Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Why Did They Cheat? Part 1:The Role of Oxytocin

Why Did They Cheat? A Four Part Series
  1. The Role of Oxytocin

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Of all the questions asked regarding infidelity, none are as elusive as, "Why?" What someone did, where they did it, and how they did it are simply facts. These are questions about what happened and, while one may not believe the given report, the answers to these questions are definite and comprehensible.

The answer to the question of why, however, is as complex as human nature itself. There are no black-and-white answers. The reason why people cheat can have roots in psychosocial development, sexual abuse, addictions, justifications and rationalizations, personality type, family history, bad company, environment, marital life cycle, moral development, opportunity, spirituality, brain chemistry, and a plethora of other reasons.

I believe there is NEVER an excuse for cheating on your spouse.
I also don't believe that bad marriages cause infidelity.

That being said, the answer to "Why?" is important because it helps determine what needs to change in the future.

Without some understanding of the why, it is difficult to determine how to address what has happened, what you do to heal, and what changes need to be made to keep this from happening again. In my own recovery, I've been discovering answers to my why for over thirty years. But in the beginning stages of recovery, Stephanie and I were able to find enough answers to help determine what to do to keep this from happening in the future.

In the past I've written other articles on why, such as the 6 part series on moral justifications, but no single perspective can fully explain why. Once again, let me be very clear that while brain chemistry is a factor, it does NOT provide an excuse for infidelity. I am not offering additional justifications. If I am hungry that doesn't give me the right to steal your food. I have a choice in how to respond.

How do we begin?

Thirty-seven years ago, I met Stephanie for the first time on a church retreat. She was living in Amarillo, Texas and I was two hours away in Lubbock. Having gone to Texas Tech, she had many friends in Lubbock and came to the retreat to spend time with them.

In the beginning, I was so infatuated that nothing else mattered but her. I lost contact with my friends because I only wanted to spend time with her. I went broke because our phone bills skyrocketed. My job performance plummeted because I couldn't focus on anything but Stephanie. Had we not gotten married and moved on to the next phase of our relationship, my life would have become a hopeless wreck.

At the risk of shattering the commonly-held beliefs about romance and love at first sight, let me explain the chemical realities of my attraction and the experience many of you may have had. At the core, we humans have a profound need to be attached to another.

We want to know that we matter to someone special, that they care for us, and that they will be there for us. We want to share our life with someone, have children, and live happily ever after.

When did you first begin to feel that attraction to your mate?

When did you sense that first desire to touch them, to hold their hand, to be near them?

Two hormones, testosterone and estrogen, are at the root of these biological urges. Hormones are our body's chemical messengers, stimulating certain cells or organs into action. Testosterone and estrogen are the two most significant hormones when it comes to a desire to connect and sexual attraction. For men, testosterone not only creates an ongoing drive for connection but also plays a role in muscle development, aggressiveness and drive. For women, estrogen plays a significant role in the development of the female body as well as controlling times of fertility. When our hormones are triggered, the initial interest in our mate explodes and much of it is a desire to be with them sexually.

It might seem more romantic if the story line was about finding your soul mate, but biology says it was actually more about finding your mating partner. In most cases, we are intrigued by or attracted to our mate long before we know whether they will be right for us long-term. Some of you may have obsessed as I did, always wondering if they felt the same about you. This is the beginning point for most couples, but this hormonally-driven infatuation isn't the ending point.

If we were to stay in that state of infatuation very little would get done. Not until we commit to each other and settle down does stability and routine reenter our lives. At that time oxytocin enters the scene and changes the nature of the relationship.

Oxytocin is a hormone that serves multiple functions. It is responsible for parents bonding with their babies, and it's what helps bond a husband and wife. As humans, any time we have a high-oxytocin connection with a person, an increased sense of closeness and connection occurs.

All humans have oxytocin because we were meant to bond with others in our community. As we move from the high-arousal phase of infatuation to the next phase of mature love, the oxytocin levels begin to rise. Women naturally have higher levels of oxytocin. Physical touch and intercourse boost a man's oxytocin levels and cause him to feel more secure and connected.

It's when life gets in the way of our continual chemical bonding with our spouse that we become vulnerable.

Vulnerability, as we've discussed at length, does not justify nor explain in totality why an affair happens.

However, we must take this in-depth journey in hopes of understanding the bigger picture of why we've arrived in this place. Without an understanding which seeks to help the unfaithful spouse identify trigger points and opportunities for relapse, they will never have a steady recovery.

Along those same lines, without the betrayed spouse having a deeper comprehension into the mind of the unfaithful spouse, they remain forever paralyzed at the inability to understand what drew their mate away and what can be done differently in the future to prevent this from happening again.

As I mentioned in the beginning, there is never just one reason for infidelity, but understanding what's normal and what's not may help you see your reality in a different way.

If you or your partner are struggling to find or understand the reasons for the infidelity, I hope you'll consider participating in EMS Online or EMS Weekend Intensive. The EMS program will not only help you understand why the affair(s) happened, but it will also help you identify how to recover and heal from the infidelity. You'll find a comprehensive, process-oriented approach to recovery and restoration. Learn more at AffairRecovery.com

EMS Online Registration Opens Today at Noon CT!

Our EMS Online course provides community, expertise, and direction as your marriage moves through the pain and trauma caused by infidelity. Join other couples walking the same journey and find the healing you deserve.

"Affair Recovery's EMS Online course literally saved our marriage from divorce. We had tried other professionals, which only led us to more pain in our marriage. It was a relief to find someone who understood our pain. It was comforting to know that others were feeling and thinking the same thoughts as us. We were not alone on this journey. Our marriage has been enriched by the valuable lessons we have learned through EMS Online." — K., Alabama.

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Please clarify

You write about Oxytocin and our need for it. I understand the real need for oxytocin as the betrayed who craved touch during my husbands sexual acting out and his anorexia with me. What about Oxytocin answers the ‘why did they cheat when that oxytocin effect is available with the spouse’? Thanks, Laura

I think your question might

I think your question might have been answered in the article by this sentence: “It's when life gets in the way of our continual chemical bonding with our spouse that we become vulnerable.”
I know that the stresses of family life: bills, work, children, and conflict interrupted our opportunities and desire for physical bonding and lowered those oxytocin levels over time. We became distant and disconnected and had a hard time coming back into relationship so that we could keep that contentment hormone active. It created a climate that made being unfaithful an easier option for my husband, when at one time that would have been unthinkable.
Marriage 2.0 has been an amazing time of re-bonding. The snuggling, hand-holding, long hugs, and physical closeness have created an unbreakable bond, stronger than ever before. I crave the closeness of my husband and he longs for times with me.

What type of affair was it?

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