What struck me about actress Kristen Stewart’s public apology for her infidelity wasn’t that it was a rare case of a famous female doing so — although that is notable. Nor was it the fact that celebrities are expected to issue public apologies about the most intimate aspects of their romantic and sexual lives – which is also remarkable. Instead, it was the language she used to explain the affair. She described it as a “momentary indiscretion,” which called up a host of post-affair cliches: “I made a mistake,” “It just happened,” “I wasn’t thinking,” “It was a lapse in judgment” – and so on.
It got me wondering: Are these accurate reflections of what actually happens when someone cheats — is it just a lapse, a mistake? I called upon a couple of experts — not to psychoanalyze Stewart but rather our peculiar species as a whole.
“In my experience people usually have signs that they’re leading up to ‘a cheat,’ if you want to call it that,” says P. Michele Sugg, a sex therapist, who explains that she doesn’t like to call it that, since the term is “so pejorative” and doesn’t capture just how common cheating really is. “Most people have feelings on some level that are welling up for a while before they act on something, or an opportunity presents itself in which they put their judgment aside and don’t think about the long-term consequences.” In general, she says, these cliché excuses are “a well-intended but dicey explanation.”
Debby Herbenick, a sex researcher at Indiana University, agrees. “Although some people feel as though they ‘weren’t thinking,’ and certainly some people do feel overtaken by sexual arousal, it’s also the case that many people do ‘think’ about it to the extent that they lie, hide texts, emails and times that they hang out with the other person,” she said in an email. “Many people do indeed weigh the pros and cons, especially when they have a lot at stake such as their career or family.”
“The chance to feel in love, to feel expanded in some way, to feel understood or intimate with another person, or to be sexual with another person, are powerful pulls for many people,” she says. But those pulls are harder to explain to the cheated partner. “Because of societal stigma around cheating and affairs, it’s also difficult for many people to say things out loud, and sometimes even to themselves, such as ‘I just really desired that person.’”
Sugg says it’s rare to hear “it was a mistake” explanations in a one-on-one therapy situation because “there’s a little more honesty about the behavior and what led to it,” she says. “Behind closed doors, it’s often, ‘I was unhappy for a while’ or ‘Things weren’t going well.’ It’s not so much, ‘I wasn’t thinking’ or ‘Oops, it was a mistake!’”
Herbenick points to former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s explanation of his Argentine love affair. Although she notes he “probably should have edited his lengthy comments for the sake of his family and career, he spoke from his heart and, I would venture to say, reflected the feelings of many people who are too careful to admit that they have cheated for connection, desire, the chance to see if someone is indeed one’s ‘soul mate.’”