10 Reasons People Cheat in Relationships

4 min
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Infidelity is one of the most difficult things to experience in a relationship. As a betrayal of trust, it can be incredibly painful. It can also needle any core wounding we have, such as abandonment and rejection issues. Adding to the confusion is the spectrum of what people consider to be unfaithful behavior – from a one-off flirt to a long-term affair. What one person might view as friendship, another might consider emotional cheating. And if things become physical, then what constitutes unforgivable unfaithfulness? 

Wherever a couple may stand on these nuances, cheating within a relationship is indicative that one or both individuals have some issues to address. For some couples, a transgression might be the final nail in the coffin of an already dying relationship. For others, it might be a wake-up call that allows for deeper intimacy, attention, and care. Regardless of the circumstances, it can help to understand why people cheat in the first place. Developing more compassion for the reasons behind infidelity (or at least trying to understand the true causes behind it) might just ease some of the pain, and turn a couple’s crisis into an opportunity for growth – whether that’s together or apart. Here are some reasons people cheat in relationships, or ones they love. 

1. They are insecure or have low self-esteem

Low self-esteem can drive people towards behaviors that are destructive and hurtful. When we have an insecure sense of self, we tend to seek external validation through a variety of means, such as people-pleasing and perfectionism. Attention from another, such as sexual desire, or some kind of intellectual or emotional fulfillment, can be easily mistaken for validation of our worth. 

2. They feel overwhelmed by expectation

The demands on monogamous relationships have become extremely high, with mainstream media perpetuating the message that a partner should act as a “soul mate”, completing us and fulfilling all our needs. It’s a damaging idea of what it means to be in a relationship, and can lead to the partnership becoming a source of stress rather than strength. Having a partner who you can talk to about anything, who you enjoy spending lots of time with, and know you can come to for a safe space to work through the challenges you face is a wonderful thing – but there is a fine line between having them be a valued support system for you, and having your partner also play the role of a therapist, best or only friend, career counselor, financial advisor, social secretary, and parental figure. Needing your partner to fulfill too many of these other roles too often can hurt a relationship, especially if they tend to overshadow the role of lover and romantic partner.

3. They are emotionally unfulfilled

Although it is not our partners' duty to fix our emotional pain, some couples find themselves in the trap of this expectation. Sometimes, when people embark on an affair, they are seeking to fill an emotional void in the same way an addict might look to using substances like drugs and alcohol, or indulging in a smoking, shopping, or gambling addiction. While your partner can – and should – be supportive of some of your needs, expecting one person to fulfill all of these cravings can create a detrimental amount of pressure. By learning to meet these needs through a variety of relationships – such as friendships, family, or very importantly, the one you have with yourself – makes it a lot easier for a romantic partnership to remain healthy, and not transform into a toxic codependency. 

4. They are attachment avoidant

An avoidant attachment style is usually the result of chronic stress in childhood. It is difficult for an avoidant person to trust and allow intimacy into their life – and sometimes, cheating on their partner can be a reaction to the commitment of the relationship. They may feel uncomfortable with the level of attention and dependence they feel as a relationship becomes more committed, and use infidelity to uphold negative self-beliefs about their lack of worth.

5. They are anxiously attached

Another attachment style that results from chronic stress in childhood, anxious attachment can put a lot of strain and expectation on a relationship. The anxiously attached person can feel abandoned when the capacity of their partner to engage in certain aspects of the relationship is reduced or deemed unsatisfactory. The person might feel unloved and seek attention elsewhere. 

6. They are lashing out

Monogamous relationships can put a lot of strain on the only two people responsible for its upkeep. This intensity can heighten emotions and trigger a domino effect of reactivity between each party. Anger, shame, and other strong emotions can lead to behaviors aimed at hurting or avenging the other, with infidelity being one of the most hurtful. These emotions may come from inside the relationship or be misdirected from somewhere outside of it.

7. They are suffering a loss

Infidelity can sometimes be the result of a major life trauma such as the death of a loved one. This brush with mortality can drive someone to act in ways that react to the inevitability of death: trying to feel more alive and autonomous. In a stable and secure relationship, the secrecy and excitement of an extra-pair affair can be an awakening and exhilarating experience.

8. They feel unappreciated

Feeling sexually or emotionally neglected, unloved, or unappreciated in a relationship is a very common cause of infidelity. It takes two to maintain a partnership, and just because one person cheated doesn’t mean the other is entirely innocent. Quite often, the behavior has stemmed from the underlying stressor that that care towards the relationship itself has been neglected, and might need commitment from both parties to rectify.

9. They believe they could be happier

We live in an age of instant gratification and FOMO, and where finding a sexual partner can be as simple as a swipe on an app. We are told we deserve to be happy as often as possible, often without truly understanding what happiness is – and it’s tempting to switch up our circumstances to figure out how to be more so. Trying out another sexual partner, or talking to someone who seems to understand us on a more emotional level, is a logical leap – but it is one that may or may not pan out.  

10. They are seeking their own self

According to infidelity expert Esther Perel, cheating is never really about the object of desire, but instead, about the unfaithful party trying to explore and rediscover parts of themselves. It might be a rebelliousness that has been locked away – a creative side or wildness, for example. Long-term relationships can leave people feeling stuck in their roles, and an affair can be a signal that growth for both parties has been stunted... and in doing so, opening space for opportunity. 

No matter how much we may love our partners, being in a happy and lasting relationship can take some work around that. From learning about the science of romantic love and successful partnerships, to establishing healthy habits that both you and your partner can commit to, certain practices can not only deepen your relationship with your loved one(s), but also that which you have with yourself.


All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Was That Cheating? Perceptions Vary by Sex Attachment Anxiety, and Behavior; Preventing Infidelity: A Theory of Protective Factors; Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater? Serial Infidelity Across Subsequent Relationships

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