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The Real Reason Some People Cheat

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy
February 1, 2019

Cheating sucks. At its core, it's an act of disloyalty, disrespect, and betrayal. And because it deals with matters of the heart and the body (two places we humans are most vulnerable), it stings particularly hard. Many people instinctively respond viscerally to the very idea of cheating, casting judgment and blame on the person who broke their commitment. It's likely because many people can feel some sort of vicarious pain for the person who got cheated on—many of us feel on an intuitive, personal level how much that would hurt (or have already experienced that stinging pain ourselves).

But a new study1 published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests we might be a little too fast to pick sides when it comes to infidelity. Researchers dug into the relationship circumstances that may make a person more likely to look for intimacy elsewhere. What they found? People may be more likely to cheat when they're experiencing hurtful behavior from their current partner.

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To understand why people cheat, the researchers conducted a series of experiments to understand how unhappiness within a relationship might make a person more likely to be interested in an attractive third party. In one experiment, about 310 people currently involved in relationships completed a survey about the extent to which their partner had hurt and disappointed them lately, how much sexual desire they had for their partner, and how much they'd been sexually interested in or flirted with other people lately. The findings showed people who'd experienced more disappointment in their relationship were more likely to have shown sexual desire for another person.

In another experiment, another 130 participants were asked to describe particularly hurtful things their partner had done to them while a control group simply described their normal daily life, then those in both groups looked through photos of attractive people and were asked to say which ones struck them as potential partners. People who'd recollected recent relationship hurt had more interest in these new potential partners than those who weren't asked to reflect.

One part of the study actually found people who'd been thinking about the ways their partner had recently hurt them were more likely to flirt with an attractive interviewer.

"Overall, our research demonstrates that partners' hurtful behavior diminishes the desire for these partners, directing attention, at least momentarily, to new, seemingly more promising relationships," Gurit Birnbaum, Ph.D., a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya's Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology in Israel and the study's lead author, told PsyPost. "When threats internal to a relationship arise, partners may become more vulnerable to feeling attracted to, and flirting with, potential alternative partners. Feeling sexually attracted to alternative partners may provide a means for partners to overcome their feelings of hurt."

Would we view cheating differently if we knew that the person who cheated was currently in a relationship where their partner was causing them pain?

It's a question to ponder. This isn't to say cheating is sometimes permissible; by all means, if you're unhappy in your relationship, you should probably get out of it before you start getting involved with other people. But of course, leaving isn't always so simple.

If nothing else, this study shows that cheating isn't always a black-and-white situation, and it's important to get all the information about a situation before you take sides and cast blame.

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Kelly Gonsalves
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.

You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter