relationship continues, but the loyalty does not.

“Breaking up is hard, and getting what you need physically or emotionally, which tends to lead to physically, from someone else in this environment is often easier to do,” Haake said.

In celebrity cases such as Sandra Bullock and Jesse James, Dr. Gladue says that it is very likely that Jesse was intrigued by Sandra, but that his core “love map” fit better with somebody else.

When an element of the lovemap is missing, many people actively look to find that missing element while still in their relationships.

Insecurity and Immaturity

Most people hate to hear, “It isn’t you, it’s me.” But with cheating, sometimes this line speaks the truth. People who often feel hopeless, depressed or insecure, she said, are often much more vulnerable.

Sometimes, Dr. Pinder explains, the desire to cheat stems from simple immaturity.

“If someone really hasn’t done their development work and they think ‘me first’ or ‘more pleasure,’ they don’t really have critical thinking skills,” Dr. Pinder said. “As people increase their critical thinking skills, they improve their ethical decisions.”

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