Sexual infidelity is one of humanity’s great obsessions, perhaps second only to violence. We abhor it, yet we want to hear all about it. We love the topic. It’s on the news, the web, movies, and on TV. We can’t get enough of it. But while we often get the details of “who” the infidelity involves and “how” it was carried off, the question of “why” is the most vexing. It’s the ultimate question, right? If infidelity has touched your life in some way, you probably have asked yourself why people would engage in extra-marital affairs. The answer, of course, is as individual as a single person, but there are some broad reasons people cheat — and many do.
In one story after another, mundane and epic, we are reminded of the emotional and social fallout of messing around. That’s in addition to the scowls it gets from the world’s biggest religions. Why, then, is monogamy so hard for so many? Why do people cheat?
Cheating is not a one-size fits all. It’s very individual and unique to each person and relationship where it’s experienced. While it’s easy to generalize, it often falls short of explaining why someone cheated in an individual circumstance. It’s far too complex for mass generalizations like, “Men always cheat!” or “It’s because she’s a whore!”. But at the risk of generalization, I think I will attempt to synthesize my thoughts and research into just that — a larger, generalized look at the “why”. To me it’s a combination of our biology, our personalities, our circumstances (especially marital ones) and situational factors.
WHY WE CHEAT
Monogamy isn’t Natural. Fidelity is a Learned Behavior. Biologists have long understood that monogamy is rare in mammals. Perhaps for humans, monogamy does not come naturally, and biology predisposes us to seek multiple sex partners. That’s what zoologist David Barash, PhD, and psychiatrist Judith Lipton, MD, argue in their book, The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People. Virtually all animals, they say, are far from being 100% monogamous 100% of the time. “The only completely, fatalistically monogamous animal we’ve been able to identify is a tapeworm found in the intestines of fish,” Lipton tells WebMD.
Other animals, including humans, are motivated to ensure their reproductive success not only by picking the highest quality mate they can get but also by taking others on the side.
So there may be some truth in the idea that biology and societal expectation are at odds, and those who cheat are on some level listening to their “natural” instincts. Barash and Lipton suggest that the strong societal code against cheating has been developed by human culture to counteract the biological drive.
But make no mistake: Lipton and Barash, who have been married to each other for 28 years, don’t say that sexual fidelity is impossible or wrong because it is not natural, only that it takes some effort. “We human beings spend a large part of our lives learning to do unnatural things, like play the violin or type on a computer,” Lipton says.
We’re just not biologically wired to do it. In fact, if you add that marriage based on love and romance as its basis is a very recent idea in human history (probably less than 200 years old), I think you have a basic stresser from the start. Modern expectations of marriage are VERY high, and combined with a basic instinct to not be monogamous, it’s amazing frankly how many people manage to just do that.
Humans are not monogamous by nature and when we ultimately choose to be faithful without the right conditions in place , we are setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Once we can accept that 10,000 years of social monogamous behavior cannot supersede millions of years of physical evolution, only then can we learn to work around our weaknesses. Therefore, fidelity is a skill, not an instinct. Learned behavior.
Critical Emotional Needs Aren’t Being Met in the Marriage/Relationship. According to many psychologists and scholarly works, people cheat because they are not getting their needs met in their current relationship. Some of those needs may be a need to feel attractive, to feel young, or to connect through shared interests. According to Dr. Willard F. Harley, Jr., who has created the Marriage Builders® website and program, “there is usually a dissatisfaction with marriage that stems from the failure to meet an important emotional need.”
He talks about “love-units,” or the way that people feel appreciated and connected within their marriages (some people need conversation, for example, others need concrete acts of service or romantic gestures). When a partner is not hearing that they are loved in a way that makes sense to them, they become vulnerable to an affair.
Put simply, the extent to which we feel loved, desired, wanted, understood and our most critical emotional needs are being met within a relationship has a direct impact on the chances that a spouse will stray. Happy and content people rarely have affairs.
Marital Neglect and Outright Abuse: Of course, this dove-tails into the “critical unmet needs” paragraph above. If you’re not attempting to meet your partner’s most critical needs and, worse, if you used to, but are no longer, they you are engaging in marital neglect. Sometimes, when couples have been together for a long time, they forget to express how much they care for each other. When you don’t feel understood, desired, or wanted, you are vulnerable to someone who does make you feel these things.
But beyond that, many people report that they cheated because they were abused in their relationships — physically or mentally. The affair then becomes an escape from an unsatisfying reality, and the person feels more validated, wanted and safer with their affair partner.
Human Personalities Predispose Some to Cheating. If fidelity is a matter of skill, then why are some talented and others terribly clumsy? People who enter into long-term monogamous relationships, and who really keep their promises, “tend to be very healthy mentally,” Peter Kramer, MD, tells WebMD.
Don-David Lusterman, PhD, a marriage and family therapist and author of Infidelity: A Survival Guide, says he thinks some people who cheat are what he calls “pursuers,” who are also called womanizers when they are men. “They tend to require great numbers of conquests and they perceive them as conquests,” Lusterman tells WebMD. “I see that as a developmental flaw in an individual, as opposed to an affair frequently being a function of some disruption in the couplehood. They’re very different things.”
In clinical terms, he says, pursuers often have a narcissistic personality disorder. They crave and demand affection and attention but are not able to return it in kind.
Even those who aren’t pursuers may be susceptible to an affair because they are not aware that something is amiss or lacking in the relationship. Given the attention of another man or woman, “they just suddenly feel more special,” says Luanne Cole Weston, PhD, a psychologist and expert moderator of WebMD’s Sex MattersÂ® message boards. “They ceased to feel as special in their own first relationship.”
Others are well aware of their frustration and they actively seek what they want outside the relationship. “I do hear some variation of that quite frequently,” Priya Batra, PsyD, a women’s health psychologist in the Kaiser Permanente health care system, tells WebMD.
And yes, there are some people just are a their core dishonest, immature and selfish. These types are the most likely to cheat.
Similarly, insecure people are more likely to seek validation from strangers or others. A man or woman who feels unworthy of his spouse and who lacks self-esteem may resort to infidelity. When he or she gets acknowledgment and appreciation from her, their ego is boosted. When a spouse doesn’t make you feel appreciated, and doesn’t acknowledge your talents, contributions, character, appearance, you are more vulnerable to someone who does.
Situationally Driven Infidelity. While the desire to cheat is a fundamental, and unconscious, part of our human nature, not everyone will be unfaithful. Like most of our behaviors, infidelity is not intentional, but, instead is frequently situationally driven. When placed in the right situation (or wrong situation, in this case), our emotions can get can prompt us to act in ways which are counter to our beliefs. And some factors make some people more likely to cheat than others (note: I’m sorry but some of these bleed over into other categories I’ve discussed. This was not an easy piece to write!).
- Attractiveness. Sorry, but it’s true. Attractive people are more likely to cheat. All things being equal, an individual’s attractiveness influences how likely he or she is to cheat. Attraction comes in many different forms – it is influenced by one’s physical appearance, one’s social skills, and one’s tangible resources (money). The more one is in demand, the more likely one is to cheat. People, who have higher incomes, more education, and successful careers, are more likely to cheat than people who are less successful. Physical attractiveness also plays an important role. Conversely, some people who are completely faithful are only faithful largely because they have few or no opportunities to be unfaithful due to their lack of attractiveness. It’s easy to be faithful when nobody else wants you!
- Opportunity. All things being equal, the more individual free time people have the more likely they are to cheat. Couples who have separate social lives, friends, careers, travel plans, and so on are much more likely to cheat than couples who spend most of their time together. The more opportunity people have to cheat, the greater the odds that cheating will occur.
- Risk Taking. People who like to take risks or have a sense of adventure are more likely to cheat than people who are more fearful or timid by nature. There is most likely a genetic component involved in risk-taking behavior – some people may be predisposed to taking risks.
- Power. People in a position of power are more likely to cheat. Power increases one’s confidence leading powerful individuals to act in more assertive and outgoing ways. Powerful people are more likely to make direct eye contact, strike a confident pose, and approach potential lovers. Power influences the likelihood of cheating for both men and women.
- Sexual Desire. People with higher sex drives tend to cheat more. Sexual desire varies from person to person. Some people have a very high sex drive while other people are much less concerned or interested in sex. People with a high, rather than low, sex drive are more likely to cheat. Again, sexual desire appears to be influenced by genetic factors. Some people are inherently more easily aroused and driven by their desire for sex than other people (see, webMD). People who have multiple affairs are often addicted to the novelty and excitement which infidelity can provide (also see, coolidge effect).
Our Past: Some cheat to resolve their past issues or pain. For example, those who married early never had enough of their teenage years so they’re easily tempted to go out with different people after. They are curious. They want to know if what they have is good enough. On some level, they feel they’ve missed out on sexual variety (particularly if they are unhappy with the state of their marital sex). Some probably grew up with a cheating parent and unconsciously, following the same pattern. Some might have an ex who two-timed them and wandering from your marriage is the only revenge they knows.
Some cheat as a way of maintaining emotional distance in their marriage due to past hurts. They may have had their heart broken in the past and they never will let that happen again. Engaging in an affair keeps “one foot out the door” in your marriage and therefore may psychologically keep you at arm’s length from your partner.
Some Cheat Because they Can. This point dove-tails into points above about power and opportunity. And this more true of men than women. Especially powerful men seem to be susceptible to this. They cheat because it’s just another conquest. It’s easy. It’s validating. They “deserve” it. Think Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, John F. Kennedy and hosts of others. And it’s easy to do. Maybe easier than ever, thanks to technology. Whole websites are devoted to hooking up married cheaters. Cell phones make secret communication simpler, as do social media sites. It’s easy to leave little evidence left behind. But by and large, infidelity is remarkably easy to hide. More often than not there is absolutely no consequence. So yes, that freedom exists. Some people do it because they can. And those that have status and position often have the means to keep their affairs secret.
As one man explained, “I need to (cheat). Infidelity makes me remember things. The details that expand to fill my life (my upcoming performance reviews, the aches and pains of training, the recovery of my 401(k) ) and the ones that deaden it (my guilt, my smug self-satisfaction, my fake epiphanies about my progress in this life) —all of that drops away when I look down at the naked spine of an unfamiliar woman, twisting slightly in the late-afternoon sunlight streaming onto the sheets of a Hampton Inn in some nameless suburb. This is the most absolute choice I can make. I am there on my own. Against every code, rule, and set of mores I pretend to obey. Against better judgment, against every lesson of hindsight and every shard of wisdom that comes with age, I have no regrets in that moment, because I am naked, or without pants, and I have chosen to be there. I have voted by my presence, declared it, and I feel the blood moving in me again. So it’s the blood. That’s who I am.”
However, this type of man is not typical. This does not reflect most men, or even most male cheaters, but it is a common attitude among the minority of serial cheaters out there.
Boredom. Some people cheat frankly because that’s just who they are. They get bored easily. As one self-described female serial cheater (yes, they do exist) wrote, “I’m not a sex addict, I’m a newness addict. You know, that amazing, thrilling, interesting, passionate first few months of a new relationship. That feeling of excitement and anticipation that accompanies getting to know someone in and out of the bedroom. It’s intoxicating to me. The Newness. My drug of choice.
Beware this type of personality. They are like an addict and will never be able to faithful to anyone unless circumstances dictate it and/or opportunities dry up.
Purely Sexual Reasons Why We Cheat. While most people think that affairs are largely about sex, mostly they are not. But in some cases, they are. Cases where the spouse/partner no longer offers sex or routinely turns one down. Or where its become mind-numbingly dull and lacks any variety. Or for whatever reason (gaining weight, age), we no longer find our partners sexually attractive.
Unrealistic Expectations. When a person succumbs to temptation, they might forget what attracted them to their partner in the first place, and lose sight of the chemistry and infatuation they once experienced for that person. It is a delusion to believe that a relationship should always progress smoothly on the road to eternal bliss. However, focusing on the negative will lead one to perceive that they are so miserable that they seek to fulfill their needs elsewhere.
Cheating is simple; a relationship is more complicated. Cheating usually offers instant gratification, physically and emotionally. A relationship requires lots of maintenance. Giving it care and attention along with trust and communication will continuously help both people grow.
Because Men are Men, Men are Pigs. Ok. I’m taking a different tack here. I’m presenting a reason that on the surface of it is not only sexist, but incorrect. Men don’t cheat because we are men. In fact, women now cheat at almost the same rate as men.
For those of you that think this — have you ever tried dating women? You’d be surprised to see that the grass isn’t greener on the other team’s playing field. As hard as it may be for you to fathom, women cheat too and are no picnic to date either!
How would you feel if I told you that your man cheated on you because you are an ugly, overweight, boring, lousy lover who can’t get anything right and even though your man tried to make things work, your old-fashioned, sexually stubborn self never agreed to compromise? Ouch! That sounds pretty harsh. But its no different than saying “all men cheat!” or “All men are pigs!” This sort of broad brush sexism allows oneself to escape any responsibility for the state of a relationship, and to not look in the mirror. It’s simple, but it’s wrong.
The same applies to men. It is a lot easier for a man to call his adulteress ex-wife a bitch, than it is to admit that maybe she cheated on him because he spent more time with his friends at strip clubs, watching sports all night, playing video games, and masturbating to pornography.
People love to blame and few are honest enough to evaluate themselves in the mirror and take any blame at all for their partners seeking solace elsewhere.
And there are other “reasons” that affairs occur — sometimes because the opportunity came up. Or because you see it as a way to “exit” your primary relationship — you want a soft landing spot before you take the big leap out of relationship you have already given up on. Also true.
But, in the end, I think, the reasons for being unfaithful are personal. Often complex and multi-layered. And varied. And largely not understood. This is not to say that most people cheat (according to a recent study, in any single year, only 2-4% of people admitted to cheating on their partners) — in fact, for the most part, the majority of the population isn’t cheating on its current partner. That’s the good news. Nor are the reasons listed as reasons TO cheat or excuse FOR cheating — they aren’t and there are none. But it’s the eternal question of “why? Why did he/she do this?” All I could come up with is individual combinations of personality flaws, biology and/or circumstances. In the end, this horrid decision still has a reason behind it.
A NOTE: This blog entry is NOT an endorsement of cheating by any means. Nor am I validating a set of “excuses” of why people cheat. If you have read any of my blog, you would know that I think cheating is 100% wrong and there is no excuse for it (even if there are reasons and factors as presented above). I’m not going to pass judgment on these factors. I let them stand on there own. I’m going to present it the way that others have, and without heavy judgments, and as a result of a lot of reading. I would ask you, the reader, to do the same.
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