5 Core Reasons People Cheat

Knowing the signs is not enough.

Man struggling with himself Getty Images | Unsplash

Surviving infidelity or cheating is a unique kind of pain. When the person you trusted most in the world breaks that trust, it can be hard to know which way is up and how to move forward.

When you’re trying to survive infidelity, you may wrestle with the decision to stay in the relationship or move on. It can be an overwhelming choice, especially if you have children and especially after such intense heartbreak.


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Here are 5 core reasons why people cheat:

1. People cheat because they're angry or want revenge.

Anger and revenge are common reasons for cheating. One partner feels slighted or ignored and acts out their anger by engaging more with a coworker or having a dalliance.

This gives the cheating spouse or partner a feeling of having re-established a sense of equilibrium in the relationship after feeling less-than or put down.

People who cheat are often looking to gain a sense of control when they feel disempowered, helpless, or wavering in their relationship.


By acting out their anger intimately, the cheating spouse is essentially acting out a desire for revenge, dispelling their own felt or unconscious shame and humiliation onto an unsuspecting partner, like a game of emotional hot potato.

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2. People cheat because they're insecure.

Not surprisingly, low self-esteem is a typical part of why people cheat. When one partner feels invisible to their partner or down on themselves, the allure of attention from another can be a big chemical boost to the brain.


With the advent of social media and apps, it has become easier to get a quick hit of attention from others or indulge in the fantasy of what life might look like with another person.

That can quickly snowball into blurred boundaries for the partner who feels invisible and is ill-equipped to find a way back into their partner’s main view.



3. People cheat because of a fear of scarcity.

Fear of scarcity can also be a factor in why people cheat. If intimacy or attention is infrequent or nonexistent in a relationship, this can kick a partner into a fear-based survival mode, yearning for physical touch and connection.


To be clear, this does not excuse infidelity, but the desire for connection is prevalent in all humans. People are hardwired for connection.

When their sense of connection with a primary partner is compromised, however actual or imagined, some people swing into fierce self-protection.

This can include securing intimacy outside the relationship if the primary relationship does not pan out.

A primitive survival strategy like this can trick even the most sophisticated of brains into a momentary lapse in judgment, leading a partner astray.

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4. People cheat out of boredom.

In her book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Esther Perel remarked that why people cheat can frequently be tied directly to boredom. A reaction to the boredom of everyday life, she argues that infidelity can often be in service of a quest to find oneself.


Life without investment in keeping things new and exciting together can become just another dreary day in paradise.

Wanderlust is expected in some form or another throughout the lifespan and can be healthy and even help a relationship when it doesn't lead to infidelity.

The missing piece that prevents wanderlust from becoming infidelity is healthy communication. Often fueled by shame, anger, or fear, boredom that transitions into cheating is typically coupled with inadequate communication in a relationship.

Boredom is to be expected, but communication and co-created growth bring couples together, not down a path of infidelity.

5. People cheat because they want to experience the forbidden.

The taboo draw to the forbidden can also be part of why people cheat. For some, excitement is tricky to come by unless there is an element of breaking the rules.


When something is forbidden, like a partner outside your relationship, the allure can present a boost of arousal that aligns with a sense of power and the satisfaction of getting away with something. In other words, secrets can be attractive.



While the betrayal of an affair may feel isolating, you aren't alone.

According to a 2018 study, 20 to 25 percent of men and 10 to 15 percent of women reported that they’ve had intimate relations with someone other than their spouse while married.

The impacts of cheating can be lifelong for a betrayed partner, children, extended family, and even the person who has been unfaithful and the affair partner.


When considering how to move forward after cheating, it’s crucial to explore the personal impacts of an affair and the environment that resulted in infidelity.

To survive infidelity, you need to put yourself first.

It’s not selfish to think about your own needs after a betrayal like a partner cheating. Infidelity is a unique betrayal, and it’s vital to understand how an affair has and may continue to impact you.

In understanding how a partner’s infidelity may affect you, you must consider there are often emotional, physical, social, and spiritual implications inherent in betrayal trauma.

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When reviewing your symptoms, it’s also good to seek help from a therapist.

A couples therapist can walk through relationship issues with you and your partner, while an individual therapist can help you address the trauma that comes from a betrayal like cheating.

Once you’ve taken the time to focus on yourself and your needs after a betrayal, a significant step in surviving infidelity is to take stock of the relationship and examine why people cheat in the first place.

It can be tempting to turn your back and walk away. But even if you do leave the relationship or divorce after infidelity, you can learn important lessons by examining what went wrong.

Digging into the reasons why people cheat doesn’t excuse infidelity, but it can give you closure and insight to take with you as you work to mend the relationship and move on.


So, why do people cheat?

Reduced to the most common denominator, all the reasons for cheating boil down to one construct: Unmet needs.

If you want to stop or prevent infidelity, your relationship must be built on a stable foundation of communication.

It’s not enough to know the signs of cheating or understand why people cheat. Getting in touch with your needs and learning how to communicate them to your partner is imperative.


Don’t forget your needs, and your partner's needs, are constantly evolving and need revisiting.

It’s easy to get lost in today’s fast-paced culture and fail to make time for this kind of introspection and communication. But you have to take ownership of your needs and be able to communicate them clearly with your partner.

When couples build and reinforce a commitment to voicing their needs and discussing how to navigate competing needs, they build the necessary protective factors against infidelity and a stable foundation for long-term relational happiness.

This level of communication is also crucial to surviving infidelity.

Whether you decide to stay in the relationship or move on after cheating, understanding how to take ownership of your needs and share them with those around you will serve you well as you work to heal from the trauma of betrayal.


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Dr. Kate Balestrieri is a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping people heal from trauma and relationship issues.