Why Do Some People Cheat in Relationships and Others Remain Faithful?

With the development of the internet, dating websites, social media, smartphones and dating apps, it is now easier than ever for someone to cheat on their partner or spouse.

This same technology can also make it easier to get caught too, due to the potential digital trail that is created with each of these unscrupulous liaisons.

The Ashley Maddison hack and subsequent scandal was one such example of technology helping people to have extramarital affairs, but also leading to them getting caught. The hackers tried to blackmail the company and many of the users, and then released all of their details in a massive data leak when their demands were not met. Families were broken up; reputations and even lives were ruined in the aftermath.

The consequences of infidelity continue to have a devastating impact on individuals, partners, children and society. Yet it remains an issue that is prevalent in every country and culture. Maybe even more so today with the advent of technology.

Given the massive changes that we have gone through in the past 30 years, I am interested to find out what the prevalence rates of cheating are, if our attitudes towards infidelity have changed, and if there is anything that we can do about it.

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What is Cheating?

The definition of cheating is actually quite hard to specify and depends on who you are talking to and what their expectations are for the relationship that they are in. The stereotype is that males tend to perceive cheating to be exclusive to physical encounters or actions, whereas females also see emotional infidelity as cheating, which is sharing something with someone that you wouldn’t typically feel comfortable saying to your partner. Many people also believe that relationships that exist purely over the internet or phone can also be considered cheating, especially if there are explicit words, photos or sexual acts exchanged using these devices.

Infidelity has been defined by Weeks, Gambescia and Jenkins (2003) to be a violation of emotional or sexual exclusivity. The boundaries of what is meant to be exclusive are different in each couple, and sometimes these boundaries are explicitly stated, but most of the time they are merely assumed. This means that each partner can have different assumed limits, making it difficult for both partner’s exclusivity expectations to be met (Barta & Kiene, 2005).

Leeker and Carlozzi (2012) believe that when someone has a subjective feeling that their partner has violated the rules around infidelity, feelings of sexual jealousy and rivalry naturally arise. If an act of adultery has occurred, the consequence is often psychological damage, including feelings of betrayal and anger, impaired self-image for the person cheated on, and a loss of personal and sexual confidence (Leeker & Carlozzi, 2012).

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Prevalence of Infidelity

Like my previous article How Have Intimate Relationships Changed Over the Years, and Where Does It Leave Us Now?, the majority of the research presented in this post comes from the surprising and entertaining book ‘Modern Romance’ by Aziz Anzari (the actor and comedian) and Eric Klinenberg (a Sociologist).

Unfortunately, people who are suspicious when it comes to infidelity sometimes have a reason to be. More than half of all men (60%) and women (53%) confess to having tried to mate-poach before. This means that they attempted to seduce a person out of a committed relationship so that they could be with them instead. I can’t believe that these figures are so high.

I also can’t believe that in “committed relationships”, where the partners are not married to each other, the incidence rate of cheating has been found to be as high as 70%.

It gets a little bit better for married couples, with only 2-4% of married individuals admitting to having an extramarital affair over the past year in the USA. However, this increases to 30% of heterosexual men and 25% of heterosexual women who will have at least one extramarital affair at some point during their marriage. It’s scary to think that somewhere between a quarter to a third of all married individuals have affairs, but good to know that two-thirds of all married people stay faithful to their partner all their lives too.

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Attitudes Towards Extramarital Affairs

In ‘Modern Romance’, they share results from an international study that looks at people’s views on extramarital affairs across 40 countries.

In the USA, 84% of people strongly agreed that cheating was “morally unacceptable”. In Australia, 79% view extramarital affairs as morally unacceptable. Canada, the U.K., South America and African countries all have similar rates of cheating disapproval as Australia. Areas that have the highest disapproval rates are typically Islamic countries, with 93% of those surveyed in Turkey stating that marital infidelity is morally unacceptable, second only to Palestinian territories with 94%.

France is the most tolerant country for extramarital affairs, with only 47% saying that cheating is unacceptable. They also happen to be the country with the most extramarital affairs, with the latest data indicating that 55% of men and 32% of French married women admit to having committed infidelity on their spouse at least once. The second most tolerant nation is Germany with 60% finding extramarital affairs to be morally unacceptable. Italy and Spain are equal third, with 64% each.

Expectations vs Reality

When you compare the level of disapproval towards infidelity with the data on the actual prevalence of extramarital affairs, the numbers don’t quite add up. In the USA especially, it seems that a large number of people who cheat themselves still condemn the practice at large and would not be okay with being cheated on themselves.

A Gallup poll on cheating even found that infidelity is disapproved of at a higher rate than animal cloning, suicide and even polygamy. Although it is against the law, being married to two people is seen as less offensive than being married to one and breaching the honesty, trust and connection that you share with your partner.

People also differ between their beliefs and their practices when it comes to whether or not to confess an affair or infidelity once it has occurred.

A Match.com nation-wide survey in the US found that 80% of men and 76% of women would prefer their partner to “confess their mistake… and suffer the consequences,” rather than “take their secret to the grave”. However, the excuse given by most people who have cheated and haven’t told their partner is that they didn’t want to hurt their partner. It’s interesting that they only worry about the impact that their actions may have on their partner after the unfaithful act has already occurred and not beforehand.

Unfortunately, most people try to keep their own affairs to themselves and make excuses for their behaviour while demanding at the same time that their partners own up to their indiscretions if they stray.  If their partner does own up, they are likely to treat them harshly for it, because after all, cheating is considered morally unacceptable by most.

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Why Do People Cheat?

Dr Selterman from the University of Maryland looked into why 562 adults cheated while they were in a “committed” romantic relationship. He found eight main reasons given for why the infidelity occurred:

  1. Anger: seeking revenge following a perceived betrayal
  2. Lack of love: falling “out of love” with a partner, or not enough passion or interest in the partner anymore
  3. Neglect: not receiving enough attention, respect or love (#1 reason for women)
  4. Esteem: seeking to boost one’s sense of self-worth by being desired by or having sex with multiple partners
  5. Sexual desire: not wanting sex with their partner or wanting to have sex more with others (a common reason for men)
  6. Low commitment: Not clearly defining the relationship as exclusive or not wanting a future with their partner or anything too serious
  7. Variety: Want to have as more sexual partners or experiences in their lifetime (a common reason for men)
  8. Situation: Being in an unusual scenario, such as under high stress, under the influence of alcohol or a substance, or on vacation or a working holiday (a common reason for men)

Interestingly, not all of these factors suggest that infidelity is a direct reflection of how healthy a relationship is. Often it says much more about the person who commits the infidelity and their personality or impulse control than anything else.

Ways to Reduce the Likelihood of Infidelity

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In ‘Modern Romance’, the authors explain that passionate love inevitably fades within every relationship. A loss of passionate love could lead to infidelity if people don’t realise that this may just be an indication of how long they have been together, not an issue with their relationship.

Companionate love, or that sense of building a life and a legacy with a partner, is different to passionate love. It can continue to grow across a relationship and a lifetime rather than decline with time. Couples in their 60s and 70s often rate their relationship satisfaction as much better than when they were younger and trying to raise children together and work full-time too.

One way to reduce the likelihood of committing infidelity then is to focus on building companionate love and a shared life and legacy together, rather than just equating real love with passion.

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In his classic book ‘On Love’, philosopher Alain de Botton said that:

“Perhaps the easiest people to fall in love with are those about whom we know nothing…we fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as beautiful, intelligent and witty as we are ugly, stupid and dull.”

It’s much easier to idealise or become infatuated with someone that you don’t know that well. To imagine that they are perfect or have none of the flaws that your current partner (or you) possess.

The quickest cure for infatuation is to actually get to know the person a bit more (without breaching the infidelity norms of your relationship) and realise that they are just as flawed as the rest of us. Once you understand this, leaving one flawed relationship for another but having to start all over again carries much less appeal.

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In another of his excellent books, ‘The Course of Love’, de Botton states:

“When we run up against the reasonable limits of our lovers’ capacity for understanding, we musn’t blame them for dereliction. They were not tragically inept. They couldn’t fully fathom who we were – and we could do no better. No one properly gets, or can fully sympathize with anyone else… there cannot be better options out there. Everyone is always impossible.”

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t leave abusive and neglectful partners. It just means that we need to avoid imagining that there is “a lover (out there) who will anticipate (all) our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly and (always) make everything better. (This) is a blueprint for disaster.” No one is perfect, and being grateful for what we do have with our current relationship and trying to make it as good as possible is much healthier than imagining that “the one” is probably just around the corner, if only we could find them.

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Unfortunately, we still have the issue of love and sexual desire typically being separated in our society. Esther Perel, couples therapist and author, points this out better than anyone in her groundbreaking book ‘Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic’:

“Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling… our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness… (but) it’s hard to feel attracted to someone who has abandoned (their) sense of autonomy… Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”

Another way to keep the spark of desire alive then is to make sure that even though you do a lot of things together with your partner, you must also do some things individually.

Fortunately, Perel also agrees that both love and desire can be maintained or grown over time with effort and a specific way of looking at things:

“For [erotically intelligent couples], love is a vessel that contains both security and adventure, and commitment offers one of the great luxuries of life: time. Marriage is not the end of romance, it is the beginning. They know that they have years in which to deepen their connection, to experiment, to regress, and even to fail. They see their relationship as something alive and ongoing, not a fait accompli. It’s a story that they are writing together, one with many chapters, and neither partner knows how it will end. There’s always a place they haven’t gone yet, always something about the other still to be discovered.”

What About If Infidelity Has Already Occurred?

If cheating has already taken place, many people say that too much pain has occurred, trust has been breached and broken, and leaving is the best thing to do to maintain a sense of self-worth and self-respect. In other cases, going may not be the easiest, most practical, or best solution. For individuals in these cases, I would recommend reading Perel’s more recent book ‘The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity’.

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In this book, Perel says that:

“Once divorce carried all the stigma. Now, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.”

Perel warns against merely passing judgment about the act of infidelity, as this shuts down all further conversation about what happened and why and where to go from there. Perel believes that it is much better to see an affair as a symptom of a troubled relationship or a troubled person.

If it is the person who is troubled, and they are remorseful for what they have done and willing to try to make amends and not cheat again, it is essential that they get help to address whatever issue led to the infidelity in the first place. If they are not willing to get help and work on themselves but merely say it won’t happen again, be wary.

If it is the relationship that was in trouble, relationship counselling may be able to help too. Perel says that:

“Infidelity hurts. But when we grant it a special status in the hierarchy of marital misdemeanors, we risk allowing it to overshadow the egregious behaviors that may have preceded it or even led to it.”

If both people in a relationship can take ownership for the behaviours that they engaged in that caused pain and hurt to the other and are willing to start again to build a stronger relationship, it is possible to have a healthy relationship going forward. It’s just never going to be the same as things were before the infidelity took place.

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My Personal Opinion

Monogamy is sometimes hard, as is continuing to work at having a healthy relationship, but it is a choice. We may not always have full control over what we initially think or feel, but we do have the capacity to think things through properly before acting.

My favourite relationship researcher, John Gottman, found that couples who turn towards each other when there is an issue in their life are much more likely to stay together than couples who turn away from or against each other. In one study, he found that newlyweds who remained married 6 years later turned towards each other 86% of the time when issues arose. Newlyweds who were divorced six years later only turned towards each other 33% of the time. Turning towards your partner when a problem occurs is the key to a close and connected relationship, and is much less likely to result in infidelity.

For me, it comes down to personal values. I want to have a relationship that is close and connected, with openness, honesty and trust. I don’t want to feel like I have to hide anything, and I don’t want to do anything that I am not personally okay with or that I know that the people who mean the most to me would not be proud of.

Anything that we hide from our partners tends to lead to greater distance and a feeling of disconnection. This is especially the case with stuff that we may know is dishonest, not respectful or something that we feel ashamed of. Our body language, microexpressions and tone of voice also tend to leak out how we genuinely feel over time if we are hiding something, even if we wouldn’t like to admit it.

Existential philosophers believe that our biggest challenge in life is to come face-to-face with the true nature of who we are. I think that over time, it is our actions and not our intentions that become our character, or who we indeed are. I aim to be the best partner, and person that I can be, and to learn from any mistakes that I make along the way so that I hopefully never repeat them again. What about you?

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist