Why Do Couples Cheat?
Wed, April 21, 2021

Why Do Couples Cheat?


A person could be doing everything right and their partner could still decide to cheat. But why do couples cheat? This question has haunted lovers and fascinated researchers.

Some people think that their partners cheat because there is a problem with them or their relationship, but this is a myth, stated Dylan Selterman, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland. Infidelity is one of the most distressing things a person can experience in a romantic relationship. Hence, it’s important for couples to understand why lovers are tempted to be unfaithful.


Does the Age-Old Maxim “Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater” Hold True?

A 2018 study aimed to address the risk for serial infidelity by following 484 adult participants who reported their own extradyadic sexual involvement (ESI), including both known and suspected ESI on their part or their significant others, explained Kayla Knopp and colleagues of biomedical and life sciences journal portal PMC. The authors noted that the participants’ first relationships lasted an average of 38.8 months before they ended, with second relationships lasting an average of 29.6 months by the end of the study.

65% said they lived together with their first-relationship partners at some point, while 19% lived with their second-relationship partners. Of those who engaged in ESI in the first relationship, 45% also engaged in ESI in the second relationship. 18% who did not engage in ESI in the first relationship reported having an ESI in the second relationship.

Knopp and colleagues found that participants who reported known partner ESI in the first relationship were 2.4 times more likely to report known partner ESI in the second relationship (22% versus 9%). Those who suspected partner ESI in the first relationship were 4.3 times more likely to suspect their second relationship partners of ESI (37% versus 6%).

The authors stated that people who engaged in infidelity themselves knew about their significant other’s infidelity, or suspected a partner of infidelity, were more likely to have those same infidelity experiences in their next relationship.



Cheating and Admitting to Cheating By the Numbers

Healthcare and personalized preventive care company Health Testing Centers surveyed 441 people who cheated on their partners and admitted to it. 80% of the participants were in a relationship and 20% were married. The company found that 46.1% cheated in a relationship and one in four (25%) said they cheated and admitted it to their partner.

52.4% of those in a relationship told their partner about their committing infidelity within a week, unlike those of married couples (29.2%). 27.2% of participants in a relationship admitted within a month compared to married couples (22.9%). 47.9% of married respondents waited six months or more and only 20.4% of those in a relationship did so.

Regarding the aftermath of cheating, 54.5% broke up immediately after their partner admitted to cheating. 30% attempted to stay together but broke up eventually. Only 15.6% said they were still together. Married couples said they admitted to cheating because they felt guilty (25.5%), “thought they had the right to know” (27.7%), and said they “were not happy and needed to let them know” (46.8%). Among those in a relationship, the figures stood 52.7%, 41.5%, and 38.3%, respectively.

For those who did not end the relationship immediately, their partners were expected to follow some rules: 55.7% allowed their significant partner to look through their phone, 48.5% avoided certain friends, 43.3% had limitations on going out, and 39.2% allowed their partner to access their social media.



Infidelity in America

Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies, a website dedicated to strengthening marriage and family life, analyzed trend data going back to the 1990s. She said older men were no more likely to commit infidelity than their younger peers in the past. 

The infidelity rate peaked among men aged 50 to 59 (31%) and women aged 40 to 49 (18%) in the 1990s. Between 2000 and 2009, the infidelity rate shifted to men aged 60 to 69 (29%) and women aged 50 to 59 (17%). The gender gap at ages 80+ rose from 5% to 12% in two decades.  

Men who cheated were more likely than women to be married. Of those men who cheated on their partner before, 61% were currently married, while 34% were divorced or separated. Meanwhile, 44% of women who cheated before were currently married, while 47% were divorced and separated.


Why Do People Cheat On Their Partners?

1.     Poor Communication

Psychotherapy counselor Claire McRitchie said infidelity can be tracked to a lack of open communication between couples, cited Marilyn La Jeunesse of Business Insider, a business website. Partners need to feel safe in opening up their emotions and sexual desires, encouraging them to say about both the good and the bad things in a relationship.

“Communication is not just the art of speaking – it is also the art of listening without prejudice or defense." Not knowing how to communicate can lead to dissatisfaction, McRitchie warned.  

2.     Commitment Issues

Commitment is not the same for everyone, said Crysta Raypole of Healthline, a health and medical news source. It is possible for two individuals to have contrasting ideas about the relationship’s status (Ex: Casual and exclusive). Some fear commitment, prompting them to cheat to avoid it even if they would like to stay in the relationship.

Other reasons why people engage in commitment-related infidelity might be due to a lack of interest in committing long term, a desire for a more casual relationship, or a way out of a relationship.

3.     Malice and Anger

Infidelity can be used out of vengeance rather than passion, McRitchie said. Anger is suppressed and channeled into infidelity, which offers a feeling of satisfaction, power, and control. She stated, “the knowledge that the other person is being punished without realizing is for some people a cruel and unusual way of punishing them.”

For example, people might cheat out of anger because they want to let their partner experience the same emotions. Anger-driven infidelity can also occur when a frustrated person doesn’t understand their partner’s needs.

4.     Lack of Self-Confidence

Sometimes, it’s a person’s poor self-confidence and self-worth that pushes them to cheat. Those who lack self-confidence will cheat again and again even if they attempt to remain faithful— a serial cheater to be exact.

“There are many people who cheat as a way of validating their self-worth,” noted McRitchie. She added that cheating helps people cope with crippling insecurities. They usually want love but as the relationship progresses, those insecurities resurface.



The rationale behind cheating is complex. The above-mentioned reasons may be a clue to explain why someone decides to cheat. This doesn’t mean it’s justified. Cheating is still a choice. Couples may try counseling to rebuild their relationship, but it’s up to them to decide if they want to carry on.