Infidelity is the breaking of a promise to remain faithful to a romantic partner, whether that promise was a part of marriage vows, a privately uttered agreement between lovers, or an unspoken assumption. As unthinkable as the notion of breaking such promises may be at the time they are made, infidelity is common, and when it happens, it raises thorny questions: Should you stay? Can trust be rebuilt? Or is there no choice but to pack up and move on?
For the adulterer, infidelity can be exciting and seductive, conferring feelings of renewal, rejuvenation, and joy. Infidelity is a betrayal but it isn’t necessarily the end of love; cheating occurs even in happy relationships. The partner being betrayed, however, may feel confusion, anger, doubt, pain, and heartbreak.
Most people are aware of the costs of cheating in a relationship, particularly in a marriage. Betrayal can lead to divorce and parental disruption, and infidelity is a predictor of depression, anxiety, and domestic violence. Yet many stray anyway, prompting the question: Why? In surveys of individuals who have cheated, falling out of love, seeking variety, and feeling neglected were the most commonly cited reasons, followed by situational forces, a desire to raise self-esteem, and anger with a partner.
Men have always been more likely than women to cheat, or at least to report having done so, but researchers have noticed a shift in recent years: 16 percent of adults—about 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women—report that they’ve had sex with someone other than their spouse while married. But among adults under 30 who have ever been married, 11 percent of women report having committed infidelity, as opposed to 10 percent of men.
As widespread as infidelity may be, a substantial majority of romantic partners do not stray. One recent survey found that the primary reason individuals remained faithful, not surprisingly, was that they were satisfied in their relationship. But the second-most-common reason was worry that cheating would make them feel guilty, and the third-most-cited reason was fear that their own partner would retaliate by cheating on them.
Many couples struggle when one partner wrongly believes the other has been, or continues to be, unfaithful. But research into such dynamics finds that an individual’s belief that they are being betrayed tends to some extent to indicate that they themselves are having thoughts about someone outside their relationship. In other words, they were projecting their own wandering eye onto their partner.
Many partners are in committed but open relationships, a cohort that demographic research finds to be growing. But a smaller group of couples embrace cuckolding, which typically involves a man encouraging his female partner to have sex with another man while he watches them, or is set up to happen upon them. Research finds that voyeurism, masochism, the thrill of the taboo, female empowerment, bisexuality, and misogyny may all play into this drive.
The line between innocent flirtation and romantic betrayal is often elastic, and many couples face conflict because partners do not share the same definition of cheating. For some, anything short of sexual contact with someone else is acceptable; for others, any attention to a potential rival is unforgivable.
The term “micro-cheating” refers to acts that fall short of most definitions of infidelity but may still disturb a partner, such as flirting with an attractive neighbor or co-worker, but with no intention of straying. Sexual fantasies are another matter. While many experts believe sexual fantasies about other people, if they are not acted on and do not become a fixation, are not necessarily unhealthy for a relationship and may help maintain sexual energy and interest. But researchers emphasize that sexual fantasies about one’s own partner contribute more to a relationship.
Since the partner viewing porn doesn’t know, and isn’t physically with, the performers, many view porn use as potentially problematic but not actual infidelity. However, some partners insist that any sexual activity outside of the relationship is an offense. Experts suggest that couples be as open as possible with each other, and discuss if one partner’s consistent use of porn points to signs of trouble in the couple’s own sexual connection.
Some insist that emotionally confiding in anyone other than your partner is a betrayal. Such “emotional infidelity,” research shows, tends to be more troubling for women, while men deem sexual interaction as a greater offense. In surveys, partners’ definitions of what constitutes emotional betrayal range widely, leading to potentially devastating misunderstandings. But a sense that one’s partner may become more dedicated to someone other than themselves is central to worries about emotional infidelity.
When a partner is caught cheating, or confesses to it, it’s not necessarily the end of the relationship. One key factor determining whether a relationship can survive is whether or not the affair included emotional attachment as well as sex. In one survey, 44 percent of men who’d had affairs said it was only about sex, but only 11 percent of women reported the same.
The decision to remain in a relationship after infidelity is based on criteria including finances, family connections, and the shared parenting of young children. But research also finds that one of the strongest indicators of whether a couple will remain together is the opinions and advice of the wronged partner’s social network of friends and family.
One’s past does not always determine their future, but research finds that individuals who cheated on a partner in a previous relationship are three times more likely to stray in a future relationship, as compared to people who had not been unfaithful before. Individuals who have cheated have also been found likely to express hypocrisy about infidelity: They blame their partner’s actions for their own straying, but take no responsibility for their partner’s unfaithful acts.