Why Do Cheaters Do It?

By Dr. Jess Relationships

We don’t know exactly how many people cheat, but research suggests that approximately 20 percent of individuals in monogamous relationships admit that they’ve engaged in behavior with a third party that could jeopardize their relationship.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees upon the definition of cheating, and digital relationships have blurred the lines, with 68% of women and 51% of men in agreement that flirty texts constitute cheating. Compare that with the findings that only 90% of women and 75% of men qualify passionate kissing as cheating and it’s clear that sexual (in)fidelity lacks universal meaning, and that the definition varies from person to person.

But why do people cheat? Here are the most common reasons why people in romantic relationships decide to sneak away from their partners and take part in infidelity:

1. Anxiety about sexual performance.

It may seem counterintuitive, but people of all genders who experience anxiety about sexual performance are 7 percent more likely to cheat. Researchers theorize that these cheaters might stray to avoid facing their fears in a meaningful relationship or to make progress with a partner who isn’t familiar with their sexual history.

2. Money.

Several studies suggest that high-income earners are more likely to cheat, but recent research indicates that income discrepancies can also increase the likelihood of cheating. One study published in the journal American Sociological Review found that men who earn much more or much less than their partners are more likely to cheat than those whose incomes are more in line with their partners’.

3. Sexual personality.

I’m reticent to overstate the notion of a propensity to cheat, as personal agency plays a larger role than any tendency or cheating behavior. But research suggests that men who report high levels of “sexual excitability” are more likely to cheat. For every unit of increase in sexual excitability, the likelihood of cheating increases 4 percent for men, but no association between excitability and cheating has been identified for women.

4. Relationship dissatisfaction.

Studies surrounding the question, “why do people cheat?”, suggest that women attribute cheating to unhappiness in a relationship and lack of compatibility. However, the deficit model for explaining cheating discounts the reality that we are in control of our behavior. All types of people cheat and many cheaters take steps to ensure that it will never happen again. Once a cheater doesn’t mean always a cheater, once said cheater is in a happy relationship. Moreover, it isn’t uncommon for cheaters to report being in a happy relationship, which suggests that the individual, and not the relationship, is to blame.

5. The thrill of passion and romance.

Women, in particular, claim that they seek affairs out of a desire for romance, passion, and sex. Interestingly, research suggests that women deem the emotional components of an affair more harmful than the sex itself, while men consider sex more detrimental when cheating in a romantic relationship.

6. They don’t want to be monogamous.

Monogamy is a choice. It’s one of many options and you don’t have to opt-in. But if you plan on being in a monogamous relationship, you should consider all of your other options (being single or looking for a partner who wants a non-monogamous relationship) before you commit, or you run the risk of becoming a cheating spouse. Monogamy as a default setting is risky. You need to opt-in and discuss its meaning to increase your chances of a happy relationship.

7. Narcissism.

Not all cheaters are narcissists, but a recent study found that sexual narcissists are more likely to cheat. Those who have an inflated sense of sexual entitlement, prowess and skill are not only likely to be less empathetic, but their rates of infidelity are higher within the first four years of marriage.

8. They yearn for novelty.

Humans crave a balance of security and predictability along with excitement and novelty. Some cheaters are not looking for an affair and sexual infidelity, but seize on accessible opportunities to cheat because they enjoy the thrill. The onus of staving off boredom in the bedroom in long term relationships, however, falls on both parties. The partner who is tempted to cheat not only has a responsibility to cultivate novelty in their relationship, but also to talk to their partner about this boredom and potential solutions, to get rid his or herself of potential cheating behavior.

People who cheat may justify their behavior with rationalizations, but ultimately they’re faced with cognitive dissonance: their behaviors are inconsistent with their beliefs, so they rationalize their behavior by adjusting their thoughts (e.g. s/he never wants to have sex, the relationship was already going downhill, other people cheat too). They may even try to impose their altered and self-serving belief system upon their partner to rationalize their behavior as a cheating spouse.

This doesn’t mean that cheaters are bad people; in fact, people who cheat feel bad about their behavior as evidenced by their rationalizations. However, taking responsibility for regrettable behavior is essential to ensure that you don’t repeat it moving forward. This doesn’t mean that you have to come clean to others, but coming clean to yourself and accepting full responsibility may be the first step toward a better relationship with yourself and your current or future partners.


Images are for illustrative purposes only.