What are The Main Reasons Why People Cheat?

Discovering a partner has cheated on you can be devastating. You might feel hurt, angry, sad, or even physically sick. But above all, you might be wondering “Why?”

A 2017 study published in The Journal of Sex Research set out to explore this very topic. The study used an online survey to ask 495 people who had cheated in a romantic relationship about the reasons for their infidelity.

A recent investigation asked nearly 500 mostly heterosexual individuals about their past experiences cheating on a romantic partner (Selterman, Garcia, Tsapelas, & 2019). Note that having engaged in infidelity was an explicit inclusion criteria for the study, so all participants shared at least one instance of their own infidelity as part of the study. Approximately 95 percent gave examples that included sexual/physical infidelity.

These scholars aren’t the first to ask the question of why people cheat (e.g., Barta & Kiene, 2005), but evidence regarding infidelity motives is surprisingly scarce, suggesting the need for empirical inquiry. In their study, Selterman and colleagues (2019) solicited reasons for why people cheated and then focused their analysis on synthesizing the many motives people offered. Eight main motives emerged from their analysis:

Disconnection

One of the most common reasons for infidelity is the feeling that you and your partner have drifted apart. In this case, cheating can feel like a way of finding something new and exciting when your relationship has become predictable and familiar. A sense of disconnection from one’s partner can happen for a variety of reasons. There may be a lack of proper communication in the relationship (talking about specific issues or just generally keeping in touch about how you feel). Or life may have become dominated by work or looking after kids, so time together has become more functional than loving.

Feeling unloved

In counselling, we often use the term ‘love languages’ to describe how people express affection to one another. Some partners communicate more verbally by saying nice things, whereas others might prefer to express affection physically by cuddling or kissing. If your love language is different to your partners, that can leave you feeling unloved — and potentially more open to the affections of someone who seems to understand you better.

Imbalance

If there’s a lack of balance in a relationship, one partner can begin to feel a bit like a parent and the other like a child. For example, one partner may feel like they have to be the responsible one, making all the decisions, organising the home, managing the finances and so on, while their partner doesn’t pull their weight. An affair might then be tempting in order to feel appreciated and equal. Equally, the partner in the ‘child’ position may feel criticised and as if nothing they do seems to be enough, meaning an affair might feel like a way of reclaiming some sense of independence and authority.

Fear of commitment

Sometimes, affairs occur at times when you might assume people would be the most secure in their relationship, such as after getting engaged or when someone is pregnant. But worries over commitment can be very destabilising. Sometimes, people can sabotage what they have, consciously or unconsciously, as a way of rejecting feelings of responsibility.

Issues related to self-esteem

Affairs can also arise from personal insecurities. Low self-esteem can cause people to be very dependent on the attentions of others — and in some cases, the attention of just one person isn’t enough. It may also cause someone to feel insecure in their own relationship, so much so that they might cheat as a way of rejecting rather than being rejected.

Sexually addictive behaviour

Affairs can commonly be linked to problems with sexually addictive behaviours. This is where someone habitually engages in sexual activity as a way of satisfying desires and relieving negative feelings they find hard to control. These desires can be compulsive in the way that a drug or alcohol addiction might be. For some people, this can mean they end up engaging in affairs repeatedly or in multiple relationships. For more information on sex addiction, visit the NHS choices page.

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