Causes and Risks of Why Married People Cheat

Motivations for extramarital affairs are vast and can vary by gender

Why do people cheat? A wide variety of factors can bring out some type of affair. A study of 495 people revealed eight key reasons: anger, low self-esteem, lack of love, low commitment, need for variety, neglect, sexual desire, and circumstance. It's important to understand that these reasons arise within the cheater and are not the responsibility of the betrayed partner.

Upwards of 40% of married couples are affected by infidelity.

Frustration in the marriage is one common trigger; the cheater may make several attempts to solve problems to no avail. Maybe they had second thoughts about getting married or they were jealous over the attention given to a new baby and neither partner had the skill set to communicate these feelings.

Perhaps the straying spouse has childhood baggage — neglect, abuse, or a parent who cheated — that interferes with their ability to maintain a committed relationship. Less often, the cheater doesn't value monogamy, lacks empathy, or simply doesn't care about the consequences.

We will take a look at a number of risk factors and causes for cheating, but it's important to point out upfront that a partner doesn't cause their spouse to cheat. Whether it was a cry for help, an exit strategy, or a means to get revenge after being cheated on themselves, the cheater alone is responsible for cheating.

Risk factors for marital infidelity

Verywell / Jessica Olah

How Motivations Differ by Sex

Men are more likely to have affairs than women and are often seeking more sex or attention. Men express their love in a more physical way — they often don't have the perfect "feeling words" for their wives. So sex becomes an important path to connection and intimacy.

If men aren't sexually satisfied (for instance, if their spouse declines sex often), they take that rejection to heart, and it can easily translate to feeling "unloved." In fact, men are more likely than women to cheat due to a feeling of insecurity.

When women cheat, they're often trying to fill an emotional void. Women frequently complain of disconnection from a spouse, and of the wish to be desired and cherished. Women are more likely to feel unappreciated or ignored, and seek the emotional intimacy of an extramarital relationship.

An affair is more often a "transitional" partner for the woman as a way to end the relationship. She is seriously looking to leave her marriage and this other person helps her do just that. 

That's not to say that sexual satisfaction isn't a primary driver of affairs for wives as well as husbands. Similarly, boredom with the marital relationship may lead both men and women to cheat.

In one study of men and women who were actively pursuing or involved in extramarital affairs, both genders said they were hoping to improve their sex lives—because they felt their primary relationship was lacking between the sheets.

Causes and Risk Factors

There's a myriad of reasons or causes why men or women may engage in an extramarital liaison, but certain risk factors—either with one of the individuals or the marriage as a whole—increase the odds it will happen.

Individual Risk Factors

The general rule is that it takes two to tango, or in this case, to mess up their marriage with an affair, but there are certainly exceptions. Individual factors that may increase the chance of infidelity include:

  • Addiction: Substance abuse issues, whether it"s addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or something else, are clear risk factors. Alcohol, in particular, can reduce inhibitions so that a person who wouldn't consider having an affair when sober, may cross the line.
  • Attachment style: Some attachment styles, such as attachment avoidance or attachment insecurity, as well as intimacy disorders have also been looked at in relationship to a propensity to cheat. Poor self-esteem and insecurity can also raise the risk of an affair as a way to prove worthiness.
  • Childhood trauma: Having a history of childhood trauma (such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect) is associated with a higher chance that a person will cheat (if he or she has not addressed the trauma and has unresolved issues).
  • Exposure to infidelity in childhood: Previous experience with cheating can also increase the risk of infidelity. A 2015 review found that children who are exposed to a parent having an affair are twice as likely to have an affair themselves.
  • Mental illness: Some mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder are a risk factor for cheating in marriage.
  • Previous cheating: The saying "once a cheater, always a cheater" is more than an old wives' tale. A 2017 study was the first to evaluate the credibility of this saying. In this study, those who were involved in an extramarital affair were three times more likely to repeat the behavior in their next relationship.
  • Psychological issues: Narcissistic traits or personality disorders are associated with a greater likelihood of cheating. With narcissism, an affair may be driven by ego and a sense of entitlement. In addition to being self-centered, people with these disorders often lack empathy, so they don't appreciate the impact of their actions on their spouse.

In a 2018 study looking at personality traits, women who ranked high in "neuroticism" and men who ranked higher in "narcissism" were more likely to cheat.

  • Sex addiction: Certainly, sex addiction in one partner increases the chance that they will be unsatisfied with the physical aspect of their marriage and look elsewhere.

Risk Factors Within a Relationship

Problems in the marital relationship can also be a risk factor for cheating. Some of these include:

  • Domestic violence and emotional abuse
  • Emotional and/or physical disconnect
  • Financial pressures
  • Lack of communication
  • Lack of respect
  • Low compatibility (people who married for the wrong reasons): Low compatibility can lead to a sense of "buyer's remorse"

Primary Reasons for Cheating

With or without individual or marital risk factors there are a number of possible reasons for marital infidelity. Underlying many of the reasons, however, lie a few threads. One is the role of unmet needs.

One partner may be incapable of fulfilling their partner's needs, but far too often, those needs have not been expressed. Marital partners are not mind-readers. Another is the lack of addressing problems directly.

Running away from problems (conflict avoidance) rather than staying and addressing them is another crucial element in communication and commitment in marriage.

Some of the reasons cited as the cause for cheating may include:

  • Unhappiness/Dissatisfaction: Dissatisfaction with the marriage either emotionally or sexually is common. Marriage is work, and without mutual nurturing couples may grow apart. A sexless marriage is often claimed as a reason for both men and women.
  • Feeling unappreciated: Feeling undervalued or neglected can lead to infidelity. When both partners work, women often carry the brunt of the housework and childcare. In this case, the affair validates the person's sense of worth. On the flip side, however, feeling neglected may be related to unrealistic expectations of a partner rather than true neglect.
  • Lack of commitment: Everything else aside, a 2018 study found that people who are less committed to their relationship are more likely to cheat.
  • Boredom: Men and women looking for the thrill of the chase and the excitement of newfound love may be more likely to cheat. Rather than trying to find a substitute for their partner, some claim their fling is a way to spice up their marriage. Falling out of love is frequently cited as a reason for cheating This may involve a lack of understanding of how love matures in marriage.
  • Body image/aging: Illustrated frequently by stories of middle-aged men having an affair with women the age of their daughters, cheating may sometimes be a way for a man (or woman) to prove that they still "have it." Hand in hand with these thoughts, a spouse may cast blame for their own indiscretions by claiming that their spouse has "let himself/herself go."
  • Revenge: If one partner has had an affair or has damaged the partner in some way, the offended partner may feel a need for revenge resulting in an affair.

Secondary Reasons for Cheating

In addition to the primary reasons for cheating noted above, there are secondary reasons that may lead to an affair. Some of these include:

  • Internet: Having an affair, especially an emotional affair, is much easier than in the past, and social media sites have been implicated in many affairs and divorces. Internet infidelity or "online cheating" is still cheating, even if the two people never met face to face.
  • Opportunity: Periods of absence, whether traveling for work or serving in the military provide greater opportunities for affairs to occur. Absence allows a spouse to have an affair with little risk of being discovered or may lead to loneliness and resentment. While a long-distance marriage is not ideal, there are ways to keep your marriage strong when apart.
  • Poor boundaries: Poor personal boundaries, or the limits we place on other people as to what we find acceptable or unacceptable, can also increase the chance that an affair will occur. People who find it hard to say no (being overly compliant or "people pleasers") may find themselves in an affair even if it wasn't what they desired in the first place.
  • Pornography: While it's a role in marital infidelity has been downplayed, pornography is dangerous to marriage and has clearly been demonstrated to be a "gateway" for some people. Unfortunately, pornography has become much more accessible to the internet.

Coping With a Cheating Spouse

Sometimes people have a suspicion that their spouse is cheating but don't have any solid evidence. While often the best approach in marriage is to be direct, you may wonder if it will cause more damage to ask directly. And, of course, the answer your spouse gives could either be the truth or a lie.

The best approach will vary for different couples, but if you're concerned, it may be a good idea to look for some of the signs.

Cry for Help vs. Exit Strategy

In some marriages, an affair is a cry for help, a way to force the couple to finally face the problems that both parties are aware of but aren't addressing. In this case, the partner often actually tries to get caught as a way of bringing the issue to the fore. Other times a partner may simply see infidelity as an exit strategy—a way to end an unhappy marriage.

Regardless of the underlying reason a spouse cheats, it can either devastate a marriage or be the catalyst for rebuilding it, depending upon how the infidelity is dealt with.

When You've Been Wronged

You may, however, want to explore how the dynamics between you and your spouse led you to this point. Recognizing that infidelity is a symptom of deeper issues can lead a couple to fix the underlying problems in their relationship and grow closer.

If you were the one cheated on, it's critical to realize that you're not responsible for your spouse making the decision to cheat. You are not to blame for his or her behavior.

Women tend to find emotional affairs more threatening than sexual affairs, whereas men are more willing to forgive emotional affairs but for both, the most common response to learning of their partner's affair is jealousy.

Even if you were the one wronged, working with a professional may be helpful in coping and recovering yourself. Unresolved jealousy can lead to resentment, and as the old adage claims: "Resentment is like poison you drink yourself, and then wait for the other person to die."

Overcoming Infidelity

Some couples can move past infidelity and move on to have even an even better relationship, whereas some cannot. Certainly, there are times when continuing the marriage wouldn't be recommended.

Before you analyze the specifics of the affair from your spouse's perspective and look at why the affair occurred in terms of his or her needs, it's important to look at your own needs. This can be more challenging than it sounds, especially amidst the jealousy and anger.

If you were the one who had an affair, there are several steps you can take if you hope to save your marriage. Foremost you need to stop cheating and lying immediately and own your choice. Being patient and giving your spouse space is essential. That doesn't say it will work out. It may not. But without accepting full responsibility (not blaming or justifying your behavior) the chances will be low.

The chance that you can get past the affair depends on many factors, such as the reasons why it occurred and the characteristics of both people. To truly understand and move forward, both partners will need to listen to the other (which can be extremely challenging in this setting), and not assume that their partner's motivation or feelings would be the same as their own. You may benefit from the help of a trained therapist as well.

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For those who decide to try and overcome infidelity, it appears that the mutual capacity to forgive and a strong commitment to the relationship are key.

A Word From Verywell

There are many potential reasons for cheating, and marriage is complicated. But speaking directly, expressing your needs, practicing forgiveness, and making a commitment to work on your marriage daily, are the best insurance plans to protect your marriage.

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Additional Reading

By Sheri Stritof
Sheri Stritof has written about marriage and relationships for 20+ years. She's the co-author of The Everything Great Marriage Book.