When it comes to cheating, people usually have very black-and-white attitudes. For the most part, that attitude is “it’s morally repugnant”.

But when it comes down to it, we’re all human beings – and that means nothing we do is really that simple. Emotions, circumstances, figuring shit out as we go – all of this plays into every aspect of our lives, and of course our relationships.

I’ve always abhorred cheating. My take was always “if you don’t want to be with someone, break up with them before hooking up with someone else”. But the older I get, the more I realise that every act of cheating is different, with many decisions (good and bad) made along the way.

Out of interest, I asked a bunch of people who had either hooked up with someone in a relationship, or were in a relationship when they hooked up with someone else, what went down – and what they’ve learned along the way.

PS: Names have been changed to protect both the people telling me their stories, and the people they’re discussing.

HANNAH, 26

I’d been in a relationship for 2 years when I met Ferne. My partner Georgie and I were really happy together, but once I met Ferne I couldn’t get her out of my mind. We became friends and things remained platonic for a few months, but I had known I had a crush on her essentially since meeting her. However, she identified as straight so I knew it would be an unrequited crush and I needed to get over it. But I couldn’t. Eventually I told Ferne how I felt (when very drunk) and a few weeks later (when drunk again) I told her I had to start distancing myself from her since my feelings were becoming too strong. What I didn’t expect though was for her to say she was also interested. I then lied and told her that Georgie and I were in an open relationship (which we had actually discussed seriously doing but only when we were drunk, PATTERNS). That was the first night Ferne and I hooked up.

I had wanted to be with her for so long I think that overtook my feeling of guilt, because it felt right. Georgie and I broke up a few days after Ferne and I kissed, and at the time I definitely didn’t think I had done anything that horrible. But now looking back I realise I had been mentally cheating on Georgie for months, which in a way is worse.

Something I wasn’t expecting was how excited I was to hook up with Ferne. I thought I would feel more guilty than I did. I think because I had wanted to have something happen between me and Ferne for so long, the feeling of excitement was stronger. That makes me feel worse now.

Ferne and I slowly started seeing each other more and more after Georgie and I ended. We ended up dating exclusively for 6 months. Before we became official I told her that I had lied about my partner and I being in an open relationship. She thankfully understood but I still felt it was a horrible way to start our relationship. And hated myself more for feeling more guilty about lying to her about that when I cheated on my partner of 2 years.

I haven’t told Georgie that I cheated on her. She knew I had a crush on Ferne (apparently I had told her when I was drunk, did someone say pattern?). Georgie and I are very close friends now and my psych told me that there is no point in telling her as it doesn’t effect the relationship now. Considering I spent the night at Ferne’s house though and we broke up a few days later I wouldn’t be surprised if she had guessed.

I’d always thought cheating was not okay. I still think that now, but think I was in a “this is fine because it’s totally different” haze when I was mentally cheating on my partner before physically cheating on her, and then again starting my new relationship by lying and saying I was in an open relationship when I wasn’t. I have definitely learnt that what starts in chaos almost always ends in chaos. I think it’s important to be honest with yourself – if you want to be with someone else then you’re not being fair on the person you’re with, unless you have an open discussion on what it is you BOTH want. For me I think I was scared of losing Georgie (who is my best friend, even now) and being alone, so I didn’t want to break it off for Ferne unless I knew it could actually be something. Which essentially wasn’t fair on either of them, and selfish by me.

If I were to give anyone advice on cheating, I’d say this. Think how you would feel if you were the one that was being lied to and cheated on. Would that make you do anything differently?

SAM, 27

I kept sleeping with my ex-boyfriend for a fairly long time after he had a new partner. Like, years – although not regularly, not that it makes it any better. I justified it by saying I was there first, also I told myself I hated the new partner and didn’t care about them. I also convinced myself they were psycho and he was desperately unhappy, so it was all ok (he had fairly bad depression and anxiety so I think I possibly even convinced myself that he “needed” me).

I eventually realised he had somehow managed to play us both. He was getting everything he wanted without having to be good for, or to, either of us. And although I didn’t care about his new partner, I should care about myself more (“you get the love you think you deserve” etc etc). Also, I was obviously doing this secretly and not telling anyone – then we both got mumps and our best friends figured this out when they ran into each other, so then I had to face up to the bad thing I was doing (if you’re lying to your friends, you probably know it’s wrong) and it wasn’t as much fun once I realised that.

I moved to another country for a new job, which helped move on from the relationship. I am pretty sure he’s still with the person, but I haven’t seen him in years and now I just replace that self-destructive relationship behaviour with other new adventures like dating complete commitment-phobes etc! END MASSIVE OVERSHARE!

I didn’t feel a lot of guilt at the time and still don’t. I wasn’t the one in a relationship and I didn’t know his partner and didn’t feel like I owed them anything. I was also fairly sure they knew he wasn’t faithful which somehow made me feel a bit better – like they could leave if they wanted. Also, not married and no kids, that made it feel less bad.

DAN, 30

I actually met Sinead when her drunk-ass friend hit on me at the pub. I politely declined, but then her friend and I ended up chatting and we were actually keen on each other. Her friend got my number, we all wound up hanging out again, but this time me and Sinead hit it off. This sort of just went on for a long time, me and Sinead were super keen on each other but didn’t do anything, until one night we kissed when we were absolutely blasted out of our minds.

The next day we agreed that it was wrong and just a drunk accident and it wouldn’t happen again. Obviously it did, and we ended up in bed.

I honestly thought she was off limits. That was that. So when things got out of hand, I felt real bad about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to whitewash my role in it – I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway. One thing I didn’t expect was the jealousy. Even though I was the “other man”, she was still with her boyfriend and as ridiculous as it sounds, I was jealous of them.

Our hook up lasted years. We kept on with it after she amicably split with her boyfriend. About a year after they split, he found out and the shit hit the fan. After that we decided that if we were gonna keep seeing each other it had to be a real relationship. We were spectacularly incompatible and our relationship had started under awful circumstances. It limped along for about 9 more months before we put it out of its misery.

I’m not prudish about monogamy, plenty of people I know are in non monogamous relationships and that’s 100% cool with me if everybody involved is on board. I also knew cheating was common and I didn’t think it made someone an awful person, but I did think it was almost always a mistake and a poor decision – poor impulse control. Nothing about my experience changed my mind about that. I still feel that way today.

I have two pieces of advice from my experience. Firstly, if you are considering cheating, I think you should try to bear two things in mind. One, imagine lying to your partner about it afterwards. Lying is horrible and you will necessarily be forced to debase yourself. Even if your partner never finds out, you will suffer for it. Unless you’re a sociopath, in which case, carry on.

Second thing, mostly relevant to guys: try to imagine how you’ll feel straight after you’ve had an orgasm. As soon as your dick is lo longer in charge of your brain and you can think straight again, the enormity of what you’ve done will hit

If you’re cheating because your sex life no longer excites you, there are more constructive ways to deal with it. If you think you’re actually in love with this other person though, fuck, I dunno what to tell ya.

BETH, 33

I was married, but while working on a TV show in a foreign country, I met Luke. The director who came on to guest direct the show actually sat us down one night and talked to us about how there was so much tension between us and we should do something about it. So we did.

Luke was also married. Both of our marriages were in terrible places, and I think we’d created this alternate universe where they didn’t exist. Because we weren’t in the same city as our spouses we didn’t have to face what we were doing. We actually lived in the same city, too, and did see each other there once. Hooking up when we were in the same city as our spouses was trickier and much more laden with guilt that our initial affair.

Something that surprised me was the happiness I felt with Luke, honestly. I think he was the first person to every actually see me for who I was, and to love me without conditions. That was a huge surprise. I expected much more guilt, and much more misery. The joy was a shock.

We continued with our affair for several months, but then ended things and we both tried to make our respective marriages work. I told my partner, but he didn’t. He and his wife stayed together a few months after our affair and then split up. I stayed with my partner another year, though it still wasn’t working, and then they ended up having an affair of their own and we split up.

Prior to my own affair (and the two years of reflection that have since followed) I thought that an affair was something you could work through with a partner, and happened for a multitude of reasons. Now I would say that if you’re not in an open relationship and you’re sleeping with anyone else outside of your partner, it speaks to an enormous communication breakdown in your relationship and a sign of a much much larger issue than anything to do with sex.

I learned SO much about myself from the affair. About what I actually need from a relationship (which I did get from the affair but not from my partner), about how I let myself get so unhappy that I unconsciously did something irreversible to end it, about how afraid I was to hurt someone by leaving that I hurt them even more than I would have done had I just walked away, about how I was afraid of the practicalities of leaving as much as the emotional side… so so many things.

If you’re considering an affair – before you actually do it, sit down and ask yourself why it is that you want this. Are you still in love with your partner or is it time to leave? What are you not getting that this affair will give to you? There is a lot of deep thinking that follows an affair, and there is always, always a massive fallout. So better to do the deep thinking first, before you have anything to regret.

While I actually don’t regret the affair, I do wish I had ended my marriage first. I would’ve saved a lot of hurt for my partner and for myself.

CARLY, 23

I was dating Luke before I went overseas for what was meant to be a 2-year trip. When I came back after six months he was dating someone else, which was fine. But this girl used to “prank” call me consistently, telling me how Luke would never go back there now that I’d put on so much weight. This went on for weeks and it was horrible. I’d never done anything to prompt this behaviour from her – maybe a Merry Christmas text to him at most.

So when he tried to hook up with me while they were dating, I guess part of me wanted to do it just to shove it to her. My advice for the people in relationships? Be kind to those you see as threats. For the singles? It’s never, ever worth it.

JESS, 25

I met Yael through a friend that I worked with. I was 19 and he was 36. I knew he was married, but he had told me that they had broken up when we hooked up the first time – alas they hadn’t.

We were on and off for a year before it got really messy. His wife found out about me after spotting us at our local shopping centre. Then he said that this time, they really had broken up and he wanted to be with me blah blah blah… then a few months later he was like “let’s get a hotel room for my birthday” and I was like ok cool.

At 12am he said he had to go and I was like why? And he was like, well it’s weird if I don’t come home. I’m like, why would that be weird, hang on are you still with Sarah? He said yeah, so he left. I was sad at first because I felt young and dumb, but then I remembered that his card was down so I ordered the most expensive bottle of champagne and all this food on room service, slept in and left in the morning.

To be honest, I was young and naive at the time so I took everything he said at face value. The fact that he never wanted to go out in public/never slept over didn’t raise any alarm bells. I did feel bad for his wife Sarah, and even more so now because I’m older. But at the time I was like “well I am single I am not doing anything wrong”. Now I feel that’s actually a really shit attitude to have.

I didn’t think I would actually catch feelings for him, but I now think when you are younger you fall for any crap that comes out of their mouth. You think that they actually want to be with you but you will always just be the “other woman”.

I’ve never spoken to Yael since that hotel room incident, but I did see Facebook photos of his second wedding to Sarah. I feel bad for her, having known that he cheated with a girl multiple times – and who knows how many other times.

I do think I’m definitely less gullible now. I certainly wouldn’t pursue someone now if I knew they were in a relationship, it’s more drama than it’s worth. I also have watched so many of my friends get cheated on and witnessed the fall out from being the victim, and I wouldn’t want to be the cause for that ever again. Fortunately I have never been cheated on (that I am aware of), but I feel like karma is probably going to get me sooner or later.

Something I do want to tell people is this – if you are dealing with the fall out of an affair, you have to remember that you aren’t the reason they cheated, and it has nothing to do with you personally but something that the cheater is dealing with/looking to fulfil emotionally. It’s sad that the world we live in now it’s so easy to cheat, and some people look to social media as a way to escape their relationship-  but if you are really unhappy in your relationship and you feel your eye starting to wander it’s so much better to end the relationship than to cause that much pain for your partner.

SANDY, 31

I met John at the pub one night, and when I saw him I knew I wanted to talk to him so I went straight up to him. We chatted for a while, and although he seemed single I had some suspicions that he wasn’t being truthful with his situation. Then my friend searched for him on Facebook and saw he had children and a partner. He kept telling me that he and his partner were broken up, but it was complicated due to the children. I was stupid to believe him.

I never expected to keep seeing him. I’d always thought in that kind of circumstance that I would have walked away, but for some reason I stayed. I guess I wanted to believe what he was telling me was true.

Eventually he did leave his partner and we were together for a year and a half, before I realised it was just too hard. He ended up “back together” with his partner after me and having another child. However, then she found out about me, and suddenly the situation was worse than it was when we were actually together.

I never understood how someone could cheat on another human being until I was in the situation myself. I can now see how easy it can be to end up there. You become infatuated with a person and the idea that they can’t be all yours drives you to stay longer.

I made a lapse in my judgement and should have listened to my heart not my head. After the affair ended I swore off dating until I worked out what I wanted from a partner and what I was willing to put up with and what I wasn’t. I met my fiance soon after I split with the married man, and almost wasn’t willing to give him a go because of what I had been through. Luckily I did give him a chance.

One thing I learnt is the truth is not actually usually the truth, listen to your gut. There are so many wonderful people about there, so leave the messy relationships behind.

KATY, 29

I was in a relationship in my mid-to-late twenties that had lasted nearly three years. The relationship had been over for at least a year in my mind and I really struggled to end it. We were living together and had been for most of the relationship; it was one of those relationships where you kept telling yourself things would get better. He would change. He would get his act together. He would grow into the person I needed him to be to complement my life rather than detracting from it. That never happened and was suffocated by the situation. I was exhausted by it.

I was still in the same relationship – despite it being that weird state where you’re fuelled by hatred, disgust and frustration – when I slept with someone I had met through work. It was intense and paralysing at the same time. My current boyfriend worked nights and I’d told him that I’d been out late with a girlfriend. That morning, I went home, slept for a couple of hours then headed away to visit family without him (he was never accepted by them). The weekend was one of fear, regret, trying to work out ’10 steps ahead’ but I spiralled into a heap.

I continued to see and sleep with the man who I’d cheated on my boyfriend with and it ended up lasting about 9 months before I walked away from it. During these nine months, I was still trying to leave my current boyfriend. After a couple of weeks, I called it and he finally realised it was done. I’d said it enough times, the reality of his situation set in, and finally one day he moved out. After that day, things weren’t clean cut. We didn’t speak for a few months, then he re-entered my life and we started to see each other and what ensued was a clusterfuck of ‘are we, aren’t we’ all the while I continued to see the guy I cheated on him with.

Half the time I would live in a self-reflexive crisis – ‘What if the other one found out’, ‘What am I doing?’ ‘How could I treat people like this?’ ‘What if someone from work saw us together’ – and the other half was a blur of boozy nights, always knowing that neither was right. In this way, I was in two relationships. Neither fully formed, neither as intimate as they needed to be. One, a man with a future. The other, a man who should have been a part of my past a lot sooner.

In all honestly, I didn’t expect myself to forgive myself for what I did. I was open and honest with the ‘other’ guy, but not with the boyfriend I was trying so desperately to leave. All is fair in love and war wasn’t quite true in this situation – none of it fair, not least on me. I tortured myself over a situation I could have taken control of. I told myself what I was doing was OK because I had been treated so poorly by my current boyfriend. It wasn’t revenge – because what’s the point of revenge? The most powerful way to heal is let them be, know that people (likely) won’t ever change and focus on looking forward not back.

It lasted about 9 months. It was high intensity to start, then I started to pull away more and more with time.

I am not overwhelmed by a sense of guilt these days and I wasn’t at the time either. I also didn’t feel entitled to be doing what I did, it was an outrageous mess and ultimately, I paid the price for that. I wasted time, a lot of time, in the original relationship but the lessons have been invaluable. As for the second relationship, my head was never fully there. I knew he wanted more, I knew he wanted me to be his girlfriend, he wanted to take care of me, he wanted all the things I couldn’t possibly let him do. In the end, I always knew it wasn’t going to last and for that, I am sorry.

I didn’t stay with either of them. Imagine that for the foundation of a relationship. Never would have worked. We weren’t the right fit, we weren’t aligned. The other guy was a fair bit older and I just never would have been able to give him the things he needed. I also needed to give myself the space to work out what I needed, why I’d done what I did and to find a way to create a fresh, clean, healthy, happy space to work on myself.

I don’t classify what I did as having an affair. I fully accept I cheated on my then boyfriend, but shortly thereafter we were in a state of limbo after I ended it but he refused to move out and, ultimately, on. The time that I saw the other person I was not in a relationship with my ex, nor was I in a defined relationship with him.

I don’t subscribe to ‘there’s grey’ in everything unless you have two people who agree on that. People who continue to have an affair with someone when they’re in a solid relationship is one of the most complicated and devastating things a human can do to another human. To betray trust like that, to take away power from people by being dishonest isn’t something we should accept, and it’s not something I can accept when two people are in a committed relationship. Ultimately it comes down to the people in the relationship and how they each, and together, define what they want it to be.

For people considering an affair: if you’re considering it, it’s probably (and has been for some time) over with your current partner. Ask yourself why you’re considering it and use that to think about what’s really going on.

For people having an affair: People are going to get hurt. Including yourself. Think about whether or not you can spend some time removed from the situation, only then will you be able to gain perspective.

For people dealing with the fallout of an affair: Everything is as it should be right now. This time will pass. It fucking hurts. There will be big learnings at the end of it. Take those to carve out a different path for yourself. Wine/beer/aperol (spritz) helps. A lot. But only momentarily. Surround yourself with incredible people you love. Accept that this is beyond you, it’s bigger than you and that you can’t change the past, but it’s bloody up to you to shape the future.

Image: Pretty Little Liars