The Complex Reasons Why Some People Cheat

... and why some relationships can survive it.

Posted May 31, 2010

Source: vgstudio/Shutterstock

A woman came to my office a few times during the past few months. Her husband had encouraged her to enter therapy because of his concern about how much she was drinking. It only took a session or two to find out that there were more significant issues at play. Susan is 41, slender and professional, and her good looks from her days as an exotic dancer still linger. She's been married for five years, but for the past three, each business trip she took involved her going to bed with at least one man. On the most recent trip, a week-long excursion to Chicago, she slept with three different male co-workers, as well as a man she met in her hotel bar.

Susan knew that if her husband found out about her infidelity, the marriage would almost certainly end. She even acknowledged that her husband, who worked in law enforcement, could get violent or aggressive. So why was she unfaithful? Susan had many reasons. The strongest was that the attention from these men brought her the rush that she had once felt as an exotic dancer, when men's eyes were on her all night long.

Susan is not alone. Conservative statistics report that at least 65 percent of males, and close to 50 percent of females admit to committing sexual infidelity at least once in their life. But the numbers are growing and are still widely viewed as low estimates. Despite the decreased stigma and fear attributed to sexual infidelity, many people simply won't report that they've cheated, even in anonymous surveys. If asked their views of sexual infidelity, most of these same people will state that is wrong, immoral, and damaging to a person and a relationship.

So why do they do it? For Susan, and many others who feel their heart race and palms sweat when thinking about sex with someone they're not married to, it helps to understand why cheating is so powerful, compelling, and intriguing. There is not just one answer. Extramarital sex involves a complex pattern of behaviors that include biological influences, psychological factors, social contexts, and the influence of the evolutionary history that shaped our sexual behaviors. Within each person, the reasons and factors vary.

Psychological factors can include things such as how a person feels about themselves and their relationship. Susan was desperately seeking the power and confidence she got from being desired by multiple men, along with the sense of control that their desire gave her. I've also seen people who cheat because they want to be caught so they can end their marriage. For others, infidelity is an escape hatch, a pressure relief valve, a sense of freedom, or just something that "is for me—me alone. Not for my husband, my kids, my job. Just for me."

Psychological and biological reasons often interact: Researchers at the State University of New York found that semen works as an anti-depressant. When women don't use condoms during heterosexual sex, their depressive symptoms go down because their bodies absorb the shockingly long list of psychoactive hormones present in semen, several of which work as natural anti-depressants. In 19th century Paris, French writer Madame Germaine de Stael once wrote to her husband that she had taken a new lover to banish the feelings of depression and sadness that plagued her.

When a sexual relationship starts, our brains are flooded with neurochemicals that foster feelings of excitement, obsession, and impulsivity. Oxytocin, PEA, and dopamine are particularly influential at this stage. When these chemicals rage in our brain, we can often do nothing but think about our new lover—we doodle their name, daydream about being with them, and take every opportunity to be near them. Sex with this new lover is exceptionally powerful, as these chemicals enhance our physical reactivity. Oxytocin alone makes our skin far more sensitive to touch, creating the trails of pleasure that linger after our lover's touch.

With our primary mate, our spouse, these same chemicals may have faded and been replaced by hormones that foster thinking about long-term plans and nurturing and providing for our mate and any children. A new relationship with a new lover triggers these chemicals again, and in many cases, we carry this same level of excitement and passion home with us. This is one reason a spouse can often detect infidelity by changes in our energy, mood, and increased interest in sex. In my book Insatiable Wives, I speculate that this transfer of excitement explains why many nonmonogamous couples report that extramarital sex by the wife actually reignites sexuality within their marriage.

Sex with a new lover is often described as incredible. A male with a new lover is able to have more sex, for longer, more frequently and vigorously, and he ejaculates harder with more sperm in that ejaculate. His body attempts to compete against any other men his new lover might be sleeping with and acts like the body of an alpha male, flooded with testosterone. A woman will become intensely orgasmic, her body responding sexually and physically to a new man in ways she often has not felt in years. When she is at the most fertile point of her cycle, a woman may find herself attracted to men she would normally avoid. She may be drawn to men who have an edge of aggression and dominance who would never truly commit to monogamy or being tied down.

All of this occurs within a social context. A marriage may have already weathered infidelity, and so a new fling may not end it. Perhaps the husband and wife have an "understanding" or perhaps there is little likelihood of getting caught. Perhaps you and your spouse just fought and cheating is the best way you can show how angry and betrayed you feel, even if your spouse won't find out about it.

The rush and excitement of infidelity comes from many different things, for each different person. Extramarital sex may serve several psychological and biological functions. It fulfills important and powerful social roles, and we cannot understand infidelity if we do not understand it within the context of these influences. Whether infidelity is right or wrong for any one person is for that person to decide, within the context of their life, their religion or spirituality or ethics, and their relationship.

Others often judge extramarital affairs with little understanding of the role they serve, and even less understanding of why people would choose to pursue them. People's reasons for infidelity have little to do with their morals or ethics—these things may affect their decisions to pursue sex outside their marriage, and may affect how they do it.

I once spoke with a police officer in a methamphetamine intervention program. He said that we do children a disservice by telling them to "Just say no" to drugs, telling them that drugs are bad, that they hurt you, and damage your life. But we don't tell them that drugs can create powerful positive and pleasant feelings. When a kid tries drugs, they find a sense of euphoria we didn't prepare them for, and wonder what else we lied about. Perhaps infidelity is the same. It feels so good because we expect it to feel sneaky, deceptive, immoral, and unethical. But some of us feel the rush of a new lover, and crave this feeling, despite the consequences and risks.

Abstinence-only sexual education is now widely understood to have serious limitations. One of the greatest limitations is that when these children find themselves in a situation when they decide to have sex, despite their previous vow of abstinence, they are unprepared to do so safely. If you cannot understand the nature of the temptations behind infidelity, or the role that extramarital sex plays in your life, your body, and your sexuality, then you cannot understand those who choose to cheat—or prepare yourself when these temptations confront you.

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