Why Do Some People Cheat in Relationships and Others Remain Faithful?

With the development of the internet, dating websites, social media, smartphones and dating apps, it is now easier than ever for someone to cheat on their partner or spouse.

This same technology can also make it easier to get caught due to the potential digital trail created with each of these unscrupulous liaisons.

The Ashley Maddison hack and the scandal were examples of technology helping people have extramarital affairs and leading to them getting caught. The hackers tried to blackmail the company and many users and then released all their details in a massive data leak when users did not meet their demands. As a result, families were broken up; and the scandal ruined reputations and even lives in the aftermath.

The consequences of infidelity continue to have a devastating impact on individuals, partners, children and society. Yet, it remains an issue that is prevalent in every country and culture. Maybe even more so today with the advent of technology.

Given the massive changes that we have gone through in the past 30 years, I am interested in finding out the prevalence rates of cheating, if our attitudes towards infidelity have changed, and if there is anything that we can do about it.

What is Cheating?

The definition of cheating is quite hard to specify and depends on who you are talking to and their expectations for the relationship they are in. The stereotype is that males tend to perceive cheating to be exclusive to physical encounters or actions. In contrast, females also see emotional infidelity as cheating, which is sharing something with someone you wouldn’t typically feel comfortable saying to your partner. Many people also believe that relationships that exist purely over the internet or phone can also be considered cheating, especially if explicit words, photos, or sexual acts are exchanged using these devices.

Infidelity has been defined by Weeks, Gambescia and Jenkins (2003) to be a violation of emotional or sexual exclusivity. The boundaries of what is meant to be exclusive are different in each couple, and sometimes these boundaries are explicitly stated, but they are usually merely assumed. This means that each partner can have different assumed limits, making it difficult for both partner’s exclusivity expectations to be met (Barta & Kiene, 2005).

Leeker and Carlozzi (2012) believe that when someone has a subjective feeling that their partner has violated the rules around infidelity, sexual jealousy and rivalry naturally arise. If an act of adultery has occurred, the consequence is often psychological damage, including feelings of betrayal and anger, impaired self-image for the person cheated on, and a loss of personal and sexual confidence (Leeker & Carlozzi, 2012).

Prevalence of Infidelity

Like my previous article How Have Intimate Relationships Changed Over the Years, and Where Does It Leave Us Now?, the majority of the research presented in this post comes from the surprising and entertaining book ‘Modern Romance’ by Aziz Anzari (the actor and comedian) and Eric Klinenberg (a Sociologist).

Unfortunately, people who are suspicious when it comes to infidelity sometimes have a reason to be. More than half of all men (60%) and women (53%) confess to having tried to mate-poach before. This means that they attempted to seduce a person out of a committed relationship so that they could be with them instead. I can’t believe that these figures are so high.

I also can’t believe that in “committed relationships”, where the partners are not married to each other, the incidence rate of cheating is as high as 70%.

It gets a little bit better for married couples, with only 2–4% of married individuals admitting to having an extramarital affair over the past year in the USA. However, this increases to 30% of heterosexual men and 25% of heterosexual women who will have at least one extramarital affair at some point during their marriage. It’s scary to think that somewhere between a quarter to a third of all married individuals have affairs, but good to know that two-thirds of all married people stay faithful to their partner all their lives too.

Attitudes Towards Extramarital Affairs

In ‘Modern Romance’, they share results from an international study examining people’s views on extramarital affairs across 40 countries.

In the USA, 84% of people strongly agreed that cheating was “morally unacceptable”. In Australia, 79% view extramarital affairs as morally unacceptable. Canada, the U.K., South America and African countries all have similar rates of cheating disapproval as Australia. Areas with the highest disapproval rates are typically Islamic countries, with 93% of those surveyed in Turkey stating that marital infidelity is morally unacceptable, second only to Palestinian territories with 94%.

France is the most tolerant country for extramarital affairs, with only 47% saying that cheating is unacceptable. They also happen to be the country with the most extramarital affairs. The latest data indicates that 55% of men and 32% of French married women admit to having committed infidelity on their spouse at least once. The second most tolerant nation is Germany, with 60% finding extramarital affairs to be morally unacceptable. Italy and Spain are equal third, with 64% each.

Expectations vs Reality

When you compare the level of disapproval towards infidelity with the data on the actual prevalence of extramarital affairs, the numbers don’t quite add up. However, in the USA especially, many people who cheat themselves still condemn the practice at large and would not be okay with being cheated on themselves.

A Gallup poll on cheating even found that infidelity is disapproved of at a higher rate than animal cloning, suicide and even polygamy. Although it is against the law, being married to two people is seen as less offensive than being married to one and breaching the honesty, trust and connection that you share with your partner.

People also differ between their beliefs and practices when it comes to whether or not to confess an affair or infidelity once it has occurred.

A Match.com nationwide survey in the US found that 80% of men and 76% of women would prefer their partner to “confess their mistake… and suffer the consequences” rather than “take their secret to the grave”. However, the excuse given by most people who have cheated and haven’t told their partner is that they didn’t want to hurt their partner. It’s interesting that they only worry about their actions’ impact on their partner after the unfaithful act has already occurred and not beforehand.

Unfortunately, most people try to keep their own affairs to themselves and make excuses for their behaviour while demanding at the same time that their partners own up to their indiscretions if they stray. If their partner does own up, they are likely to treat them harshly for it, because after all, cheating is considered morally unacceptable by most.

Why Do People Cheat?

Dr Selterman from the University of Maryland looked into why 562 adults cheated while in a “committed” romantic relationship. He found eight main reasons given for why the infidelity occurred:

  1. Anger: seeking revenge following a perceived betrayal
  2. Lack of love: falling “out of love” with a partner, or not enough passion or interest in the partner anymore
  3. Neglect: not receiving enough attention, respect or love (#1 reason for women)
  4. Esteem: seeking to boost one’s sense of self-worth by being desired by or having sex with multiple partners
  5. Sexual desire: not wanting sex with their partner or wanting to have sex more with others (a common reason for men)
  6. Low commitment: Not clearly defining the relationship as exclusive or not wanting a future with their partner or anything too serious
  7. Variety: Want to have more sexual partners or experiences in their lifetime (a common reason for men)
  8. Situation: Being in an unusual scenario, such as under high stress, under the influence of alcohol or a substance, or on vacation or a working holiday (a common reason for men)

Interestingly, not all of these factors suggest that infidelity directly reflects how healthy a relationship is. Instead, often it says much more about the person who commits the infidelity and their personality or impulse control than anything else.

Ways to Reduce the Likelihood of Infidelity

In ‘Modern Romance’, the authors explain that passionate love inevitably fades within every relationship. A loss of passionate love could lead to infidelity if people don’t realise that this may indicate how long they have been together, not an issue with their relationship.

Companionate love, or that sense of building a life and a legacy with a partner, is different to passionate love. It can continue to grow across a relationship and a lifetime rather than decline with time. Couples in their 60s and 70s often rate their relationship satisfaction as much better than when they were younger and trying to raise children together and work full-time.

One way to reduce the likelihood of committing infidelity is to focus on building companionate love and a shared life and legacy together, rather than equating real love with passion.

In his classic book ‘On Love’, philosopher Alain de Botton said that:

“Perhaps the easiest people to fall in love with are those about whom we know nothing…we fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as beautiful, intelligent and witty as we are ugly, stupid and dull.”

It’s much easier to idealise or become infatuated with someone that you don’t know that well. Imagine that they are perfect or have none of the flaws that your current partner (or you) possess.

The quickest cure for infatuation is to actually get to know the person a bit more (without breaching the infidelity norms of your relationship) and realise that they are just as flawed as the rest of us. Once you understand this, leaving one flawed relationship for another but having to start all over again carries much less appeal.

In another of his excellent books, ‘The Course of Love’, de Botton states:

“When we run up against the reasonable limits of our lovers’ capacity for understanding, we musn’t blame them for dereliction. They were not tragically inept. They couldn’t fully fathom who we were — and we could do no better. No one properly gets, or can fully sympathize with anyone else… there cannot be better options out there. Everyone is always impossible.”

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t leave abusive and neglectful partners. It just means that we need to avoid imagining that there is “a lover (out there) who will anticipate (all) our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly and (always) make everything better. (This) is a blueprint for disaster.” No one is perfect, and being grateful for what we do have with our current relationship and trying to make it as good as possible is much healthier than imagining that “the one” is probably just around the corner, if only we could find them.

Unfortunately, we still have the issue of love and sexual desire typically being separated in our society. Esther Perel, couples therapist and author, points this out better than anyone in her groundbreaking book ‘Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic’:

“Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling… our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness… (but) it’s hard to feel attracted to someone who has abandoned (their) sense of autonomy… Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”

Another way to keep the spark of desire alive then is to make sure that even though you do many things together with your partner, you must also do some things individually.

Fortunately, Perel also agrees that both love and desire can be maintained or grown over time with effort and a specific way of looking at things:

“For [erotically intelligent couples], love is a vessel that contains both security and adventure, and commitment offers one of the great luxuries of life: time. Marriage is not the end of romance, it is the beginning. They know that they have years in which to deepen their connection, to experiment, to regress, and even to fail. They see their relationship as something alive and ongoing, not a fait accompli. It’s a story that they are writing together, one with many chapters, and neither partner knows how it will end. There’s always a place they haven’t gone yet, always something about the other still to be discovered.”

What About If Infidelity Has Already Occurred?

If cheating has already taken place, many people say that too much pain has occurred, trust has been breached and broken, and leaving is the best thing to do to maintain a sense of self-worth and self-respect. However, breaking up may not be the easiest, most practical, or best solution in other cases. For individuals in these cases, I would recommend reading Perel’s more recent book ‘The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity’.

In this book, Perel says that:

“Once divorce carried all the stigma. Now, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.”

Perel warns against merely passing judgment about the act of infidelity, as this shuts down all further conversation about what happened and why and where to go from there. Instead, Perel believes that it is much better to see an affair as a symptom of a troubled relationship or a troubled person.

If the person is troubled, and they are remorseful for what they have done and willing to try to make amends and not cheat again, they must get help to address whatever issue led to the infidelity in the first place. But, on the other hand, be wary if they are unwilling to get help and work on themselves but merely say it won’t happen again.

If it is the relationship that was in trouble, relationship counselling may be able to help too. Perel says that:

“Infidelity hurts. But when we grant it a special status in the hierarchy of marital misdemeanors, we risk allowing it to overshadow the egregious behaviors that may have preceded it or even led to it.”

If both people in a relationship can take ownership of the behaviours they engaged in that caused pain and hurt to the other and are willing to start again to build a stronger relationship; they can have a healthy relationship in the future. It’s just never going to be the same as things were before the infidelity took place.

My Personal Opinion

Monogamy is sometimes hard, as is continuing to have a healthy relationship, but it is a choice. We may not always have full control over what we initially think or feel, but we do have the capacity to think things through properly before acting.

My favourite relationship researcher, John Gottman, found that couples who turn towards each other when there is an issue in their life are much more likely to stay together than couples who turn away from or against each other. One study found that newlyweds who remained married 6 years later turned towards each other 86% of the time when issues arose. Newlyweds who were divorced six years later only turned towards each other 33% of the time. Turning towards your partner when a problem occurs is the key to a close and connected relationship and is much less likely to result in infidelity.

For me, it comes down to personal values. I want to have a relationship that is close and connected, with openness, honesty and trust. I don’t want to feel like I have to hide anything, and I don’t want to do anything that I am not personally okay with or that I know that the people who mean the most to me would not be proud of.

Anything that we hide from our partners tends to lead to greater distance and a feeling of disconnection. This is especially the case with stuff that we may know is dishonest, not respectful, or something we feel ashamed of. Our body language, micro expressions and tone of voice also tend to reveal how we genuinely feel over time if we are hiding something, even if we wouldn’t like to admit it.

Existential philosophers believe that our biggest challenge in life is to come face-to-face with the true nature of who we are. Over time, our actions and not our intentions become our character or who we are. I aim to be the best partner and person that I can be and learn from any mistakes that I make along the way so that I hopefully never repeat them. What about you?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

29 thoughts on “Why Do Some People Cheat in Relationships and Others Remain Faithful?

  1. Nice post as usual. We are now in our seventies my husband and I. Always faithful to each other, and now devoted, happy companions. That doesn’t mean we don’t have rip roaring rows. On small issues, usually, because we are of one mind on the important things. And it has always been so. We belive in marraige. Marry someone with the same values. Grow at the same pace by doing almost everything together. And stay faithful.

  2. In my experience, there is external and internal Fidelity…Like in music, Fidelity is fine tuning. One can be true to others and betray self; or be true to self and betray others. Infidelity depends on the limits established in each relationship.
    Unfortunately, social Fidelity often leads to a Split in the expression of love.

  3. Good post. I believe many relationships do not have a sound foundation to build on in the first place whereby neither partner understands love and how to cooperate with the othe. They do no listen to each others view but only their view. People rush into a sexual relationship before they have got to know the other partner and then it is hard to back out of a situation which is unwanted. Most finish relationships by start another one. Really and fairly you should finish the one which is not working before moving onto the next.

  4. Very informative. Thanks. I’m in a relationship myself. But it’s been a lot of problems. We start off in a bumpy road.
    When my bf confess his feelings to me, I’m still in a close contact with someone else. Well, simply put, I was close with 2 person at the same time. Nothing intimate. Just chat and phone call. Occasionally saying I like or cherish you. (Not really saying I love you in my native language but more like those). Anyway, on that day, when we decided to be IN the relationship, of course I haven’t made it clear to the other guy that I decided to be in a relationship with someone. And my bf read the texts between me and the other guy. According to him, I was cheating. And he made a huge deal about it. But then I told him that I decided to be with you, not him, but you. He calmed down and asked me to text that guy immediately. Tell him that I have a bf now and good bye. And then blocked all the contact. And I did that. Big question: am I cheating?? Like I really don’t think that’s cheating because it happened before I decided to be with my bf. Just looking for third opinion..
    anyway, he was being overprotective ever since. Most of my friends are male. I find it easier to communicate with men instead of women. So he started being soooooo obsessive with me. Like I can’t go out with my friends anymore. So one day, I feel so stressed with work and wanted to talk it out with one of my male friend over the coffee at Starbucks. Hence, I lied. I told my bf that I’m going alone. He has this habit of checking through my phone and being a honest and stupid girl I am, I didn’t delete any of my chat logs. He found out and he’s been crazier and more overprotective about me. Even though it was just that once. And my friend and I just talk about my problem. (FYI: I don’t live with my bf).
    We constantly arguing every time I wanna go out. Even though I said alone, he will ask the same damn question like “really?”, “really alone?”, “just be honest, who are you going out with?”. And I’m soooo fed up with it. I’ve been holding back because I know it’s my fault that he became like this, but is there any way to help him? Help this relationship? I really love him, but if this keeps going, I don’t think I can survive…

    1. Thanks for your comment. It’s an interesting question. Like I say in my definition of cheating, people often have their own assumptions about what is and is not infidelity. What is important is to clearly establish what is and is not okay within each relationship, and then for both of you to try to respect these boundaries and live within these parameters. Trust and honesty are two pillars of a healthy relationship. If you don’t feel like you can be honest with your partner about what you are doing, or if he doesn’t trust you, the current issue may never get resolved. I would recommend having a calm discussion about when is it okay to spend time with people of the opposite sex and when is it not, and if it is or isn’t okay for you either of you to check each others phone or messages, or how often this should be done. If you can’t establish clear expectations between the two of you, a couples therapist can help. Or reading a book by John Gottman together. Trust is hard to rebuild once it has been broken, but it is possible if you are both wanting to work together instead of against each other. Sometimes people do want to be controlling in relationships, and this is generally not a characteristic of healthy relationships.

      1. We tried to have calm conversation.. but he’s the cool type and whenever he brought up this topic I would feel like shit and ended up crying even though I tried so hard not to.
        We love each other deeply, but this problem hasn’t been solved. He told me that it’s really hard for him to trust me completely again but I love him too much to let go of this relationship. I know this kind of relationship isn’t healthy at all. My head understand the logic but my heart can’t accept it. I’m at my wits end right now. We both tired having small arguments here and there because of this. But still trying our best to sort it out. I can’t really talk about this with my parents or friends because he wouldn’t allow me to meet with any of my friends for now. I don’t know how long this gonna last.. *sigh*

  5. My wife and I are in our seventies too. There have been events with other people, but those were rare over 45 yrs or so. Today we are as close I think, or closer, than some who have never strayed. But I think you may be on the way to producing a book here. It is a subject that will never be exhausted.

  6. Like the plant that blossoms but fail to bear fruit, we look at the leaves then ignore the roots then the fertilizer that was laid didn’t activate the shoots. Failing to fulfill your own inner needs like wondering weeds your random deeds looking for something that only you can provide to make yourself complete inside.

  7. Personally, I think infidelity happens when genuine communication slowly fades between two lovers. We as humans are social beings by which relating and communicating is very essential to see one’s importance to the other. Although, there are other factors that you have mentioned which I think are all true. It just that people I met always has the gap of communication that eventually leads to infidelity. I like the article.

  8. Great post! I think it’s all about the value system you have. If you are with someone who matches that, trust and security is already present. Psychology has been my recent interest lately. Going to be following you for some insights.

  9. This is a lot to think about. I find the most reliable advice in God’s word the Bible. It has kept me and my husband together for over 15 years and we continue to grow in love with each passing year despite rough patches. Infidelity stems from selfishness. If you truly love our mate then you would never want to hurt them in that way.

    1. I agree GOD is the bond.. I know we all make mistakes but infidelity is something that’s hard to come back from, it is such a horrible betrayal.. congratulations your relationship is a rarity these days, its inspiring and encouraging.. thanks for sharing

    1. One of the toughest but most valuable lessons I’ve learnt is to pay more attention to what people do (their actions) than what they say (their words). It’s much easier to lie through words than actions.

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