It’s the Love Actually scene that, 20 years on, still strikes a chord: The moment Emma Thompson’s character Karen realises – after unwrapping not the necklace she found while snooping, but a Joni Mitchell CD – that her husband, Professor Snape, is having an affair with his secretary.
Part of the reason it likely hits so hard is because Karen’s experience is not uncommon – with clinical psychologist Shahn Baker Sorekli telling news.com.au’s podcast, I’ve Got News For You, there is a spike in the number of people who are unfaithful over the silly season.
“There’s definitely some evidence … which suggests that yes, people who cheat are more likely to do it at Christmas time,” the Sydney-based relationship expert told host Andrew Bucklow.
“And I can say, anecdotally from my experience as a clinical psychologist for 18-odd years, that yeah, it does tend to happen a bit more around this period.”
As for why, while “there’s always very nuanced explanations, depending on the individual” when it comes to infidelity, Shahn said that (just like in Love Actually) one of the biggest culprits is the office Christmas party.
“Now, I’m not saying if you have no intentions of ever cheating on your partner, and you’re falling in love with your partner, that the work Christmas party puts you at a higher risk of cheating,” he said.
“What I am saying, though, is relationships often happen at work – there’s a high proportion of people who actually end up in long-term relationships that meet at work.
“So through the year – think about it this way – there’s tensions building, it’s kind of like there’s relationships ‘loading’. People might be into their colleagues, and there might be some kind of flirtation going on, people spend a lot of time with their colleagues.
“And the Christmas party is like the trigger that can go off in that sort of situation, with alcohol and the festive season, that sort of thing.”
So how do you stop yourself from becoming the Alan Rickman in this scenario?
Shahn said that if you’re contemplating cheating on your partner, maybe actually just … talk to them about it.
“A lot of people are afraid to do this. But whatever explosion [that conversation] might cause is definitely going to be a smaller explosion than having an affair, and having that found out,” he said.
“So I’d go and talk to your partner, blow up your relationship a little bit in a healthy way.
“Often when people cheat, it’s not necessarily about their partner – it’s quite often never about the partner in the sense that they’re not good enough or attractive enough. It’s often about how the person’s feeling in their own life.”
That’s another reason, Shahn said, why people are unfaithful around this time of year.
“Sometimes people aren’t feeling fulfilled in life, and the monotony of the year is catching up on them. And the monotony of going to the in-laws, and Christmas and all that sort of stuff, people can find themselves feeling quite unsatisfied, and they’re looking for something to feel more alive or exciting,” he said.
Suffice to say, cheating on your partner is “not a healthy way to feel alive and exciting if you’re in a relationship, but people are human, and it does happen”.
Then, of course, there’s the age-old question: If you weren’t able to keep it in your pants, should you come clean?
There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer, Shahn said, but “philosophically speaking, I do believe the truth is always the best answer”.
If your partner is suspicious, it’s best to put them out of their misery, “because they’ve got a right to deal with all the issues around that, and choose whether or not they want to stay in the relationship”.
“I’m also a big believer in trying to act within your authentic self. A lot of people have affairs to – not just this – but many people have affairs almost to end their relationship, unconsciously,” he said.
“If that’s the case, if you’re not going to tell your partner, then you should authentically move to end the relationship.”
And while there’s no good time to confess, maybe don’t do it on Christmas Day.
If you do find yourself on the receiving end of your partner’s infidelity (and they confess to it), Shahn said the “number one thing” to remember is that “it’s not [because of] a flaw” in you.
“It’s not that they’re not attractive enough, or they’re not good enough, in a certain way. Because what’s what I often see, people who’ve been cheated on go to [that] in their mind, and that’s really debilitating,” he said.
“The second thing is, you might need some professional help to kind of guide you through it. When there’s affairs, rebuilding trust is a big thing … and you need room to be able to vent your feelings around that as well.”
Originally published as Clinical psychologist reveals why more people cheat over Christmas