A Sociologist Explains What Makes People Cheat (& 3 Major Things That Make Having An Affair Likely)

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woman looking sideways as husband hugs her

What really causes cheating? 

People often blame problems in the marriage, or one of the partners for being deficient in some way. But Marie Murphy, Ph.D., a sociologist who specializes in life coaching with people who cheat, has a theory that may surprise a lot of people. In a podcastMurphy shares her insights, but I will summarize it here.

Because she has a sociology background (and sociology is the study of societal forces and social norms and how they impact both humanity and the individual) she does what nobody else does: Incorporate the idea of social norms into the study of why people cheat.

In very short form, Dr. Murphy says that, due to how our society sees marriage, we set people up to fail, citing the following factors: 

  • We (as a society) expect marriage from almost everyone 
  • We do not consider people "real adults" unless and until they are married with kids
  • Our society glorifies marriage, weddings, and romantic love in a way that leads people to expect unremitting joy
  • We expect marriage, but do not explain the realities of marriage, nor prepare people for those, at all

But that's still not the full cause of cheating. There's so much more to be said.

RELATED: 10 All-Too-Common Myths About Cheating In A Relationship ... Debunked!

The social narrative about marriage encourages people to marry long before they are ready.

It does not talk in any real way about any alternatives to living one’s life married in a two-person heterosexual relationship, and it expects that people will be married for life.

Divorce is still looked down upon, and affairs are looked down on even more so.

If you leave your marriage to be with your affair partner, you will be regarded as the scum of the earth, no matter what the circumstances. And, Dr. Murphy points out, this has a lot to do with people’s fear of being cheated on.

Dr. Murphy emphasizes this aspect of society, which she argues sets people up to cheat.

She calls explanations that place the cause entirely within the individual person not entirely accurate.

Actually, she calls most of them horse manure (using more colorful language than that!).

I think this is a little extreme at best.

At worst, I might choose to apply the horse manure label here a bit myself.

The reason for that: Having studied the extramarital affair, not in a Ph.D. program, but on a practical basis, for some seven years now, I think it’s blatantly obvious that some of the individual causes of cheating Dr. Murphy is calling horse manure actually do exist. 

And I think some of the folks who have experienced those causes (and their associated fallout) would definitely argue the same.

RELATED: Esther Perel Explains Why People In Legitimately Good Relationships Cheat — And Why It's Time To Stop Condemning Affairs

I am personally acquainted with a victim of narcissistic abuse whose spouse’s main symptom of narcissism was chronic cheating and lying. Her story shows us that real, live, pathological narcissism may be a number of things, but horse manure isn’t one of them.

Sad to say, pathological cheating like this exists.

Although many people want to call all cheaters pathological narcissists and abusers by simple virtue of the fact that they cheated, most cheaters do not fit this category. However, the narcissistic cheater is a real and hurtful reality, and that situation is no joke.

I have read and published the folks whose marriages fell apart due to illness, and those whose marriages went dead and distant because unresolved emotional issues, and skills unlearned in childhood, killed communication in the marriage. (And I’ve personally been the third party of one of those.)

They aren’t horse manure, either.

RELATED: 5 Ignorant Things People Say About Infidelity

All in all, there are three more major explanations for why people cheat

These explanations are given as an addition to the societal aspect that Dr. Murphy explains in the podcast linked in the intro.

1. The hardcore hardwiring problem

This is the narcissist, addict, or otherwise disordered person who is out for thrills, kicks, or attention and pathologically incapable of any empathy toward the spouse, children, and extended family.

This person is basically a swindler and a user of other people. These are the pathological cheaters I wrote about, above. The narcissists and other people with serious personality disorders who either refuse treatment or for whom treatment would not work.

RELATED: 10 Smart Ways To Protect Yourself When Divorcing A Narcissist 

2. The skills and/or courage deficit

This category holds the greatest number of cheaters. What happens with these people: They have grown up without the emotional skills to know themselves and connect with their partners into the late stages of marriages when the “new relationship energy” has worn off, and the married partners are deep into the grunt work of children, housekeeping, and jobs.

Connection is always easy when you’ve first met, and your mind is ablaze with the vision of how the other person is going to effortlessly meet your deepest needs.

Sometimes the problems are so bad that the people in the marriage are deadened and cut off within themselves and aren’t even fully aware of how they themselves feel.

Sometimes they do know within themselves but are afraid to speak up, for instance, about how they felt when their spouse refused sex three times last week, because they are afraid to make waves.

Afraid it might start an argument, afraid if they say what they are really feeling, their worst fear might be realized: It really is something about them, and their spouse does not or cannot really love them the way they were hoping and dreaming to be loved.

People are really scared about this, folks. Terrified.

And fear of the unknown in a marriage leads to not talking.

Not talking leads to assuming the worst. And assuming the worst leads to an emotional and sexual shutdown.

And most of this starts in childhood when parents did not meet a child’s emotional needs well enough or did not teach or model a healthy, loving marriage and courageous communication in a relationship.

If people were abused or neglected in childhood, it’s even worse as it can result in long-lasting trauma and attachment issues. 

RELATED: 7 Things Couples Should Do Regularly To Prevent Infidelity In Their Relationship

3. The caregiving cheater

This is a marriage in which one partner has Alzheimer’s or some other devastating, long, lingering illness which destroys their ability to be a functional partner in the marriage, yet the other person does not want to abandon the sick person.

We as a society don’t realize how grueling and miserable family caregiving can be until we’re the ones who are doing it. In the case of Alzheimer’s, as we saw with former president Ronald Reagan, the period of caregiving can last a decade or even longer.

This spouse chooses another romantic partner while still married to the ill spouse, and often comes under fire for it.

RELATED: Serial Cheaters & Repeated Infidelity In Marriage — 6 Things Couples Need To Know

More underlying factors of infidelity

I would sincerely hope that neither Dr. Murphy nor anyone else would view any of the above three categories as horse manure. I’ve read their stories. I’ve published them, and the pain is real.

However, this idea of looking at the broader background of the society we’re in does have a lot to contribute, when we’re trying to understand why someone cheated.

We live in a society that pushes people into marriage without doing anything to prepare people to be emotionally ready. We do glorify heterosexual two-person-only marriage as the only way to live.

We do paint romantic love as a Twilight-style fantasy where people should be frozen in the youngest, most sexual, and most optimistic point in their lives forever … when real marriage is coddling crying babies at two a.m. on no sleep, dealing with the dirty dishes in the sink, and struggling to pay bills.

We do treat people who are having marital trouble as insufficient or wrong somehow, but we don’t acknowledge that our society sets them up for that in the first place.

And we act as if, once a person is married, their job is to sacrifice themselves and all their happiness for the rest of their lives, if need be.

We expect this in order to keep everyone around us enjoying the fake picture we’re showing them of their need for the ideal family, fulfilled.

If you don’t believe me, just announce you are getting divorced — especially if you met someone else prior to divorcing your marriage partner. Immediately the focus is on what you owe everyone else.

Some of this comes from religion, it also comes from TV, movies, and romance novels.

Is anyone to blame?

It comes from this cultural story that expects people to emerge, like Athena from the mind of Zeus, fully formed and with everything they need to make a marriage work, and no acknowledgment that children actually need certain things in childhood in order to become that way.

If we want to understand why people have affairs, we need to understand that the true reason encompasses all of the above.

I know this is difficult news if you’ve just been cheated on or you know someone who has, because pain drives us to want to make things very simple, and all someone else’s fault.

But, if we really want to understand, we need to be able to expand our minds to hold complexity.

Because infidelity in marriage is, in most cases, a multi-faceted problem.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Know When To Walk Away After Infidelity​

P.D. Reader runs the Medium publication Unfaithful: Perspectives on the Third Party Relationship. She is also a student astrologer with a website and a book, Struggling In or With an Affair? A Guidebook.

This article was originally published at Medium.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.