by Theresa E DiDonato, Ph.D.
Scientists revisit why people cheat and uncover some interesting findings.
Mutual trust is a hallmark feature of committed romantic relationships and is often (not always) tied to confidence that a partner is both romantically and sexually faithful. What if that trust is violated?
Infidelity can wreak havoc on a relationship. As summarized in a recent review, infidelity is a leading cause for marital divorce and pre-marital break-ups; it can trigger domestic violence; and it is a strong predictor of poor mental health, including depression and anxiety (Fincham & May, 2017). These adverse consequences might suggest that people go to great lengths to avoid infidelity, efforts reflected in overall rates that suggest infidelity is rare. But this is not the case. By some accounts, the lifetime prevalence of infidelity is approximately 20 to 25 percent of marriages, with men and women cheating at similar rates (Fincham & May, 2017).
Given that infidelity produces a constellation of adverse personal and relational consequences, yet people are known to cheat, the question becomes: why? Why risk it? What are the motivations that lead to infidelity?
Why Do People Cheat?
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:
- Falling out of love. Sometimes (but not always) a deficit in an existing relationship leads people to have extradyadic affairs. Over three quarters (77 percent) of participants indicated that a lack of love for their stable partner, and/or greater love for an extradyadic partner, was a fairly strong reason they cheated.
- For variety. Other times, infidelity is not a response to a problem with an existing relationship; rather, it’s a reaction to boredom. For many people (74 percent), a desire for variety factors into their cheating behavior. More men explained their infidelity as tied to this reason than women.
- Feeling neglected. Similar to feeling a lack of love, some people engage in infidelity as a response to their partner’s lack of attention. Participants (70 percent) revealed that feeling neglected was at least moderately tied to their cheating behavior. More women than men recognized this as one of their motives for cheating.
- Situational forces. Not every act of infidelity is premeditated and driven by dissatisfaction with a current relationship. Many participants (70 percent) noted that factors of the situation were a key reason they cheated. Maybe they were drinking or in some other way thrown into an opportunity they didn’t anticipate. More men recognized this motive as a reason for their cheating than women.
- To boost self-esteem. It seems counterintuitive, given that infidelity tends to end with significant personal consequences, but for some people, the act of having an affair can boost their own ego and self-esteem. More than half of participants (57 percent) indicated that enhancing their self-esteem was a motive for their cheating.
- Out of anger. This was not the most commonly cited reason, but anger played a role in the affairs of many participants (43 percent). In these cases, cheating was seen as a way to punish a partner or enact revenge.
- Not feeling committed. Lacking love and lacking commitment to a current romantic partner are both tied to general feelings of relationship dissatisfaction. They may go hand in hand. In terms of commitment, nearly half (41 percent) of participants indicated that having low levels of commitment to their romantic partners motivated their cheating.
- Because of sexual desire. About one-third of participants (32 percent) reported that they were driven to have an affair because of their sexual desire. Maybe in their established relationship, individuals aren’t engaging in the frequency of sex, style of sex, or specific sexual behaviors that they want; this can contribute to their reasons to cheat. Men reported this reason more than women (Selterman et al., 2019).
These eight motives for infidelity cover aspects of the self, the existing relationship, and the context. They reveal great variety in the reasons as to why people cheat. While certainly, one primary reason could drive a person to be unfaithful, it’s likely that a combination of factors is at the root of many extradyadic affairs.
It’s also possible that there are motivations that were not fully captured in this study, in part because—as the authors noted—participants were trying to remember what motivated past behavior. Sometimes, memory isn’t on point to what actually motivated the behavior in the first place.
Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2017). Infidelity in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 70-74.
Barta, W. D., & Kiene, S. M. (2005). Motivations for infidelity in heterosexual dating couples: The roles of gender, personality differences, and sociosexual orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 339-360.
Selterman, D., Garcia, J. R., & Tsapelas, I. (2019). Motivations for extradyadic infidelity revisited. The Journal of Sex Research, 56, 273-286.