How Often Do People Really Cheat on Each Other?

Decades of research reveal surprising truths about infidelity.

Posted Oct 07, 2010

Lucky Business/Shutterstock
Source: Lucky Business/Shutterstock

Recently I wrote about a study showing that people in a serious romantic relationship, as compared to single (uncoupled) people, have two fewer people they believe they can call on in times of severe crisis. One of the best opinion pieces I read about the study was by Laurie Essig, who addressed the question of why this even matters. One answer was that romantic partners are not always faithful. Those who are betrayed and end up feeling hurt and abandoned would do well to have other people in their lives they did not neglect in order to focus on The One.

But just how often do romantic partners actually stray? We can never really know, of course. Even in representative national surveys, we can only go by are people's own admissions of their infidelity. Happily, though, in a recent issue of the journal Contexts, Deborah Carr reported the results of one national survey that has been ongoing for decades.

From 1973 through 2008, a representative sample of Americans has been asked to give their opinions about infidelity. (They are not the same people each year.) For example, they respond to the question, "A married person having sexual relations with someone other than their spouse is..." with the answer choices being, "always wrong," "almost always wrong," "sometimes wrong," or "not wrong at all." From 1991 through 2008, survey participants who had ever been married were also asked to indicate whether they had ever cheated on their spouse. See how accurately you can guess their responses by answering these five questions. The answers follow.

If you get all of them right, feel free to boast about it in the comments section.

1. True or False:

Over time, Americans have become less judgmental about cheating. Specifically, from 1973 through 2008, the percent who say that "a married person having sexual relations with someone other than their spouse is always wrong" has steadily decreased.

2. True or False:

The number of ever-married men who admit to having cheated on their spouse is nearly 50%.

3. True or False:

Among those who have ever been married, more men than women admit to having cheated on their spouse.

4. True or False:

Men and women are becoming more similar in their rates of cheating (or at least in their self-reports of their rates of cheating).

5. True or False:

Fewer than half of all cheaters believe that marital infidelity is always wrong.


1. False. The percent of Americans who say that cheating is always wrong has actually increased, from around 65% in 1973 to about 81% in 2008. (Data are from the first graph in the article.)

2. False. Between 1991 and 2008, somewhere between about 20% to 25% of men admit to having cheated on their wives.

3. True. Rates of admitted infidelity for women have ranged between about 10% and 15%, compared to the 20 to 25% for men.

4. True. Among people 65 and older, women were only half as likely as men to say that they cheated. Among people ages 18 to 24, women were 81% as likely as men to admit to infidelity.

5. False. Among people who have admitted to cheating, 64% say that infidelity is always wrong. Of those who claim to have always been faithful, though, the corresponding number is 86%.