We Asked 8 People to Explain Why They Cheated—and Their Reasons Are Wildly Different
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When my ex-boyfriend found out that I had cheated on him, I felt physically ill with guilt, despair, and grief. But I also had a lot of excuses as to why I did it.
After moving thousands of miles for a job, we struggled to get used to long-distance relationships. I felt neglected, lonely, and unable to communicate what I needed on Skype. When I met a new and exciting person, I told myself we were just friends. And then we weren't.
On our first visit in almost a year, I forgot to log out of my Facebook on my partner's laptop. He read my messages and the life we had built together exploded. Of course, it was all my fault - I'd planted the bomb and kind of hoped he'd never find it. Many hours of painful conversations followed, as well as an attempt at an open relationship. But we couldn't recover.
A few years later, I got a taste of my own medicine when a new partner cheated on me. I was completely insane, and while I kept asking how he could hurt me like this, none of his explanations mattered. In my opinion, he was bad, cheating was bad, and it was that simple. Pretty hypocritical, isn't it? Unfortunately I am not alone.
Cheating can destroy a marriage, destroy your ability to trust future partners, hurt your children, and even lead to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The vast majority of adults agree that this is wrong, but between 39 and 52% of us may experience infidelity at some point in our lives.
Why do people cheat?
"There are a variety of reasons people cheat," says Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat. According to an article published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2017, explanations for infidelity often fall into three main categories: personal problems, beliefs, or traits; Problems with your partner or the relationship as a whole; and situational factors such as easy access to dating websites, long business trips, or fluid courage.
To make things even more complicated, sometimes what “counts” as cheating to you can be radically different from what your partner thinks is okay or definitely not okay. Research shows that our definitions of infidelity can range from having a celebrity crush or watching porn on the conservative side to having personal sex acts on the more liberal side.
Although sexual relationships are often viewed as the worst betrayal, Dr. Rosenberg that it is important not to underestimate emotional issues, which can be just as devastating.
If you're here, you are probably trying to understand why you, your partner, or someone close to your heart cheated on. There may not be a single reason for it, and it is often difficult to get a satisfactory answer from someone who has made a habit of lying to you or is deeply ashamed and confused.
But just to give you a little glimpse, we asked real people to explain why they cheated - and asked relationship experts to weigh the reasons and figure out what comes next after the infidelity.
1. The relationship was no longer fulfilled.
I cheated because I was really dissatisfied with our relationship and didn't feel seen or understood by my partner. I confessed right after that and today my ex is one of my oldest friends. In retrospect, I wish I had the emotional intelligence back then to tell him how I was feeling or to break up with him. —Taylor C., 23 *
A common reason for cheating is because the partnership isn't satisfactory, says Ashley E. Thompson, Ph.D., an adjunct psychology professor who researches infidelity at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. If you've distanced yourself, have nothing to discuss, or can't remember the last time you had sex, you or your partner may be looking for connections outside of the relationship rather than trying to resolve problems at home.
2. You haven't thought through the consequences.
I cheated out of stupidity. I was only on autopilot. I was hanging out with someone, they seemed receptive, and I tried. I did not really become aware of the possible consequences of my actions. I just did what felt good right now. Many years later, I feel like I have outgrown him. Falling in love with the right person certainly helped. —Jackson P., 45 *
The adage "once a cheater, always a cheater" doesn't apply to unbelievers down the line, but it could contain a grain of truth, says Thompson. "There are certain personality traits that indicate people who commit infidelity," she says. In particular, people who are not as self-disciplined are more likely to say that they have been “swept away” by factors such as the atmospheric lighting at the bar or too much drinking, when they may actually be to blame for their own impulsiveness and bias for risk-taking being.
3. You're in a hurry.
I cheated on my first wife because I got away with the intrigue - the planning, the excitement, my so-called brilliance of not getting caught. My second wife is a real partner in every sense of the word, and I haven't thought of getting lost in 15 years. When you cheat on someone, whether you get away with it or not, you create a wound in your partnership that does not fully heal. Enough of those wounds or one big enough and you destroy your relationship. That's what keeps me honest today - the feeling that you can “win” and still end up as a loser. —Ian G., 45
"Quite a few people cheat just because they can," says Dr. Rosenberg. Contrary to the stories one often hears about dissatisfied spouses, a partner who cheats may be relatively happy with their main relationship, but their partner is not open to a non-monogamous arrangement, he wants the best of both worlds or himself gets a thrill from secretly pursuing new connections.
On a biological level, people who are more prone to infidelity may be propelled by increases in pleasure chemicals like dopamine, vasopressin, and oxytocin. Those who are more extroverted are more likely to cheat because they benefit from new social connections.
4. You suffered from low self-esteem.
I cheated because I wanted confirmation. I was very insecure and had to be the focus of my partner's attention the whole time. I didn't feel happy or worthy if I wasn't constantly flattered by him. The night it happened I was at a party, someone else started flirting with me, and things went downhill from there. Since then, I've vowed never to hurt anyone like this again, and I've learned not to look to an outside source to solve an internal problem. I still struggle with low self-esteem, but this is my problem, not my partner's, and I know that cheating is in no way going to "fix" it. —Alyssa G., 29
Often there are conscious reasons for cheating (like, "You're not paying enough attention to me!") As well as more unconscious reasons (like having trouble with difficult emotions or trauma), says Gilza Fort Martínez, a Miami-based licensed family and marriage therapist specializing in Life transitions and conflict resolution. Over half of the people who cheat say that self-esteem has something to do with it.
When a partner is not feeling well and is not addressing it in a healthy, productive way, e.g. As a result, they may be looking for someone else to strengthen their shaky ego or build a sense of control over their life - even if it is ultimately self-destructive.
5. They longed for sexual variety.
I knew cheating wasn't right, but I couldn't find the willpower to stop myself. Although I think I would be capable of monogamy now, I choose to be polyamorous because it allows for more boundaries, communication, and the ability to talk about desires and sex without worrying about jealousy. That way I can stay relatively independent and still enjoy people's company. —Ami M., 23
Finding other people attractive, having sexual fantasies, or having multiple sexual and / or romantic partners in your life is normal. But when you fulfill these desires without your partner's knowledge and enthusiastic consent, you end up in tricky terrain.
Some people tend to be more open to sex outside of their main relationship and may end up cheating if they don't communicate their needs to their partner. A better alternative? Just be honest with yourself and your partner for whatever you want, says Dr. Rosenberg. These days, you have options like ethical non-monogamy, polyamory, or an open relationship.
6. They wanted revenge.
I was with this terrible guy in college and I was going to break up with him. I decided to be vicious, however, and ended up sleeping with a friend of mine I ran into while running errands. When we met again, I started to think about all the terrible things my friend had said to me, the disparagements, the lack of appreciation, the drama. I just didn't care. I know it was immature to want such vengeance. I am not proud of it. But I also don't feel like it was that big of a deal compared to what he did to me. —Vanessa R., 38
If you've ever been cheated on by a partner, you know that anger is often accompanied by fear and confusion. Wanting revenge is another common motive for infidelity, Thompson says. While many scammers do everything they can to avoid getting caught, others may want their partner to find out so they can "go back", have an affair, or mistreat them. Case in point: Almost half of the people who cheat say they have anger in their reasoning, according to a study.
7. The relationship was not healthy.
I was in a bad marriage to an abusive man, and one of the few things he allowed me to do was go karaoke with friends. One night I met a guy who was funny and so very different from my husband. Hanging out with him - and eventually cheating with him - gave me confidence and made me see how I deserved to be treated. I know there is no excuse for infidelity, but for me the real story is that I found someone who really cared about me and gave me the courage to get a divorce. Over four years later we're still together. —Liz K., 29
While there is little research on this, the stories of some of the study participants suggest that infidelity might actually serve as "an adaptive escape mechanism" for someone in a toxic or abusive relationship, says Thompson.
If you can't or don't want to end a bad relationship, but still can't fully take that step, having an affair with someone who treats you well could serve as a reminder that you are entitled to a healthy, happy, fulfilling relationship - and Giving you the courage to step out, confirms Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., a sexologist, licensed relationship therapist, and author of When You're The One To Cheat.
If you've walked on eggshells or are feeling unsafe with your partner, you can find out what next steps to take with the help of a therapist or a resource such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). or TTY 1-800-787-3224.
8. You weren't in love anymore.
Many years ago I was married to someone I got along great with, but our sex lives have never been passionate. I had this girlfriend who I always really enjoyed being with and with whom I felt this sexual tension. One night we finally opened up about our feelings and had this incredibly passionate kiss. I felt like I finally woke up after just doing the movements for years. I was ashamed of letting my life go this far and felt guilty for wasting my wife's time too. I told her everything and we got divorced. Today I've been married to this new person for over 20 years and my ex is happily single. Cheating is wrong and destroys people and marriages, but living a life without passion is just as wrong and destroys people too. —Chris B., 47
Of all the reasons for cheating, the most painful and common is simply a lack of love. At the beginning of a relationship, just stroking your partner's hand, let alone how their clothes strip off, can make your heart beat faster. "But that kind of romantic love lasts a few years - if you're lucky," says Dr. Rosenberg. Since we are “passionate beings,” loyalty isn't always easy when that initial spark fades, he says.
"Just because you're married doesn't mean you are immune to falling in love with someone else," added Nelson. Sometimes, as heartbreaking as it is, relationships have an expiration date. While it's best to end a partnership with integrity before moving on, if someone begins to feel the heat with another person, they can cheat before they can admit that their original partnership has really petered out.
How to Recover from Infidelity
Whether you cheated on you or your partner cheated on you, the first step is to find a trusted loved one, mentor, or therapist to talk to about it individually, says Dr. Rosenberg.
The next step is to ask yourself some tough questions: are you staying or are you leaving? What are the pros and cons of each option in terms of its impact on your family, financial entanglements, and shared history? What was your relationship like before the betrayal and how could you restore trust? Both partners have to answer these questions alone, says Fort-Martínez.
If you do decide to stay together afterward, a couples therapist can help you master the grieving process, work on your communication skills, regain intimacy, and move forward. In order for it to work, Fort-Martínez says she looks for three important things in the person who has cheated: a willingness to be open and transparent, the ability to take emotional blows from a distressed partner, and an expression of genuine remorse .
If you do decide to split up or get a divorce, know that there is no foolproof way to prevent infidelity from happening in the future, but you can do your best to reduce your risk. To avoid any misunderstandings, all of the experts we've spoken to recommend having an honest conversation about what exclusivity means to you and compromising on limits and expectations so that you are on the same page from the get-go.
"Cheating is a painful, often very devastating situation, but it can also be a gift," says Fort-Martínez. Perhaps you finally find that your relationship has long been broken, you are finally free, or you don't value your connection - and it is time to pay more attention to yourself or your partner.
* Name has been changed
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