Monday, September 1, 2014

Serial Cheaters

The term serial cheater gets thrown around a good bit. Often I think people misuse the term. How do you know if someone qualifies as a serial cheater, and if they do, how can it be handled?

What is a Serial Cheater?

I've searched, but not found an official definition. So I've compiled one by adapting the definition of a serial killer. The standard definition of a serial killer is:

A serial killer is, traditionally, a person who has murdered three or more people over a period of more than a month, with down time (a "cooling off period") between the murders.

My adaption would read:

A serial cheater is a person who has committed acts of marital infidelity--against a person they are bonded to physically and/or emotionally--with three or more people separated by time-gaps between each one.

This would differ from a cheating spree where a person commits infidelity with three or more in rapid succession, or from mass cheating where affairs happen concurrently.

There is a little more gray area, however. When someone is murdered, the fact the victim died is pretty black and white. He either is or he isn't. While the definition of cheating is fairly well held, there are a lot more variations. There are boundaries one can cross that tend to lead to cheating but in and of themselves are not.

I'll use a personal example. I frequently had lunch with a female coworker for a period of time. Neither of us wanted to eat alone. Frequently it would just be me and her at a restaurant.

Strictly speaking, we were crossing a boundary that often leads to cheating. Yet, we never discussed any marital problems, or anything about sex, or ever went any further with the relationship other than being friends who worked together and ate lunch together often. I never cheated, but a third party might have decided we were cheating because so many in that situation easily fall into it.

So even though I have a definition, people could differ about whether a particular person fits this definition based on their understanding of what cheating is.

Why Do We Need to Label People with the Term?

It shouldn't be for the sake of labeling someone, rather to know how to treat and help the unfaithful spouse. There are different types of cheating and the type of solutions that will address it will vary.

One night stand
Online chats, text or video
Phone/chat sex
Sharing photos or other intimate things online
Phone/Skype emotional relationship
Physical, sexual play
Multiple affairs
Serial Cheaters

The motivation for serial killers easily applies to serial cheating:

The motivation for serial killing is usually based on psychological gratification. Most of the killings involve sexual contact with the victim, but the FBI states that motives for serial murder include "anger, thrill, financial gain, and attention seeking".

Let's look at the FBI motives in more detail.


Anger derives from feeling your "rights" have been violated. What one considers their rights comes from how they were raised, their own experiences, as well as expectations that have developed as they grew up. Often these are informed by parental influence. It derives from the violation of one's sense of righteousness.

In terms of serial cheating, ongoing anger with one's spouse could be prompting a serial cheater to continued cheating. Whenever things aren't going exactly as they'd like, their response to dealing with it is anger, and then lashing back in a passive-aggressive manner by cheating on their spouse. It becomes the means to sooth the anger in them.

If this is the motivation, learning new responses to anger via anger management help can break them out of their cycle of destructive response patterns.


There are several types of thrills that could fall under this motivation. In all cases, it involves a person succumbing to the temptation of an addictive thrill, and repeating it enough until it becomes a psychological addiction. Following are three of the common thrills.

The "new relationship" thrill is well documented. Otherwise known  as infatuation. Often mistaken for "true love," given time the excitement dies off, and the serial cheater becomes vulnerable to the next opportunity when "chemistry" shoots the thrill-factor red-lining again. Then it's onto the next person that provides that thrill.

Another common thrill is the sexual thrill. Often, especially men, the serial cheater is addicted to getting the next sexual high. The longer they have sex with someone, like their spouse, the more "ho hum" it becomes. Due to the Coolidge Effect, a new sexual partner can provide a sexual high that the long-time partner can't hope to compete with. Someone addicted to this thrill will always need a new partner if they hope to get the sexual high they crave.

Some serial cheaters are addicted to the sense of power provided by the affair. One, the desire, and often manipulation of the affair partner to keep them on the hook. Two, the power over their spouse based upon pulling off an affair behind their backs. The thrill of secrecy gives the serial cheater a sense of power over their spouse who is kept in the dark. Knowledge is power. To get away with it without being caught provides its own sense of superiority.

The solution in this case will require extensive help to break the addictive pattern, establish boundaries, manage temptations, and restructure one's thinking patterns and life to find alternate means of satisfaction.

Financial Gain

For cheating, the most obvious financial gain is prostitution or the porn industry. A popular motivation for women, but affecting many men as well. Selling one's body and getting paid for it can fuel continued cheating for a spouse desiring that money.

But that isn't the only way. Some people seek out affairs, especially with a person who has some disposable income, in order to get financial help from them. They've discovered that when someone is deep in infatuation, they will "loan" money more readily, or flat out give it away for a perceived need. The affair partner will buy them things, take them out to eat, and lavish other gifts, often without asking.

Serial cheating in this case can also be long cheating sprees and/or mass cheating. The more they can juggle, the more money they can get. The solution to heal this type of cheating is a reordering of priorities, and learning how to adequately take care of financial needs through legitimate means.

Attention Seeking

This one is a bigger factor in serial cheating than it is in serial murders. Even non-serial cheating often starts with this desire. Based upon a low self-esteem, such people find the interest and desire of others for them exhilarating. It could be listed as another type of thrill mentioned above.

Such a serial cheater craves the affirmation of others that they are worth something. To have someone admire their body, pursue them, thus indicating that they can sexually attract someone, is affirming to their self-worth. The spouse's affirmation is often insufficient because they have been that way for maybe several years. It is old news. However, the continual stream of new people who find them desirable is exciting.

The end result of frequent flirting and encouraging this type of relationship with people is some are going to take the flirter up on it. Not only is someone saying they want the flirter, but they are ready to do it with them. It creates a more intense attention-seeking response from the cheater, making an affair hard to resist and inevitable. If you play with fire, you will eventually get burned.

The route to healing this type of serial cheating is through building a stronger self-esteem, establishing firm relationship boundaries, and seeing the need for attention as a negative impact upon their life and desire to change that thinking pattern with help.

Not All Cheaters are Serial Cheaters

Some people sling the label "serial cheater" around too freely. There are two dangers to doing so.

One, the diagnosis of a stranger on the Internet based upon little information can label someone in such a way they don't believe there is hope for themselves. Someone who has cheated once, or even twice, doesn't fit the profile of a serial cheater as defined here. I'd also include multiple on-line emotional affairs grouped into a limited time period as not being a serial cheater. It might classify them as having had a cheating spree, but not necessarily serial. But I often hear someone labeled as a serial cheater because they cheated twice, often with the same affair partner.

Two, even if the label applies, its use can denote to the cheater that their situation is hopeless. A serial cheater is just who they are, so they might as well go with the flow. Many of them have given up fighting it a long time ago if it has been chronic. The label confirms in their mind that they are hopeless, so why even try to do something about it?

If the label applies, they need to realize they can change. With a lot of work and dedication, they can break out of the serial pattern of behavior if they seek out help and dedicate themselves to the process.

If the label doesn't apply, applying it can cause someone who isn't one yet to become one by giving up and accepting the meaning of the label as who they are.

While one can talk about serial cheating in general as I've done here--to help someone realize they need to get serious help--it is best to leave the diagnosis of specific individuals to qualified therapists and psychologist. It is too risky to become responsible for contributing to someone's lack of healing through applying defining labels that do little to help the other person.

How would you define serial cheating?


  1. Don't forget serial cheaters who seek financial gain through manipulation and power within the work place. Sometimes, it's a matter of "getting in good" with the right people, and other times it's a matter of having something "bad" to hold over someone so they can't get ahead of you.

    Also, a point you brushed upon but didn't really explain (to my satisfaction, but I'm a grumpy bear, so...) is that not all affairs are physical or even sexual. My best friend had an online affair for many months. They didn't swap photos, talk dirty, share fantasies, but she did make plans to leave her husband for this man she professed to "love".

    Yes, I know that's covered in the definition: "...marital infidelity--against a person they are bonded to physically and/or emotionally..." since one would HOPE that a wife would want to save her "love" for her husband - but - again the serial cheating can come into play when someone's needs are being met by another (*and another and another...) person instead of by their spouse. I think this could be especially true of women who fall back on their guy "best friends" or their guy online friends for conversation and talking about their marital/life problems. This may eventually lead to an affair more sexual in nature (one would assume that at least the other man would desire such a relationship) but even if it doesn't become sexual in nature, it still means that one partner is giving/sharing of him or herself in a way that should (by my reasoning, anyway) be reserved exclusively for a spouse.

    The answer to this would seem to be for that type of serial cheater to learn to confide in and share with his or her spouse (or, for the spouse to learn to be a confidant, depending on how you look at it.)

    As always, a solid, worthwhile read. Thanks for posting! (Typo under "Thrill" header: it says Trill - but that's just a tiny fix.)

    1. Thanks for your comment, sillywoppat.

      Good points, all. I do go into more detail on emotional affairs elsewhere. I agree, one can be an emotional affair serial cheater. It doesn't have to be physical.

      Thanks for spotting the typo. Guess I've been watching too much Star Trek DS9 of late. ;)