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The Cheater's High

New research may explain why so many couples experience infidelity.

Research almost universally suggests that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of people in committed relationships, both men and women, cheat on their partner. Taking into consideration the fear that most cheaters have of getting caught, combined with the cultural and personal stigma that comes with cheating, it’s likely that those numbers are a bit, shall we say, underreported. And in today’s world of webcam sex, virtual reality, and endless access to online porn, cheating in the traditional, in-the-flesh sense may have little to do with what it is that actually leaves a spouse or partner feeling betrayed.

In our increasingly digital world, finding sex outside of one’s primary relationship can be easily facilitated by technology, in particular "friend finder" hookup apps. Some of these websites and apps, most notably Ashley Madison, are specifically designed to facilitate extramarital sexual encounters. In fact, the site’s slogan for men reads, “Life is short. Have an affair,” and for women, "When divorce isn’t an option.” As of today, Ashley Madison reports having more than 28 million members, and it’s just one of many hookup apps currently fostering infidelity.

It looks like there’s a lot of cheating going on out there. But why do so many men and women in committed relationships choose to cheat?

What causes these otherwise thoughtful and well-meaning people to ignore their vows of fidelity, risking grievous harm to their relationship and their partner’s emotional wellbeing? The answer is fairly convoluted, with males and females engaging in infidelity for a separate but wide variety of reasons.

The Cheater's High

For both genders, one reason for cheating, according to a study published last year, may be that “getting away with it” simply makes people feel good, emotionally and psychologically. While this research did not deal specifically with sexual activity, it did look at unethical behavior in general, and the findings can certainly be extrapolated to sexual activity.

For the study, a diverse group of researchers led by Nicole Ruedy of the University of Washington conducted a half-dozen separate experiments.

In one trial, two sets of participants answered math and logic problems on computers. The first set of participants received no hints or help. The second could click a button to see the correct answer before giving their own response; they were asked to ignore that button and solve problems without the crutch, but were also told that there was no penalty for pushing it.

Researchers were able to see who used the “correct answer button"—that is, who cheated—and who didn’t. They found that 68 percent of people who had the option to cheat took it. So we see that given the right circumstances—the cheating is perceived as victimless and there is no punishment—approximately two-thirds of people may choose to cheat.

In another experiment, researchers paired a true study participant with an actor pretending to be a participant. The actual participants were asked to solve puzzles, and were told they’d be paid for each puzzle they solved correctly within a certain time limit, with their work being graded by the other participant (the actor). Half the time, the actor graded the solver’s work correctly, but half of the time the actor inflated the solver’s score, thereby increasing that person’s financial payout.

None of the real participants in the cheating duos reported the lie, and those who profited from the grader’s dishonesty reported feeling better about the test than those who hadn’t. In other words, getting away with a harmless bit of cheating appears to have evoked a pleasurable response. So again, we see that given the right circumstances—the cheating is perceived as victimless and there is no looming punishment—people actually tend to feel good about cheating, despite their moral and ethical beliefs.

All told, the results of the six trials in this study fly in the face of the long-held belief that unethical behavior triggers bad feelings in most people. The research showed instead that people may in fact enjoy the process of “getting away with something,” thanks to built-in neurobiological rewards of excitement and arousal. And it appears this is doubly true if and when they think their unethical behavior is not harming anyone.

The authors of this study labeled this increase in positive affect the “cheater's high.”

The Cheater's High and Sexual Infidelity

Again, the aforementioned research did not directly look at sexual or romantic infidelity. But sexual betrayal does in many ways mesh with the types of cheating studied, in that most people who cheat on their spouses and partners choose to view their behavior as harmless and victimless, reasoning that “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.” And the fact that cheaters do often get away with their behavior, sometimes repeatedly and over long periods of time, merely reinforces this distortion.

As a clinician who specializes in the treatment of sexual disorders, I have worked with literally hundreds of men and women who have cheated on their committed partners. And I’ve heard every rationalization, justification, and minimization imaginable (and more than a few that are seemingly beyond imagination), but the primary rationalization nearly always boils down to some form of the following: “As long as he (or she) doesn’t find out, what difference does it make?”

In other words, nearly every cheater I’ve ever worked with has convinced himself or herself that he or she is not hurting anyone. And this belief that what they are doing is victimless, coupled with their ability to repeatedly get away with it, allows them to experience the cheater's high.

In reality, of course, sexual infidelity is far from victimless. Spouses and other family members are hurt by the cheater even before the infidelity is discovered, as active cheaters tend to be emotionally distant from loved ones; less sexual, physical, or loving toward their spouse; and also less available. Further, to get away with infidelity over and over again, cheaters often tell lies that make no sense, spend money or time that they don’t have, etc.

And then, when the cheating is finally uncovered, according to one recent study of women married to serial cheaters, many betrayed wives experience acute stress and anxiety symptoms characteristic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a serious mental health issue with chronic internal and external consequences.

Causes of the Cheater’s High

The authors of the cheater's high study suggest three primary ways in which people derive emotional and psychological satisfaction from unethical behavior:

  • Cheating provides financial, social, or other gains—raises at work, better grades, the satisfaction of “outperforming” someone else. These windfalls are generally causation for feeling good.
  • Cheating leads to a greater sense of autonomy. Circumventing rules that limit others gives cheaters an increased sense of control over their own lives, making them feel better about themselves.
  • Cheating often involves “beating the system.” The mental gymnastics involved can make life more interesting and exciting, causing people to enjoy their lives more and, again, feel better about themselves.

Each of these concepts is very much in effect with sexual deceit. First, the “gains” of infidelity involve having more (and perhaps more exciting) sex—and sexual activity, and orgasm in particular, are among the most pleasurable (dopaminergic) experiences humans can have without ingesting stimulant drugs like methamphetamine or cocaine. Second, circumventing one’s vows of monogamy and other societal mores attached to long-term relationships gives cheaters a greater sense of control over their sexual lives, a feeling that can extend to other areas. Third—and I see this all the time with my clients—there is a definite sense of accomplishment and enjoyment attached to simply getting away with something.

One aspect of the cheater’s high that needs to be further explored is whether it serves as a motivating factor for future behavior. In other words, does (purportedly) victimless cheating without getting caught and the “high” that this behavior induces encourage more cheating in the future? That would certainly help explain the fact that people who engage in sexual infidelity rarely do so only once. In fact, most do it repeatedly until they’re caught (and often continue doing it even after they’ve been caught).

That said, the reasons people act the way they do are never as cut-and-dried as most of us might like, and motivations for sexual infidelity are even more complex because innate and very complicated drives for sexual activity and emotional intimacy are thrown into the mix. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the good feelings brought on by getting away with a perceived victimless unethical act (like sexual infidelity) may well be a significant contributing factor.

More from Robert Weiss Ph.D., LCSW, CSAT
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