Before I begin, I will define the concept of cheating itself. From a clinical perspective, cheating is any behavior within a romantic or intimate relationship where one party is engaging in deception. Notice, I did not say any behavior within a monogamous relationship. Cheating can occur in both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships. Deception is the key word.
The foundation of all healthy relationships involve trust and open communication. When these pillars are broken, the relationship either crumbles all together, or it has difficulty surviving without restoration efforts from both parties.
When I describe the Cycle of Cheating, one might assume that a person who is unfaithful is a serial cheater. He/she may or may not be. The point is, a series of thoughts and behaviors has to have occurred before the actual cheating happens. The objective is to identify the series of common thoughts and behaviors in order to help restore the relationship. Keep in mind, the victim will have his/her own issues to deal with during the relationship restoration process. Infidelity is not a one-sided issue, despite popular belief.
There are 3 primary phases: The Build-Up or Tension-Building Phase; The Acting Out Phase; and The Fence-Mending/Reconciliation Phase.
The Build-Up/Tension-Building Phase includes most of the cognitive distortions and negative feelings. The person may feel some anger/resentment towards a significant other but does not openly communicate wants and needs. There may be feelings of rejection and a tendency to take things personally. Still there is limited communication. The person tends to dwell on these feelings rather than verbalize them. Thinking errors come into play, like self-pity or believing oneself to be a victim, feeling a sense of entitlement, understating one’s coping ability, justification, and lack of empathy for the partner. Then the feeling invincible begins, more justification, and some fear/anxiety about what is going to happen. The “mild” behaviors really start here: the secrecy and the planning.
The Acting Out Phase is where all of the activity occurs. There are still the same cognitive distortions (thought processes) that make the acting out easier to do. During this phase, of course there is more secrecy, deception, planning, and relief of the build-up from the previous phase. There are periods of superficial stability during the Acting Out Phase. The person is usually able to compartmentalize to maintain stability in the relationship.
The Fence-Mending/Reconciliation Phase is after the person has been discovered or chosen to disclose the infidelity. This is where the apologies, shame, guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing exist in the cycle. The person may engage in extreme behaviors to demonstrate contrition. Because of all of the negative feelings surrounding the incident, the individual has the desire to quickly move past the event and may even have impatience with a partner. There are usually some residual cognitive distortions, like failure to take responsibility, minimizing behavior, and blaming a partner. This phase also has a period of superficial relationship stability.
So, where should the cycle be broken? Anyplace! If a person is willing to work through the cognitive distortions and learn how to honestly communicate wants/needs, this is the key. It is very important for the parties to work individually in therapy before any couples therapy happens (the “victim” will have completely different issues to process).