Cheating is the breach of fidelity in a committed relationship. That agreement may have been clearly discussed, but its totality is more often implied. Every committed relationship defines for themselves what constitutes cheating. Most often a symptom of a greater problem, cheating may signal the end for some relationships; however, it may also be an opportunity for growth.
What Constitutes Cheating?
“Cheating” has the colloquial definition of sex outside the relationship. This is really an antiquated definition given the emerging popularity of non-traditional committed relationships. Even traditionally, most individuals have a much broader definition of what constitutes cheating or infidelity.
Depending on the relationship, examples of cheating may include:
- Sex outside the relationship
- Having an emotional affair with someone outside the relationship
- Cam sex online
- Fantasy internet affairs
- Flirting with others
- Interacting with someone on social media
- Going to a strip club
- Pornography use
- Private masturbation
- Having dinner with an attractive friend of the opposite sex
One person might find some of these examples ludicrous, while another person may think they’re justified. What one person determines as cheating is usually a function of their values, beliefs, modeling from childhood, and social or cultural expectations. One should not assume that they have the same definition of cheating as their partner or spouse if there has never been any substantive, non-coercive discussion.
Reasons Why People Cheat
There are all sorts of excuses that people cite for cheating on their partner, including falling out of love, feeling dissatisfied with their sex life, getting even, and feeling unappreciated.
Common excuses for cheating include:
- Falling out of love
- Lack of intimacy
- Wanting variety
- Not feeling committed
- Differences in sexual desire or “bedroom death”
- Sexual boredom and routine
- Feeling neglected
- Feeling unappreciated
- Low self-esteem
- Getting even
- Anger or seeking revenge
But why do people cheat in reality? The actual reasons for cheating are typically more complicated and have to do with validation, communication, unclear boundaries, and the overall connectedness of the couple.
Here are reasons why people cheat:
1. Validation Stops
Couples often fall into the problem of demanding validation – essentially approval – for their relationship to be in harmony. There’s typically an unspoken sentiment of: “You need to validate me no matter what, and if you don’t, we’re going to have a problem.”5
We often outsource how we feel about ourselves – our attractiveness, our desirability, our value – to someone else. It can show up as not feeling attractive unless your partner compliments you, demanding that your partner participate in a charade that they never find anyone else attractive. Validation can also be about being a good parent, a good lover, a good provider, etc.
If validation stops, one person may feel the need to outsource it from someone else. In reality though, it’s actually each individual’s responsibility to regulate how they feel about themselves, and constant validation can become exhausting.
2. Interpersonal Problems Have Festered
Typically, what precedes an affair or an incident of cheating is a willingness to let minor problems fester into bigger problems. It is often about avoiding and diffusing marital tension around these issues.
This can look like:
- Avoiding difficult conversations
- Pretending that everything’s OK to keep the peace
- Blaming someone else instead of taking responsibility
- Withholding and cutting off emotionally
- Not being vulnerable about sexual desires and displeasure
3. Unclear Boundaries & Agreements
In some instances, there’s a lack of clarity about what constitutes cheating, or the agreement was an unwanted compromise. Sometimes, people make accommodations about sexual matters (pornography, masturbation, etc.) that they never intended to keep. There’s only so long that someone can keep an agreement that was already a compromise on their integrity. The fundamentals weren’t there in the first place.
4. Bad Match
After an affair, sometimes people realize they were never a good match in the first place. As a species, we’re not the greatest at choosing mates. A lot of people find themselves in long-term relationships out of a fear of being alone, the desire for stability, convenience, and lust vs. love. Over time, people sometimes discover the foundation of the relationship wasn’t terribly strong to begin with, and cheating might be a recognition of the issue, or even a way out.
Do Motivations for Cheating Differ by Sex?
Broadly, the excuses for cheating often differ by sex; however, the reasons, as previously stated, are fairly universal. An abundance of data says that men cite sex and attention as primary motivators. Women often cite emotional void and disconnection.2 Frequency of cheating in relation to gender varies by study. Hypotheses include evolutionary factors, culture, socialization, gender expectations and norms, etc.
Risk Factors For Cheating
There are risk factors that increase the likelihood of cheating or infidelity. These include addiction, modeling in childhood, some mental health disorders, and previous patterns.
Here are four risk factors for cheating:
While addiction can reduce inhibitions and foster opportunity for cheating, that’s not always the case. Even someone in recovery might not have fully worked through the behavioral patterns associated with addiction, and behaviors such as secret-keeping (even when unnecessary) spill over into sobriety. Just as likely, a partner may use substances to tolerate bad sex or sexual boredom with their partner.
2. Modeling In Childhood
Children who grew up in homes where infidelity was present are at risk for replicating that behavior, just as they are for any other behavior they are presented with in childhood. As these children age, some reject that modeling and recognize it as something they fervently do not wish to reproduce. Others see it as viable and preferable. Stability may feel odd and unwanted.
3. Certain Mental Health Disorders
Some mental health disorders come with risk-taking and impulsivity that can lead to a disregard of consequences and an urge for instant gratification. The manic/hypomanic episodes of bipolar disorder I or II are sometimes cited; however, typically these episodes arrive with a constellation of disruptive symptoms. It’s important to note that episodes are typically a matter of days or weeks.
In cases when a mental health disorder is the culprit, it usually includes general and overall dysfunction in the relationships, not just in one domain (e.g., fidelity). Some character traits of various personality disorders include a lack of empathy, entitlement, and ego-driven behaviors that can also encourage cheating.4
4. Previous Patterns of Cheating
The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, as they say. If you met your current partner while they were still fully entrenched in an ongoing relationship – even if they said they’d end that relationship soon – don’t be too surprised if you find yourself on the other end of that situation eventually.
People can, however, learn from their mistakes. Therapy is predicated on the belief that people can change. If someone has a history of cheating, but they have put in considerable work required for their own personal growth, they may be able to put these behaviors behind them.
Unsuccessful Strategies to Reduce Risk of Cheating
Measures or strategies put in place by couples to prevent cheating are rarely agreed upon. Most often one person is accommodating someone else’s insecurity or suspicious thinking. Examples of unsuccessful methods of reducing the risk of cheating include prohibiting your partner from interacting with the opposite sex, sharing all passwords, doing surveillance, and insisting they deny attraction to anyone else.
Here are examples of unsuccessful strategies to mitigate cheating:1,3
- Preventing partners from interacting with the opposite sex
- Sharing all passwords and social media logins
- Spending every possible moment together in surveillance
- Insisting your partner deny or hide any attraction to others
- Prohibiting masturbation
- Prohibiting socialization with single friends
These rules and strategies do very little to prevent cheating. Instead, they build resentment. Once people start to feel like they are in a romantic relationship with a pseudo-parent, they look for sex and romance elsewhere. Of course, these rules might make a lot of sense in post-cheating recovery when a partner has proven they do not merit trust. But these behaviors can and do occur before any breach has occurred.
Very often, the partner imposing these rules is carrying with them remnants of betrayal from a past relationship, replicating a model they saw in childhood, subscribing to a version of love that means control and ownership. It is often not about the trustworthiness of the partner, but the insecurity and fragility of the imposer.
Open Relationships & Negotiated Monogamy
Non-traditional relationships (like open relationships) are becoming more common. They were largely the provenance of gay, lesbian, and bisexual relationships; however, they’re becoming more prominent across the spectrum of sexuality. These types of relationships can be fulfilling and healthy for the individuals involved, but in many cases, they can be unsuccessful attempts to manage relationship problems.
The couples who make these types of relationships work have done so through self-confrontation, unrelenting honesty, and a willingness to be clear about where they are and aren’t willing to compromise. They tend to be tremendously secure in their commitment and are dedicated to solving sexual problems and relationship problems.
Helpful Strategies to Reduce Risk of Cheating
Have you and your partner ever sat down and had a legitimately open-minded and curiosity-fueled conversation about what cheating is? That’s a good step to determine an equitable fidelity agreement. Note that just like in law, coercion and manipulation in contract discussions are generally frowned upon. And just like any negotiation, sometimes people decide not to go into business together when discussions are done.
Ask Straightforward Questions
Rather than make assumptions, ask your partner under what circumstances they would even slightly consider cheating. Your partner may suspect they’re walking into a validation-seeking trap, but that’s not at all the intention.
This question is a way of getting at what is really important to someone in a relationship, and it models a willingness to have difficult conversations and strategize how to handle these issues if they occur. Once you have an understanding of what kind of breakdowns are relationship-enders, you can strategize ahead of time about how you’ll handle these situations if they arise.
Make a Personal Fidelity Agreement With Yourself
Traditional fidelity agreements (made by one partner for the other) don’t hold up under stress, spite, or sadness. Instead, each partner should make an agreement with themselves and their own integrity. When we make an agreement with ourselves about what we are and are not willing to accept in regard to our own behavior, we think about things differently.
Set Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries in a relationship feel comforting, empowering, and safe for both partners in the relationship. Green flags include respect for boundaries, compassion towards differing feelings and honesty shared in a responsible and kind manner.
Some indicators of healthy boundaries include:
- You communicate your needs and wants in a relationship, you listen to your partner’s needs, and you find a way to meet in the middle.
- You are comfortable saying no and leaving a situation that feels uncomfortable.
- You have a full life outside of the relationship and are able to lean on others for support.
- You share your feelings and hear your partner’s feelings and foster a sense of safety.
Learn Healthier Communication
Healthy communication enhances romantic relationships so it is important to learn how to communicate more efficiently and in a healthy way. Communication is part of the foundation of any successful relationship. It also helps to improve intimacy and connectedness.
Coping With Cheating In a Relationship
Couples can rebuild and redefine their relationship successfully after infidelity. I’ve also seen people decide to move on after divorce and then thrive separately. To cope with cheating in a relationship, consider setting this goal: to take an inventory of where you’re at now, self-confront about what you really want, and determine if you can rebuild from there.
Here are ways to cope with cheating in a relationship:
Attend Couples Counseling/Individual Therapy
Marriage counseling can help after infidelity. In general, couples therapy is an important tool that can help people learn to set healthy boundaries, build trust, and have structured conversations; however, it’s often out of reach for people.
You may also have a partner who refuses to engage in couples therapy—something you should take note of. There are, however, plenty of skills you can learn and practice in individual therapy, too.
Tackle Difficult Conversations
Some therapists will help you develop communication strategies to initiate difficult conversations. To prevent things from escalating, it’s important to address your own anxiety first. It can help to become less invested in the outcome of the conversation and more invested in your behavior. If you’re proud of how you asserted and expressed yourself and stood up for your integrity, that’s a therapeutic success.
Good therapists often recognize blame and finger-pointing as an unwillingness to look inward and take responsibility for one’s own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Therapy can help you get out of this habit. Realistically, you can’t know what you want in a relationship if it’s wrapped up in everyone else’s needs and wants.
See the Bigger Picture
Be willing to tolerate short-term pain for long-term growth. A common reason why people get stuck in miserable situations is because the short-term pain required to make real change is often less preferable than the familiar pain of the status quo. People can get stuck in this pattern for years.
Soothe Your Own Anxiety
With the typical anxiety that comes with confrontation and making hard choices, you can learn self-soothing techniques. For example, start a mindfulness or meditation practice, write down your thoughts in a journal, exercise regularly, and practice healthy eating habits.
How to Find a Therapist
If you’re ready to work on your relationship to make it healthier, working with an individual or couples therapist is a great way to begin. Consider starting your search through an online therapist directory. You can search through bios and read up on clinicians to learn more about them and make calls as a couple to see if they are a good fit.
Cost of Marriage Counseling
Insurance doesn’t typically cover these services, and out-of-pocket fees for couples therapy can be higher than individual session fees. Marriage counseling can last anywhere from eight to 30+ sessions, depending on the issues you’d like to address. Cost can vary from $75-$250/hour depending on several factors, but averages around $100.
Final Thoughts on Why People Cheat
The reasons why people cheat can vary, but any of them can be hard to handle in a relationship. Cheating can leave people feeling a variety of things and trigger past traumas or be the creation of a new trauma. It’s important to take care of yourself, consider what your goals and values are, and think about couples therapy to help you and your partner move forward. If your goal is to rebuild your relationship, therapy can make a big difference in how you feel and know that it may be challenging, but it is not impossible.