Cheating in a relationship

Cheating in a relationship

Cheating in a relationship

Cheating, also known as infidelity, is when a person in a monogamous romantic relationship has an emotional or sexual relationship with someone else without their partner’s consent

Infidelity, however, doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all definition. What one couple would consider cheating might be a healthy part of another couple’s relationship. For example, is an emotional connection with someone without physical intimacy cheating? What about an online relationship? What if a couple practices ethical no monogamy?

Couples need to define for themselves what constitutes infidelity in the context of their relationship.

Why Do People in Relationships Cheat?


Cheating: it’s the ultimate relationship violation and a notorious relationship killer. A favorite gossiping pastime, the phenomenon is frequently discussed but difficult to study. The goal is to avoid getting caught, so why confess infidelity in the name of science?

But scientists can offer us new insight on a topic often shrouded in stigma and mystery. As researchers have recently demonstrated, cheating is rarely a simple affair. There are many reasons why people cheat, and the patterns are more complex than common stereotypes suggest. A fascinating new study sheds some light on these motivations.

The investigation included 495 people (87.9 percent of whom identified as heterosexual), who were recruited through a participant pool at a large U.S. university and through Reddit message boards with relationship themes. The participants admitted to cheating in their relationship and answered the question at the root of the mystery: Why did you do it? An analysis revealed eight key reasons: anger, self-esteem, lack of love, low commitment, need for variety, neglect, sexual desire, and situation or circumstance. These motivations not only influenced why people cheated but how long they did so, their sexual enjoyment, their emotional investment in the affair, and whether their primary relationship ended as a result.

Though most cheating involves sex, it is rarely just about making love itself. Most participants felt some form of emotional attachment to their affair partner, but it was significantly more common in those who reported suffering from neglect or lack of love in their primary relationship. Around two-thirds of participants (62.8 percent) admitted to expressing affection toward their new partner. And about the same proportion (61.2 percent) engaged in sexually explicit dialogue with them. Roughly four out of 10 (37.6 percent) had intimate conversations, while one in 10 (11.1 percent) said, “I love you.” Those who reported feeling less connected to their primary partner experienced greater emotional intimacy in the affair, perhaps as a way of fulfilling that need. Similarly, when infidelity was linked to a lack of love, individuals found the experience more intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

Participants’ satisfaction with sex differed depending on the reason for their affair. People reported feeling more sexually fulfilled when they cheated because of desire, lack of love, or a need for variety. Those who cited a situation as the primary cause were far less satisfied. Much of the sexual activity was limited to kissing (86.7 percent) and cuddling (72.9 percent). In fact, the study found that only half of the cheaters reported having vaginal intercourse.

The reason for the infidelity also greatly impacted its length. In some cases, the relationship was a brief tryst, while others were a longer and deeper attachment. Those who cheated because of anger (such as a wish to “seek revenge”), lack of love, or need for variety had a longer affair, while those motivated by the situation (such as those who were “drunk” or “overwhelmed” and “not thinking clearly”) ended it earlier. Women also had a longer affair on average than men.


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In the end, only a third of participants ultimately admitted cheating on their primary partner. Women were more inclined to fess up than men. Those who came clean were more likely to have cheated out of anger or neglect rather than sexual desire or variety. This suggests that their confession was possibly a form of retribution and a way to exact revenge instead of a way to clear their conscience. The participants who confessed were also more likely to form a committed relationship with the affair partner.

While infidelity is typically a clandestine enterprise, some cheaters were less careful than others, perhaps intentionally. Those cheating because of lack of love went on more public dates and displayed more public affection toward their partner. PDA was also common for those seeking variety or looking to boost their self-esteem. On the other hand, situational cheaters were less inclined to cheat out in the open, perhaps because they hoped to return to their primary relationship without getting caught.

So is an affair really a relationship killer? Ultimately, the fate of the participants’ primary relationship depended less on the act itself and more on what motivated it. Cheating was more likely to end a relationship when it arose from anger, lack of love, low commitment, or neglect. And it was less likely to do so when the infidelity was circumstantial. Surprisingly, only one in five (20.4 percent) of relationships ended because of the affair. The same number of couples (21.8 percent) stayed together despite their primary partner finding out, while slightly more (28.3 percent) stayed together without their partner discovering their infidelity. The remaining relationships broke up for no cheating reasons.

Rarely did infidelity lead to a real relationship. Only one out of 10 of the affairs (11.1 percent) ultimately turned into a full-fledged commitment—one of the preconceptions that turn out to be true.


5 Different Types of Infidelity

Each case of infidelity is different and fulfills a different need. Although knowing why a partner cheated likely won't lessen any pain you feel, being able to rationalize the behavior and define it will alleviate some confusion. It can also help you feel more confident in how to move forward from the situation—whether that means working on healing your relationship or moving on should you decide to split up.

Learn more about the five types of cheating below, and what to do if you find yourself the victim of infidelity.

Opportunistic Infidelity

Opportunistic infidelity occurs when one is in love and attached to their partner, but succumbs to their sexual desire for someone else. Typically, this type of cheating is driven by situational circumstances or opportunity, risk-taking behavior, and alcohol or drug use. As social psychologist Theresa E. DiDonato says, "Not every act of infidelity is premeditated and driven by dissatisfaction with a current relationship…Maybe they were drinking or in some other way thrown into an opportunity they didn't anticipate."

After the fact, the more in love a person is with their partner, the more guilt they will experience as a result of their sexual encounter. However, feelings of guilt tend to fade as the fear of being caught subsides.

Obligatory Infidelity

This type of infidelity is based on the fear that resisting someone's sexual advances will result in rejection. People may have feelings of sexual desire, love, and attachment for a partner, but still, end up cheating because they have a strong need for approval. In addition, their need for approval can cause them to act in ways that are at odds with their other feelings. In other words, some people cheat, not because they want to cheat, but because they need the approval that comes along with having the attention of others.

Romantic Infidelity

"Sometimes (but not always) a deficit in an existing relationship leads people to have extradyadic affairs," says DiDonato. This type of infidelity occurs when the cheater has little emotional attachment to their partner. They may be committed to their marriage and making it work, but they long for an intimate, loving connection with someone else. More than likely, their commitment to the marriage will prevent them from ever leaving their spouse. Romantic infidelity means pain for the other man or woman and the cheating partner—rarely does it turn into a long-term, committed relationship. Marital problems have to be quite severe before a spouse will leave the marriage for another person.

Conflicted Romantic Infidelity

This type of infidelity occurs when people experience genuine love and sexual desire for more than one person at a time. Despite our idealistic notions of having only one true love, it is possible to experience intense romantic love for multiple people at the same time. While such situations are emotionally possible, they are very complicated and tend to create a lot of anxiety and stress. In this case, cheating partners, in their attempt not to cause anyone harm, often end up hurting everyone.


Commemorative Infidelity

This type of infidelity occurs when a person is in a committed relationship but has no feelings for their partner. There is no sexual desire or love or attachment, only a sense of obligation keeping the couple together. "Lacking love and lacking commitment to a current romantic partner are both tied to general feelings of relationship dissatisfaction," says DiDonato.

These people justify cheating by telling themselves they have the right to look for what they are not getting in their present relationship. Unfulfilled sexual desires can easily come into play here. "Maybe in their established relationship, individuals aren't engaging in the frequency of sex, style of sex, or specific sexual behaviors that they want," DiDonato adds. "This can contribute to their reasons to cheat."

How to repair your relationship after someone cheats

If both you and your partner want to take the necessary steps to heal from an affair, it can be done, but it's going to be a long road. Here are a few important actions to take together that can help repair your relationship.

Make sure there is remorse

“There needs to be an adequate level of remorse. So if you’re the partner that has cheated, you really do have to feel deeply sorry. It can’t be something that can in any way come off nonchalant. There has to be a deep sense of regret and remorse for what happened,” says Elmquist. “And if your partner has cheated on you and you’re not feeling that remorse from them, that’s going to be something you’re going to want to look for as the starting point for you to get back on the same track.”


Be honest about why it happened

This is the hardest step and will largely dictate whether or not you'll both be able to move forward. "People can make poor choices at times," says Mahoney. "The question then becomes: does that poor choice and/or symptom(s) now have to dictate the future of a relationship? The answer largely depends on the motivating factors behind the affair." Underlying unmet needs in the relationship, poor communication, attachment difficulties, and antiquated gender roles can all be the impetus for an affair — ones that Mahoney has helped couples work through in her practice.

“Infidelity is very complex, there’s a lot of depth and complexity to why people might cheat and how you can find a way back to each other,” adds Elmquist, who says insight is crucial. "Why did this happen? Where was the breakdown? What was it in our relationship that ultimately caused us to have an open door for someone else to walk into it? Having that insight in your relationship is going to be important.”

But if the person who cheated isn't willing to be upfront about why it happened — or starts pointing blame, repairing things might not be possible. "[The reason] can’t be overly simplified, such as 'I’m a man' or 'it just happened,'" says marriage coach and author Lesli Doares. "The only way to rebuild trust is to be completely clear why it happened so when faced with a similar situation in the future, a different choice will be made."

Grant's husband admitted he was a sex addict and sought out therapy on his own to work through it. "By the time I felt strong enough to leave, my husband had been in therapy for a couple of years and had done so much work to understand why he'd risked a family he loved for relationships that didn't really matter," says Grant. "I respected how hard he'd worked. He had done everything he could to support me as I healed."

Remove temptations to re-engage with the affair

If the affair is really, truly over, taking the physical steps to cut off contact with the person and set up boundaries is crucial to your partner's healing process. "Deleting contact information, blocking numbers, and removing social media contacts will be essential," says Dr. Brandon Santan, a licensed marriage and relationship therapist practicing in Tennessee.

Because Grant's husband worked with the woman he cheated with, this was more complicated. "I do think 'no contact' is important, but sometimes it's impossible," she says. "In that case, there needs to be transparency about any interactions."

Move forward with brutal honesty and care

Being cheated on is damaging for a plethora of reasons, but one big factor that needs to be addressed in order to move past it is a lack of honesty. "The lying is a huge part of the betrayal,' says Doares, which is why she encourages the person who cheated to be brutally honest about all the details of the affair to move forward — not just the ones that will hurt his or her partner the least. "The cheater has to be completely transparent and answer any and all questions," she says.

This level of transparency needs to continue for as long as it takes to build that trust back up again; something that Elle says was key to her healing process. "My husband gave up anything that made me uncomfortable (like going out with the boys after work). I had access to any/all electronics/emails, passwords, etc. He told me where he was going and who he'd be with. Seems humiliating in the short term, but he understood that that was how he was going to rebuild trust," she says.

“You’re going to have to set other things aside for a while and you’re really going to have to pour into this relationship in order for it to have a fresh, strong, new foundation,” adds Elmquist.

Be selective about who you tell

Your gut reaction might be to blast your partner's indiscretions across social media for all to see, which Travis McNulty, LMHC, practicing in Florida says is a common coping mechanism. "I’ve seen people in this position go to extreme lengths to hurt their spouse in a very public manner," he says. "Often this is done out of rage and with lack of clarity that usually makes the person who was cheated on look bad or crazy by how they react." It's healthy to talk to someone about what you're going through, especially to a therapist. But telling everyone in your inner circle can end up backfiring.

"The more people that know about it, the more people are going to have their opinions based off of purely trying to protect you from getting hurt," McNulty explains. "This is the therapist’s worst nightmare because coalitions and allegiances amongst friends and family members really make moving forward difficult." Especially if you two do decide to work through this. "The person who was cheated on may be able to forgive and move on, but the family still holds an intense grudge that usually puts more pressure on an already vulnerable relationship that is trying to rebuild and move on," says McNulty.

Grant found support by creating a blog, The Betrayed Wives Club, to connect with others who were also victims of infidelity — a support system she says played a large part in her healing process. "I created my site because I was desperate for a community of women who knew what I was going through and who wouldn't judge," she says. Our culture lacks a real understanding of how devastating infidelity is. It can be really painful to share your secret only to have someone respond, as a friend of mine did, 'Well, I wouldn't put up with it.'"

Consider working with a licensed therapist

After an affair, it can be hard to know what to do or even where to start. If the conversations you're having with your partner feel like they're not getting anywhere, consider working with a licensed therapist who can help guide the process. "The therapist's ability to be a neutral party in the conversation helps identify what underlying unmet needs can be recognized and processed within the couple’s relationship," Mahoney explains. "During this investigative stage of therapy, couples often have the ability to seek understanding, find compassion, have greater potential to problem solve and move forward."

“Once you have that insight [on why someone cheated], how do you take the learnings from that and how do you put it into actionable change? Because the relationship is going to have to change,” says Elmquist. “I oftentimes tell couples they are going to have to bury that first relationship and think about starting a brand new relationship with each other. And in that new relationship, you’re going to put in the same intensity you did at the beginning of your relationship all over again; that same intensity of learning about each other and caring for each other and being intentional with each other.”

Grant and her husband eventually sought couples counseling after they had each worked with separate therapists. "Our relationship is better in a lot of ways thanks to therapy," says Grant. "My husband has shown up for our life together in a way that he just didn't before. We have a lot of fun together, he's a much more hands-on father. Therapy helped him work through a lot of childhood grief so that his own feelings are a lot more accessible to him."

"If you’re truly wanting to move on and continue with life with your partner after infidelity and have a loving relationship, it is possible. I see it in my office every day," says McNulty.


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