Why Do People Cheat? A Sex Therapist Has Some Fascinating Insight

If you've been cheated on it really might be about them, not you.

Being cheated on by my first boyfriend was more devastating than anything I'd felt at the time. 

I was sure our love would be forever, so when I walked in on him making out with some guy from work (who also had a boyfriend—so what gives, man?), I had no choice but to rush out of his apartment. I spent the next two weeks trying to get our relationship back on track, which seemed like the most stoic and grown-up thing to do.

As it turns out, cheating is the most common reason for divorce. Roughly 2% to 4% of spouses have had a sexual affair with someone else within one year of marriage, according to one article published in 2017 in Current Opinion in Psychology

However, just because a partner cheat doesn't mean the relationship will end. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), many relationships continue after a partner cheats. In fact, some relationships tend to be stronger and more intimate after therapy.

So, why do people cheat? Here's what you should know about why one partner decides to cheat on the other and what to do after it happens.

Know That It Isn't All Black and White

In my pain, I decided that the man who cheated on me was evil and dark-hearted. What a bad person, I thought, condemning him to a life of painful toil and misery.

But in actuality, an unequivocal view of infidelity isn't the most honest way to look at it, explained sex therapist Vanessa Marin

"We have a really black-and-white way of looking at infidelity," said Marin. "But it's important for us to see that there are a lot of shades of gray to it."

Marin understood the pain that cheating could cause but warned against generalizing those who have been unfaithful. 

"People who cheat, they're not terrible, evil, horrible people. There are plenty of really great, wonderful people who cheat, as well," added Marin. "People do bad things. That doesn't make them bad people." 

Even so, what would lead someone to cheat on their partner?

They're Feeling Trapped

According to the AAMFT, many people cheat to get out of their current relationship. 

Those people include Gloria, a 29-year-old woman who cheated on a partner who wouldn't let their relationship end. 

"I had tried to break up with him several times, and he kept telling me we should stay together," said Gloria. "He also said I'd never find anyone better. I felt really trapped."

When another man approached her, Gloria acted on her attraction. 

"I needed a release," recalled Gloria. "I told my partner right away, and that really sealed the deal on our relationship ending."

But Marin said that cheating is rarely that cut-and-dry. Marin often worked with couples where one or both partners were sexually unsatisfied or not reasonably meeting their partners' needs. Still, those aren't the only relationships in which Marin saw infidelity occur.

"We tend to think that people cheat because they're unhappy in their relationships. And that certainly can be true, but the reality is more complicated," explained Marin. "It's important we recognize there are plenty of people in perfectly happy relationships who also cheat."

They're Feeling Lost

According to Marin, many people who cheat aren't looking for something they're missing in their relationship. Instead, the person cheating is dealing with issues about themselves. 

Per the AAMFT, it is common for the partner who cheats to experience low self-esteem, which can lead to feelings of shame and worthlessness.

"They're feeling lost in some way," explained Marin. "Or they're feeling disconnected with some part of themselves. And so they look for an affair to fill some missing gap, fill some hole, help them figure out something going on within themselves. There may not be an issue in their relationship with their partner at all."

They're Looking For Excitement

According to Marin, if you've been cheated on, it doesn't mean anything wrong with you. Though cheating often involves sex, it's rarely about the sex itself. It's more about having someone new providing attention. 

Take for example: The cheating partner has been in a relationship for an extended period. In that case, it may be about the excitement of an unexpected attraction.

"Infidelity is not a judgment or an indictment of the person who's being cheated on," said Marin. "It's not because they're a bad person or not attractive or sexy. It's much more about what's going on with the person that cheated."

What To Do if You're Partner Cheated On You

Of course, Marin's best advice for anyone hurt by their partner is to seek therapy to process their complicated feelings.

"You're going to be devastated when it happens, and that's okay," said Marin. "You have to allow yourself to have those feelings and those reactions because they make sense. But at some point, you also have to recognize that it's much more about your partner than it is about you."

As for whether you should stay with your partner, that decision is up to each person. According to the AAMFT, the decision to remain in the relationship can be based on factors such as:

  • Each partner's commitment to the relationship
  • Cultural values and norms
  • The impact on children (if they have children together)

If you and your partner decide to work through an instance of cheating, a therapist may work with you to rebuild the relationship.

What To Do if You've Cheated On Your Partner

"If monogamy, commitment, and trust are important values to you, and you've done something massive to go against all those values, that's a critical thing to address," said Marin. "Whether you tell your partner about the infidelity or not."

In any case, if you've cheated on your partner, keeping a few things in mind is essential. 

Recognize Your Feelings and Actions

Some people, Marin said, aren't actively looking to have an affair. Or they may not have ever considered they'd be open to the possibility. 

But then, an opportunity presented itself—an out-of-town trip or someone new is attracted to them—and things happen without any pre-planning.

Marin cautioned that a lack of pre-planning doesn't mean a lack of consequences. Cheating is a violation of trust and a betrayal of values. 

According to Marin, if you've committed and violated it, you will have to sit with some very uncomfortable feelings.

Know That You Aren't a Bad Person

Gloria said that cheating put her in a role she'd never expected to find herself in: The bad guy. That feeling is common. But Marin also warned against self-condemnation.

"Cheating is a very serious thing. It's a very big deal, and you should take the time to really sift through all of those feelings and reactions you're having," said Gloria. "At the same time, you also need to recognize that this doesn't make you a categorically terrible person. You are a good person who has done a bad thing. That's a huge difference."

Learn From the Experience

Marin said cheating offers an opportunity to learn an important lesson about yourself. 

You may have heard the old saying, "once a cheater, always a cheater." But the phrase doesn't hold up if someone unfaithful reflects on their actions, thinks about their impact on others, and works to change how they approach relationships in the future—whether the cheating led to a breakup.

And Gloria said those circumstances held for her experience. Gloria said she recently celebrated her second anniversary with her boyfriend, a man she lives with and hopes to marry. 

"I learned to trust myself and be firmer with my decisions when it comes to relationships," noted Gloria. "I let someone talk me out of breaking up, and then, I made decisions that weren't true to who I am as a person. That's not something that's going to happen again."

A Quick Review

You may be curious whether I could live, laugh, and love again after losing my ex to a guy who had a boyfriend and wore ugly sweaters.

The short answer: Yes. The long answer: It took a lot of work to build the trust I needed to start dating again.

The man I thought I'd be with forever disappeared from my life as if he (and his DVD collection) had never been there. But the relationship I grew with myself in therapy helped me recognize that being cheated on can feel like the end of the world, but it rarely is.

Not every relationship is the same, but if your partner has cheated on you, know that it is likely more about them than you. Maybe they are feeling trapped or lost, or they're looking for excitement in something new. Either way, that doesn't excuse their actions, and they will need to do the work to figure out what led them to go against their morals.

Therapy can be an excellent tool for you and your partner to work through your emotions and reactions, either individually or as a couple. An instance of cheating can be difficult for you and your partner, so don't hesitate to seek help.

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