Here's Why People Cheat on Those They Love, According to Psychology

Infidelity is one of the most difficult situations a person can face in a relationship and can have serious health consequences for those involved.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist and professor at the California State University, Los Angeles, told Newsweek: "The psychological impact of relationship betrayal cannot be understated."

The act can "activate old losses, traumas, betrayals, and raise issues including anxiety, depression and strong grief reactions," she explained.

"We can also see self-blame," a person blaming themselves for their partner's betrayal and "post-traumatic stress reactions," she added.

According to some studies, the victims and perpetrators of infidelity frequently experience "negative intrapersonal outcomes," such as a decline in self-esteem, increased risk of mental health problems, guilt and depression, explained an April 2014 study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Family Psychology.

Here health experts explain why people cheat, how common infidelity is and how you can recover from it.

A couple in bed turned, backs turned.
A couple in bed with their backs turned from each other. The reasons for infidelity in relationships are complicated and varied. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Why Do People Cheat in Relationships?

One of the many questions that circle the minds of those who have been cheated on is "Why?"

Durvasula said the reasons for infidelity in relationships are "complicated and varied."

Among the common reasons why people cheat in relationships include the following, as outlined by Durvasula and Dr. Eve Kilmer, a psychologist and certified emotionally focused therapy (EFT) couples therapist based in Boulder, Colorado:

  • Low self-esteem (a desire for reassurance that one is desirable).
  • Difficulties with emotional intimacy (such as "not being able to bring up emotional needs and the consequent negative feelings getting in the way of loving feelings," said Kilmer).
  • Situational or opportunity reasons.
  • Impulsivity.
  • Excitement seeking.
  • Being able to compartmentalize sex and intimacy and their own primary relationship.
  • Being able to compartmentalize in general.
  • Lack of empathy.
  • Novelty seeking.
  • Fear around aging.
  • Status seeking.
  • Acting out.
  • Drug and alcohol use.
  • Certain personality styles like narcissism and psychopathy.
  • Difficulties in the primary relationship/unhappiness in the marriage (not getting your emotional needs met in the relationship and therefore being more vulnerable to interest in others, Kilmer explained).

Durvasula added that some men cheat because of "stupid rationalizations based on human evolution." This refers to a "biological expectation" that men would want multiple partners to maximize reproduction and choose younger partners for "fertility reasons."

The psychologist explained: "It's a flawed argument because while a male could impregnate multiple females, if he can't ensure their safety and feeding—and the progeny doesn't make it to reproductive age—then there is no point. It's just stupid but cheaters will come up with anything to justify."

According to Dr. John Gottman, Dr. Caryl Rusbult and Dr. Shirley Glass at The Gottman Institute, a research group looking at relationships, infidelity begins with a bid for attention.

"When one can't count on their partner to be available in their time of need, it leads to unfavorable comparisons, emotional distance, and eventual betrayal, if not the demise of love," explains Jinashree Rajendrakumar, a certified Gottman couple therapist from India.

According to Gottman, Rusbult and Glass, cheating is preceded by "a cascade of steps" or circumstances that lead to the act of betrayal. These steps include the following:

  • Turning away from or turning against your partner.
  • Entering a negative state and avoiding conflict.
  • Investing less in the relationship and comparing it more with others.
  • Feeling less dependent and making fewer sacrifices.
  • Trashing vs. cherishing your partner.
  • Feeling resentment and loneliness.
  • Idealizing alternative relationships.
  • Holding secrets and crossing boundaries.

How Common Is Cheating in Relationships?

Studies suggest that around 30 to 40 percent of unmarried relationships and 18 to 20 percent of marriages see at least one incident of sexual infidelity, according to Kilmer.

In the U.S., infidelity impacts around one in three couples, according to the book After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful by Dr. Janis A. Spring.

Research from YouGov America reported in June 2015 showed that roughly a fifth of both men (21 percent) and women (19 percent) say they have cheated on a partner.

Durvasula said cheating is "not the norm, but not uncommon," with some estimates as high as 35 to 40 percent among those in long term but non-marital relationships and perhaps closer to 15 to 20 percent among marital relationships.

However, the psychologist noted this research is limited because it may not account for the full range of infidelity, including emotional infidelity, online infidelity, as well as "what sexual or intimate behavior qualifies" as infidelity.

Durvasula also said: "In addition, the research is often heteronormative, and doesn't capture this experience in LGBTQ+ relationships. Numbers vary vastly cross-culturally often as a function of cultural prohibitions and even punishments in different parts of the world and across religions and cultures," she explained.

A woman upset after discovering cheating partner.
A woman seen with hands on her face after finding her partner embracing another woman. According to YouGovAmerica study published in 2015, around fifth of both men and women say they have cheated on their partner. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Below are some other statistics about infidelity, according to YouGovAmerica's research.

  • A June 2015 study found around 41 percent of men admit they have thought about cheating on their partners, while 39 percent claim they hadn't ever thought about it. Just over half of women (54 percent) say that they've never thought about cheating on their partner, while 28 percent say that they have.
  • While both men and women "largely agree" that having sex counts as cheating, women are more likely than men to view other things as infidelity.
  • Around 74 percent of women consider "sexting" or "forming an emotional, non-sexual relationship with another person to be cheating, while 59 percent of men also agree.
  • While 56 percent of women say you're a cheater if you form an emotional relationship with another person, only 38 percent of men also consider this to be cheating.
A couple in bed, man using phone.
A man looking at his mobile phone while in bed next to his partner. The types of infidelity can range from emotional to sexual and everything in between. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Can I Recover From Infidelity in a Relationship?

Whether a person who has been cheated on can recover from the incident depends on several factors.

How the cheater responds

Some of the recovery has to do with "the empathy and contrition of the cheater," Durvasula noted. Are they taking responsibility? Are they able to see the hurt they caused? Are they owning up to it and also committing to addressing it?

"If the cheater has a narcissistic or other antagonistic personality style, recovery is also far less likely because these are manipulative, dismissive and invalidating relationships even when the cheating is not happening," the psychologist said.

The length and nature of the infidelity

The recovery will be impacted how long the infidelity lasted, the emotional vs. sexual nature of the infidelity and whether the person repeats the betrayal, according to Durvasula.

"It also relates to a person's history of being cheated on or even childhood experiences," she added, such witnessing a parent who was unfaithful to the other parent.

The ultimate fate of the relationship

The recovery will also vary depending on whether the relationship is going to end or keep going.

If it does end, then the recovery will focus on "grief work, healing from the breakup and all the issues of that and doing the healing from the betrayal – therapy is often essential," Durvasula explained.

Kilmer noted that if one chooses to leave the relationship, "therapy can also be helpful if there is a pattern in choosing partners that are unfaithful/distant or if they played a role in creating distance in the relationship."

Turning to others for support (i.e. friends, a divorce support group) helps shrink the painful feelings, she said.

The psychologist recommends the following as part of your recovery if the relationship has ended:

  • Seeking social support.
  • Self-care.
  • "Switching life up," such as by traveling, trying something new, taking on new hobbies or activities.
  • Doing the things you couldn't do while you were in the relationship.

"Time is your friend," as the pain of the betrayal and all that comes with it "will dissipate over time," Durvasula noted. "But that said, there is no hard and fast time frame, and having to let go of both the relationship and manage the betrayal can be very difficult."

A commitment to make the relationship work

Deciding you will attempt to work on the relationship and heal comes with another set of challenges, Durvasula warned. It may mean both individual therapy and couples therapy.

Kilmer recommends working with a psychologist who specializes in couples therapy to work through the healing process and regaining trust if a couple chooses to stay in the relationship.

Durvasula said the key thing to remember is that you aren't going back to the relationship you had. Instead, you're entering "a new relationship with new rules, new expectations and a little bit of a hole in the middle. There is no reset button to go backwards to what once was," she said.

Take your time, the psychologist advised. "You may need to talk it out many many times and if your partner isn't willing to do that patient work, then it may not work out.

"Be gentle with yourself, and understand that it may be two steps forward, one step back. Your partner will have to engage in trust building—whatever that looks like, and that may be the work of couples therapy," Durvasula said.

A couple sitting on the floor.
A couple sitting on the floor near a couch, away from each other. Infidelity is preceded by a cascade of steps that lead to the act of betrayal, such as turning away or turning against your partner.