A person who feels that adultery is wrong, and doesn’t make excuses for it, can nonetheless cheat due to simple human weakness. This does not imply that people shouldn’t do their best to resist the temptation to cheat, but merely recognizes that even the best among us, the most resolute, can slip from time to time.
That said, if a person sincerely believes that adultery is wrong but nonetheless feels a very real temptation to cheat, what can he or she do to lessen the chances of crossing that line? There are many lessons which we can borrow from the literature on self-control, weakness of will, and procrastination that may help the perpetually tempted yet well-intentioned person stay faithful to his or her partner.
1. Try harder. This is usually the least satisfying answer, and is also often seen as the least realistic, but I wanted to get it out there so readers can dismiss it if they choose. As I’ve tried to emphasize from time to time since my first post here at Psychology Today, we underestimate our own power to resist temptation through sheer force of will. Of course, our willpower is not limitless, as we know from the work of Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, and others, and it can easily by exhausted by other mental or physical exertions. Nonetheless it is possible to do in many cases, and as I’ve argued before, when other, more clever methods for avoiding temptation are not available, it’ll be up to your will—and you’d better have it.
2. Avoidance. This is perhaps the most obvious strategy, but it can be easy to neglect its importance. Alcoholics avoid bars, dieters avoid bakeries: they know that being confronted with the source of your temptation only increases the pressure on your limited resolve. One difference with adultery is that—unless you’re a celebrity or a politician—the source of temptation is usually one particular person, rather than deriving from being around attractive people in general. In theory this should make it easier to avoid temptation, since you only have to avoid one person, not half the people you see; but in reality, that person is likely someone who is hard to avoid, such as a coworker, customer, client, neighbor, or friend. Nonetheless, do the best you can to avoid them, especially in private—and don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can be alone with this person if you know in your heart that you can’t. Avoidance can works if you’re honest with yourself.
3. Remember the long-term consequences. Speaking of self-deception: Adulterers often fool themselves into thinking that this time will be the only time (or the last time). This could be true, of course, although unlikely; in any case, it is a way to rationalize and justify a “one-time” dalliance. If you feel tempted and want to avoid doing something you’ll regret, keep in mind the long-term consequences of cheating, including the harm it will do to your partner and your relationship, to any children you have (or any whom may result from your adulterous liaisons), as well as to your image of yourself. Also, consider that if you give in to temptation this time, you are more likely to give in the next time, and before you know it you’ve established a pattern. But if you anticipate that pattern from the beginning, and realize how bad the consequences of it will be, you’ll be more likely to stop it beforer it starts. (This is drawn from George Ainslie’s work on resolve, which is often applied to instances of weakness of will like struggles with dieting: you’ll be less likely to indulge if you think, “if I have dessert today, I’ll probably have it tomorrow, and the next day; but if I avoid it today, then maybe I can avoid it tomorrow…”)
4. Phone a friend. Social support and pressure, whether from friends or strangers, can be enormously helpful in fighting temptation; Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous are just the most common examples, but friends, especially those who openly admit their own adulterous temptations, can be invaluable as well. Find someone you can be open with and who understands why you’re tempted, and he or she may be available to “talk you down” (perhaps “talk you out of bed” would be more accurate). You can even commit to contacting this person every day or every week to tell them that you avoided cheating since you last talked—whatever works.
5. Be open with your partner. This may be the most difficult strategy, but perhaps the healthiest one for your relationship. No one is saying it’s easy to admit to your partner, the last person in the world you would ever want to hurt, that you are tempted by (not merely attracted to) another person. But if you feel yourself succumbing to the temptation, then it is likely to hurt your partner one way or the other—and the pain will certainly be less if you tell him or her when it’s just temptation and not after it’s afait accompli. Your partner may be hurt, of course, but hopefully he or she will also be grateful that you felt comfortable enough to be open about it, and that you talked to him or her about it rather than doing something that the relationship could not survive.
Just remember: it’s natural to be tempted, and it’s human to be weak, but it’s your responsibility, to yourself as well as your partner, to resis