Why do People Cheat? UMD Research Identifies 8 Motivating Factors

Infidelity in a relationship can be costly—personally, financially and socially—yet it remains an exceedingly common occurrence. New research led by the University of Maryland Department of Psychology provides a comprehensive list of the main reasons people cheat, and questions traditional wisdom about what infidelity means in a relationship.  

While previous research has identified factors that make a person more likely to be unfaithful to a relationship partner, a UMD-led study published in the Journal of Sex Research examined people’s self-reported motivations for engaging in infidelity. The research team surveyed 495 adults who admitted to being unfaithful while in a committed, romantic relationship. After analyzing responses to a set of nearly 80 questions, researchers identified eight common factors motivating people to cheat:

1.      Anger (e.g., seeking revenge for a partner’s betrayal)

2.      Sexual desire (e.g., feeling unsatisfied with the sex in a relationship and wanting to try something new)

3.      Lack of love (e.g., loss of passion or interest in a partner, falling “out of love”)

4.      Neglect (e.g., not receiving enough love, respect and attention)

5.      Low commitment (e.g., one partner is not as committed as the other, or both partners didn’t understand the relationship was exclusive)

6.      Situation (e.g., includes scenarios outside of a person’s normal, such as being intoxicated, on vacation, or under high stress)

7.      Esteem (e.g., seeking to increase self-worth or independence by having sex with multiple partners)

8.      Variety (e.g., wanting to experience sex with as many partners as possible)

“Despite the widespread prevalence of infidelity, there hasn’t been much research into what makes people cheat,” explained Dylan Selterman, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, who led the study. “Gaining a deeper understanding of what motivates people to engage in infidelity may help couples repair their relationships following an infidelity, or may help them prevent the onset of cheating in the first place. Clinicians may also find it useful during couples’ therapy.”

Selterman and colleagues found that men were more likely to report being motivated to cheat by sexual desire, variety and situational forces, while women were more likely to be motivated by neglect. Further, they say the variety and diversity of motivations associated with infidelity suggest it can happen to anyone—even couples in seemingly stable relationships.

“We often hear that infidelity is a symptom, not a cause, of a damaged relationship,” Selterman said. “Our research suggests it’s not that simple: People cheat for a variety of reasons, many of which are not a direct reflection of a relationship’s health.”

To build upon this study, the research team is now looking into behavioral outcomes following infidelity: How often do couples break up? How often does the unfaithful partner leave for the person with whom he/she cheated? Does the motivation behind the infidelity predict such outcomes?

In addition to Selterman, the research team includes Justin Garcia, an Assistant Professor from the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University, and Irene Tsapelas from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Their research was recently featured on Today online.

three people on a bench