Marriage is a promise to stay together for the rest of your lives – and have no other partner. And while most people want that to happen when they get married, quite a few do meet someone else and start an affair at some point.
So why do married people cheat?
It turns out that answers can be confusing and contradictory.
Even the statistics about infidelity are confusing.
Over the last 25 years there have been many studies, all of them based on what people report about their own behavior – reports that seem to vary wildly depending on how the questions are asked and the setting in which they are asked (presence or absence of family members, face-to-face, or anonymous questionnaires). It also depends, of course, on how ‘cheating’ is defined exactly.
The most comprehensive study by Blow & Hartnett, 2005, puts the ‘cheating over the lifetime of a marriage’ figure at around 25% or less, while a more recent study by psychologist Julia Omarzu only found 10 – 13%.
Often quoted rates of over 50% don’t seem to be verified by recent studies.
And at the same time, 70-80% of Americans repeatedly state that cheating is wrong.
Here are some of the most commonly quoted reasons why married people cheat:
Reasons related to dissatisfaction and disconnectedness in the marriage:
- Sexual unhappiness
The most common reason for cheating is related to sex. Sex in the existing marriage relationship.
Feeling sexually unfulfilled and unwanted (or even rejected) can be very painful. The sexual relationship is at the core of a couple’s connection to each other and it is what makes marriage different from friendships and all other kinds of relationships, so it is not so surprising that dissatisfaction with sex would be the main reason why married people cheat.
- Emotional needs are not being met
Almost as common as sex is the feeling that emotional needs are not being met.
People report feeling ‘lonely’ inside their marriage, disconnected, not understood, and, above all, not validated as a person by their partner. People report considerable emotional suffering, and if it cannot be expressed — or not healed if it is expressed — some turn to someone outside the marriage. Sometimes this leads to falling in love with someone else.
Reasons related to personal issues of the cheating partner:
Some married people cheat not because they are unhappy — they are generally quite content in their marriage. They report feeling curious about sexual activities that don’t happen with their partner, or bored with the repetition of daily life.
On the other side of the scale, some married people cheat because their partner has cheated on them or hurt them in some other, major way. Research is unclear as to whether this helps them heal or not.
- Low self-esteem/ego boost
An affair can boost your self-image, if not always your self-esteem. If you have a tendency to feel that you are not good enough, feeling desired by a new person can have a big effect. Some people actively seek out ego boosts as often as they can get them.
- Sense of entitlement/having it all
Not all cheaters act from a position of deficit, sexual or emotional.
Particularly for those who have long term affairs or serial affairs, cheating can become a lifestyle that allows them to have more than one partner. Statistics seem to suggest that most of these affairs are never discovered and never communicated which makes this ‘double’ lifestyle possible for some and they often have no desire to change it.
Cheating as an extreme form of communication
- Exit affair
If couples catastrophically fail to communicate, an affair can sometimes be a desperate strategy to end the marriage. The partner who cheats can come to understand that the marriage is not what he or she wants by having a relationship with someone else, and can sometimes even end the marriage through ‘discovery.’
Overall it seems that married people cheat because they experience their marriage as painful and unfulfilling, because they have a pre-existing issue with self-esteem or were never truly monogamous, or because they actually want a way out of their marriage.
Marriage counseling can help to uncover what the underlying reasons are and how the partners can heal their marriage. Provided, of course, that both of them want to!