Why we cheat and reasons why not to tell

Sunday: Chris, we're supposed to be monogamous, aren't we? But it seems to me that there's are a lot of affairs these days. Why's that?

Chris Hart: Actually affairs have always been very common. Everywhere on Earth. And everyone says that they'll never cheat. Or forgive a cheating spouse. But they do. I'm sorry to sound so amoral, but cheating seems to be built into our DNA. Despite that, monogamy's a really good idea. It's just that we're not very good at it!

Is there a design to the way affairs begin?

They usually start by accident. OK, there are rogues –of both sexes – who live a terrible life. But most of us aren't like that, and strongly intend never to cheat. So we're amazed when we do.

But there is a pattern. Most cheater's marriages have always been unhappy, or they're going through a bad patch. It's likely that their spouse is giving them a hard time. Being negative or critical, for example. And those issues in their marriage are not being dealt with.

Most affairs start when someone offers a sympathetic ear. A coworker for example. That's particularly common in businesses where people spend a lot of time together, the work's stressful and there's lots of deadlines. What could be more natural that to tell someone you know well all about your problems at home? And so it begins...

Women are most likely to have an affair with someone they already know well –or a celebrity! Men are less discriminating.

But we're all just a glance away from an affair. All that stops us is a really solid marriage. So if you want your spouse to be faithful, treat them well!

Do affairs last?

They vary enormously. Some are over almost before they begin, with lots of embarrassment and regret. Others last decades. It's often all about what caused the affair in the first case. If that gets properly fixed, then the affair ends.

Do most people get caught?

That's hard to say, because you never really know what's going on in other people's marriages. And you only really get to hear about people who get spectacularly busted. But when psychologists ask confidentially about cheating, people describe many more affairs than you get to hear about. Which suggests that lots of people never get caught. My gut feel? I think around half of all affairs stay secret...

Should you come clean if you feel guilty about it?

That depends. If your affair was a one night stand, and the chances of it ever coming out are negligible, what right do you have to wreck your partner's life by telling them? Better to shoulder your guilt for the rest of your life, and keep quiet. I know that there shouldn't be any secrets in a marriage, but perhaps a stupid, undiscoverable one night stand might be one of them.

After that, it's a judgement call. I know of very well meant confessions about meaningless affairs that blew the whole marriage apart. And other confessions that led to the couple quietly and successfully working on what had gone wrong between them. In general, if your spouse has started to suspect, it's better to come clean before you weave a tangled web of lies. Because many injured spouses say that all that lying was far worse than the actual affair.

Do people who decide to leave their marriage during an affair usually stay with the person they cheated with, or is the affair just a way of getting out of the relationship?

People do use an affair as a way of getting out of a relationship. But more often than not, they don't stay with the person they cheated with. Sometimes that's because it was only the unhappiness of the marriage that drove the affair. So that also ended when the marriage ended. Sometimes it's only the 'excitement' of an affair that kept it going. But I also know of many affairs that eventually led to very successful marriages...

Can having an affair have any positive effect on the relationship?

Yes, that often happens. Because an affair's a wakeup call to address a lot of bad things that were going on between the couple. And they usually do get fixed, because the couple start talking on a 'nothing to lose' basis, rather than pussy footing around the issues.

Like having to talk about an affair means that couples start being truly honest with one another - maybe for the very first time. They start asking the right questions, like 'was I partly to blame for all this?' They make changes - that stick. Like sending more time together, and really getting to understand each other's needs and feelings.

Is it possible to affair proof your marriage?

Oh yes. But only if you start with the right attitude. Like cheating isn't really about morals. Or the strength of your beliefs. Or promises. Cheating's really a risk management issue. There are high risk behaviours. Like secretiveness, heavy drinking, and lots of single friends. And behaviours that protect the marriage. Like openness and honesty - and having a really great sex life together!

So if you discourage the bad behaviours and encourage good ones, then your marriage is much safer. And couples who are really happy together rarely cheat. So make sure that you are, and you'll have no need to worry.

Is it possible to really heal a marriage after the hurt of cheating?

Yes it is. In fact most couples heal. And those that really get to understand why things went wrong, end up much happier than before. Many do fail though. Especially those who see the problem in terms of blame. It's very hard to go on after an affair if there's no forgiveness.

If you are married and your husband says to you, 'I can't choose; I don't know who to stay with?' How do you go about it?

That's really a cry for help. It's another way of saying 'I'm unhappy in this marriage, but want to stay. Please let's work on it together, so we can be happy, and put the affair behind us.'

Do all men inevitably cheat? Is it true that cheaters are less intelligent than their faithful counterparts?

Exactly the same number of man and women cheat–something like a little over half of them. For different reasons and at different times in their lives, but the numbers add up the same. So there are loads of men (and women) who never cheat at all. And a very small number who cheat endlessly! And very obviously. It's those serial cheaters who give men as a whole such a bad reputation! And are cheaters less intelligent? No, I don't think so. I think they're exactly the same as everyone else.

How differently do men and women cope with cheating spouses? How is it that women often forgive cheating spouses and men don't?

Both man and women say they'll never forgive a cheating spouse. But in practice most do –the first time. And it's not true that women are more forgiving than men – some can be positively spiteful! It all hinges on how well a spouse understand the reasons behind their partner's cheating –and whether they deal with them positively.

In your experience, what are the main reasons women cheat on their spouses?

Most of the reasons women cheat are exactly the same as for men. High risk behaviours, like too much alcohol, late nights out with single friends, unresolved issues in their marriage and so on. But there's one reason which only affects women. In their late 30s / early 40s, many women get a subconscious urge to have one last child –with another man. Secretly of course! So they start taking exactly the sort of risks that result in one night stands! Late nights out clubbing and so on. And why does this happen? Because secretly their body fancies a child by one of those bad guys you'd never marry... So if one of your friends' last born is rather different from her other children; more rebellious, exciting, outgoing and sociable, now you know the reason why!