Infidelity: How Often Do People Cheat in Real Life?
If aliens (the little green kind) watched Western TV or our romantic comedies to try to understand humans before making first contact, they would be under several misapprehensions. First, they would likely conclude that the more two people seem to hate each other, the more likely it is they will end up madly in love. (This means I am secretly destined for Slade “Future Axe Murderer” from Georgia, the only adult male I have gotten in a physical fight with. This also has frightening implications for the futures of Kim Jong-un and Park Geun-hye.) The aliens would posit that grand gestures of affection are common place and one can really only express what one feels by riding in on a horse through New York City, calling into a radio show to profess love, or stopping a wedding by screaming “I object!” If a woman has an important career she can’t be lucky in love, nerds always wear glasses, the good guys can take 50 bullets to their body and keep on going but one shot to the bad guy will take him out. Pub fights are common, almost everyone is thin and good-looking and have straight, square teeth. The entire continent of Africa doesn’t exist except as a milieu for blood diamonds.
Aliens would also likely believe that human beings are terribly unfaithful creatures. Media tells us that most of the miscommunication between men and women occur because of lies, infidelity, and lies about infidelity. Even as a native Earthlander, I have to confess to having being sucked into this conception of the world. (Amy Schumer’s “Monogamy is unrealistic!” opener in Trainwreck comes to mind.) When I was younger I assumed that most relationships ended in divorce, and most divorce occurred due to cheating. But I now have a much more sunny conception of the rates of infidelity. Even if I don’t pretend that people are completely faithful, penguin-like, I think that infidelity occurs far less often than media portrays it.
The idea of betrayal, particularly any type of betrayal involving sex is salacious, but I think it is time to set the record straight. So, in one of my super scientific surveys (see previous ones concerning conceptions of virginity, self destructive tendencies, and whether men and women can ever be friends) I asked Facebook denizens and friends alike to answer in a completely anonymous survey if they had ever cheated.
The results were surprising.
Now the usual disclaimers: the respondents to this survey were definitely not randomly selected: they are mostly in their 20s and 30s (though I had a few respondents in their 40s, 50s and 60s) and socially liberal. They obviously are all ‘friends’ with me and willing to respond to an anonymous survey on cheating (both dubious self-selecting principles). That said, there was an approximately even split between men and women, and participants not only from the US but from Jordan, the UK, Germany, South Africa and a smattering of other nations. I don’t know if most people were straight or gay, unfortunately I didn’t think to ask.
Also, I asked people in the very first question only to respond to this survey if they had been in a monogamous relationship, to eliminate people who slept with multiple people but in a dating or more casual setting.
Okay, onto the good stuff.
The skinny: cheating, though a real phenomenon, was not nearly as common as media led me to believe.
About 37% of people admitted to committing some form of ‘cheating’
Of the 65 people who responded to this survey, 25% (16 people) admitted straight up to cheating. Cheating was defined as “doing any type of sexual activity with a party outside of the relationship in which YOUR PARTNER would have considered it cheating.” (That was to make sure consensual polyamory was not considered cheating. This was also to allow for the possibility that a person might not have considered their actions to be cheating, but knew their partner would.)
Besides the first 16 people, an additional 12% of respondents (8 people) said “It’s complicated, sort of” when asked if they had cheated. A few explained. One said that though s/he had never cheated s/he “did become emotionally intimate with my current partner while dating my previous partner, whom I left partly because I wanted to pursue my current relationship.” Another person stated that she “cuddled with someone else (in underwear) while in a relationship with my significant other. It was just cuddling, but I knew my boyfriend would have felt hurt.”
People were just as likely to cheat on the same partner more than once, as to cheat on multiple different partners
Each individual sexual encounter was considered an act of cheating. Under this definition,13% of people cheated more than once on the same partner, and 13% of cheaters cheated more than once on different partners. The model response for people who did cheat at all was two to four times (11 people, 17% of respondents). Interesting, there were no respondents who cheated 4 to 7 times, but then 5 respondents who cheated more than 7 times.
40% of people did not tell their partner that they cheated on them. Ever.
As one respondent put it, “The exclamation mark [on the answer indicating they did not disclose to their partner] makes me hesitant to click “No way!” but that should be my answer. It was fear, not enthusiasm.” Another person seemed to indicate it wasn’t fear that prevented them from telling their partner, but rather indifference: “I could have [disclosed] if I cared, but it only helped me cement the knowledge that we had to end our “relationship” and move on with our lives.” Another person wrote that she considered telling the significant other, but thought it would hurt him, and that she wanted to tell him mainly to absolve her own guilt, and not because she thought it was best for the partner.
3 people said that they told their partner right away after the cheating occurred. One person said that the first time s/he cheated, s/he told the partner. This same person “felt so bad about that that the second time it happened (in a very different context) I didn’t.” Another person said that s/he would disclose sometimes when s/he cheated, but not always. (This was the response of 11% of people who cheated, or 4 people).
The Reasoning Behind Cheating
Of people who had cheated, none thought it was moral to do so. 44% of cheaters thought it was morally neutral to cheat. 56% of cheaters thought it was immoral to cheat, despite having done so.
This seems to indicate that ones moral beliefs about cheating do not track with whether one is willing to cheat in actuality. Also, the one person in the survey who thought it would be moral to cheat? Yeah, he or she hadn’t ever cheated yet, but said they definitely would, if it felt right.
Respondents were then asked if their cheating was primarily emotional, sexual or relationship-driven infidelity (i.e. being in a relationship structure with another person in a way that would hurt the main partner, like having a relationship with a coworker that was flirtatious and inappropriate, but not yet sexual or emotionally deep enough to really be considered cheating). Respondents were able to choose more than one option. (For example: one explained that s/he “’cheated’ twice. One was sexual, the other was emotional.”
32% of cheating was emotional; 55% was sexual; 13% of cheating was relationship-driven
32% of respondents indicated that their cheating was primarily an emotional affair of feeling an intense closeness with another person who was not their partner. One person described being in the room with an ex-fling and feeling a sudden sexual energy s/he didn’t expect; s/he became obsessive with this person for a while again, despite being in a relationship, and despite never touching the ex-fling sexually at all.
55% of cheating respondents said that their infidelity was primarily sexual in nature. As one person put it, “Got friend-zoned in high school by my first crush. She came around senior year, and I couldn’t help myself.”
13% of people indicated that they cheated primarily in a relationship-driven way. This meant that they cheated by having an inappropriate relationship with someone else, or that their cheating was primarily driven by a overall failure in their current relationship. Two different respondents bleakly wrote of being in terrible relationships. One said: “Our relationship was only a front, he had cheated multiple times, and when given the opportunity, I took it. Only realizing later that it was the alarm to wake up and get on with the rest of my life.” The other said: “The relationship was already over. It had been over for three years. We were only living under the same roof, sleeping in separate rooms.” One has to query at that point, is there even any expectation of fidelity. Is it even cheating to have sex with another if your ‘partner’ and you are already so estranged?
According to experts, there are several risk factors that often are correlative with sexual infidelity. A person who has been sexually abused before (green-yellow bar); or has significant, ongoing, unresolved problems in their primary, long-term relationship (teal bar); or has a different level of sex drive when compared to their partner (orange bar); or has a partner who already cheated on them (gray bar) are significantly more likely to be in a cheating relationship. (Not causation, correlation, remember the difference!)
This survey bore out some of these risk factors, but not others:
Of the 24 people who acknowledged cheating on partners, six of them had none of these issues precipitating their decision to stray (but several did list other factors, such as distance). It also does seem to mean that the main reason people cheat, even people who claim to be primarily interested in cheating in a sexual way, do so not because of sexual issues, but because of broader emotional issues that were poisoning the relationship.
Whether these emotional issues were related to jealousy “my ex confessed that he looked at other women” or loneliness “long distance relationship- possibly about to end anyway” or insecurity “Personal insecurity is the real answer. Also, opportunity seemed too good to pass up” people were more likely to stray if something was fundamentally wrong with their relationship beyond merely seeing someone cuter at the liquor store. Even with one respondent who was cheated upon before s/he decided to do the same, the respondent framed the cheating through a self-empowerment lens, as opposed to being about physical attraction. S/he wrote: “Even if this partner had already cheated on me, I did not do it to get back at him, only to proved to myself it was totally over.”
Though people often had very physical affairs (55% of people labeled their cheating as such) they weren’t necessarily motivated to cheat by their poor sex life (most people didn’t list a difference in sex drive as a reason they cheated!) This is directly counter to what the media tells men all the time: that if they are not sex gods with 6 inch members and continents of experience, they will be found sexually deficient and left, alone, in the rain, for a better male specimen.
The Reasons People Cheated Varied
…from a bad sex life… to long distance woes… to the thrill of the chase… to feeling like the relationship was over anyway.
I had expected most of the reasons people cheated to be the same: sexual desire, being drunk to loosen inhibitions, dissatisfaction in the current relationship. These factors were present, sure, but the actual stories of desire and furtive fumbling were much more nuanced and rich. Sure, people wrote of bullet point like encounters-
“Why did you cheat?”
“1. I was in love with someone else 2. I was angry, bored and restless 3. I was intoxicated.”
-but most stories were paragraph explanations of reasons. Many were not in love with their partner, but for various reasons felt they could not leave them. One woman wrote of staying with a partner for the love of her child:
“Only cheated once. The relationship had been over for at least two years in which we sleep under the same roof, but in different bedrooms. It was kept that way due to a small child, and to so many other guilt driven concerns. He cheated on me twice (known and documented), but my cheating was due to opportunity, and to realize I was still alive and that I needed to move ahead with my life. Shortly after, we totally separated.”
Another person wrote simply that “The monogamous nature was set, the relationship was not.”
Distance was another common reason that infidelity occurred, but distance sometimes was a proxy for emotional disconnection, loneliness, and doubts about the relationship that existed prior to cheating. Distance plus alcohol plus opportunistic friends led to infidelity.
Others said that the particular person they cheated with was special, a once in a lifetime opportunity. How are you supposed to resist when your Dream Girl says yes?
One respondent said s/he cheated because “of a man who made my inhibitions drop away whenever I was around him.” Another man wrote ruefully of a high school crush who finally came around once he was in a relationship with another. A third wrote he cheated because “young highschool/early college on-again/off-again relationship combined with poor impulse control (which, when combined with a hearty sex drive and a close “friend”, led to an extended bout of cheating.” A fourth questioned whether his cheating was sex motivated or if the particular person tipped the scales:
“Only cheated once, and I couldn’t sleep the rest of that weekend. I cheated because the first girl I had a crush on friend-zoned me for 3 years. She changed her mind a few weeks after I got into a relationship with someone else, and that’s when I cheated. Not sure if it was just the 18 year old version of me who couldn’t help himself pass up sex or if it was the specific girl in question that was the real motivation. I’m inclined to say the latter.”
Sometimes cheating wasn’t due to finding that one special person at all. One respondent didn’t make any excuses for his infidelity, and seemed comfortable admitting that he loved being with lots of women, and that he loved domination and sex.
He says: “I love women. But one woman wasn’t ever enough to satisfy my love for the Hunt. I loved to have power over my prey. Earning her submission -physically, emotionally- made me feel alive. It’s like a King conquering new lands and enslaving the villagers, except they have tits and will do anything I ask of them.”
As clear as this statement seems to be as a full hearted support of cheating, this same respondent, when asked, “How did you feel when you were cheating on your partner?” stated a more conflicted answer. He wrote that he “rationalized my actions by making women objects of my own satisfaction. But then a few of them found out about each other. And some hated me, others chose to stay loyal. I vowed never to do it again. And I haven’t anymore.”
The last question in my survey was whether or not the respondent would ever cheat again, knowing what s/he knew now. This man put: definitely never again. He was through.
Some respondents made distinctions about cheating based on gender of their partner or paramour. One woman wrote that for some reason she found herself cheating when she dated men, but not when she dated women:
“When I slept with men I always cheated. (3 relationships and cheated on each of them once). I was emotionally and physically unfulfilled. Then I started sleeping with women (I’m a woman by the way). And I only cheated once in one of my (4) long term relationships. We had been together for almost 2 years and there was distance I couldn’t explain. I cheated with a “friend” who listened compassionately.”
Another woman wrote that she hadn’t thought that sleeping with another woman would count as cheating on her boyfriend. Apparently he disagreed. But she also noted that she “felt like he deserved it for already cheating on me.” Previous cheating of partner kept rearing its ugly head as a reason people decided to cheat.
Only one respondent wrote that the reason she cheated was exclusively based on having a bad sex life with the current partner. She didn’t blame him, and still loved him in all other ways, but something had to be done:
“I love him emotionally and i adore our conversations. But our sex life was bad…very bad. Mostly due to a physical issue on his part that he is about to get surgery for. And i don’t blame him, but i went from being someone who wanted sex at least once a week.to someone who had absolutely no desire for it. From him. I still sometimes wonder if i would cheat again if i found the right person. My motivation was purely for physical satisfaction. I miss feeling crazy sexual attraction to someone.”
So let’s analyze this. It seems like there are three major overarching reasons that people cheat: individual characteristics, something being wrong in their relationship, and situational circumstances. Individual characteristics probably motivated Mr. Thrill of the Hunt to cheat; relationship reasons motivated those who cheated as a response to their partners cheating; and having that dream girl finally saying yes is a situational factor that induced the respondent to cheat. This is important, people, because it indicates that the worn out phrase “Once a cheater, always a cheater” is not actually true. For some reason, the reason they cheated was related to who they were as individuals, but for most people it seemed to be a mixture of internal and external factors that led to infidelity.
“Hold on now Ms. Blogger” (I can hear some of you thinking) “I would NEVER cheat, no matter what, even if some of these relationship or situational factors existed.”
And that may be true. It is kinda like genes right? Someone might have a propensity for developing lung cancer, but that propensity will never be realized (switched on) unless that person smokes. Another person could similarly smoke his whole life and remain fit as a fiddle. People who cheat might be more likely to cheat based on who they are. Studies have shown that people with more testosterone (i.e. menfolk) and who have more risk-seeking behaviors are more likely to cheat than the average person. Likewise, women and people who are incredibly religious or conservative are less likely to stray. Still, these are tendencies, propensities, probabilities. Individuals with these risk factors can be monogamous. And women who are conservative, religious and afraid of their own shadow could still engage in infidelity.
But relationship and situational factors seem to be much more important, not just due to the stated reasons above for cheating, but also due to what people said about their likelihood of cheating again. When I asked respondents who had cheated before whether they thought they would cheat again, they said:
To put some actual numbers on this, only THREE people said they would definitely or even probably cheat again. Nineteen respondents said they would never cheat, or definitely never would cheat again. Five respondents weren’t sure. So much for once a cheater, always a cheater. (And the “Other (please specify)” response? A respondent saying that s/he would never cheat if it were the right relationship… hm, is that a ‘maybe’?)
Most people who cheated felt really bad about it afterwards… but not all
Similarly telling is how people FELT when then cheated, about themselves, the state of the world. Frankly, most of them didn’t really feel too good afterwards. Nine people’s responses included the word “guilt,” which was the most common general response, along with “anger”, feeling “childish”, and “kind of shitty.”
Several examples of this: “I felt like an amoral, depraved person the next day, causing me to do some reading on ethics in an attempt to deepen my ethical sense.” “Horrible. I wanted to throw up for days afterwards. I felt guilty for weeks. I wished I hadn’t done anything.” “I felt pretty lousy about myself and so guilty. I felt like I owed my partner both times which lead to a really unhealthy dynamic.”
But guilt wasn’t the only strand of emotion underlaying self-analysis of these experiences. The respondents really laid their stories out here with this question, and sometimes I received paragraphs of text explaining exactly how and why and who. It was interesting for me, emotionally, because I connected with these people, these stories; they were the tales of individuals with healthy moral centers, self-awareness, emotional ability. I guess I had foolishly thought beforehand that people who cheat care less about other people, or the consequences of their actions. This is the opposite of what is true.
Take this response, for example, with emotions runnings from “hot and sneaky” to “guilty” to declarations about the nature of love.
The question: “How did you feel when you were cheating on your partner? (In general, about yourself, about your partner, about the person you were cheating on your significant other with.”
This answer: “At the time it felt hot and sneaky. Afterwards I felt guilty but defiantly justified. I never told anyone I cheated on that I had and they never found out and I don’t feel bad about that because it would only hurt them and in the big picture: the experience was about ME and my feelings. I felt trapped or unfulfilled or ignored. So I found a way to fix that with someone else and (with the men) it made me realize I wanted something else so I graciously ended it or (with the woman) it made me realize that what I had was worth holding onto so why fuck myself and her over by talking about it?”
She finishes with: “Love isn’t monogamous. Love is messy war. You don’t tell the other side you just lost a battle a few states over. You pretend that didn’t happen and you recoup your losses.”
Several people had answers like this, thinking about the consequences of their actions, good and bad both; choosing a framing mechanism (such as whether their actions were deviant or normal), as well as how one night of pleasure impacted even far into the future.
Sometimes the negative consequences of the cheating lasted even after the relationship ended, permanently tainting the person’s life. Ironically, like many negative thought spirals and emotional states, these pains were self-inflicted. One person feel guilty after cheating, and says that s/he still slightly carries the guilt to this day for all the times their partners didn’t know about. Another person’s outlook on the likelihood of his partners cheating has forever changed:
I felt paranoid! I want to be very clear here. I did not feel paranoid that my girlfriend would find out. I felt paranoid that she would do the same because it wasn’t until after I cheated that I realized how fickle a person (like me) could really be. I have not cheated since that night, and I like to think that I never will again. But ironically, I distrust women who are close to their ex-boyfriends all the same. There was a huge element of guilt after I cheated, but that didn’t take very long to fade. The paranoia stuck.
Thus, the infidelity in this case only really hurt the person who cheated: his girlfriend didn’t know, and he is more distrustful of future significant others due to his actions. It has a chilling logic to it: if he is generally nice, non-sociopathic dude and he cheated, is anyone really safe from its effects? (Perhaps all relationships should be open? A topic for another time maybe).
The emotional consequences of cheating were not always so dire. Several people mentioned how their infidelity made them realize that they had to break up with their partners, that their dynamic was unhealthy. “It was sex, it was good, I was thirsty for attention and human touch. I didn’t stop to think, but afterwards when I did, I realized I had to move on with my life.”
Another common thread was actually finding the right person as a result of cheating. Multiple respondents noted that the person they cheated with ultimately ended up being their partner. For example, one woman wrote that though she never physically cheated, she became emotionally invested with her now fiancée while in another relationship. As she put it: “The relationship was long-distance and we seemed to have less and less in common every day–there was a huge intellectual gulf between us and I was much more ambitious than he was. He was also struggling with depression, and I felt responsible for maintaining his mental well-being. I had a friend who I had a lot in common with, and we spent a lot of long nights together talking about everything. This friend had been attracted to me for a long time, and while I had previously been uninterested, I found myself becoming attracted to him as our friendship grew. The problems in my relationship were the primary reason I ended things with my partner, but my attraction to my friend was one of the catalysts that led me to break things off. It’s much easier to get out of a bad relationship when the promise of a fulfilling one is within sight. And now that friend and I are getting married, so I guess it turned out okay.”
One respondent noted that she thought her cuddling with another man actually strengthened her current relationship with her partner as it made “me realize how much I loved my partner. It also made me respect the other guy less, that he would try to make the moves on me even though I was in a relationship and he knew it.” (Is cuddling “making a move?”) So cheating in this case had the positive effect of strengthening her relationship, even though she also noted in her answer that it made her feel horrible for weeks.
All taken together, cheating and its ramifications are more complicated than I originally gave it credit for, with positive and negative things coming from it, even though people mostly were likely to cheat due to negative issues in their lives. Infidelity is just one part or aspect of human beings’ ability to connect with each other, love each other, hurt each other through that love. It tangles up with the relationship itself, and the people involved in it.
“The sex was swell, so there’s that, but otherwise kind of shitty. While at the same time, fully able to rationalize and minimize to myself on the logic that it was a young, not very serious relationship with very few consequences if found out, and a pretty solid confidence that it wouldn’t be. I didn’t let it influence how I thought about my partner, though the length of the relationship was much longer than I expected at the time of the cheating (years longer), and whatever impact the cheating had on my feelings about my partner were so tangled in with all of the other feelings that go along with a half-decade coming-of-age relationship that I can’t really decipher it from the rest.”
Where does all this data on cheating get us to? I think the first major take away is that cheating, though part of the human experience is not necessarily part of an individual’s nature. It happens more rarely than people think, and cheaters aren’t all drunk on the power of fooling their partners and getting sex on the side. Most fell bad about themselves afterwards. Cheating results from many different factors coalescing: distance, emotional distance, insecurity, drunken mistakes; there is no one reason people cheat, and therefore nothing that a person can do to forestall cheating FOR SURE in their own relationship. That said, being emotional open and honest with ones partner seems to help, increasing trust in the relationship.
This does make me wonder if monogamy is realistic or even desirable for all couples. Some people perhaps are not meant for monogamous relationships, and I think that a lot of heartache and self-censure could be ameliorated if couples were more open to at least discussing situations in which their relationship could open up to include others, and on what terms.
Lastly, is cheating actually immoral? It seems to me that cheating in itself isn’t wrong, but that some of the requisite things that happen when you cheat are immoral. For instance, having sex, not wrong. Having sex with multiple people you aren’t dating, not wrong. But lying to a person who trusts you? Hurting a person who trusts you? Putting selfish desires over the good of the relationship? Much more morally ambiguous.
In the end, we are all human. Human beings make mistakes, especially in situations of high emotion. Almost nothing is at a higher, more hysterical pitch than sex. Hopefully these answers helped humanize those with the desire to cheat, while also reinforcing that people who do cheat usually don’t find it to their liking.