Discovering a partner has cheated on you can be devastating. You might feel hurt, angry, sad, or even physically sick. But above all, you might be wondering “Why?”
Participants included 259 women, 213 men, and 23 people who did not state their gender.
- mostly heterosexual (87.9 percent)
- mostly young adults (average age was 20 years old)
- not necessarily in a relationship (only 51.8 percent reported being in some type of romantic relationship)
The study identified eight key motivating factors that contribute to infidelity. Of course, these factors don’t explain every case of cheating. But they do offer a helpful framework for better understanding why people cheat.
Here’s a look at those key factors and how they might come up in a relationship.
People sometimes cheat out of anger or a desire to get revenge.
Maybe you just discovered your partner cheated. You’re stunned and hurt. You might want to make your partner go through the same emotions so they really understand the pain they caused you.
In other words, “They hurt me, so now I’ll hurt them” is often the driving thought behind retaliatory infidelity.
Anger-motivated infidelity can happen for reasons other than revenge, though, including:
- frustration in a relationship when your partner doesn’t seem to understand you or your needs
- anger at a partner who isn’t around much
- anger when a partner doesn’t have much to give, physically or emotionally
- anger or frustration after an argument
Regardless of the underlying cause, anger can act as a powerful motivator to become intimate with someone else.
The exhilarating feeling of falling in love with someone generally doesn’t last forever. When you first fall in love with someone, you might experience passion, excitement, and rushes of dopamine from simply getting a text from them.
But the intensity of these feelings usually fades over time. Sure, stable, lasting love exists. But those first-date butterflies will only take you so far.
Once the glitter fades, you might realize that the love just isn’t there. Or maybe you realize you’re in love with someone else.
Keep in mind that falling out of love doesn’t have to mean you don’t love each other.
This can make it harder to leave a relationship that still provides a sense of family, friendship, stability, and safety. But staying in a relationship without romantic love may lead to a desire to experience love again and motivate infidelity.
Simply having an opportunity to cheat can make infidelity more likely. This doesn’t mean everyone who has the opportunity to cheat will do so. Other factors often (but not always) add to the motivation to cheat.
Consider this scenario: You’re frustrated with the recent distance in your relationship and dealing with feelings of low self-esteem around your appearance. One day, a coworker you’ve become friendly with catches you alone and says, “I’m really attracted to you. Let’s get together sometime.”
You might not choose to cheat if only one or two factors were involved. But this combination of motivating factors — the distance in your relationship, your feelings about your appearance, the attention of your coworker — can make infidelity more likely.
People who have a hard time with commitment may be more likely to cheat in some cases. Plus, commitment doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
It’s possible for two people in a relationship to have very different ideas about the relationship’s status, such as whether it’s casual, exclusive, and so on.
It’s also possible to really like someone and still fear making a commitment to them. In this case, one partner might end up cheating as a way of avoiding commitment, even if they actually would prefer to stay in the relationship.
Other reasons for commitment-related infidelity might include:
- lack of interest in committing long-term
- wanting a more casual relationship
- wanting a way out of a relationship
Sometimes, one or both partner’s needs for intimacy go unmet in a relationship. Many people choose to stay in the relationship, often hoping things will improve, especially if the relationship is otherwise fulfilling.
But unmet needs can lead to frustration, which might worsen if the situation doesn’t improve. This can provide motivation to get those needs met elsewhere.
Unmet sexual needs might happen when:
- partners have different sex drives
- one partner can’t have sex or doesn’t have interest in sex
- one or both partners often spend time away from home
Unmet emotional needs can also motivate infidelity. Emotional infidelity can be tricky to define, but it generally refers to a situation where someone invest a lot of emotional energy in someone besides their partner.
If your partner doesn’t seem interested in what you think, feel, or have to say, you might start sharing with someone who is interested. This can lead to an intimate connection that resembles a relationship.
A simple desire to have sex can motivate some people to cheat. Other factors, including opportunity or unmet sexual needs, may also play a part in infidelity that’s motivated by desire.
But someone who wants to have sex might also look for opportunities to do so without any other motivators.
Even people who have sexually fulfilling relationships might still want to have more sex with other people. This might result from a high level of sexual desire, not necessarily any sexual or intimate issues in the relationship.
In the context of a relationship, the desire for variety often relates to sex. For example, someone might be interested in trying types of sex that their partner isn’t into, even if they’re otherwise well-matched with their partner.
Variety might also mean:
- different conversations or styles of communication
- different non-sexual activities
- attraction to other people
- relationships with other people in addition to their current partner
Attraction is another big part of variety. People can be attracted to many types of people, and that doesn’t necessarily stop just because you’re in a relationship. Some people in monogamous relationships might have a hard time not acting on those feelings of attraction.
Wanting a boost to self-esteem can also motivate infidelity.
Having sex with a new person can lead to positive feelings. You might feel empowered, attractive, confident, or successful. These feelings can build up your self-esteem.
Many people who cheat because of self-esteem issues have loving, supportive partners who offer compassion and encouragement. But they might think, “They have to say that,” or “They just don’t want me to feel bad.”
Receiving admiration and approval from someone new, on the other hand, can seem different and exciting. It may seem more genuine to someone with low self-esteem, who might assume that the new person has no “relationship obligation” to lie or exaggerate.
If there’s one major takeaway from this study, it’s that cheating often doesn’t have anything to do with the other person.
Many people who cheat love their partners and don’t have any desire to hurt them. This is partly why some people will go to great lengths to keep their infidelity from their partner. Still, it can cause significant damage to a relationship.
Cheating doesn’t have to mean the end of a relationship, but moving forward takes work.
If your partner has cheated
If you’ve been cheated on, you may still be reeling from the discovery. You might want to do whatever it takes to repair the relationship. Or, maybe you’re not interested in staying in the relationship.
If you aren’t sure how to handle the situation, start here:
- Talk to your partner about what happened. Consider involving a couples counselor or neutral third party for the discussion. Finding out your partner’s motivations may help you make your decision, but it’s generally recommended to avoid the nitty-gritty details of the encounter.
- Ask if your partner wants to continue the relationship. Some people do cheat because they want to end the relationship, so it’s important to find out how they feel.
- Ask yourself if you can trust your partner again. It might take time to rebuild trust, and your partner is probably aware of this fact. But if you know you can never trust them again, you probably won’t be able to repair the relationship.
- Ask yourself if you still want the relationship. Do you really love your partner and want to work on any underlying issues? Or are you afraid of starting out with someone new? Do you think the relationship is worth fixing?
- Talk to a counselor. Couples counseling is highly recommended if you’re going to work on a relationship after infidelity, but individual therapy can also help you sort through your feelings and emotions about the situation.
If you’ve cheated on your partner
If you’ve cheated, it’s important to consider your motivations carefully and have an honest conversation with your partner. Your partner may or may not want to repair the relationship, and you need to respect their decision, even if you want to stay together.
Take some time to consider the following:
- Do you still want the relationship? If your cheating was driven by a desire to get out of the relationship, it’s best to be honest with your partner about that fact right away. Not sure about your motivation? Consider working with a therapist to gain some perspective.
- Can you work through the reasons for the infidelity? Individual therapy, couples therapy, and better communication can all help improve a relationship and make future infidelity less likely. But if you cheated because your partner wasn’t interested in a specific type of sex or because they were never home, what might happen if the same situation comes up again? Could you talk to them about wanting to cheat instead of actually doing it?
- Do you see yourself cheating again? Infidelity can cause pain, heartbreak, and emotional distress. If you think you might cheat again, don’t promise to be faithful. Instead, tell your partner you don’t think you can commit.
- Can you commit to therapy? If you’ve cheated on a partner, individual therapy can help you understand more about the reasons behind what happened. Couples therapy can also help you and your partner rebuild the relationship together. Both are highly recommended after infidelity if you’re serious about getting things back on track.
You might have heard the phrase “Once a cheater, always a cheater” to describe people who aren’t faithful. But while some people do cheat repeatedly, others don’t.
Working through infidelity can often strengthen a relationship. But it’s essential for both you and your partner to be honest about what you can and can’t commit to in your relationship and maintain open communication going forward.