Presumably, no one goes into a relationship thinking they will cheat – or be cheated on - so what causes someone to stray from a relationship they’ve invested in and to deceive someone they care about? Countless studies have proven things such as certain personality traits, socioeconomic factors and lifestyle can all come into play as well as being a past-offender, but before you can answer why someone cheats, you must first define what exactly cheating is - is it just sex or is an emotional affair also a betrayal?
What is cheating?
To understand the why, you must first understand the what. There is no one clear-cut definition of cheating. Cheating is defined within the parameters of a relationship and what a couple deems acceptable between them. For one couple, sex with an outside party might be ok, whereas having an emotional affair is seen as a betrayal. While for another couple, texting or flirting with an outside party might be enough to be considered cheating.
“Cheating is more common than we think,” Helen Poynten, Regional Manager, Relationships Australia Queensland tells marie claire. “The very nature of cheating being a subjective definition allows it to be underreported ie 'we were on a break!' ' it was only a kiss, it didn't mean anything!'”
A 2015 study looked at the different forms of cheating and found that just about anything from lying to flirting to sexting - to then the more obvious intercourse - can all be considered cheating; depending on a person's perspective.
A new buzzword on the dating scene is micro-cheating, largely thanks to the rise of social media and technology and the "grey area" that comes with it. Things such as being friends with an ex on Facebook, or commenting a flirty emoji on a colleagues Instagram pic to not shutting down your Tinder profile could all be considered cheating.
“A couple needs to communicate what their needs are for themselves to flourish in their relationship, and the required boundaries,” adds Poynton. “This will communicate what constitutes as cheating, and expectations will also be a lot clearer.”
Who is most likely to cheat?
There have been countless studies on why people cheat – and why some people are serial offenders.
Socioeconomic factors come into play, with wealthy men being highly likely to cheat as well as those who are financially dependant on their partners according to a 2015 study – especially they found, if it is a man reliant on a woman.
According to a 2017 survey by Aussie private investigation firm Lyonswood Investigations the most common attributes of the unfaithful are aged over 40, part of a conservative religious group or being married at an early age.
Another study found social media to play a major role, with heavy social media users more likely to cheat, with time spent on there seen as damaging to a relationship.
"Probably what they are finding is that people who are so over engaged in social media activities are not as engaged as the actual relationship,” Dr. Karen North, a social media expert at USC, told CBS2 LA at the time of the study.
"It's not necessarily that social media or even use of many channels interferes with relationships, it can enhance it. The question is, are you actually connecting with people or are you using social media as a nervous habit and a substitute for real relationships?"
People who have been unfaithful in past relationships are also more likely to be repeat offenders according to research from the University of South Alabama.
What are the main reasons people cheat?
So why do people do it? What drives someone to look for something outside of the relationship they’re in – without first walking away?
A 2017 study out of the UK which looked at 5000 people found the top reasons to be a lack of emotional intimacy, lack of communication between partners, stress, sexual dysfunction with one’s current partner, lack of emotional intimacy and tiredness.
According to the study, the top reasons for men and women were fairly similar, with a lack of communication being a common factor.
The top 5 for women:
Lack of emotional intimacy (84%)
Lack of communication between partners (75%)
A bad history with sex or abuse (26%)
A lack of interest in sex with the current partner (23%)
The top 5 for men:
Lack of communication between partners (68%)
Sexual dysfunction with one’s current partner (44%)
Lack of emotional intimacy (38%)
Fatigue or being chronically tired (31%)
Are men or women more prone to cheating?
“I think society would like us to think that men and women are driven by different desires, expectations and hopes,” says Poynten. “But if the reasons are based on universal human drivers, then both genders are susceptible to these human emotions.”
“Saying that, there is some truth in the old adage that the brain is the body's major sex organ, and women's brains differ from men's - ie due to the differences in hormones, neural pathway engineering through enculturation/socialisation so our concepts of pleasures can be different, so the excitement of cheating can be different”.
According to a US survey, 20% of men and 13% of women reported that they’ve had sex with someone other than their spouse while married.
Choosing to stay or go: Can couples get past infidelity?
For some couples a breakdown in trust is irreparable, for others, they are able to move forward and even become stronger for it.
Seeking counselling or outside advice can help a couple work through infidelity and explore the impact it has had on the relationship.
“The fallout of cheating is loss of trust,” says Poynton. “It is up to the couple whether the breech is repairable.”
Tips for dealing with infidelity and deciding what to do
- Communication is key
- Know your own value system: if trust is a non-negotiable for you, chances are you will be dealing with lots of confusion
- Be your own best advocate: know what you want and say it, speak up for your feelings
- Fight fair: Non-verbal communication is 70% of our communication so be congruent in your messaging ie don't say 'its fine' and then scowl for the rest of the evening
For more information or support on relationships and infidelity, call Relationships Australia Queensland on 1300 364 277.
Note: These responses are for couples where there is no domestic violence in the relationship. If there is domestic violence present individuals should seek specialised support or advice and can do so by contacting 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.