Cheating is a pattern of behavior, but it often aligns with certain thought patterns. While infidelity is a fairly common phenomenon, we don’t talk enough about the psychology behind why people stray outside of their relationships. But exploring how cheaters think can provide insight into their motivations for breaking their partners’ trust and seeking intimacy elsewhere.
“There is not one single reason or path for
cheating in a relationship,” Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show tells Bustle. “However, there are a collection of very distinct psychological patterns that cover the vast majority of reasons why people cheat.” Psychologists have observed these patterns over the years and have found certain explanations for their behaviors in things like conflict-avoidance, shame, and passive-aggression.
stereotypes about cheaters are often quite black-and-white, but the motivations behind the actions are more nuanced than common narratives about cheating would have you believe. Whether you’ve been cheated on, have cheated in the past, or are hoping to better understand why someone might decide to blow up their relationship, read on for these insights from psychologists into how cheaters think and feel — and why they may be drawn to infidelity. 1 They Might Fear Conflict
A cheater might turn to infidelity to avoid a fight with their partner about issues in the relationship.
“People cheat often out of
fear of facing conflict,” explains Klapow. “They know there are problems in the relationship, but they don’t know how to dive in deep with their partner to [fix the problems]. Cheating allows them to escape.”
Cheating, then, is a way to act out and blow off frustrations instead of addressing the issues head-on via a potentially difficult, emotionally taxing conversation.
2 They May Be Looking To Avoid Intimacy
For some, cheating is a way to put emotional distance between them and their partner, if things are moving too fast, or the intimacy of the relationship triggers an
avoidant attachment response, according to Dr. Tammy Nelson, board-certified sexologist and licensed relationship therapist. This is especially common among people carrying trauma from past abusive relationships with caregivers or partners: They may fear getting close again because they’ve been hurt in the past.
“Sometimes a cheating partner fears the intimacy of an attached or committed partnership not because they are a bad person or they want out, but because the intensity of the bond between you is overwhelming,” explains Nelson. “An affair buys them time to decide how to handle the growing connection in your relationship. When things get serious, they may have to create distance to deal with their own reticence.”
Nelson believes that cheating partners can reform and commit, “unless they repeat the infidelity pattern over and over.” She recommends couples therapy and coaching for attachment issues.
3 They Might See Cheating As “Evening The Score”
If they believe their partner has done them wrong, a passive-aggressive
cheater might see their infidelity as a way to settle things in a non-confrontational but still hurtful way.
“Instead of addressing their anger directly with their [partner], they feel justified in cheating as a way to ‘even the score.’ If they are unhappy in their marriage but too afraid to end it, they may cheat in the hopes — conscious or subconscious — of getting caught,”
Lauren Dummit, LMFT, co-founder and clinical director at Triune Therapy Group, tells Bustle. 4 They May Want To Explore Non-Monogamy
Some cheaters take issue with the institution of monogamy and might consider exploring other arrangements such as
open relationships, polyamory, or monogam-ish situations before cheating.
“Some cheaters have a resentment towards authority or rules [...] so they cheat as a way to demonstrate to themselves that no one is going to control them,” Dummit says. It could be that cheating is a form of rebellion, or maybe commitment to just one person isn’t the best relationship model for them.
Communicating their needs with their partner is a first step. If both people aren’t on the same page with regards to the terms of a not-strictly-monogamous arrangement, that could be a sign of incompatibility. 5 They’re Seeking Support From Relationship Troubles
cheating isn’t motivated by anger but as a means to regain control, and to find a safe retreat from a tumultuous relationship.
“People cheat out of hopelessness,” says Klapow. “In some cases, the person feels there is nothing left. They have given up, but they don’t want to put an end to the relationship often for logistical reasons — money, kids, lifestyle.” In these cases, the person they’re cheating with can feel like a point of comfort and security when everything else in their life, including their relationship, feels overwhelming.
Sometimes, a person who cheats sees their behavior as a last-ditch effort to save their relationship. They may think that cheating will be what holds things together.
“People cheat to keep the relationship together,” says Klapow. “They like things about the relationship — they love things about their partner, but there are other aspects that are not there. The person doesn’t want to leave but doesn’t know how to pull these other qualities out.”
6 They May Be Thrill-Seeking
According to Nelson, some of us have a higher need to seek new experiences, and cheating can be a way to scratch that itch.
“Seeking behavior is correlated with higher levels of
dopamine in the brain than, for instance, what I call nesters, those partners who would rather stay home and bake sourdough bread,” Nelson explains. “Seekers need higher sensation and more excitement — they’re also at higher risk for affairs.”
Thrill-seekers who feed their need for adrenaline or pleasure through infidelity might be able to find it elsewhere — for example, by taking up high-intensity hobbies like surfing or rock climbing.
7 Sex May Be Just Part Of The Equation
Some cheaters might be looking for sexual gratification outside their relationship.
“For some, cheating is about getting sex and arousal [needs] that are not being met in the relationship,” says Kaplow. “It can be physical and purely physical.”
But often, cheating isn’t solely about sex; usually another relationship conflict is at stake. For
non-monogamous relationships, this sort of exploration makes sense: Sometimes people need more than one person can give them. But resorting to infidelity rather than communicating needs, sexual or otherwise, will surely cause undue emotional upheaval. 8 They Minimize Their Actions
Ever wondered how cheaters are able to do what they do, even though they’re hurting others? They often find ways to
rationalize their behavior, minimizing their guilt and sense of wrong-doing so they can feel justified, according to Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist.
A cheater might tell themselves, “‘It’s just sex. I can do what I want. After all, it’s just sex,’ or ‘It’s not like we’re married. We’re just dating,’ or, ‘It was only a quick hookup. What’s the big deal?’” Manley says. This way, when the eventual confrontation arises, the cheater may have already been able to convince themselves they’re not to blame. Essentially, it’s a defense mechanism.
9 They Could Have Low Self-Esteem Or Be Narcissistic
Sometimes, people cheat out of an alternately
narcissistic or self-loathing need for validation.
These personality types might crave extra affection and reassurance to feed their unstable ego. “They have a constant need for attention and to be put on the pedestal as a way to validate themselves because they cannot validate themselves from within,” Dummit says. “They lack a sense of inherent self-worth.”
10 They May Want To Change Themselves “Cheaters don’t look for someone else to be with — they look for someone else to be,” says Nelson. “We become a different person with everyone we are in a relationship with.” Although there may not be anything expressly wrong with the relationship, they may want to explore different parts of themselves outside of it.
“Cheating happens. It doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship at home isn’t working,” Nelson says. Cheating partners may not want to break up with their partner, yet they feel unfulfilled and look for new experiences and self-growth via affairs. If feeling stuck or stir-crazy in their own lives is what motivates some people to cheat, perhaps there are alternative ways to find excitement and
get out of their relationship rut. 11 They Could Be Trying Not To Hurt Their Partner
Sometimes, cheaters think
seeking intimacy outside their relationship might be the best thing to do for the sake of their partner. They may feel guilty about being unsatisfied and are afraid to cause the one they love to feel pain.
“They are not getting what they need out of the relationship — they may feel as if there is no more love or attachment, but they don’t want to ‘hurt’ the other person,” says Klapow. “As absurd as that may sound, the idea of divorce or a breakup may feel too painful. So they seek to get their needs met through cheating.” When they find this, they may feel a sort of equilibrium that they lack in the relationship that they love but no longer feel quite right in.
Cheating is sometimes quite complicated, and the thoughts that go along with infidelity often are too. Whether confident or self-conscious, voracious or unsatisfied, cheaters use their psychology to rationalize their actions just like anyone else. And perhaps understanding these thoughts may also help you better understand their actions.
Sources cited: Dr. Tammy Nelson, board-certified sexologist, licensed relationship therapist, host of podcast The Trouble with Sex Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist The Kurre and Klapow Show Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist and host of Lauren Dummit, LMFT, co-founder and clinical director at Triune Therapy Group