4 Science-Backed Reasons Why People Cheat, According to Experts

Hint: It's not all about sex.

When a partner cheats, it’s often seen as a sign of an unhealthy relationship. But in reality, there’s a whole range of reasons why people cheat, including social, emotional, and physical motivators.

A 2020 study analyzed how the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic could be driving more couples to cheat or seek out new partners. The new research, led by Dr. Kristina Coop Gordon and Dr. Erica Mitchell, looked at the ways pandemic-related stress could be harming your relationship and what couples can do to deal with added stress.

According to their research, a dating site for married couples has been adding 17,000 new members per day during the pandemic, compared to 1,500 new members per day during 2019. Data also shows that around 20% of people have contacted an ex-partner since the start of the pandemic.  

The main problem, says Dr. Mitchell, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Tennessee and licensed marriage and family therapist, is that “the time that couples are spending dealing with the effects of the pandemic is taking time and energy away from focusing on nurturing their relationship.” This can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction that may make couples more likely to cheat on one another.

But being stuck at home during the pandemic isn’t the only reason people are tempted to cheat on their partners. Here are four more reasons why people cheat and how to address cheating in your relationship.

Why do people cheat?

They’re stressed or angry.

Stress levels can have a big impact on relationships. “Individuals experiencing stress are more likely to notice the things that their partners are not doing right and are less likely to be satisfied in their relationships,” says Dr. Mitchell. This puts couples at higher risk of cheating.

Anger and irritation can also lead to infidelity and this is especially common among younger people. Usually, anger-motivated cheating is linked to the feeling of needing revenge or wanting to punish your partner.

One of the ways to address stress and anger in your relationship is to recognize when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Dr. Mitchell says, “Talking about the emotional experience can help [couples] manage it, and talking with their partner about it can help them feel more connected to them.” Couples can also work together to figure out what they do and do not have control over and how they can make things easier for each other.

They have low self-esteem.

At the same time, Dr. Jana Hackathorn, associate professor of psychology at Murray State University, says that some people cheat to increase their self-esteem and make themselves feel more popular. Their need for external validation is linked to wanting to feel desired by others. Higher self-esteem may also lead to wanting more variety in sexual relationships.

On the flip side, a 2021 study has revealed that attachment anxiety is also related to higher chances of cheating behavior. This is because people with more attachment anxiety have a bigger fear of being single. They are more likely to have a negative self-image, seeing themselves as unworthy of love and support. 

This fear leads to the belief that they’ll be abandoned by their partners, so they seek out additional partners as a way of hedging their bets. Cheating is a strategy to make them feel more secure so they have a “back-up plan.” 

They have social media and dating apps.

Social media, apps, and dating sites are changing the way people cheat. Research shows that people who find their partner through a dating app might be more likely to continue looking for a relationship online, despite being in a committed relationship. People’s perception of the number of partners available to them may also make them keener to engage in casual sex even when they’re in a relationship.

Technology has made it easier for people to cheat during the pandemic, too. As Dr. Mitchell explains, social media and dating sites “offer an avenue to connect with people while maintaining social distancing and following stay at home orders.” But while certain social media and dating apps replace usual meeting places like the gym or the office, Dr. Hackathorn warns, “It still feels like real, old-fashioned cheating to the person who feels betrayed.”

They’re not satisfied with their sex lives.

For many couples, the motivation to cheat is simply physical. According to Dr. Hackathorn, “Some people want more sex than their current partner can give them, and some want certain types of sex that their partner can’t give them.”

People who are less restricted and more comfortable with casual sex might be more inclined to have sex with other partners while in a committed relationship. “However, the connection is unclear. Being comfortable with casual sex is not a synonym for ‘cheater,'” says Dr. Hackathorn. “People who are comfortable with casual sex can also be monogamous.”

“People cheat for all kinds of reasons, but in my research over and over I find it is because they are unhappy in their current relationships or unsatisfied with their current partner.  It really is that simple.”

How to deal with cheating in your relationship:

Connect with a professional.

Though the motivations for cheating can be different, the outcomes are equally difficult. For partners in a closed relationship, where one person sleeps with another partner, one of the biggest problems is lack of trust. Dr. Mitchell advises that “couples should seek support from a trained professional to help them to cope.” Luckily, many therapists offer remote services during the pandemic. If this isn’t possible, though, you can also use teletherapy as a way to still connect with a professional.

It can also be helpful to lean on people you trust, says Dr. Mitchell. However, think carefully about who you feel comfortable sharing the affair with and only consult people who will support your decision to stay together and work on your relationship, if that’s what you plan to do.

Learn to communicate effectively.

It’s essential to be transparent in all your communication around cheating, especially with your partner. Dr. Mitchell suggests using time-out techniques to stop conversations from escalating into conflict. Either partner can call the time-out and both partners need to agree on when and how they will come back together. 

During the time-out period, try to do something to help you manage your emotions “such as going for a walk, listening to music, taking a bath, or whatever helps them to calm down,” says Dr. Mitchell. 

There’s no one reason why people cheat and often it’s a combination of factors that lead to it. One of the ways to deal with cheating is to work towards openness, honesty, and transparency in your relationship, so you can get to the root of the issue and decide if you still want to be together.

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