Why Do People Cheat? Experts Weigh In

Cheating is never the answer if your relationship is experiencing issues, yet it can still happen. It can be helpful to understand why.

Why Do People Cheat? Experts Weigh In

Why Do People Cheat? Experts Weigh In

Why Do People Cheat? Experts Weigh In

Published
July 23, 2021
— Updated
Medically Reviewed by
5 minutes

Cheating is a major breach of trust if you and your partner have agreed to strict monogamy. Unless both partners have communicated and agreed upon alternative terms of that monogamy, there isn’t much justification for cheating. Still, infidelity is quite common, which begs the question: Why do people cheat? We’ve rounded up some experts who have done that investigating to give you a more rounded view as to why cheaters do what they do. 

The reasons listed should be understood as motivations for cheating, not justifications. Communication, seeking help from a couple’s therapist, being honest about your feelings, and other steps should be taken to remedy an issue if both partners still want to fight for the relationship. If everything has been tried and still the issues persist, consider re-evaluating the relationship or breaking up before cheating occurs. Similarly, even if you feel your partner’s behavior or actions are compelling you to cheat, cheating is never the fault of the victim. 

1. Loneliness

Being alone and feeling lonely are two very different emotions. The latter can be felt both by being alone and/or being with someone else. If your partner, the person who’s supposed to make you feel the most supported, is causing your loneliness, then that might compel you to cheat. 

Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, broke it down for Women’s Health Magazine: "Feeling lonely because your partner is neglecting you emotionally or physically leaves the neglected person more vulnerable to attention from someone else or to an emotional connection to someone else. Hence it leaves the neglected person more vulnerable to infidelity," Saltz explains.

That said, feeling lonely in a relationship is still not a good reason to cheat. Open a dialogue with your partner about what they can do to support you. Seek couple’s therapy if needed. If nothing is working and you feel another partner would be better for you, it might be time to re-evaluate your current relationship.

2. Needs are not being met

Saltz writes that everyone has “some unmet needs,” but it comes down to compromise. If a person feels their partner isn’t trying to work with them at all, they might feel motivated to stray and find someone else who will. 

This can often lead to something called micro-cheating. While, yes, it might prompt one person to seek out sexual gratification with a new partner, it could also lead to smaller acts like a partner seeking verbal intimacy with someone from work. Micro-cheating varies from sharing secrets with someone new (who you haven’t told your partner about) or spending more time with a new person (sans sex) than your partner. These behaviors aren’t as easily quantified as infidelity or cheating, but they can certainly threaten a relationship.

Much like with one party being lonely, communication here is key. If you or your partner’s needs aren’t being met even after discussion and attempts to work together, it might be worth reassessing whether or not the relationship is worth investing more into.

3. The passion has died

The first few months to a year of many relationships are hot and heavy, hence the term “honeymoon phase.” But much like actual honeymoons, they come to an end at some point. For some, this just means falling into a new rhythm of sexual activity or excitement; there are hills and valleys with everyone’s sex drive over the course of a relationship. But what if that initial spark is just gone and your partner isn’t feeling the passion they once had in any way?

Psychotherapy counselor Claire McRitchie emphasized to Insider that “sometimes love is simply not enough.”

"It is possible to love and respect your partner but still not feel connected to them in a way you once were. This can happen to any relationship regardless of how long the people have been together,” she says. “We can still love our partner and want only the best for them – and, therefore, in many cases stay with them – but we are not in-love, we are house-sharing with a friend. Sexual desire for the other dwindles and when the opportunity arises to have a sexual connection with another person it can feel like a ‘fix'. Of course this is not reality, but if love remains but passion is absent – there is a genuine reluctance to leave."

4. Unresolved anger 

Fighting with a partner is often complicated and it can sometimes bring up old resentments even when that wasn’t the initial intention. It’s all too common to get in a fight about, say, not taking out the garbage, and then it evolves into a fight about a partner not putting enough effort into the relationship. These sorts of things stem from improper communication: When you and a partner don’t talk through the things that are bothering you, you get build up that will almost always explode and manifest into other things.

This is why Healthline says people sometimes cheat out of anger. Maybe you’re frustrated “when your partner doesn’t seem to understand you or your needs” or you’re angry that your partner isn’t available enough, or that they aren’t giving you enough physically or emotionally. All of these are aspects that prove “anger can act as a powerful motivator to become intimate with someone else.”

5. Narcissistic tendencies.

If you’ve come into contact with someone who chronically cheats or you cheat often yourself, you or they may be a narcissist. Research has shown that a lot of things can lead to chronic infidelity including substance abuse, condescending behavior, jealousy, and controlling behaviors, but “a narcissist personality is one of the strongest predictors that a spouse [or partner] will be unfaithful.”

“Narcissists tend to be self-centered, overly confident, and vain. They enjoy bragging about their accomplishments and displaying themselves to others. They talk about themselves regularly and disparage others that they perceive as inferior for whatever reason,” says CouplesTherapyInc.com.

Outside of narcissism, serial infidelity is often tethered to other personality disorders. To have a successful, monogamous relationship, you’d have to work with your partner and/or go to therapy to unpack whether these are part of the issue. 

6. Monogamy isn’t working.

Sometimes, a person agrees to monogamy because that’s what a partner wants and what they’ve been taught is the only way a relationship can function successfully. The truth is, there are so many alternative relationship structures that work better for certain relationships and/or personality types. Some people may feel non-monogamous but simply haven’t learned about alternative relationship structures or are not open to trying because they fear the judgement of family or friends. It’s important to educate yourself on the different ways relationships can exist so you can define the type of relationship you want. Cheating in a monogamous relationship is not the answer, even if you find monogamy isn’t right for you. Instead, redefining the relationship, or exiting if a partner is not open to different parameters, is the healthier route. 

“I think some people are non-monogamous by orientation, and if they try to force themselves to be monogamous it’s going to hurt,” said Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist who has written several books on polyamory, to The Cut. “It’s never going to feel comfortable.”

Can you cheat on someone you love? 

The short answer is: Yes. The long answer? A lot more nuanced. Biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher says that humans are fully “capable of loving more than one person at a time” and that it’s actually because there are three brain systems related to love. 

In a report in Insider, Fisher explains that there’s the sex drive, which is like an "intolerable neural itch” that propels people to search for partners to pass on our genes. There's romantic love, which usually correlates to one person that we focus our attention on, and attachment, the security and stability one has built with a long-term partner. Sadly, those three systems aren’t always connected. While you might feel attachment and romantic love to one person, it’s very possible to feel sexual attraction to another person.

Understanding these components, it’s very possible to have deep love for your partner in tandem with experiencing one or many of the problems above; perhaps you’re not sure how to handle the issue or can’t communicate it. You or your partner could seek out sexual gratification from another partner and still have just as strong a love for their primary partner as they did before. Depending on what your partnership agreement is, if monogamy is the intention, the most loving thing someone can do for a partner they truly care for but aren’t being fulfilled from is to end it.

3 cheaters reveal why they did it.

It’s always better to hear about cheating from the perpetrators themselves for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps it’s closure or just wanting to hear, in their own words, what compelled them to stray. So, we’ve gathered some reasons from cheaters who have spoken out on Reddit to hear their side of things.

“I've been a cheater in most relationships I've had, and as a result, a self-hater for most relationships. I've been through therapy for about eight years for other reasons and what I've come to learn is that I didn't feel I deserved love, affection, or appreciation,” wrote this Reddit user. 

User Livingloveliz says she would cheat because, “I work, I clean, I cook, I mop up the puddle nightly that is my father, and I sleep.” In the process, she and her husband would “grow apart.”

“I start to feel unappreciated as I take his absence in my life and in our bed as him ignoring me and/or resenting me for not being able to give him children,” she wrote, before adding that she’d start talking to someone new and they would become “a distraction from the pain and a cure from the loneliness that my husband is inadvertently making me feel.”

User sexypleurisy says they used to cheat because they saw their college girlfriend “curled up with another dude” and “it flipped a switch.”

“It was like I went narcissist or psychopath or some shit overnight. It was like my ability to love or respect women just disappeared. So I cheated on literally every girlfriend I had from then on,” they wrote.

The bottom line 

Sometimes, people don’t have any real reason to cheat on the person they’re with other than themselves. Maybe it’s a combination of the above reasons or, maybe, it’s that monogamy just doesn’t work for them No matter how you cut it, though, cheating is very complicated. It often creates more drama than if everyone involved just talked about how they were feeling before they acted. For some victims of cheating, it’s the end of the road for their relationship. Once a certain level of trust is broken, it can be impossible to heal from and move forward together as a unit. For others, it’s possible to heal from cheating if both partners are ready and willing to work past it. Knowing why the cheating happened may help partners avoid it in the future. Wherever you end up next in your romantic life, just remember that cheating is never the answer and that it’s always a symptom of a different problem. Do the work, self-reflect, and have a conversation.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Rose Lowe is a writer based in New York, with a background in social media strategy and reporting. She has a Masters from NYU and a deep love for romantic comedies.

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