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Cheating in Relationships: Why Do People Do It?

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Cheating in Relationships: Why Do People Do It?

Laura Brown


Finding out your partner has been unfaithful can feel devastating. Being unfaithful yourself can leave you ridden with guilt, shame, and confusion about your relationship. If you’re trying to understand why people cheat, this video is for you!

Hi everyone, I’m Laura Brown from Heart & Oak Therapy, supporting better, brighter lives. We’re therapists who do regular videos on mental wellness, and give you practical ideas and tips to make your life happier and more fulfilling – so hit the subscribe button to keep in the loop!

Whether someone has cheated once or many times, it is generally a wakeup call that something isn’t quite right for at least one person in a relationship. But before we dive into that, let’s get on the same page with what “cheating” means.

Cheating is any type of behaviour that crosses either the spoken or unspoken boundaries set by partners in a relationship. For most couples, faithfulness is an assumed part of a committed relationship – and often doesn’t get talked about in explicit ways unlesssomeone is unfaithful. Simply put, “cheating” is breaking the rules that you and your partner set for each other.

For some, this may mean engaging with someone outside of the relationship sexually, emotionally, or both. Having sex with someone else is pretty clear and straight forward, whereas having an emotional affair can be a little more nuanced. 

An emotional affair consists of forming an emotional, intimate bond with someone outside of the relationship. The feeling you share with this person is different from a platonic connection – there is an affectionate, potentially flirtatious, and emotionally charged dynamic that develops. 

People cheat for all sorts of reasons. And there is no “one size fits all” explanation. However, there are some general themes that can serve as a starting point to begin understanding why people choose to cheat. So let’s dive in and take a look at what some of those reasons are.

One reason why people cheat is because the unfaithful partner is dealing with a personal struggle or issue.

For example, I worked with a client who expressed how he was committed and in love with his partner, but found himself cheating on her repeatedly. When we first began working together, he said that he believed he had a sex addiction, and that cheating was based on an uncontrollable urge that he wanted to stop, but that he couldn’t figure out how to.

Throughout our conversations, it soon became clear that cheating served a purpose for him. As much as he didn’t want to hurt his girlfriend and be unfaithful, he would pursue other women in response to experiencing anxiety. The pursuit of other women, in spite of the risk to his present relationship, served as a distraction from his anxious feelings. As we explored the problem further, he shared that he enjoyed the thrill-seeking nature of cheating, and that it made him in feeling more alive. Once we were able to nail down what cheating did for him and what benefit it brought to his life (along with the obvious cost), he was soon able to find new ways of having those needs met that did not involve cheating.

So realizing the personal longing or need that cheating satisfies can help you recognize other ways to address them without the potentially negative consequences of being unfaithful.

A second reason that people cheat is because they feel dissatisfied with some aspect of their present relationship. Now, before I go on, I want to make one thing crystal clear: I am in no way suggesting that the partner who gets cheated on is somehow responsible for their partner’s behaviour. Making sense of people’s choices is not a means to place blame on the other partner. 

Being in a long term committed relationship can be hard, even for those couples who seem to have the “perfect” relationship. It can be common for couples to become accustomed to a particular dynamic, which can be hard to change without a lot of conscious effort and work. When this dynamic becomes unsatisfying to one or both partners, people may respond by looking outside of the relationship for an escape or a way to have their needs met by others.

I have worked with couples where one partner chose to cheat in response to longing for more physical and emotional affection and attention. Cheating can be a way to have this need met, as opposed to working with your partner to find solutions that you can both agree on. 

If you are considering cheating or have already cheated in response to a sense of dissatisfaction, take a close look at your relationship and ask yourself what it is you are longing for. What do you need more of to become satisfied? Is your partner aware of how you feel? If so, how have you communicated this, and how did they respond? Does your partner understand and validate your experience? Do they want to work with you to find solutions? 

Not unlike with the first reason, identifying the relationship longings behind a partner’s decision to cheat can create opportunities make the relationship more satisfying and sustainable.

Another reason that people may choose to cheat is because they realize they are unhappy in their relationship, and are looking for a way out. This could be something that they are fully aware of, or it could be an underlying feeling that they have yet to address. 

If they are aware that they want to end the relationship, they may be experiencing a lot of guilt or concern of how their partner or others might respond. Perhaps they are avoiding the reality of where they are at, trying to escape the sense of guilt for being the one to call it quits, and finding themselves drawn to the idea of entering a new relationship.

Unfortunately, even if the cheating partner has good intentions by wanting not to hurt their significant other, cheating usually hurts so much more than just being straight and honest about things just not working for them.

The fourth reason as to why someone might cheat is related to a longing for a sense of power or control. Sometimes people who describe themselves as having “commitment issues” feel scared of being “locked down” by a monogamous relationship. For them, cheating is a means to feel like they’re not losing their power to a commitment that trumps their free will.

Of course, no relationship should undermine anyone’s right to consent, whether we’re talking about in the bedroom, or the relationship in general. If someone thinks that they need to cheat in order to preserve their sense of autonomy, it can be helpful to acknowledge those worries and arrive at an understanding that puts those fears to rest.

The final reason why someone might cheat that I’ll be touching on in this video relates to a desire to hurt their partner in a malicious way. Perhaps the cheating partner feels resentment toward their significant other, or has been hurt by something they’ve done in the past. Or maybe they feel dismissed or not taken seriously, so they use cheating as a way to show their partner what they’re capable of. In this way, cheating can be a means to get back at a partner in a way that really hurts. This can also be an abuse tactic, as an affront to the relationship and their partner’s dignity.

If this is the case, and you want to avoid cheating, these are often issues that can be addressed in more direct and therefore effective ways. If the vulnerability needed to talk openly about hurts, resentments, and other hard experiences doesn’t feel safety, this is where talking to a skilled couples counsellor can really help. It offers a space to address what needs to be talked about so that more constructive action can be taken. 

So, as hard as cheating can be for a relationship, addressing it creates an opportunity to take care other important issues. This can actually lead to more closeness, intimacy, trust, and connection, if handled well.

Now turning it over to you, the Heart and Oak community: Are there other reasons a partner might cheat that I didn’t address in this video? Which reason stuck out to you the most, and what did it get you thinking? Be sure to let us know in the comment section!

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Take care until next time, and keep doing the things that help you live a better, brighter life!