What Is Infidelity?

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What Is Infidelity?

Infidelity—also referred to as cheating or adultery—describes the act of engaging in emotional or sexual intimacy with someone outside the agreed-upon boundaries of your marriage or relationship. Infidelity may or may not involve sexual encounters, and can happen in person or online.

Infidelity is, unfortunately, common. Rates of infidelity in relationships vary from about 20% to 50%. Infidelity can have a strong impact on the relationship and can lead to depression, guilt, blame, and anger.

Signs of Infidelity

It can be difficult to know if your partner is cheating on you without concrete evidence. However, there are some warning signs that your spouse may be engaging in infidelity. When it comes to infidelity, there will usually be multiple red flags that clue you into what is going on.

Some potential signs of infidelity include:

  • You may notice significant changes in your sex life, that your partner is less interested in sex than usual and has trouble becoming sexually aroused with you or that your partner is much more interested in sex with you than they usually are
  • Your partner may want to engage in sexual activities that seem foreign or off-putting to you
  • Your partner may be paying more attention to their appearance than usual
  • Your partner may not be sleeping well
  • Your partner may seem unusually distracted and stressed
  • Your partner may be more private than usual and may demand more privacy
  • Your partner may be spending more time away from home or going on longer and more frequent trips for work or with friends
  • You may find it more difficult to connect with your partner, and they may be more reactive, more hostile, or colder than usual
  • You may also experience sleeplessness, stress, and distraction as a result of your suspicions about your partner’s behavior

Causes of Infidelity

Many of us have the idea that infidelity only happens in unhappy relationships, but even people in happy relationships cheat. Infidelity often happens because of dissatisfaction within a relationship, but it can also happen because of low self-esteem, or an addiction to sex or romance. At other times, it happens because of personality traits, a permissive attitude about sex, and cultural and societal norms about sex and relationships that support infidelity.

There are some studies that show that men are more likely to cheat than women, but others show that men are more likely to engage in sexual infidelity, whereas women are more likely to engage in emotional infidelity. People with higher sexual urges are more likely to engage in infidelity, as are people with higher levels of insecurity, who may be seeking validation through an affair.

Types of Infidelity

Infidelity doesn’t just look like someone going out to a motel and having a secret sexual affair. Cheating can take many forms and doesn’t always involve in-person encounters. It’s also important to note that what may constitute infidelity for one person may not ring true for another.

For example, while some people consider viewing pornography “cheating,” others may view this as normal and acceptable. The point is that each couple should clearly define what is and isn’t allowed in their relationship and which activities would constitute a boundary violation.

The main types of infidelity that most couples recognize are:

Sexual Infidelity

This involves engaging in sexual relations of any kind outside of the relationship. There may or may not be an emotional component here.

Emotional Infidelity

The difference between a platonic relationship and a case of emotional infidelity is that the relationship involves flirting, sexual chemistry, and a level of emotional intimacy similar to romantic relationships. Additionally, there is secrecy involved: information about the relationship is often purposefully hidden.

Online Infidelity

Online, or cyber infidelity, involves engaging in sexual or emotional affairs online, via chat rooms, messages, texts, and exchanging of photos and sexual fantasies. Some people consider viewing pornography without engaging with others a type of cheating, while others do not.

Impact of Infidelity

Infidelity can have serious impacts on relationships and on the individuals involved, including those who are cheated on, and those who do the cheating. When infidelity impacts a relationship, it can leave the people in it feeling highly distressed, depressed, and out of sorts. It can cause heightened anxiety, suicidal ideation, and signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The person who was cheated on may feel deeply betrayed, and suspicious of their spouse’s activities going forward. They may experience nightmares, flashbacks, and may have images of the affair playing in their head as if on a movie reel. Trust may be severed, and difficult to repair.

Finally, infidelity can strain or break apart relationships or marriages. Infidelity is one of the top reasons that couples go to relationship counseling, and it’s one of the most common reasons for divorce.

Coping With Infidelity

Although the impacts of infidelity can’t be minimized, and it is not recommended to remain in a relationship with someone who betrays trust repeatedly without remorse and avoids taking responsibility, there is some hope. Relationship counseling with a licensed therapist can be effective at helping couples heal, move on from affairs, and establish firm boundaries so that infidelity does not become a chronic problem.

Therapy for infidelity usually begins with the therapist creating a safe and supportive space for each partner to share their feelings, needs, and relationship goals. Reasons for the affair may be explored to gain greater awareness about the root causes and the couple may decide whether to mend or end the relationship.

If saving the relationship is desired, a skilled couples therapist can support the couple with tools to help improve communication and to facilitate repair. What is needed to restore trust and safety in the relationship can be explored and practiced in the healing process.

A therapist can also work with the couple to help address what is not working in the relationship, including unhealthy patterns such as codependency and self-blame. A therapist can help the couple improve and change ineffective ways of communicating such as stonewalling, criticism, defensiveness, and contempt.

Couples therapy can look very different depending on the therapeutic orientation, personality, and practice style of the therapist and unique dynamic and presenting issues of the couple. It is important to find a therapist that each member of the relationship feels comfortable working with. Interviewing multiple therapists is highly recommended.

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect your spouse is cheating, but aren’t sure what to do, it can be helpful to speak to a therapist or counselor to help sort your feelings out and to make a plan for how to confront this problem. If cheating is confirmed, it’s important to take your mental health seriously, as dealing with the aftermath of an affair can be stressful and traumatic. Be gentle with yourself, and honor your emotional boundaries.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Online Infidelity.

  3. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Infidelity.

  4. Knopp K, Scott S, Ritchie L, Rhoades GK, Markman HJ, Stanley SM. Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater? Serial Infidelity Across Subsequent Relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 2017;46(8):2301-2311. doi:10.1007/s10508-017-1018-1

  5. Fye M, Mims G. Preventing Infidelity: A Theory of Protective Factors. Family Journal. 2019;27(1):22-30. doi:10.1177/1066480718809428

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