It’s rarely just about sex.
Every person, in one way or another, has experienced the dreadful experience of becoming acquainted with the consequence of their actions. So why do some people keep doing the very thing that came back to (perhaps literally) slap them in the face? When it comes to cheating, the answers aren’t always clear—but recent research can help us come closer to understanding.
A study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy in December 2020 investigated the reasons why people cheat, Scientific American reported. Researchers found eight motivations for cheating: “anger, self-esteem, lack of love, low commitment, need for variety, neglect, sexual desire, and circumstance.” Of course, few actions have just one cause, and cheating is likely brought on by some combination of these incentives.
As psychotherapist Esther Perel explained in The Atlantic in 2017, cheating is rarely if ever clear cut—and people can cheat even if they are in a perfectly functional relationship. The varied motivations uncovered by this study show that cheating can be brought on by personal issues (self-esteem, need for variety) just as likely as it can be brought on by more direct personal conflict (anger, lack of love).
Emotions can also get complex. The excuse that “it’s just sex” doesn’t appear to be true, according to the research. About two-thirds of participants expressed some kind of affection for the person they cheated with—but not necessarily to an extreme extent. One in ten participants admits to telling the person, “I love you.” In fact, for about half of participants, sex isn’t even a part of the equation: about 50% of participants reported vaginal intercourse, but nearly 87% reported kissing.
There is some truth to the belief that once someone is a cheater, they’re always a cheater. A 2017 study found that participants who reported cheating in their relationship were three times as likely to cheat in their next relationship, compared to those who didn’t. This can also be incredibly destabilizing for the partner that was cheated on: those who were suspicious of their partner cheating were four times more likely to report suspicion of cheating in their next relationship.
What cheating does to a relationship varies? The 2020 study found that only about 20% of relationships ended because of the affair—but only about a third of participants who cheated admitted their infidelity to their partners. About 20% of couples stayed together despite one partner finding out the other cheated. It’s far less likely for cheating to lead to a new relationship, too: only 11% percent of participants who reported cheating had broken up with their partner to be with the person they had cheated with. It seems like an affair is an escape—but not to a new, healthy relationship.