In the past, there have been more significant differences in the reasons why men cheat and why women cheat, with men cheating more for sexual variety and women cheating more because of relationship dissatisfaction. But nowadays, that gender gap in infidelity is closing: Men and women cheat for many of the same reasons and at similar rates.
"Women cheat for many reasons, just like men do," AASECT-certified sex therapist and licensed counselor Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., tells mbg.
We asked relationship experts like Nelson about why women cheat today, plus what to do if it's happening.
Reasons women cheat in relationships:
Women cheat for sex.
"Women appreciate good sex just like anyone else," Nelson says. "Women cheat when they find a man or woman that turns them on." If anyone tells you men cheat for sex and women cheat for emotion, she adds, they're wrong. A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that, although men are still more likely to cheat for sexual variety, it's still among the top three reasons women cheat.
They're unhappy with their current relationship.
The same study found another top reason women cheat is that they've fallen out of love with their current primary partner. Even if the love is still there, in general a woman who's unhappy in her relationship may be more inclined to cheat. Whether because of anger, home, financial problems, family trouble—the list goes on—they may feel cheating will offer them what their current relationship isn't.
"Women cheat because the relationship at home is cooling off," Nelson says. "If there is tension or boredom at home, excitement on the side can be a distraction, a temptation too great to avoid."
It was just a mistake.
The third top reason for women cheating, according to the study? It was just situational. Things like being drunk and "not thinking clearly."
"Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes, affairs happen because of opportunity," Nelson adds. "Women can act impulsively and then regret it." In other words, it's entirely possible there isn't much deeper meaning aside from an opportunity that they weren't able to pass up in the moment.
They're craving intimacy.
Whether it's physical or emotional, intimacy is one of those needs we all want to see met. If a woman isn't feeling intimately fulfilled in her relationship, and someone comes along who exhibits that type of intimacy, there will be an attraction. Some older research has found women tend to have a stronger emotional connection to the new person they're cheating with than male cheaters do, suggesting romance is part of the cheating equation for women.
The new person made them feel special.
Sometimes people cheat because the new person gave them a new feeling or made them feel like someone else. "Women report that an affair lover makes them feel special, sexy, and adored, and that attention is hard to ignore, no matter what their spouse does at home," Nelson says.
They're experiencing low self-esteem.
Low self-esteem can create a desire for outside validation, psychologist Margaret Paul, Ph.D., explains. This might be particularly true if the person isn't receiving validation from their current partner, but Paul notes it's really the lack of self-love that can push someone to cheat.
"Mainly what I've seen," Paul tells mbg, "is people cheat when they're not taking responsibility for themselves or taking care of their own feelings—when they don't develop the ability to speak up for themselves in their current relationship. They're abandoning themselves in numerous ways and because of that they're needy for outside attention."
In this way, she notes, the instance of cheating or an affair may be less about the attention someone gives them and more about the attention they aren't giving themselves.
They're using it to numb or cope with difficult feelings.
Cheating may also indicate there's something within themselves or the relationship that they're not dealing with. Paul compares cheating to turning to alcohol or drugs, in that people might turn to any of these behaviors as a way to run away from their feelings instead of directly addressing them.
They want a breakup or a change.
Sometimes people cheat because they want their relationship to end, and cheating seems like an easier way to break it than to directly confront their partner. But Nelson also points out that sometimes people cheat because they want something in their current relationship to change: "Women cheat to get out of a marriage, or to stay in one," she says.
Who cheats more—men or women?
Research suggests that men are more likely to cheat in committed relationships. One 2016 study suggests that on average, 20% of men have cheated versus 13% of women. Interestingly, women in the 18-29 age group actually cheated slightly more than men. Though as the years go on, fewer women cheat while more men cheat, and the gap gets wider over time.
Signs your partner may be cheating.
"People often have a feeling that their partner is cheating," Paul notes. "The energy shifts when someone is cheating, and people almost always say 'something changed' or 'something was wrong.'"
Some common signs to look out for include:
- They act suspicious around their phone or computer to hide their communication.
- They're dressing nicer, working out more, or generally taking better care of their appearance.
- Your sex life is suddenly different (i.e., more sex to cover up the cheating, less sex, or new/different sex).
- They're often out for extended periods of time without warning, "working late" or dealing with something else that "just came up."
- You often can't get a hold of them when they're out.
- Their friends could very well know about the cheating, and as such, they act awkward around you.
- There are unexplained expenses on their bank statement like dinners or other date-like activities.
What to do about infidelity in a relationship.
To be cheated on can sever the trust of an otherwise healthy relationship—and to be the cheater can leave one feeling guilty, confused, and unsure of how to move forward. Perhaps you just discovered your partner is cheating, or maybe you're the one who did the cheating. Either way, it's important to address it if you want to move forward, whether that means staying together or breaking up.
Let your partner know you need to talk to them about something important, and take some time to think about how you want to approach the conversation. Couples' therapy may be a good option to encourage a healthy and productive discussion. "Therapy can help to move forward after an affair," Nelson says. "Find a therapist who has experience treating erotic recovery—someone who is judgment-free and will support you in your journey toward a new monogamy."
"If both people are open to learning about their own contribution to the problems in the marriage, if they're willing to learn how to take responsibility for themselves," Paul adds, "they can actually create a much better relationship than they had before. I see over and over again that the relationship can get much, much better when both people open up and deal with what created the dysfunction. But if one partner isn't open to dealing with it, then there's no point. It's not going to get better."
The bottom line.
Cheating is, in all honesty, not that uncommon. If it happens in your relationship, that doesn't mean it has to be the end of the road for the two of you. Nelson and Paul both say recovering from cheating is possible—and can be well worth it in creating a stronger relationship than you had before. If you're both on board, with time, you can start rebuilding trust so you're stronger than ever.
Reset Your Gut
Sign up for our FREE doctor-approved gut health guide featuring shopping lists, recipes, and tips
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.