Would you ever cheat on your partner? Your values, attitudes, and adult brain may very well say no. But what about your automatic, subconscious thoughts and your emotional system? They may have different ideas for you—and your automatic, emotional responses and resultant behaviors do not care about your long-term happiness or well-being. They just demand to be satisfied now.
How many times have you heard about a famous person who cheats and loses everything in a giant public display? These people often have money, status, seemingly great families, and sometimes children. In these cases, and knowing nothing really about the person’s life, I often hear people muse, “How could he throw it all away like that?”
Well, a lot of people do. A 2007 study by Walsh, Miller, and Westfall found that 23 percent of men and 20 percent of women reported cheating (sexual intercourse with another person) at some point in their long-term relationships. That is a lot of people. And notice that women are almost as likely to cheat as men.
So, what leads people to cheat? Attachment theory may hold some of the answers. At its core, attachment theory is a theory of emotion regulation and control. That is, many of our behaviors in relationships emanate from our instinctual desire to lower anxiety and increase our sense of security and belonging. Because people with different attachment styles experience these emotions to different degrees, they are likely to behave differently when interacting with others.
Below, I will discuss cheating in terms of attachment-based emotional patterns, but I am thoroughly aware that there are a great many reasons why someone might cheat. I am going to look at the issue from the lens of anxious and avoidant attachment. Primarily, I will talk about the adult preoccupied style (more anxious) and dismissing style (more avoidant). The fearful style is a combination of anxious and avoidant attachment and is less likely to adhere to a set pattern.
The research in this area is surprisingly sparse. So, most of what I have to share is based on my own observations and work with people, as well as my in-depth knowledge of the attachment system. Based on how attachment patterns work, I believe that people with dismissing/avoidant styles cheat because they are running away from closeness in relationships. People with preoccupied/anxious styles cheat because they are running toward closeness in their relationships.
Across a great many people, I have observed that when an avoidant person feels stuck in an unrewarding relationship, or are feeling smothered by their partner—sometimes this doesn’t take much—they start to pick the partner apart in their thoughts. Whether the partner is warm and loving doesn’t change this.
Dismissing people may have anxiety and negative emotions activated by this closeness. But they block conscious awareness of the emotional distress, so their brains turn to picking on the partner instead. They may complain about the person’s mannerisms, hairstyle, or general looks.
But the partner will often be giving the dismissing/avoidant person more attention and closeness than they can tolerate. And so, the dismissing person is unlikely to be seeking love, attention, and nurturance in the arms of another person. Rather, I have found that they rarely feel more connection with an alternate lover than they do with their long-term partner. They seem to view the sexual connection as a welcome distraction or form of exciting entertainment. Often, they have no intention of leaving their relationship.
The preoccupied/anxious person, in contrast, may be highly distressed when a partner is emotionally unavailable or withholds closeness and affection. This is likely to cause a flood of negative emotions and racing thoughts of potential abandonment and betrayal. Ironically, the preoccupied/anxious person usually is worried that the dismissing partner is cheating. The anxious person may also note that if they were cheating, the dismissing partner probably “would not even notice.”
All these negative emotions and thoughts leave the anxious person craving emotional warmth and security. They often tell their partners that they need more of an emotional connection. They complain that the partner either cannot or will not meet their needs.
Facing a sense of chronic, impending doom, the anxious person may want to take out “an insurance policy.” In other words, they may sense that if the relationship came apart, they would be so distraught that they would not be able to cope. They may try to line up another romantic partner so that they have someone to go to if their primary relationship fails.
Of course, the closeness and flirtation needed to take out these insurance policies can leave the preoccupied/anxious person on dangerous ground. They may be more open to romantic encounters outside of the relationship and more prone to act out when presented with a strong temptation.
Although the preoccupied/anxious person may be more vulnerable to acting out in this way, they are least likely to be able to handle the guilt after the fact, and least likely to be able to tolerate the consequences of being found out or of confessing (because they cannot tolerate the guilt). Because their thoughts tend to get hijacked by their emotions, they are likely to observe, “It made sense at the time,” although rarely have I seen it viewed as anything other than a major mistake.*
So, what do we do about this?
1. Do not cheat. If you are really feeling a strong pull to do so, then, by general social standards, there is likely to be a significant problem in your primary relationship that needs to be addressed. You should either address it directly or. . .
2. Leave your primary relationship. If you are going to cheat, then you must take responsibility for potentially facing the consequences. If you know that you will not be able to handle the consequences, refer to number 1 above.
3. If you decide in advance that you are going to cheat, do the honorable thing and end the primary relationship. Alternately, you can ask your partner for an open relationship and see if they are willing to stay connected to you emotionally while you have sexual relations with others. (More people do this than you may think.)
4. Realize that sex does not make everything better. You may have minutes of pleasure, euphoria, comfort, and release in exchange for years of pain.
5. If you are the dismissing/avoidant person, realize that what your partner probably wants more than anything is you directly expressing your love and affection. Also, understand that even if you don’t feel a strong need for sex, your partner may view a lack of sex as a sign that you no longer love them or have romantic feelings for them. They may then run toward another person.
6. If you are the preoccupied/anxious person, realize that your partner may need time and space away from you. Be aware that this does not have to mean they are cheating on you. Also, remember that your emotional system is hypervigilant for signs of danger in the relationship, and you are likely to be a bit paranoid. This will leave you feeling jealous and insecure. Feeling jealous and insecure may make it more likely that you will be the one to cheat.
7. Slow down your process. Maybe you can tolerate a little loneliness or a little too much closeness from your partner. And if you cannot tolerate it or still feel a need to act out, then consider seeking the help of a couples counselor.
In summary: If you cheated and plan on continuing, then you should probably leave your relationship. If it was a one-time thing that you view as a mistake, consider bearing the weight of your guilt and staying in the relationship.
Just let me point out that infidelity or cheating does not make anyone a bad person. It never ceases to amaze me that so many good and wonderful people can make decisions that harm them or that they later regret. Before you act, consider the extent to which your behavior has the potential to do good for you and others versus the likelihood that it will cause harm.
* There are less-common instances where the preoccupied person may find the experience liberating.
Walsh, M., Miller, M., & Westfall, R. S. (2019). Sex differences in response to emotional and sexual infidelity in dating relationships. Journal of Individual Differences, 40(2), 63–70. https://doi.org/10.1027/1614-0001/a000277