Why do people cheat? Finding a new perspective on infidelity
From pop-scientific postulates to bona fide psychological hypotheses, there’s an overwhelming smorgasbord of explanations on offer as to why both men and women consistently decide to ditch monogamy and play away from home
Yet, when considering why people cheat, traditional explanations can often seem a bit passé. Indeed, a careful review of the more traditional theories shows it’s perhaps necessary to rethink people's motivations for the ‘ultimate betrayal'...
Wandering astray – what is cheating?
It’s fairly agreed that any sort of uncondoned sexual activity outside the boundaries of a relationship is the most blatant form of cheating. Nevertheless, infidelity doesn’t have to be consummated by carnal acts; it can also be an intimate emotional bond with a third party. In fact this latter form of cheating is quite possibly far more widespread than that of the physical ilk - and also something that it's harder to clearly define.
However, no matter what your personal boundaries are, the common denominator in all these deeds is deceit, a breach of trust. As a general rule, cheating can thus be defined as taking advantage of someone's trust, an act that most believe is, well, less than noble.
So why do people do it? According to some more traditional theories, why you do the dirty allegedly depends very much on your sex...
- Read more: Trust is a vital part of any partnership. Learn four ways to build trust in a relationship here
Hormonal lotharios: why do men cheat?
The adulterous man is a renowned villain in our collective imagery. From the ‘staying late at the office’ routine to the mistress-only email account, men folk have done a sterling job of becoming the poster boys of infidelity. It’s not wholly unfounded either – you just need to look at the news for reams of evidence. From Bill Clinton to Tiger Woods (and a fair few in-between), hundreds of famous male figures have had their images muddied for engaging in high-profile and well documented flings.
Of course, you don't have to be a celebrity to stray from the marital bed. According to the Associated Press Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, an astounding 57% of men admitted to being unfaithful in a relationship over the course of their lives (and 22% during the course of a marriage).2 But why do men cheat so prolifically?
Testosterone is the traditional answer. Yes, according to some psychologists, men are biochemically predisposed to be promiscuous.3 As well as beards and buff musculature, said androgen is directly responsible for a man’s appetite for risk, aggression and vitally, sex.
It [testosterone] motivates men and women, but mostly men who have five to ten times more testosterone than the fairer sex, to seek more sexual partners
- Paul J Zak, Why Men Cheat
This theory says that, crucially, high testosterone not only drives sex, it suppresses two other significant hormones called oxyctocin (aka the ‘love hormone’) and arginine vasopressin, both of which play an important role in forging attachment between mates. It would appear that, for men with high testosterone, the primal urge to procreate with multiple partners obviously doesn’t juxtapose with current ideas about monogamy.
Yet, for many. this explanation is too simplistic. Without discrediting the canons of science, you could be forgiven for feeling endocrinologists who subscribe to this theory are effectively printing men a free pass to philander. What's more, you may feel that testosterone levels can't be responsible for the whole story - the biological reductionism that pervades this line of reasoning detracts from the fact that many men may cheat due to psychosocial and emotional pressures, while also ignoring the fact that many men do in fact believe in monogamy.
- Read more: looking for monogamous men? Our large-scale study discovered the cities that are home to NZ's most monogamous people
Desperate housewives, femme fatales: why women cheat
Furthermore, it's not just men who have affairs. Indeed, in the same study cited in the above section, some 14% of women admitted to cheating in their marriage.4 In this case it's not so easy to blame testosterone: so what’s happening to women when they decide to stray?
According to some relationship experts, female cheating is more about dissatisfaction and neglect than anything else.5 When a woman is unfaithful she’s trying to fill an emotional chasm, or so the story goes. Years spent diligently battling on in a sexless, uncommunicative and generally ersatz relationship are the usual precursors that end up driving innumerable wives and girlfriends into the arms of a more attentive man.
Women deprived of attention, compliments, and compassion; usually, have emotional affairs. That doesn't mean it won't lead to sex, but initially, they crave the attention and compassion that has been absent from their relationship.
- Dr Jane Lomasky, 8 Reasons Women Cheat
However, much like male affairs can't be blamed on testosterone alone, the reckoning that women instigate affairs due to an insoluble lack of affection is contentious. Not only is it an argument that’s imbued with normative ideas about gender, it also doesn’t quite stack up when you take a snapshot of 21st century woman.
Compared to 50 years ago, women today have far more authorship over their lives, and are freer to express themselves - particularly sexually. It’s no longer de rigueur for a woman to button up and tend to the kids; instead she’s allowed to enjoy a pleasurable sex life with whomever she wants. And this means we cannot discount a physical aspect to female affairs.
- Read more: Just how essential is a satisfying sex life anyway? We investigated whether you can have love without sex
Reconsidering infidelity - new perspectives on cheating
So, some men cheat because they are driven to seek more sex - but some simply want emotional fulfillment. Similarly, some women cheat because they are craving acknowledgement - but some simply want sexual adventure.
Clearly, given that there is no single biological reason why people cheat, it might be time to reconsider the traditional reasoning and instead turn to a more nuanced, less gendered explanation for infidelity. Indeed, grappling with the underlying individual motives as to why people cheat could be a more fruitful enterprise than whimsically blaming male hormones and female temperaments!
Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel is someone who shares this angle. “Affairs are an act of betrayal,” the therapist said during a TED Talk last summer, “but they are also an expression of longing.” For Perel we long for something that’s missing within ourselves, we cheat to satisfy “a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves.”5
When we seek the gaze of another, it isn't always our partner that we are turning away from, but the person that we have ourselves become. And it isn't so much that we're looking for another person, as much as we are looking for another self
- Esther Perel, Rethinking infidelity ... a talk for anyone who has ever loved
Can understanding infidelity bring emotional growth?
This new angle on the reasons behind infidelity is an interesting one. It can't, of course, make being cheated on hurt any less - but by looking at the individual reasons why people cheat it enables us to move past blaming inescapable biological imperatives and start seeking out the fixable, insightful part of the situation.
Indeed, only by looking at the personal minutiae and how relationships (and infidelity) give us a sense of selfhood can we set about reconfiguring some of the more rigid opinions. “I look at affairs from a dual perspective,” adds Perel, “hurt on one side, growth and self-discovery on the other, what it did to you and what it meant for me.”
It is the latter component of Perel’s sentence that’s essential here; if a person, regardless of their sex, uncovers what’s lacking within themselves or their relationship and sets about to fix it, then infidelity can, in a warped way, be a generative experience and possibly lead to a stronger bond. We’re not condoning it though!
- Read more: if your relationship is sailing on choppy waters, is it better to make up or move on? Our user survey found out the truth about breaking up.