Is Cheating Contagious?

After 10 years of marriage and with two children under the age of 6, Sarah and Josh were getting a divorce. The reason: Josh had been having an on-and-off affair with Rae, a longtime friend and colleague, for nearly a year. Sarah, suspecting something was up but not sure what, had finally resorted to checking Josh’s email, where her fears were confirmed. She threw him out that night.

Most of their friends were shocked. This, they thought, was so unlike Josh, who’d always presented himself as a thoughtful husband, conscientious boss, and devoted father. He was never cavalier about his friendships, nor was he especially careless or cruel. And yet it was revealed that only months earlier, he’d invited Rae to the holiday party he and Sarah threw in their home, something that in retrospect made most of their friends’ stomachs turn—on behalf of Sarah, yes, but also themselves.

Alison, for example, was having a hard time not taking Josh and Sarah’s situation personally. It had nothing to do with her, of course. So why did she feel so weird? At home, she’d begun noticing herself acting more distrusting of her own husband, Billy. Was Billy working longer hours, or was it just her imagination? Had he seemed a little jumpy when she went to use his cellphone? If a “good” guy like Josh had been capable of carrying on a long-term affair, was Billy capable of the same? If Sarah hadn’t seen it coming, would she?

When friends cheat, it can be jarring for the rest of us. While we read about infidelity all the time among Hollywood celebrities, Washington politicians, and nearly every other newsworthy sector, for most of us, these people are removed from our realities. We might be shocked that Kristen could cheat on Rob or Ashton on Demi, but we don’t know them personally. When our friends cheat, on the other hand, it hits much closer to home. We start to wonder: Is my partner happy in the relationship? Am I? Could we be next?

It’s no longer true that men cheat far more often than women do. A study conducted last year by researchers at the University of Indiana in Bloomington found that women and men cheat at about the same rate—though for different reasons. Women tended to cheat because they were unhappy in a relationship or felt their partner didn’t hold similar sexual beliefs. For men, the biggest factor was sexual excitement, which can take more work to achieve after familiarity sets in. A long-term marriage or partnership can be many things: reliable, supportive, safe. It can be fun and adventurous. What it can’t be is new. Witnessing the end of a relationship due to cheating can remind a couple of the allure of those early days of crushing on someone: butterflies in the stomach, excitement over the anticipation of seeing the person, unfamiliar sex. The feeling of being attracted to a person—and realizing they’re attracted to you, too—is a powerful one, and one that’s far harder to replicate after many years of marriage. Once Josh’s affair was out in the open, he began telling friends like Billy all about all the wild, new sex he was having with Rae. But it wasn’t about just sex, he assured them. Unburdened by kids or true accountability, she was supportive of him in ways that Sarah, he said, was not. In many ways, thought Alison, an affair sounded pretty great.

Which is why it also sounded terrifying. If a reasonable, otherwise not particularly risk-taking guy like Josh could carry on with someone else, maybe Billy could do the same. Maybe, thought Alison, I could do the same. Josh’s infidelity was an invitation to consider it themselves. It was also an invitation for Alison to look at her partner and wonder: How much can we really know a person?

As you get older, you’ll witness more affairs. You’ll see marriages fall apart for a variety of reasons. That’s just the reality. It’s important to remember that people, even our most reliable friends, make mistakes, and don’t always think through their actions—and we can never know what’s going on in other people’s marriages besides. If you believe Freud, you believe that we’re all motivated by our sexual desires. Compounded by the stresses of managing a house, raising children, and sharing all those other aspects of life that can accompany a partnership, marriage or any partnership can be tough. Not everyone makes it.

It’s important to remember to be as open and honest with your partner, and yourself, as you can. Cheating friends can be unsettling. But they can also help you strengthen your own relationship by reminding you that any partnership needs attention and work. Witnessing the destruction of Josh and Sarah’s marriage reminded Alison of all the reasons she was grateful for her own. Billy, she thought, already knew that. But she was going to tell him again.

**Ed note/ clarification: The study noted was conducted by researchers at Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion in collaboration with the school’s Kinsey Institute for Sex, Gender and Reproduction and the University of Guelph, and published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

(Image via Shutterstock).