The 4 Real Reasons A Partner Cheats On The Person They Love

Accepting mediocrity in your marriage can put it at great risk.

unhappy couple sitting in bedroom larisa Stefanjuk / Shutterstock

People stay in unhappy marriages for a lot of reasons. You may be in one yourself. But when an unhappy marriage leads to cheating and infidelity, it’s time to lift the veil of denial and take a good hard look at what’s going on.

It's important to understand why people cheat before learning how to fix your broken marriage.

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The natural, emotional response to infidelity:

Upon learning that your spouse cheated, you may immediately ask yourself, "Is my marriage over? Should I leave them?"

However, what you’ll probably see first is fear. Fear can cause people to make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make — that’s its superpower.

Fear is often a reason why people stay in unhappy marriages. If this is true for you, you might have thoughts like:

  • "If you leave her now, no one will want you again."
  • "If you divorce him, you’ll never have enough money to live."
  • "If you don’t stay, you won’t see your kids, have friends, find love again, and be happy."

An honest examination of fear:

When fear is unexamined, it veers decision-making off-course, often landing the fearful person in a ditch of irrational behavior. It can also lead to an acceptance of situations and influences that don’t serve a person’s safety, growth, or highest good.


However, fear can be a powerful informant, if you read and understand it correctly. Sadly, when an unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, it’s rare that the underlying fear was understood.

When an unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, that is a statement that something essential is being ignored or mishandled within the marriage.

You can think of it as a passive-aggressive way of expressing what is locked up inside the straying spouse or entangled between both spouses.

If you haven't figured out how to fix a broken marriage, you first need to answer these important questions: Why do people cheat? What is the affair trying to tell you about your relationship?


RELATED: How To Forgive A Cheater (& Whether Or Not You Should)

Here are the four real reasons why your partner might have cheated on you:

1. They have unmet emotional needs.

Your spouse may feel lonely, unappreciated, unimportant, emotionally irrelevant, and/or generally unfulfilled. They may even feel incapable of meeting the other spouse’s needs.

Being married and lonely can make one feel insignificant or like a failure.

2. They feel sexual dissatisfaction.

Being happy with your sex life isn’t just about the frequency or adventurousness of sex. It’s also about fulfillment, physical presence, emotional connection, physical health, body image, and self- or spousal perception.


Even if only one spouse feels sexually dissatisfied, the other spouse — and the marriage — will pick up on the discontent. Avoiding, withholding, detachment, indifference, resentment — there are a lot of indirect ways to express unhappiness in the bedroom.

3. They're a poor communicator.

Affairs are a way of communicating without engaging in responsible verbal dialogue.

When your unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, there’s no mistaking the volume of the message. The content of the message is what is being acted out in the affair.

What have you and your spouse been avoiding or miscommunicating?

4. They're experiencing psychological issues.

Unresolved issues and learned patterns from childhood, addictions, and personality disorders can all set a marriage off on the wrong foot. An affair may be the messenger of an underlying problem, but it certainly won’t fix the unresolved issues.


No matter how unhappy the marriage is, the resulting infidelity isn’t the real issue. The breakdown of communication, sexual dissatisfaction, unmet needs, psychological issues and/or loss of love take credit for that.

RELATED: 5 Honest Reasons Why People Who Are Depressed Are More Likely To Cheat

Is cheating the final straw?

Sometimes an affair is used as the "final straw" for a spouse to exit an already failing marriage. But still, the underlying, unresolved, and tiptoed-around issues and fears remain.

And in this regard, the two spouses may stand on opposite sides of the fault line, blaming different things for the dissolution of their marriage.


"They cheated" is an easy scapegoat. However, it doesn’t absolve the betrayed spouse of their own accountability for the quality of the marriage pre-transgression.

To understand how an unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, it makes sense to understand the symptoms of an unhappy marriage. By contemplating them in the context of your own marriage, you can better predict if your relationship is at risk.

Alternatively, you may also gain insight into your marriage’s predisposition to an affair if one has already occurred. Here are just some of the major signs of an unhappy marriage devoid of love:

  • You’re not having sex and not showing affection.
  • You have nothing to say to one another.
  • You don’t enjoy being with one another.
  • You fantasize about life without your spouse…and maybe with someone else.
  • You don’t feel heard…and you don’t really listen.
  • You don’t prioritize one another.
  • You ignore your gut when it tells you something is wrong.
  • One or both of you are unwilling to get help or work on your marriage.
  • Your marriage is filled with criticism, blame, defensiveness and/or contempt.
  • Your marriage is built on a paradigm of control-submission.
  • There is abuse and/or addiction.

RELATED: 15 Telltale Signs He's Cheating On You, According To Cheaters


More often than not, those who stray do so because of the opportunity to:

  • Feel alive, excited, and youthful
  • Feel appreciated and valued without having to expose or answer for faults
  • Feel unburdened from constant stress and responsibility
  • Feel desired by someone who has nothing (yet) to gain
  • Escape
  • Be uninhibited without feeling judged
  • Express sequestered feelings without having to talk and listen to a spouse

When cheating doesn't happen — and when it does:

Interestingly, a study by sociologist Paul Amato concluded that people in very happy and unhappy marriages (usually) don’t cheat. The very happy marriages stay intact, and the very unhappy ones end in divorce.

It’s the so-so marriages — the ones languishing in mediocrity — that are most at risk for infidelity.


So if you are wondering what it means when your unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, your answer may lie in your acquiescence to the status quo.

To capitalize on the cliché, fear of rocking the boat will keep you in the harbor. But it won’t protect you from unexpected storms.

And tiptoeing around the unmentionable issues and feelings will exhaust you both. It will also leave you with a marriage that is nothing more than mediocre.

When an unhappy marriage leads to infidelity, the trumpet is playing its reveille. It’s time to wake up, decide, and take action. The road has forked and if you want a good marriage instead of your broken one, standing still is no longer an option.


RELATED: 10 Signs He Regrets Cheating On You (And Still Loves You)

Dr. Jerry Duberstein, Ph.D., is a couples therapist and his partner, Mary Ellen Goggin, JD, is a relationship guide. They lead private intensive couples retreats and are the co-authors of Relationship Transformation: Have Your Cake and Eat It Too.