A conversation about men who cheat and the women who stay.


This was a Q&A with freelance journalist Chrissie Russell about men who cheat and the women who stay with them (and yes, I know that women cheat too, but that’s for another day!)

In terms of character traits, is there a certain ‘type’ of man more likely to cheat?

Would they tend to be narcissists that thrive on attention?

Ooohh –  I think it’s a lot more complex than that Chrissie. Some men who cheat might only do so once, some are “serial” cheaters. I have encountered both in my practice.

The infrequent or once off cheater is filled with remorse and guilt afterwards and genuinely regrets the pain caused (to all parties) by his behaviour. There often follows an examination of the “why”? What was missing in the current relationship that the man chose to cheat?

And it is rarely as simple as sex.

It may be a need for freedom from the current relationship. Sometimes we cheat in the hope that on being discovered we will be ‘dumped’ and not have to do the dumping. In other words, it is a way of avoiding responsibility. These cheaters are unhappy where they are for varying reasons including poor self-esteem or experiencing abuse in the relationship. They may not have full awareness of this, and it may dawn after the cheating experience.

Some people engage in the “revenge cheat”. An effort to punish the partner who cheated first, to show them how it feels. Rarely effective, almost always destructive.

Some cheaters do so out of sheer immaturity and lack of empathy. These are often younger, and don’t have the maturity to realise what impact their behaviour might have. These cheaters will not have learned responsibility in other areas of life either, and actually in my experience that can be a predictor. But that is a generalisation and I’m personally unaware of any science to back that one up. Google scholar might help you there!

Serial cheaters who may well have a pathology like Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. As a psychotherapist and psychologist I am not in the business of diagnosing pathology and indeed I am somewhat uncomfortable with the DSM5, as many mental health professionals are (there are many articles on this topic quickly searchable on Twitter for example, and I have posted some to by Facebook page, it being a hobby horse of mine…). However, I can say that serial cheaters appear to be narcissistic yes, thrive on attention, they ‘perform’ socially,  and are often described as charming. Interestingly they often present as feminists, when in reality their behaviour screams misogyny. They can be highly skilled manipulators, appearing to be high in empathy and associated traits,  and so can mould themselves to be attractive to a wide variety of women.

Similarly, are there typical character traits for women who are attracted to men like this? Do they tend to have self esteem issues?

The women who love them are often intelligent bright women. In my experience, the lower our concept of self worth, the more vulnerable we are to cheaters. Cheaters will often have left a trail of clues as to their future behaviour and less experienced women, or women who don’t trust themselves, will ignore these signs. I have often observed that people can tell us in the first few minutes or hours what kind of person they are, what they will do to us and how we will feel about it. For example they may say: ” I’m not a good person. I’ll hurt you. You’ll regret giving me this chance to be with someone as lovely as you. I don’t deserve you… etc”.

Ignore this at your peril.

Women (and men) who are involved in abusive relationships are not of lower intelligence than others – it is a complete non sequitur to ask ” how can X be do stupid as to stay with Y?”

If a woman knows a man has a history of being unfaithful why might she be attracted to him anyway?

If a woman knows a cheater’s history it may appeal to her if she does not have a healthy relational background. She may think that she can change him, be so alluring that he won’t stray. But of course that is delusional. No one has the power to change anyone’s behaviour  and to try to control this is recipe for unhappiness in a relationship. Or it may simply be that the physical attraction is so great that a woman may choose to ignore the signs, as mentioned above. Generally speaking though, the healthier the relationship modelled to us by our parents the healthier the choices we make in our own friendships and sexual relationships. You might want to find studies to back that one up but I assure you you’ll find them.

Can someone who has been serially unfaithful change their pattern and maintain a faithful relationship or is it a case of ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’?

Well, if they truly are aware of their behaviour and the issues that trigger it then yes change is possible. But frankly, where there is pathology, in my experience, change is unlikely. Where there is no pathology, rather a lack of responsibility or maturity then a simple set of choices is all that is required for healthy change. This needs to be self motivated. Monitoring or in any way controlling a cheater will have no effect long term , and brings pathological patterns of relating into a relationship.

The real question is WILL a cheater CHOOSE to change, not CAN he (she) change. To ask “can” enables the cheater to dispense with personal responsibility and to use a myriad of excuses including the evolutionary one.

Does biology come into it? On an evolutionary level are men wired to desire to sleep with more and one person and women wired to find a man attractive if he seems to be so in demand with the other sex?

I am skeptical about the evolutionary excuse for cheating behaviour. There are many things that we could put down to evolutionary wiring. But there a thousands of choices we make today that would not have been socially normal or even wise thousands of years ago. We are now more sophisticated and have evolved to have the ability to choose. This is why we are thriving. We choose our behaviours, all of them. It is irresponsible to cherry pick our responsibilities and shrug and say ” I couldn’t help murdering that guy, he was looking at me in a way that reminded me in the prehistoric centre of my brain, of a sabre toothed tiger about to eat me. So I shot him, with a gun like they had in the cave days.”

What advice would you give to a woman entering a relationship with a man she knows has been unfaithful in his previous relationships?

In my role as a therapist I don’t directly advise women to do anything unless they are in danger. If I am alarmed by information I am hearing about a partner I would encourage examination of that relationship. For example –

How does it benefit you to be in this? What message are you giving by staying in this? If someone you loved was being treated like this, what would that be like for you? What might you say to them? What permission are you giving to allow X to hurt you?

On a personal level though, I would be very conscious of a person’s past relationships, knowing of course, that I will only hear one side. If I knew that a person was inclined to cheat, I wouldn’t go there with any expectations of fidelity.

I would like to add that everything I have said is applicable to both genders. Women cheat too. But I guess that’s for another article;)

This is the original text of the conversation that led to an article in The Irish Independent by Chrissie Russell, freelance journalist.


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