Why Do People Cheat?

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Love affairs and cheating have dominated the celebrity news cycle in recent months. Tristan Thompson was caught again, Adam Levine admitted to flirting (with sext included) but denied a sexual relationship, and Olivia Wilde was widely criticized after rumors circulated that she cheated on Jason Sudeikis with Harry Styles

Infidelity is a common phenomenon, but beyond the criticism, people wonder what motivations are behind the desire to cheat. Most people think it always solely has to do with sex, but in reality, cheating is more complex than that—and the reasons are not related to a simple answer.

The sex involved in cheating

There are many assumptions and cultural narratives surrounding cheating, particularly male infidelity. Cheating in a heterosexual relationship is widely linked by the public to a man’s sexual needs being “unfulfilled.” Although many affairs have to do with sex, it is not always just about sex. 

Motivations such as anger and lack of love may lead to longer affairs and public dating, according to a study published in 2021 in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. Meanwhile, situational motivations, such as being intoxicated, may be related to shorter affairs and less satisfying sex.

“Most people in my research said they kissed. Plenty also said they had some kind of sexual contact —vaginal sex, oral sex— but many did not,” says Dr. Dylan Faulkner Selterman, Ph.D., a researcher and psychologist working as an associate teaching professor at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, to Cashmere.

Unclear lines and the need for affirmation

The boundaries in a relationship can be blurred if these have not been established in advance. “Young adults often engage in ‘hookups’ which can be vague and sometimes include sex or sexual contact,” Dr. Selterman explains. 

Every person, relationship, and boundaries are bound to be different, however, some people start a war over what was allowed or not—like when Ross cheated on Rachel in Friends, or were they on a break? Rather than communicating their needs and desires to their partners, people allow resentment to foster.

“In the most common scenario, it’s about resenting the spouse and not getting needs met, not just sexual needs, but needs like appreciation and affirmation,” says Dr. Becky Whetstone Cheairs, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist and co-host of Call Your Mom on YouTube.

“Time and again people tell me it wasn’t about the sex, but about the affirmations,” Dr. Whetstone adds. When the spouse meets someone who starts affirming and appreciating them, she mentions that “it feels like getting a cold glass of water when you’re super-thirsty.”

Gender stereotypes

It’s widely thought that men are more likely to cheat, but this doesn’t mean that women can’t cheat. Likewise, female cheating is often commonly assumed to be more about feelings and less about sex. I, personally, found that this is not necessarily the case.

While I was in college, some of my female friends cheated one or more times on their partners. None of them were in love with their affair companions. How do I know this? Because women talk to each other. 

I learned that women cheat for different reasons. For some friends, sometimes it had to do with the need for revenge for having been cheated on before, but for other peers, it seemed to be more personality and self-worth related: Different research has associated the impulse to cheat with self-esteem, personalities with dark traits, avoidant attachment styles, and with attachment anxiety and fear of being single.

According to a Frontiers in Psychology (2019) publication, revenge for infidelity may occur when there are feelings of injustice and emotions such as anger, fear, and resentment.

Meanwhile, personality traits such as narcissism may be related to pursuing relationships for selfish purposes, desire for ego-boosting, social approval, and an increased sense of self-importance, indicates a 2018 publication that analyzed the behavior of non-singles on Tinder. (Between 18 and 25 percent of users of this dating app are in a committed relationship, according to international data).

The wounded who want to hurt

Some people find it difficult to confront a problem by talking, so they resort to actions to hurt their partners. The game of “revenge cheating” is a form of indirect attack, with the perpetrator being aware that the partner will be hurt by the broken trust—even in emotional cheating, without the sex.

“This kind of behavior can stem from all kinds of character underdevelopment, from emotional immaturity to childish momentary easing of hurt by playing ‘tit for tat’, to sadistic heartlessness,” says Dr. George K. Simon, a clinical psychologist and bestselling author. 

These actions can be driven by knowing what the partner fears, like infidelity or abandonment,  without dwelling on blame. Dr. Simon adds: “In our severely character-impaired age, very few folks experience contrition, regardless of how serious their misbehavior has been.” 

Complex beings, complex reasons

Although many people engage in exclusive relationships, they then fail to comply with established boundaries. There is no common motivation for all cheaters, but the reasons may be related to problems in the relationship, individual factors, or circumstantial conditions, such as being intoxicated.

“Couples bring their own childhood baggage—and sometimes baggage from previous relationships—and then co-create a relationship that for a variety of reasons may be fertile ground for an affair to spring up,” says Dr. Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP, a board-certified licensed clinical psychologist and trained couples’ therapist.

Cheating is often perceived as a way to escape from unresolved problems in a primary relationship. According to Dr. Selterman, many turn to another person because they feel emotionally distant, neglected, angry, and/or sexually dissatisfied.

“But sometimes people cheat because they’re craving sexual variety or because of the immediate situation they’re in—feeling stressed out or intoxicated,” Dr. Selterman suggests that a desire for greater social autonomy may be a reason, too.

Relationship issues can stem from personal issues 

The cheater usually says that the relationship was in trouble, and while this may be the case, it’s not always true. Many of the primary motivations are born of individual problems. “We may have low self-esteem, trust issues, problems with our anger, or excessive pride,” Dr. Jordan says. However, any personal problems will fuel the couple’s conflict, after all, “it takes two to tango.”

“For some people, this is linked with behavioral problems —sometimes lacking self-control,” Dr. Selterman explains. “And yes, personality traits matter. Sociosexuality —the degree to which people mentally separate love from sex, predicts greater likelihood of cheating.” 

A desire for the limelight?

Shakira says in her song about being cheated on that it wasn’t his fault or hers, it was because of the monotony—like a repetitive phrase she heard towards the end of the relationship. She points out a few personality traits that seem important as well: “Always looking for prominence/You left me for your narcissism.” 

When talking about personal problems, it could indicate that the cheater has not developed mature ways to communicate and performs actions propitiated by character disturbances, such as narcissism.

There are many types and degrees of narcissism, Dr. Simon explains: “Some narcissists self-aggrandize by seducing and/or stealing the hearts of others. Some build up their fragile egos through sexual conquest. Others simply feel entitled to self-gratify at whim and at anyone’s expense.” 

Dr. Simon adds that certain people mistake sexual gratification for love, because they lack a genuine capacity for intimacy due to their immaturity of character. Naturally, there are other reasons for infidelity besides character disturbances, “but a major common factor is not having developed the kind of deep bond and true regard for a spouse.”

Acceptance and repetitive patterns

“Having an anxious-avoidant/dismissing attachment style predisposes a person to fear that their partner cannot accept all aspects of them,” Dr. Jordan indicates. For this reason, they tend to feel they must keep secrets, making them think that an affair is the only way to fulfill their needs.

According to Dr. Jordan, growing up in a family with extramarital issues can potentially predispose an individual to re-enact this behavior, perhaps hoping to somehow dominate the situation this time.

This aspect pointed out by Dr. Jordan can be observed in many people around us—or even in ourselves—when the wounds of the past hurt in the present. I could witness it in my father: He recreated in his adult life what he experienced in his childhood. This unhealed issue affected his love relationships, as he failed to stop his pattern of multiple infidelities.

The third wheel

According to one study about the mistresses’ perspective, the party cheating with the unfaithful partner may garner self-worth from the exchange, at the expense of the married couple. 

“Deep down they don’t see themselves as truly loveable and worth a fully committed partner. Often, they have childhoods in which many of their important needs were not met and they had to learn to ‘take what they could get.’ This gets repeated in the affair, albeit with a lot of heartache and anger,” Dr. Jordan says. 

Although it does not happen in all cases, it could be a fear of commitment as well. However, often they have a subconscious desire to “finally” be chosen. Dr. Jordan says: “Sadly, this rarely works out because affairs rarely lead to stable long-term relationships between affair partners.” 

Good relationships need the healthy self

Couples therapy can help heal a cheating affair—if both are committed—and build a healthy relationship from there. Of course, working on ourselves individually can prevent many relationship conflicts before they occur.

Dr. Jordan recommends people should engage in individual therapy in their late teens or early 20s before most people are thinking of getting married. “The more of your own personal baggage you can shed before you walk down that aisle the better your relationship will be.”