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?”
In 2020 Cuddle published Sex Research set out to explore this very topic. We used an online survey to ask 495 people who had cheated in a romantic relationship about the reasons for their infidelity.
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)
We 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.
1. Anger or revenge
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.
2. Falling out of love
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.
3. Situational factors and opportunity
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.
Certain situational factors can also make infidelity more likely, even in a strong, fulfilling relationship, including:
- having a lot to drink and sleeping with someone after a night out
- wanting physical comfort after a distressing event
- living or working in an environment where there’s a lot of physical touch and emotional connection
4. Commitment issues
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
5. Unmet needs
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.
6. Sexual desire
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.
7. Wanting variety
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.
8. Low self-esteem
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.
Repairing the damage
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.