The Less-Obvious Reason People Cheat, Even When They're In Good Relationships

Photo: emwang119 | pixabay / Dean Drobot | Canva / Konstantin Postumitenko | Prostock-studio
Intimate couple

As a professor and psychotherapist, I have learned some things about early childhood development, and some of this information relates to people as adults — including why people cheat in relationships. 

Here's what you need to know: Infants and young children do not have the brain apparatus to regulate their emotions so they utilize their caretaker’s brains basically to do the regulation.

RELATED: 21 Ways To Prevent Cheating In Your Relationship, According To Experts

For example, the attuned mother can calm an anxious baby with touch or food or change a wet diaper. This is called down-regulation — meaning that the mother in these examples helps the child go from a more stressed, inflamed state to a more relaxed state; in other words down from a hyperaroused state.  

This same attuned mother could also lift the infant or young child from a bored or neutral state to a more stimulated, aroused state by, for example, using baby talk (called prosody) in an excited, loving tone.

The baby will often react with a smile and show signs of excitement. This is called up-regulation since the mother in this example is lifting the baby up to a more stimulated engaged state of being.

The more the child has attuned parents that can regulate the emotional state of the child, the more the child develops the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms to up and down-regulate him or herself.

As for adults, we also need to up and down-regulate so that we have optimum stimulation. Too much arousal can lead to high-stress states, anxiety, and agitation. Too little arousal can lead to feelings of emptiness, boredom, and a sense of meaninglessness.

As a specialist in the field of infidelity who is very interested in what is behind the action of cheating, I have discovered another very useful lens through which to look at this destructive and painful human behavior. 

The more we understand what is behind these deceitful behaviors, the more we can help couples heal from infidelity and even totally prevent infidelity from happening.



So, why do people cheat?

I have seen people use acts including infidelity to soothe anxiety. In other words, they use that feeling for down-regulating. 

Of course, addicts use intimacy in this way, but even people who fall short of the "diagnosis" of an addict can use intimacy and more specifically intimacy outside a committed relationship as a means to escape stress and temporarily soothe their anxieties.  

The problem of course — as is with the problem with alcohol and drug abuse —the temporary fix can just lead to more problems and with that more anxiety. Often and not always, these people have had little experience in their families of origin of parents who were able to soothe them in times of stress.

I have also seen people use intimacy outside a committed relationship to up-regulate. 

People who feel empty, listless, and bored may use the act of cheating to give them a shot of adrenaline, to make up for being understimulated, and to make them feel alive again. Often and not always, these people have had little experience in their families of origin of parents who were able to stimulate them in times of neutrality, boredom, or listlessness.

RELATED: I Was The Other Woman — And I Loved It

As I always say when I talk or write about why people cheat, none of these are excuses. However, also as I always say, nothing happens in a vacuum.  

People cheat to solve some emotional issue or problem. Of course, the infidelity solution is maladaptive and hurtful.

So what could we do to up and down-regulate to prevent infidelity from happening again or preventing it in the first place? There are 2 main ways to regulate our emotions —within ourselves and with another (or others).

A necessary skill to thrive in this world we live in is to learn how to evoke a relaxation response. Too many of us go through life letting stress build up in our bodies as we react to the stressors in our environment.

Developing some kind of relaxation practice for (let’s say) 10 minutes per day can change our lives significantly. We become more resilient to stress and we are less anxious.

There are fewer tendencies to use a vice such as inappropriate intimacy to escape that stress.

Some examples of a relaxation practice include:

1. A simple breathing meditation

2. Yoga, T’ai Chi, or other types of movement meditations

3. Muscle relaxation processes

4. Prayer

5. Creative visualization

6. Self-hypnosis

Any of these practices along with regular exercise can go a long way towards calming down one’s nervous system and make unhealthy solutions to stress less attractive.

Listening to one another, attuning to each other, and feeling support from an intimate partner or other close person is a very powerful way to relax and calm down one’s nervous system. That is how it all started for us as infants.



When we were stressed, we had a mom or dad or another caretaker to hold us, feed us, and soothe us. We still have that need to connect.

RELATED: 15 Things You Must Do Immediately If You Want To Survive An Affair

I have found that a large number of people who cheat have lived lives on an emotional island; they don't allow themselves to express their needs and feelings to be listened to and do not allow themselves to experience that deep love and support from another.

Cutting-edge couples know that successful couples regulate each other through consistent listening giving each partner the feeling that "You get me."

We all are responsible for living a life of purpose and meaning. This is one of the most important ways we can up-regulate.

The question to ask is: "How can I make this day meaningful to me?" Or: "How can I make this hour meaningful to me?" Or even: "How can I make the next 10 minutes meaningful to me?"

When we feel a compelling purpose, we are far less likely to sabotage the relationships we value.

In addition to purpose, there are things we love to do that could uplift us. Sometimes we get in ruts or get lazy and don’t do those things. For example, if you like to play music or do archery or play hockey or whatever, do it! Doing what you love will up-regulate you. In other words, it will make you feel more alive.

And of course, you can always just skip down the street. Even simple activities such as this can shift our entire state of mind.

I state clearly that it is MY job to uplift my wife’s energy. Of course, she is responsible for her energy and well-being. Yet, I also play a part in her well-being. And vice versa.

There are ways to be up-regulated that only others can do for us. We cannot do it all alone! Given the state of mind she is in, I could uplift her by being playful with her, kissing her, complimenting her, planning a date for us, etc.

If I come home and my wife says to me, "I am here to do anything you want, physically", do you think that won’t up-regulate me? I know that this may not always happen and people have to pay attention to other things and people.

However, if a couple makes it their priority to uplift each other’s spirit consistently, that could go a long way towards preventing infidelity as well as do a whole lot of other wonderful things for the relationship.

There is the good news! As you consciously and intentionally regulate yourself and regulate with an intimate "other", you can enjoy feeling alive and peaceful and enjoy the benefits of a thriving relationship.

RELATED: I Had An Affair — And It Completely Saved My Marriage

Todd Creager is a marriage and intimacy therapist, author, and speaker.

This article was originally published at Todd Creager's website. Reprinted with permission from the author.