Why People Cheat In Relationships, According To Experts

Cheating is an incredibly common experience in monogamous romantic relationships, no matter the stage of the relationship — dating, engaged, or married. In fact, a survey has shown that about 13% of women and 20% of men engage in infidelity while married, and other data suggests that nearly half (46.1%) of people have cheated while in a relationship in general. While there are certainly limitations to the research in both cases, the fact of the matter is that infidelity isn't rare, so chances are you've been impacted by it in one way or another. 

Why is it, though, that so many people in monogamous relationships end up cheating on their partners instead of just leaving relationships that don't make them happy? Is there a common thread that connects them all or something that can be done to prevent cheating in the first place?

The List spoke to a wide range of experts — from social workers and licensed marriage and family therapists to psychologists and sociologists — to discover the answers.

Fear of being alone may drive cheating

For some, infidelity in a relationship exposes deeper issues that can be addressed in therapy and that may not spell the end of the relationship. For others, cheating boils down to attempting to assuage the fear of the unknown outside of an already failed relationship.

According to Dr. Carly Claney, a licensed psychologist in Seattle who has worked with many couples and individuals grappling with infidelity, cheating may actually be a precursor to leaving a relationship in these instances. As Claney told The List, "Some people may cheat because they are afraid of being alone or single, and they want to ensure they have a fallback option before ending their current relationship." 

For some, cheating in this way answers a nagging question: "Is there more out there if (or when) I leave?" Because the unfaithful partner already decided their current relationship is over, the infidelity may be the nail in the coffin from which the relationship can never recover. 

A desire for non-monogamy may be the root

You have probably met or at least heard of people who practice consensual non-monogamy, in which those involved are all aware of and consent to multiple partners in a relationship. While this practice (sometimes called polyamory or ethical non-monogamy) is gaining recognition and acceptance, not everyone is open to this type of relationship. 

Sociologist and clinical sexologist Sarah Melancon explained to The List that when one partner prefers an open relationship or feels what she calls "a greater orientation" toward an open relationship but the other partner is not interested (or the couple isn't familiar with the concept of consensual non-monogamy), cheating may result — even though cheating explicitly goes against the basic tenets of consensual non-monogamy.

Unfortunately, this can also be the result when the partner who desires an open relationship or non-monogamy is unwilling to even discuss it with their partner for fear of being shut down. Instead, they cheat never knowing if their partner might have been open to consensual non-monogamy all along. 

Cheating may be an act of desperation

While some cheating occurs when a relationship is already on its way out, it may be the case that someone cheats because they don't want their current relationship to end despite attraction to or feelings for someone else. Cheating can be an act of desperation in which the offending party tries to hold onto the connection they have with their partner while also exploring something new, Kalley Hartman, licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director at Ocean Recovery in Newport Beach, California, told The List.

"Even though cheating is an act of betrayal it does not mean that the cheater has stopped loving their partner," Hartman explained. "Sometimes people cheat because they are struggling with their feelings for someone else, but do not want to hurt the person they are in a relationship with." This, of course, assumes that the cheating will never be discovered and will not hurt the person's partner or the existing relationship. When the partner does inevitably find out, the hurt is magnified and the future of the relationship is put into danger.

A lack of communication may lead to unmet needs

When someone doesn't feel like they're getting what they need out of a relationship, they're more likely to have those needs met elsewhere. And, according to several experts, those unmet needs can be the direct result of poor communication. "Poor communication between partners can lead to misunderstandings, unmet needs, and a lack of emotional connection, which can result in one partner seeking solace or connection outside the relationship," Dr. Carly Claney told The List.

For example, one partner may be seeking emotional validation or intimacy from someone other than their partner, or they may be feeling sexual dissatisfaction, leading one partner to seek sexual gratification elsewhere. It can even start with something as seemingly simple as a lack of clarity around the roles and responsibilities in the relationship, which can lead to harboring resentment. 

The solution, licensed marriage and family therapist associate and Gottman-trained couples therapist Erin Dierickx told us, is to work on communication early and often. She advised, "Building a foundation around openly, honestly, and respectfully talking about these things can normalize these conversations, which are necessary in order to maintain a strong relationship and reduce the likelihood of a betrayal."

Self-esteem issues can make some people cheat

Dissatisfaction with a partner or relationship is almost always at least a small part of infidelity. And in some cases, the underlying cause may be that the person who ends up cheating didn't feel desired by their partner or otherwise had low self-esteem.

According to Dr. Carly Claney, "Cheating can be a way for individuals to boost their self-esteem or feel more desirable, especially if they feel undervalued or unappreciated in their relationship." This is, in part, because the very act of cheating with someone proves to the cheater that they are still desirable, but infidelity can also boost self-esteem in some really surprising ways — especially in women.

In 2022, researchers published a study of infidelity in German adults, which found that women were more likely to report higher self-esteem and greater life satisfaction after they had an affair than before it. This doesn't necessarily mean that cheating makes women feel "good"; however, as researchers explained, women were more likely to cheat when their self-esteem was low and they were less satisfied with their lives and relationships. In these cases, the researchers suggest that women's affairs may serve as a wake-up call for their partners, leading to improvements in the relationship that ultimately lead to greater life satisfaction and self-esteem. 

Cheating can be an act of thrill-seeking

Cheating isn't always about trying to find something that's missing in a current relationship. Sometimes, Dr. Carly Claney told The List, it's simply about the rush. "Some people cheat for the thrill of it, enjoying the excitement and risk involved in engaging in an affair," she explained. Still, these people tend to think they'll get away with it even though there's a very real possibility that they'll be caught. As long as their partner never finds out, they can live on the edge and experience that rush of adrenaline. 

Kalley Hartman agrees, telling us, "At times, people cheat because they think that their partner will never find out. They think they can have the best of both worlds of having multiple sexual partners while being in a committed relationship." Still, she cautions, it's important to remember that cheating is never a victimless act and can have dire consequences if discovered, particularly if issues like unexpected pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections result.

Evolutionary factors may be at play

Research has shown that men are more likely to cheat compared to women, which may make you wonder if there's something about men that makes them more inclined to commit infidelity. Evolutionary psychologists would argue that there absolutely is.

"From an evolutionary perspective," Dr. Carly Claney explained to us, "some researchers argue that humans may have a natural inclination to seek multiple partners to increase the chances of reproduction and genetic diversity." This is especially true for men, as having multiple sexual partners means they have more chances to spread their genetic code. Women, on the other hand, have an evolutionary inclination to seek out partners who won't cheat, ensuring they have another caregiver for their children who will stick around. It's possible that as more women have become breadwinners or achieved personal financial stability, their evolutionary need for a stable partner has decreased, leading to more women cheating on their partners than in the past. 

This isn't to say that men are wired to cheat so we should just give them a pass, or that women who cheat are more independent and financially stable, it just means that something else may be going on other than a cheater's desire to hurt their partner or end a relationship. 

Personal issues or challenges may lead to cheating

If you've been blindsided by cheating when your relationship feels otherwise strong, you're not alone. "Sometimes, cheating is less about the relationship, but rather something the individual is trying to work through in their own life and it shows up in this potentially destructive way," Dr. Carly Claney told The List.

This may be particularly true for individuals who are part of underrepresented communities while their partner isn't. Ann Russo, licensed clinical social worker and clinical director of AMR Therapy told us that transgender individuals in particular may face unique challenges in relationships because of societal stigma and discrimination, which in turn impact their mental health and well-being. 

"If a transgender person is not fully out or accepted by their partner or society, they may feel a sense of isolation and may seek validation or connection outside of the relationship," Russo provided as one example. "Additionally, for transgender individuals who are in a relationship with a cisgender person, there may be an added layer of difficulty in terms of navigating gender identity and expression. This can sometimes lead to tension or misunderstandings in the relationship that could contribute to cheating."

Of course, this doesn't mean that transgender individuals are more likely to cheat, it just means that communication is incredibly important.

Cheating partners may be chasing a spark

There's nothing like the feeling of a new relationship — the sparks are flying and you can't get enough of each other. While it's completely normal for some of those initial sparks to cool off as a relationship progresses and the couple gets to know each other better, chasing that feeling of a new flame may be enough to lead people to stray from their relationship.

"It could be that the cheater is chasing that initial feeling people have when they are in a new relationship — the butterflies. Ah the butterflies," licensed clinical social worker Alyse Freda-Colon told The List,

While infidelity may give the cheater some of that initial spark, it too will fade and might be even harder to achieve the next time. This might be why some people turn into serial cheaters who regularly engage in infidelity. "It's like an addict chasing the high," Freda-Colon explained. "It's never going to be like it was the first time." 

Some people cheat to fulfill specific sexual needs or preferences

Sexual fantasies are normal, but there are some that are still considered quite taboo. Having these types of fantasies, preferences, or needs may be something that's difficult to achieve in one's relationship for a variety of reasons.

Dr. Sarah Melancon told The List that cheating can result if one partner has sexual needs or preferences they are embarrassed about or ashamed of, or that they have either not shared with their partner or that their partner declined to participate in. "This may be most common when an individual cheats with a sex worker, dominatrix, or other sexual services," Melancon further explained.

As for those "other sexual services," the question of whether or not watching pornography constitutes cheating has long been a subject of debate. But with the increase in X-rated subscription platforms on which subscribers can often request custom content, there is an even murkier gray area about whether this type of performer-subscriber relationship counts as cheating.

Cheating happens when a person in a relationship does something outside the bounds of the agreement in that relationship. That said, our partners can't be expected to read our minds. Talking about what constitutes cheating with your partner is one of the best ways to head off infidelity.

The sunk cost fallacy can lead some people to cheat

You may have heard of the sunk cost fallacy, but it's possible you've never thought of it in terms of relationships. When we consider the type of person we've likely all known who is unhappy in their relationship but stays because they're already been together for x amount of years, it makes a lot more sense.

"People may cheat because they feel unhappy in their current relationships but don't want to end it because they've already been in said relationship for a long time," therapist Kalley Hartman told The List. "This relates to the sunk cost fallacy wherein people feel obligated to continue with something that is not working out due to all the time and effort they have already put in." Hartman further explained that people may instead end up wasting more time being unhappy if they stay.

Relationship therapist Laurel Steinberg, agreed, revealing to us that cheating often happens when a person wants to experience more love and sex in life without having to leave the life they've built with their partner. In fact, she notes that sometimes people believe they can't leave due to family obligations or a lack of money to support two homes, et cetera.

For some, breaking up is a hassle

Sunk costs aside, some people cheat because they're done with their current relationship, but cheating is easier than breaking up. If you've been through a major breakup before, especially one in which you lived with your partner, you know how difficult it can be to separate your life from the other person's. Particularly in today's volatile real estate market, the mere thought of ending an unhappy relationship and needing to uproot your entire life can be overwhelming. 

This is especially true when a couple is married — and even more complex if children are involved. "Then you're talking lawyers, huge expenses, dividing everything, inevitable fighting and conflict, establishing custody," Alyse Freda-Colon pointed out to The List. "You can almost understand why one might feel it's easier to get their needs met elsewhere and maintain the status quo at home."

Of course, if and when the cheating is discovered the resulting breakup has the potential to be even messier. 

Cheating may not have immediate consequences

Even though therapist Kalley Hartman emphasizes that cheating is never a victimless crime, some couples choose to stay together in spite of cheating, which can lead to further infidelity despite the cheater's assurances it will never happen again.

There are a whole host of reasons people stay in relationships after cheating, far beyond just the real estate market and sunk costs. "For example, married couples with children may stay in an unhappy relationship because of guilt or an inability to leave for financial reasons. There may be a sense that it's best for the family as a whole if they stay together, even though one partner is having an affair," Hartman told The List. "Another example is when couples stay together for the sake of religion, culture, or societal norms."

Unfortunately, when a cheater experiences no immediate negative consequences as a result of cheating, it's more likely to happen again. The sense that their partner will never leave them no matter what they do can feel like an unspoken endorsement of their infidelity, assuaging some of the guilt they might otherwise feel. 

For some, cheating is the norm

If you've ever noticed that infidelity seems to run in families, you're onto something. Nancy Landrum, author, relationship coach, and creator of The Millionaire Marriage Club, told The List that bad and broken relationships do indeed run in families just like healthy, committed, and happy relationships do. "Patterns get repeated because they are familiar and embed beliefs that sustain that pattern," she explained.

The science agrees. Research has found that children who had knowledge of a parental affair — their father cheating on their mother in particular — were more likely to engage in infidelity themselves. 

Before you get too worried, having a parent who cheated doesn't guarantee that the child will cheat when they grow up. It depends a lot on the patterns the child learned from the family history of cheating. Landrum further asserted, "The cheater may come from a family where a parent cheated and got away with it. The other parent may have felt trapped or was codependent. A model like that can make a person think that everyone cheats and that everyone gets away with it."

The shadow self may play a role

According to psychologist Carl Jung, the shadow self represents personal characteristics that an individual finds inferior or about which they feel guilty and in turn push down or ignore. The Society of Analytical Psychology uses assertiveness as an example. If someone thinks assertiveness (the shadow self) is selfish, they might allow themselves to be pushed around for their entire lives. This type of repression of what Jung considered the deepest part of one's self only makes things worse.

"There's a variety of reasons for [infidelity], but almost all of it stems from the shadow self," Courtney Kubovcik, a licensed social worker who utilizes Jungian Psychology as well as the Gottman Method for Couples Therapy in her work, told us. "Jungian Psychology teaches us that the shadow self is a feral part of us that we repress or deny — and in this repression, it becomes insatiable when it does have the chance to 'come out and play.'"

By not allowing oneself to indulge in other forms of risk-taking and selfishness (or other needs of the shadow self), the urges grow and present in more serious ways, like infidelity.

There are many factors at play when it comes to cheating

Figuring out why someone engages in infidelity in a relationship is no easy task because people cheat for a whole host of different reasons, and usually for more than one.

While it would make things much easier if we could say that all people cheat because of their own personal issues or a lack of communication, there's simply more to it than that most of the time. There's no doubt that open and honest communication helps make a relationship stronger, but some people are going to cheat no matter what amount of effort goes into making the relationship a good one. 

That said, don't give up hope (or on working to make your relationship a good one). Researchers have found that the single most common predictor of infidelity in relationships is chronic unhappiness with the relationship. One of the best things a couple can do to stave off infidelity in the first place is to see a couples therapist at the first real sign of trouble — or even before.