Cheating is defined by some as having sex with someone else while in a relationship, while others define cheating as sending a flirty text message to anyone other than your partner. Although individuals define cheating differently, Sandra Brownrigg, who specialises in couples counselling and graduated with an MA in Clinical Psychology from the University of Pretoria, says that the most common definition is “to be in a committed monogamous relationship where one of the parties has some form of relationship or liaisons with a third person.”

Many university students know someone who has been cheated on, or have been cheated on themselves. Brownrigg feels that cheating is common among university students for several reasons. These reasons include “the age of the individuals” as university students are “young and far less risk aversive.” She says that this age is “about exploration and finding yourself.” Brownrigg also says that “the amount of alcohol and socialising” could be a factor that influences the high rate of cheating among university students. “Varsity is about fun and meeting new people. This doesn’t mean that all people […] [who] drink and get drunk will cheat but it does reduce inhibitions and self-control,” she continues.

Cheating may be considered a social norm according to a psychological study titled Pluralistic ignorance and misconception of social norms concerning cheating in dating relationships. The study, conducted in August 2014 by several scholars from University of Calgary, found that while the majority of people disapprove of cheating in dating relationships, they assume that most others accept it. Therefore, people incorrectly view cheating in dating relationships as a social norm. This is a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance. Furthermore, the study suggests that there is a correlation between an individual’s willingness to cheat on their partner and having friends that cheat. This is associated with pluralistic ignorance, since, if an individual has many cheating friends they are more likely to view cheating as acceptable social behaviour.

However, factors besides cheating friends may increase the likelihood of someone cheating. Societal trends such as hook-up culture and the digital age may influence this. With regard to hook-up culture Brownrigg says, “I think cheating has become easy and is no longer as taboo a subject as many years ago. I feel that commitments aren’t as important and valued as they used to be.” In addition to this, Brownrigg mentions that it is far easier to connect with people with modern-day technology.” She says, “Cheating can happen via a digital form and you [will] never really have to meet. It can happen within the space of your partner and they will be none the wiser.” Brownrigg mentions that our society is fast paced and ever -changing, so it is “so easy to grow apart and disconnect if a true effort is not made to stay connected.”

Of course, emotional factors also account for why people cheat on their partners. Brownrigg says that the core reason that someone may cheat on their partner is that “a specific need is not being met within the relationship and they [the cheater] become more open to finding [or] experiencing it elsewhere.” Although the partner may not necessarily look for an affair, should they find their specific need met with someone else they may begin to connect with the new person. A UP second-year BCom Accounting Sciences student who wished to remain anonymous relates to this statement as their reason for cheating on their partner after five months of dating is that they “figured that the person [they were] dating didn’t invest a lot of time in [them], or rather [their] relationship. ” Considering this, the relationship between this student and their lover was a “romantic relationship […] more or less the same relationship [they] had with the person [they] cheated on.” While this student did not tell their partner that they cheated as that “was only going to hurt [them] even more”, they ended the relationship shortly after. They added that the experience of cheating “had a positive impact on the relationships [they] had thereafter” as they know that an impulse to cheat means that they are confused and that the relationship has no future. They add that “playing with your partner’s feelings is not an ideal situation. Rather be honest about how you feel and let [them] go.” Another UP second-year BCom Accounting Sciences student who was cheated on by their partner said they found out about the cheating through friends and not directly from the partner. Although the first student is in a new relationship, the second student says that they “find it hard to trust.”

Brownrigg says that the psychological impact on the cheated can be vastly different for various people. She says that “their self-esteem may take a complete knock,” or they may feel worthless, used, depressed, swear-off being faithful, or become angry and “disillusioned by the opposite sex and thereby change how they may engage with them.” The cheater may also experience many negative emotions such as “great regret and self-loathing” or fear that they may cheat again in a new relationship. Brownrigg says that “their sense of confidence and self-esteem could also be […] [detrimentally] impacted”, or they could never be monogamous again as cheating can become a “new way of operating.” She continues by saying that the “third option is that both [individuals] may have a period of grieving […] then continue with their lives with no residual impact.” Brownrigg says that if you suspect you are being cheated on, the best thing to do is to “talk to them. Ask them. Try and find out what is going on” as the longer the cheating continues the more destructive it can be to the relationship. She adds that you can also “go for counselling” and “be open and grow together rather than apart.” Brownrigg says that a relationship can be salvaged after a partner cheats, but “it will take a lot of hard work from both parties. Both parties need to understand why the relationship was vulnerable to cheating and trust will have to be rebuilt.”

Image: Kaylyn O’Brein

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