Everything You Need To Know About Revenge Cheating

Revenge cheating is when a person cheats on their partner in response to infidelity. It may be satisfying at first (the desire for revenge after you’ve been wronged can be overpowering), but experts agree that it does more harm than good. Here is everything you need to know about revenge cheating and how to avoid it.

  1. It happens in response to infidelity. Sadly, cheating is common. Studies suggest that up to 75% of men and 68% of women admit to having affairs while in a monogamous relationship, putting their partners in an emotionally excruciating position. There are many ways that people respond to being cheated on, but one of the most common and understandable ones is seeking revenge. When you’ve been hurt by the person you love, there is a power imbalance and a sense of injustice that can make you want to punish them.
  2. It can be sexual or emotional. There are more ways than one to be unfaithful. Each couple may have their own definition of infidelity, but broadly, there are two categories. The obvious one is physical. Engaging in sexual activity with someone outside of your monogamous relationship is, by definition, cheating. But emotional infidelity is also harmful. It can include texting someone else, or simply building a strong emotional bond with someone outside your relationship in a way that threatens your bond with your partner.
  3. Humans respond differently. A study published in the Journal of Sexual and Relationship Therapy found that women are more likely to be hurt by emotional affairs than men, while men are more likely to be hurt by sexual affairs. It is unclear whether this means that women are more likely to seek emotional affairs when exacting revenge on their partner while men seek physical ones, but the findings do point to the disconnect that heterosexual couples may face when it comes to confronting infidelity.
  4. There is (flawed) logic behind it. You might think that revenge cheating is clearly a bad idea, but it makes sense both logically and biologically. According to David Chester, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, it’s instinctual. “Revenge exists for a reason to keep people from taking advantage of you. If someone punches you, you’re going to punch them back.” Different parts of the brain conspire to make you retaliate. The amygdala senses the threat posed by your partner’s cheating, and the ventral striatum (the reward region of the brain) urges you to respond. On an intellectual level, punishing your partner for the pain they caused you satisfies your sense of fairness and justice.
  5. It is self-sabotaging. No matter how strong the urge is, however, revenge cheating usually backfires. Relationship experts agree that signaling to your spouse that their “indiscretions will be met in kind” causes a couple to tread lightly around each other. This can make you more respectful, but less trusting and more secretive at the same time. There is also the fact that revenge cheating can be immensely distressing for the person who’s doing it. You aren’t the one who wanted to cheat. Your partner was. Trying to enjoy it now will likely pain you just as much as it would your partner. Becoming the cheater that they were isn’t going to make you feel better. You both lose.
  6. It’s a gamble. Some people who revenge cheat may intend it to be their last act before ending the relationship, but for many, it’s meant to pull their partners back in by humbling them and showing them what they’re missing. According to psychologist Guy Winch, however, this is unlikely to succeed. For one thing, “[a]dding further deception and betrayal to the relationship is hardly the best way to lay the groundwork for rebuilding trust.” Trying to explain to your partner that they did something unacceptable is difficult when you’ve just done the same thing. Winch states that “[r]etaliation affairs often escalate animosity between the couple” rather than helping to facilitate healing, meaning that you are even less likely to stay together after revenge cheating than you are after your partner’s cheating.
  7. You might give the other person “a taste of their own medicine.” If there is any good that comes out of revenge cheating, it’s that your partner may gain a sense of empathy. Affairs are often the result of a single, impulsive moment. People often leap into them without considering the consequences or how it might make their partner feel. According to Dave Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, putting your cheating partner in the position that they put you in could force them into understanding the pain they caused you. This is not, he emphasized, evidence that it’s a good idea.
  8. It could give you a sense of power. Another positive outcome that can arise out of revenge cheating, according to professor of psychology, Lawrence Josephs, is that it can “restore one’s self-respect.” Being cheated on can severely cripple your self-esteem, and an affair can remind you of your worth. Again, this does not mean that it’s a good idea. Josephs is quick to point out that the sweet taste of revenge is followed swiftly by the bitter reality of a broken relationship that is all the more broken after a second instance of infidelity.

How to avoid revenge cheating

Clearly, revenge cheating can feel great in the moment, but carries a host of complications. It’s worth avoiding altogether, but the instinct for vengeance is quick and powerful, and easily drowns out the voice of reason. Here’s how to keep yourself from cheating on a cheater (you’ll thank yourself later).

  1. Spot the signs of a vulnerable relationship. According to Winch, people are more likely to have affairs when they’re feeling distant from their partner. When a couple’s relationship is at “low tide,” meaning they’re stuck on autopilot and aren’t fully engaged with each other, their bond weakens. Disengagement makes them more susceptible to temptation, no matter who they are or what values they have. Obviously, it isn’t your fault if your partner decides to betray you, but there are signs you can spot ahead of time that may save you from being hurt. If you and your partner are going through a period of difficulty or indifference, address it as quickly as possible so that no one is tempted to stray in the first place.
  2. Address the cheating directly. The saying goes that you can’t fight fire with fire. This is certainly the case with cheating. Responding to their infidelity by having your own affair will not address the central problem. Without figuring out why your partner cheated in the first place, you are in no position to make decisions about the relationship, including whether to retaliate with a fling. If you can’t have a civil, productive conversation with them about it, try couples counseling. But don’t make revenge cheating your first response.
  3. Tend to your pain, not your anger. Anger is a coping mechanism to distract from emotional pain. Leon Seltzer is a psychologist who specializes in anger and states that it paradoxically works to soothe us. You turn to anger because it makes you feel in control and “invalidates whatever (or whoever) led [you] to feel invalidated.” It ultimately ignores the root cause of your emotion, however, because it distracts you from your pain. Taking direct aim at the emotional injury behind your anger will make you focus on healing rather than lashing out at the person who hurt you.
  4. Try to forgive. Forgiveness is the only way that you and your partner can stay together after they have been unfaithful. Even if you decide to cheat on them in retaliation, you will arrive at the same question: can we survive this? Whether you can forgive them is contingent on many circumstantial factors, including whether they’ve been unfaithful before the current affair, how you felt about the relationship before you knew they were cheating, and the nature of their infidelity. If you can’t forgive them, nothing, especially retaliatory cheating, can save your relationship.
  5. Walk away. You might seek revenge to distract you from the obvious: you can’t stay in a relationship with your partner. Before jumping into an affair to punish them, ask yourself if you can imagine being with them anymore. Be self-aware, and trust your gut. If you know in your heart of hearts that you can never trust that person again, walk away. Trying to exact revenge on them will only harm you. As psychologist Milica Markovic puts it, “hurting them won’t make you hurt any less.” Cut your losses and move on.
Rose Nolan is a writer and editor from Austin, TX who focuses on all things female and fabulous. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Theater from the University of Surrey and a Master's Degree in Law from the University of Law. She’s been writing professional since 2015 and, in addition to her work for Bolde, she’s also written for Ranker and Mashed. She's published articles on topics ranging from travel, higher education, women's lifestyle, law, food, celebrities, and more.
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