What Leads to Infidelity?

For my senior thesis we were tasked to choose a topic that really interested us. Something we kept coming back to: isn’t there more to this? For me that was infidelity. The narrative of infidelity in our culture is very simple. People who cheat are bad. They cheat because they couldn’t control themselves. They hurt someone they cared about so that probably means they didn’t actually care about them. Don’t cheat.

But if that’s so simple, why do so many people cheat? Why do so many people cheat when they know they’re going to feel bad about it? Why do they keep cheating while they feel bad about it? I was specifically interested in women who have cheated and what their emotional experiences were. This was primarily because studies that look at infidelity only pay attention to men – even though women cheat just as much. Because of the information that is currently out there, I focused on ciswomen in heterosexual relationships.

My thesis garnered me an A and gave me the golden ticket to graduation. It also provided excellent blog fodder, and a challenge in the process. How can I make the complicated subject of infidelity more simplistic? For my first post, I present:

What leads to infidelity?

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1. Unhappiness

Unhappiness is largely the cause of women being unfaithful. Current research loves to pin women and men into separate categories. They say that men cheat largely for sexual reasons and women cheat largely for emotional reasons. I found this distracting in my research because the emotional and the sexual are irrevocably intertwined for many couples. A woman who has a sexual affair may be doing it because she is feeling emotionally withdrawn from her partner, for instance. A man may have an emotional affair because he is no longer feeling sexual chemistry with his partner. There are so many ways in which these two categories intersect. It belittles the importance of these studies to assume women are simply seeking a shoulder to lean on and men are only seeking something to put their penis into.

Unhappiness is not easy to pinpoint. Often times someone may not realize they are unhappy until so many factors have coalesced,  the origin of their unhappiness has vanished entirely. Perhaps communication has fallen in their relationship. Maybe they no longer look at one another when they talk. Maybe their phones have become a priority in their relationship and they no longer make jokes with one another. Maybe they haven’t made sex a priority and physical intimacy took a dive. When one thing begins to lack, others can fall in that same pit. It is often a balancing act. With two people – with two separate sets of needs – this can be even more difficult to manage.

For instance: a man who derives emotional intimacy from sexual intimacy and a woman who derives sexual intimacy from emotional intimacy. It sounds complicated, but it’s a common irritant in relationships. “I’m not feeling emotionally tended to enough to have sex – I’m not feeling sexually tended to enough to be emotional.”

Sometimes relationships just end because those two people no longer create the same relationship that they had once desired.

Unhappiness collides with the inability to communicate these unmet needs or desires. You may not see your unhappiness developing. You may become used to your unhappiness. You may excuse it. You may expect it. You may ignore it. Often times it may feel that your unhappiness is better waved away, a simple problem that will only cause more problems if you face it. You may not see how the problem builds over time.

The important question that arises is why don’t you just leave if you’re not happy? This is a question that will be covered more deeply in future posts in this series.

2. Opportunity

To be unfaithful you need to have the opportunity to be unfaithful. It is less likely that you will randomly leave your home one evening, grab the first person you stumble into, and go have an affair. There are many factors involved. Time away from your partner, the ability to get to know others well, a sexual or emotional attraction, an encouragement from friends or an outside source, and alcohol or other substances that lower your inhibitions. These among other things can create room for you to do things you may not have done otherwise.

Social Psychologists love to discuss things like personality when it comes to infidelity. There were a lot of small and specific studies in my research that tried to pull out who cheats. Is there a certain age, race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality (so forth…) that cheats more often than the rest? Who are they? We are obsessed with knowing the factors that make us more at risk. I was completely disinterested in these studies. Maybe it is my belief that we’re all influenced in so many different ways that it’s obvious that there will be some variation between our realities.

Evolutionary Psychologists, on the other hand, love to focus on hormones. They want to know if there might be something neurological about cheaters that makes them different. I find this fairly silly, too. We could certainly do some study that marks testosterone or menstruation to infidelity but at the end of the day I’m simply not interested in that either (If you are – go write a good paper about it.)

If you do leave your house one day it’s possible that your personality may make that extra nudge. Maybe you’re super outgoing and just happen to be ovulating that night, oh boy, watch out. But I feel that what is happening emotionally is far more important. Because of the sheer number of people that are unfaithful, I feel that all types of personalities must be involved in these scenarios.

Opportunity doesn’t seem like enough, though. Once you have unhappiness, and once you have opportunity, you also have a belief that you cannot leave your relationship. Some believe they cannot leave their relationship because they are in love. The belief that they are in love trumps everything – even common sense. In one story I read for my thesis, a woman cheated on her husband. She said that she loved him so much that that she felt guilty for cheating on him, and the guilt encouraged her to stay with her partner even more. The perception of love may be enough to make one believe it is impossible to leave. They can very literally not imagine a life without this person – even if it is one where they are less than satisfied.

Other reasons women may not leave their relationships: they are financially unable to do so, they have children together and are concerned about the wellbeing of the children, they do not believe in divorce or have religious obligations, they are afraid of breaking apart the family, they don’t know that they have anywhere else to go or have cut all ties with other family, they are physically or emotionally abused by their partner.

This is one thing I found particularly difficult about my research. Many women are physically or emotionally abused after being unfaithful to their partners even if they weren’t unfaithful and were just perceived to be unfaithful. Women have been murdered because of this perceived or real unfaithfulness. It can put the opportunity to receive real affection outside of the relationship into a different light. There is no one size fits all story about infidelity.

And, of course, some women don’t leave because they want to work it out, they just don’t know how or haven’t been able to.


If unhappiness (with the right context) leads to infidelity, it makes sense that we should be able to prevent infidelity if we learn to spot unhappiness and either prevent or ‘treat’ the unhappiness. This is why the emotional process of infidelity interested me so much. Current discussions about infidelity focus a lot on blame. They use the same preventative measures as abstinence educators. “Just don’t have sex!” works about as well as “Just don’t cheat!” Instead of discouraging infidelity, we should be encouraging happiness. We should be telling men and women that their needs are important and worth speaking out for. We should not be encouraging relationships as something that last forever in all cases if you’re doing it right – that’s not realistic. It sets up certain expectations that are broken over and over again.

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Following this post:

  • How can this information help us prevent infidelity? (3 post set) If we can spot unhappiness can we prevent infidelity?
  • When and why do women experience guilt because of infidelity? (3 post set) The experience of guilt throughout infidelity was the focal point of my thesis and will expand more deeply into the emotional process. 
  • The Language of Infidelity (1 post) Why are there so many words to describe women who cheat (homewrecker! mistresss! the other woman!) 
  • How we talk about Infidelity in the Media (1 post) How does the media talk about men and women when they cheat? How does that help us frame our understanding of infidelity?

If at any point you have questions regarding these posts, please leave them in the comments and I will respond there. If you have a specific question about infidelity that you would like answered in a post, see my ask advice page.

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