There are many reasons why people cheat, but one of them is indeed low self-esteem. In this article, we’ll explore how self-esteem relates to infidelity, and the seemingly paradoxical reasons why people who don’t value themselves enough can betray their partner.
The Roots in Childhood Trauma
Many adult behaviors, including infidelity, can be traced back to unresolved childhood traumas.
- Abandonment: If a person felt abandoned as a child, either emotionally or physically, they might subconsciously recreate scenarios where they risk abandonment once again.
- Lack of Validation: A child who was not validated or acknowledged might grow up seeking external validation, often in unhealthy ways.
Abandonment example: Jane was only seven when her father left the family. He moved to another country and rarely made any effort to contact her. As she grew up, she always felt a void and a yearning to reconnect with her father. When she entered romantic relationships as an adult, Jane found herself attracted to partners who were emotionally distant or who displayed signs of being non-committal. She often felt anxious and insecure in these relationships, constantly fearing they would leave her. Without realizing it, Jane was subconsciously drawn to situations that mirrored her childhood trauma of abandonment, trying to rewrite the narrative with a hope of a different outcome.
Lack of validation example: Growing up, Alex always felt overshadowed by his younger brother, a child prodigy in music. No matter what Alex achieved, whether it was in sports, academics, or other areas, his parents always seemed more focused on his brother’s musical journey. They often missed Alex’s events and seldom acknowledged his accomplishments. Feeling invisible and craving validation, Alex became a young adult who often boasted about his achievements, exaggerated his successes, and engaged in risky behaviors just to get noticed. He’d also frequently change his appearance, seeking compliments from peers, and often jumped from one relationship to another, seeking partners who would give him the acknowledgment he never received as a child.
The Nuances of Self-esteem
It’s not solely about how one perceives their worth, but also about their relationship with their past and how they’ve been conditioned to relate to others.
- Validation-seeking Behavior: Cheating can be an act of seeking validation outside one’s primary relationship, looking for temporary boosts in self-esteem.
- Self-sabotage: At times, those with low self-esteem might feel they don’t deserve happiness or a stable relationship. Cheating becomes a self-destructive act to confirm this belief.
Validation-seeking behavior example: Rachel had always been a high achiever in school and work, used to accolades and praise. Yet, for some reason, those achievements never seemed to fill the void she felt inside. In her relationship with Amir, she often felt overlooked. Amir was supportive but not particularly expressive, and Rachel began to feel invisible. When she started a new job, a colleague named Jake frequently complimented her, acknowledged her talents, and seemed to see her in a way Amir didn’t. Even though she loved Amir, Rachel found herself drawn into an affair with Jake. It wasn’t about love or passion for Jake, but rather the intoxicating feeling of being seen and valued. The affair became a temporary salve for her eroded self-worth.
Self-sabotage example: Leo grew up in a tumultuous household where love was inconsistent, and chaos was the norm. As he moved into adulthood, he found stability and love with Mia. Yet, deep down, a part of him always waited for the other shoe to drop, believing that he wasn’t meant for a peaceful life. Over time, a destructive thought nestled into his mind: “I don’t deserve her or this happiness.” Acting on this internal narrative, Leo cheated with a casual acquaintance. It wasn’t about attraction or dissatisfaction with Mia. Instead, it was a way for Leo to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, proving to himself that he indeed didn’t deserve a loving, stable relationship.
The Cycle of Re-enactment
For many, cheating is less about the act itself and more about re-enacting familiar patterns.
- Patterns of Betrayal: Those who have been betrayed might, at times, unconsciously place themselves in positions where they are the betrayers, a complex mechanism to gain control over past pain.
- Patterns of Abandonment: Similar to betrayal, individuals may recreate scenarios where they risk being abandoned, possibly as a way to confront and manage old wounds.
Betrayal example: Throughout his teenage years, Mark witnessed his mother being repeatedly cheated on by his father. This betrayal caused much distress in their household, with Mark often caught in the middle. As he grew older, despite hating what his father did, Mark found himself engaging in affairs in his own relationships. It wasn’t about the allure of a new partner but rather an unconscious compulsion to replay the role of the betrayer. Deep down, by enacting the role of his father, Mark was attempting to exert control over the narrative of betrayal that had caused so much pain during his formative years, even though it hurt his partners in the process.
Abandonment example: Lisa was adopted as a young child after her biological parents left her at an orphanage. Even though her adoptive parents provided love and care, the early feeling of abandonment always haunted Lisa. In her adult relationships, Lisa would often become distant when things became serious, pushing her partners away and setting up scenarios where they might leave her. Even though she yearned for lasting love and connection, she subconsciously set up these situations to confront her feelings of abandonment from childhood. It was as if by controlling the narrative of being left again, she could somehow make sense of or manage her early childhood trauma.
The Broader Picture
Understanding cheating and low self-esteem requires a holistic perspective, considering the entire narrative of a person’s life.
- Past Relationships: Previous romantic relationships and their dynamics can greatly influence one’s propensity to cheat.
- Societal Pressures: Society’s expectations around monogamy, success, and masculinity/femininity can impact one’s choices.
Past relationships examples: Elena had been in a series of relationships where her partners had been unfaithful. Each time, she tried to be the “perfect” partner, believing that if she could just be good enough, she would be immune to heartbreak. However, with each subsequent relationship, her trust eroded further. When she entered a relationship with Tom, who was genuinely loving and faithful, Elena’s past scars deeply influenced her actions. The fear and mistrust accumulated from her previous relationships made her suspicious, and in a twist of irony, she found herself drawn into an affair. It wasn’t out of dissatisfaction with Tom, but more so a warped self-defense mechanism, thinking, “I’ll do it before it’s done to me.”
Societal pressures examples: Daniel grew up in a traditional community where there was immense pressure to conform to masculine ideals. These ideals dictated that a “real man” had multiple partners, was dominant in relationships, and shouldn’t be tied down. Even though Daniel personally valued fidelity and wanted a deep, monogamous connection, the societal pressure and the fear of being perceived as “less of a man” weighed heavily on him. This internal conflict led him to cheat in his relationship, not out of genuine desire for someone else, but to fit into the community’s expectations and gain social acceptance.
Healing and Understanding
Recognizing the underlying causes can be the first step towards healing.
- Therapy and Introspection: Through professional help or self-reflection, understanding and addressing past traumas can lead to healthier relational patterns.
- Communication: For those in relationships, open dialogue about insecurities, needs, and fears can create a foundation of trust and understanding.
None of these are valid excuses or justifications for infidelity. Cheating is a breach of trust. We’re only examining causal relationships here, not passing judgment. If you’re a partner affected by infidelity, no one but yourself can tell you how you should react, whether you should try to find a way forward in your relationship, or end it.
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