3 Reasons People Cheat
Understanding the hearts and minds of those who stray.
Posted Nov 04, 2018
So many questions show up when you have been cheated on: Why did my husband or wife cheat on me? What did I do to deserve this? What were they thinking? Were they thinking of me at all? How could they be so selfish?
The truth is that there are many justifications for cheating. Although the specific details can vary greatly, there are three general reasons I have seen as to why people cheat on their spouse:
1. Being conflict avoidant
2. Being disempowered
3. Being entitled
Here are some examples I have witnessed over the years:
Mary Ann had been trained from a young age to be agreeable with her husband, Michael.
Whatever he wanted to do, she felt she had to go along with it. This included what job he took, what city they lived in, what house they bought, what car she drove, as well as where they went on vacation, and what events they attended (and for how long). It seemed like she would just get settled, and they'd be moving again. She had a career as a nurse, and it was never too hard for her to get a new job, but just the fact that she had to start all over every couple of years really irked her. After 38 years, she had built up a pretty juicy resentment against Michael.
As tired as she was of not having a say, it didn’t occur to her that she could speak up and ask for what she needed. She assumed that Michael would not like her requests and that saying no to him would cause an argument.
Instead of fighting, Mary Ann unconsciously took her power back by giving in to her own desires. She started an affair with a man she'd met at one of the hospitals where she worked as a per diem nurse.
Michael discovered the affair when he got a traffic citation in the mail (the cars were all registered to him — something she didn't think about when she made that illegal U-turn). He asked her what she had been doing in San Francisco when her jobs were in Sonoma and Napa counties. She was not a good liar, and the truth came out.
Guy and Joe were raising two young children, a 5-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter.
Both men seemed happy enough but Guy, a stay-at-home dad, felt lesser than Joe, who was a successful software engineer. At the end of the day, Joe would come home with stories of things that happened at work or exciting projects he was working on. Guy found he had very little to say other than what adorable things the kids did that day or what came in the mail.
More and more, Guy felt disrespected and unimportant to Joe.
In order to build his self-confidence, Guy started going to the gym and working on improving his physical well-being. Within a month of working with a personal trainer, Guy found himself meeting the trainer for coffee and then dinner and then staying out with him later and later. Soon enough, they were involved in a physical relationship and very much in love.
Joe was devastated when Guy asked him for a divorce, as he had no idea that Guy felt so bad in the relationship (and Joe didn't see Guy as less than, but never got the chance to tell him, since Guy hadn't shared this insecurity with him).
JK was an executive at a major financial firm and had moved up the ladder by working very hard over the years. He had paid his dues, and that had paid off.
He bought a beautiful house for the family, put the kids in private schools, joined the local country club, and even got them a small summer house not too far away. They had more than enough, and JK felt like he had done everything he could to make sure everyone was happy and well cared for.
It was not uncommon for some of the other men at work to go out to strip clubs after a long, hard day at the office, and JK felt like he deserved to be able to unwind too. He found one of the women at the clubs especially attractive, so he began a private tryst with her, setting her up with an apartment and paying her handsomely for time she reserved for him (in essence, he was her sugar daddy).
JK had no intention of leaving his family for this woman. Likewise, he had no intention of giving up the fun and sexual pleasure she provided him. He justified that he wasn't hurting anyone, and in fact, he saw this as a win-win-win. Everyone got what they wanted. His wife didn't quite see it this way.
JK's extramarital lifestyle was discovered when his wife hired a private investigator to see whether he was really staying late at the office, or whether there was some other reason he was coming home tired and late. Her suspicions were soon confirmed, and JK found himself in divorce court, still not understanding what he had done wrong.
According to noted psychologist and author, Esther Perel, the numbers of people cheating can vary from 26 to 75 percent, depending on how cheating is defined. She states that it can be defined as being sexual with another person, but it can also be defined as watching porn on the internet, staying on a dating app, or sexting (non-physical cheating).
Although cheating is condemned, cheating is rampant (and the internet is making it even more widespread). What's up with that?
Is Cheating About Power?
In the examples I've shared in this article, the one thing each of these cheaters has in common is that they have a skewed relationship with power. In two of the three examples, those who were unfaithful felt too little power. In the third example, the one who cheated had a great deal of power.
My conclusion is that, yes, in many — if not most — incidents of infidelity, there is some internal power distortion going on. This is often happening outside our awareness, so here are some questions to assess whether you are right-sized with your sense of power or not:
1. Do you see yourself as "one-up" or "one-down" in your relationship?
2. If you are not feeling on an even par with your mate, have you done anything to try to get things more even? If so, what? If not, why not?
3. Do you feel indebted to your spouse, or like you are not carrying your own weight?
4. Do you feel entitled to certain things in life, because you do more than your share?
5. Are you able to share your unhappiness or dissatisfaction with your mate?
6. Are you comfortable when disagreements happen with your mate? If not, why not?
7. Are there power dynamics in the relationship that you would like to change?
8. Do you feel justified doing things that on some level you know are wrong or even immoral?
9. Do you find yourself complaining about your mate to others, but not speaking directly to him or her about the issues?
10. Are you not being more direct with your spouse out of fear of how he or she will react?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you may want to explore further whether you are conflict-avoidant, disempowered, or entitled in your relationship.
More Information on Affairs and Why They Happen:
Research by Psychological Science found that there is a strong relationship between those in power and those who stray. There have also been studies on what the Infidelity Recovery Institute calls "avoidance affairs." Relationship Headquarters writes about disempowerment and cheating as well. And Esther Perel writes about why happy people cheat in The Atlantic. Her latest book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, is a great read on the subject as well.