Let’s be really real: We all have a story about cheating. Many of us have been cheated on, have been the cheater, or have someone close to us who has been impacted by infidelity. That has led some people to have very strong feelings about stepping out on a relationship, a sort of “one strike and you’re out” policy, if you will, whereas others are more liberal with their partner having a side piece.
In 2016, one out of five adults in the United States under the age of 30 said they were open to polyamory. That number has since risen to nearly a third of adults in the same age group. If being open to having other partners (emotionally and/or physically) is not really up your alley, that’s OK, too.
Millennial dating trends have opened up the binary of monogamy, allowing people to define the boundaries of their relationship(s) for themselves, with or without labels. This has also opened up a conversation of what constitutes cheating — is it purely physical or can it be emotional, and where exactly can the line be drawn?
And when your partner is unfaithful by your agreed upon terms, what does that say about them? Is it then fair to generalize all cheaters based on one (or a few) bad experiences?
There are many theories and stereotypes about infidelity, as well as long-held beliefs about men and commitment. Truthfully, it’s a lot to digest. Luckily, we’re here to unpack all of that, and get down to the psychological facts about cheating.
Fact: It may not be about you.
If there are difficulties in your relationship, sometimes cheating occurs as a result of one person fearing conflict or confrontation. They may see infidelity as an outlet to blow off some steam rather than directly addressing the relationship issues.
For example, the mindset of “my needs aren’t being met here, so I might as well look elsewhere” is more than likely an issue of communication or a lack thereof. Not communicating with your partner about your needs and your relationship, equates to you not taking the onus to improve it. This can also pertain to someone who is feeling a lack of control in their relationship.
Clinical psychologist and cohost of The Kurre and Klapow Show, Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., states that cheating can be about seeking comfort. “People cheat out of hopelessness…. They have given up, but they don’t want to put an end to the relationship, often for logistic reasons (money, kids, lifestyle).”
There has also been research that revealed that sometimes cheating is used as a way out of the relationship, possibly with the intention of being caught, or even just having a backup plan for when the infidelity is exposed. Essentially, this is someone who is acting out in defiance. Simultaneously, they can be using it as a tool of avoidance. They are sidestepping the problems in their relationship and avoiding trying to seek a resolution with their partner.
While none of these reasons excuse the behavior — especially if you have set clear boundaries with your partner — it does provide some insight as to why your significant other may have stepped out. Simply put, it’s not you, it’s them.
Fiction: Men are hardwired not to commit.
There is a long-held belief that men are physically incapable of commitment, that it is inherent in their biological makeup to not be monogamous. This is often used to rationalize cheating, by both the cheaters and the enablers alike. Not only is there the myth that men only want “a bad bitch, noncommittal” as Lizzo so eloquently put it in her song “Truth Hurts,” but there is also the idea that if they do commit, it’s only for sex.
The age-old idiom, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” feeds in to this stereotype. However, according to the Journal of Social Psychology, men actually fall in love faster than women. Not only that, but they also express they are in love sooner than women do. Due to social and cultural standards of hyper-masculinity, it is widely maintained that men are less emotional than women.
So combine hyper-masculinity with the myth of men being incapable of fidelity, and you have the baseline understanding of an episode of Cheaters.
Fact: Cheating is gender neutral.
The standard argument that men are more likely to cheat has actually been debunked. A 2011 study from Indiana University found that men and women cheat at roughly the same rate. However, age can play a factor when it comes to fidelity, as a 2017 study from the Institute of Family Studies found that infidelity widens between the genders with age, for example men above the age of 80 are four times more likely to cheat.
But the reasons why men or women step out are all personal, not biological. The most common reasons for being unfaithful have to do with issues in the primary relationship, and an inability or unwillingness to address it directly with their partner. Research has also shown that women and men crave sex at the same rate. So this notion that men are horndogs, hardwired to cheat to fulfill their insatiable libido is not exactly accurate. Gender, in and of itself, does not contribute to reasons why someone cheats.
Fiction: Hookup culture has ruined monogamy.
There has been significant criticism of millennial dating culture, from op-eds on how hookup culture has ruined dating to research studies on modern feminism and casual sex. This notion that hookup culture has doomed monogamy, however, has also been debunked.
One study from the American Psychological Association actually found that, on average, men and women responded more positively than negatively to the idea of casual liaisons. So it’s not so much that hookup culture is negatively impacting dating, it’s that it is more widely accepted than in previous generations.
In the 1960s with increasing access to birth control and the rise of the feminist movement, sexual liberation became a big part of the zeitgeist. In the 21st century television shows and films have increasingly developed story lines of modern sexuality (though not always completely accurate), including casual relations.
This was a clear departure from a time when sitcoms such as I Love Lucy wouldn’t so much as show a couple sharing the same bed. That is to say, we’re not the prudes that we once were, or at least we are more accepting of sexuality outside of the “wait until you’re married” narrative.