Why Do People Cheat? 8 Psychological Reasons

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At the center of some of the most heartbreaking divorces and breakups, we find one event: cheating. Maybe one partner cheated on the other, or both partners were having affairs. “Cheating” might be a hookup, sexts, or starting a new family while trying to stay in their current one. As technology expands the ways in which people can and do “cheat,” we continue to ask the same question: why do people cheat in the first place?

Why did the family man cheat on his wife? Why did the woman who was over the moon about her fiancée decide to “throw it all away” for a one-time hookup? Why, when we know how much of a dealbreaker cheating can be, do we do it?

The answer isn’t exactly clear. And while this post is not meant to justify cheating, it may give some insight into how a person can cheat on their partner and still maintain a great relationship. Affairs are often a death knell for a relationship, but they don’t have to be.

Why Do People Cheat?

There are a few theorized reasons that people cheat on their significant others, and the main ones include: 

  • Anger or bitterness
  • Revenge
  • Because they can (or have the opportunity)
  • Lack of vulnerability
  • Lack of excitement
  • They miss who they were before their partner
  • Feelings of neglect
  • Significant events

Anger, Bitterness, Revenge

Let’s get these reasons out of the way first. Our first instinct may be to point fingers at the person having an affair and find their flaws. They’re a terrible person. They’re a bitter person. They are acting out because their partner did something they didn’t like. One partner may cheat because they suspect that the other partner is cheating, and they want to get their revenge. Another partner may cheat because their partner took a job and is spending too much time away from home. Two wrongs don't make a right, but the indiscretions or choices of one partner may lead the other to believe they are justified in cheating.

Feelings of anger and bitterness may lead the cheater to cheat and hurt the other person. There is malice behind these actions.

Does every cheater stray to purposely hurt their partner? Do they stew at home, relishing in the other person's pain? Not exactly, even if they know that cheating will cause the other person pain.

Because They Can (Or Have the Opportunity)

It takes two people (or sometimes, one person and a very seductive bot online) to cheat. The “other person” may be the person leading the charge in the affair. If they come onto someone who is in a relationship, the other person in the relationship’s responsibility changes. Whereas most people simply have to restrain from seeking out an affair, a person who is not in the driver’s seat has to be the one to stop the other person.

At the moment, especially a moment that is fueled by alcohol or other intoxicating substances, the cheater has to make a choice. Do they push off the other person, or do they take the opportunity to have an affair?

If the person is experiencing other feelings or events that often lead people to have an affair, they might let the instigator take the lead. As they submit to the cheater, they may find themselves thinking that they can justify the action because they were not the person initiating it.

A person may or may not be happy in their relationship and take advantage of the opportunity to cheat.

Lack of Vulnerability

Happy people can also end up having an affair if they are missing something in their current relationship. No relationships are perfect. Even the happiest relationships may not have structure, mystery, passion, or spontaneity. When that “something” can be found in an affair or other relationship, the partner may pursue it.

Vulnerability is one of those “things.” Vulnerability is all about giving oneself fully over to a partner. A vulnerable partner is able to express their deepest fears, desires, wants, and hesitations to the other. These admissions are embarrassing or strange, but that's okay. The vulnerable partner trusts that even strange admissions will be accepted without judgment. When a person cannot be vulnerable with their partner, they can’t express what they really want. Worse, they are very unlikely to get what they really want. If another person can provide what the person wants, an affair may happen.

Example of Lack of Vulnerability in a Relationship

Here’s how this might work. A functional relationship may contain two partners who are not completely vulnerable. They hide desires when it comes to sex and things they would like to do in the bedroom out of shame or embarrassment. One partner, for example, may want to explore certain kinks. Due to their lack of vulnerability, they never communicate their desires. With these desires still lingering, the partner feels unsatisfied in the bedroom. When the opportunity comes to explore those kinks online or with another partner, they take them just to reach that satisfaction.

This type of affair can be completely avoided! A lack of vulnerability can be addressed before one or both partners stray.

Lack of Excitement

The "thing" that missing from the relationship might be excitement.  In Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, Tom Robbins writes, "The French say that the best part of an affair is going up the stairs. Desire is almost always more thrilling than fulfillment.” Robbins is no relationship psychologist, but there is some truth to this quote. The buildup to any relationship is exciting. The "will they, won't they"  is exciting, even if one person is already in a relationship.

One partner might find thrill and drama in having an affair. Secrets can certainly be exciting. If nothing else is exciting a person, they may pursue the thrill of an affair instead of restraining to respect the other person.

They Miss Who They Were Before Their Partner

Esther Perel, the author of The State of Affairs, has a fascinating view on infidelity. She spent many years talking to couples who had experienced infidelity to answer that big question: “Why do happy people cheat?” Besides all the more “obvious” reasons, Perel discovered something interesting. Some people cheat because they miss who they were before their partner.

When we are single, we have fewer responsibilities. We answer mainly to ourselves and largely set expectations for how we act. During this period of exploration, we can play different roles. Flirting and exploring who we are is part of being single. Beyond that, we may travel more, be the life of the party, or take on other roles that we eventually abandon.

In relationships, if we do not have the chance to "be those people," we may step into those roles all at once, in extreme ways. If someone is a big flirt or risk-taker but feels the need to suppress that urge in a relationship, these sides of their personality may come out all at once. That very well may lead to cheating.

A healthy balance of knowing who we are and exploring all sides of our personality may actually avoid cheating. We just need to act within the boundaries set by the relationship.

Feelings of Neglect

Men sometimes cheat on their wives after the birth of their first child. To some, this seems especially horrendous. Why would a man cheat on his wife after they just created a family together? The answer lies in a deep feeling of neglect or insecurity that the man might be feeling.

A woman devotes her entire body to a baby during pregnancy and breastfeeding. She is touched, grabbed, and needed all day long. At the end of the day, she may be too tired to also be touched and grabbed by her partner. The man feels unsatisfied and doesn't feel appreciated. Even though he started the journey by wanting and needing the mother of his children, he searches for satisfaction elsewhere.

Significant Events

The birth of one's child is just one of many significant events that may lead them to cheat. Other major shakeups, like the loss of a job or even the death of a loved one, may lead someone to act out.

Again, there is never one single reason why a person might cheat on their partner. Many factors interwoven together may lead someone to do things they promised their partners that they would never do. Some factors didn't even make it to this list. Simple attraction may be the only factor involved. Cheating may also be due to witnessing infidelity as a child, finding a more compatible relationship, or feeling the need to escape.

At the end of the day, a partner who has been cheated on should not immediately assume that there is something wrong with them. Even the world’s leading relationship psychologists believe that partners can cheat and love their partners at the same time. What matters sometimes is not why people cheat, but how people handle cheating and how they plan to move forward with the relationship.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, April). Why Do People Cheat? 8 Psychological Reasons. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/why-do-people-cheat/.

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