"It’s a way to feel alive, special, and seen by someone.”
When you think about the reasons why people cheat, what immediately springs to mind? For me, it’s sex. If a person is going to go behind their partner’s back and hook up with someone else, it stands to reason that there’s some form of physical attraction, or thrill of doing the deed with somebody new.
But experts say that’s not really why people have affairs. In fact, according to Dr. Joshua Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist, cheating is almost always more about emotions than sex. "What drives the person to engage in the betrayal is the real reason for cheating," he tells Bustle.
For example, someone might have an affair if they aren’t feeling connected to, or getting validation from their partner. Should a friend or coworker come along who is willing to listen, it makes sense why that extra attention would seem appealing — and why the attraction could quickly escalate into an affair.
While that isn’t necessarily a comfort for folks who have been cheated on, it is important to look at situations like these from all angles, in order to create a stronger relationship. Here, women share why they cheated, and what the experience taught them — and experts delve into the multiple reasons why people cheat.
Sometimes, when a relationship is riddled with conflict — or even when things aren’t 100% easy for a short period of time — it can cause a person to panic and run into the arms of another.
The affair isn’t so much about sex at that point, as much as it is a way of avoiding problems. "Cheating allows them to escape," Klapow says. "They can be with a person where problems and conflicts don’t exist, where they get respite, support, and validation."
This was the case for Deonne, 40, who saw red flags in her relationship, but wasn’t ready to face them. She says it felt like the best and easiest option, and that being with someone else "filled a void."
As Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, a marriage counselor and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, tells Bustle, if someone has "weak boundaries," the chances of cheating go way up. He gives the example of a person getting too close to coworker, and how an affair could quickly unfold from there.
"It is natural for us to want to connect with those around us, and it’s natural to want to take that to the next level — a romantic one — when emotional intimacy is growing," Bilek says. And yet, while friendships are obviously always OK, people with weak boundaries can’t help but go overboard.
It’s why it’s so important for couples to discuss the "rules" of their relationship, including what is and isn’t OK, as well as what counts as cheating. "Keeping firm boundaries at work and in social situations is critical for maintaining fidelity in a relationship," he says.
While it sounds weird, some people use cheating as "a cry for help to save the relationship before they give up on it entirely," Bethany Ricciardi, a sex and relationship expertf tells Bustle.
Yes, the cheater may go out and have sex. But that wasn’t technically their main goal or interest, she says. Instead, the affair may be the cheating partner’s (unhealthy) way of telling their significant other that they’ve been unhappy, and want to get a conversation started.
Again, this isn’t the best way to approach a partner about where a relationship is headed, or what it needs to succeed. And yet it often works: Some couples do find that they’re stronger after cheating, because the betrayal inspired them to communicate more, and work out their issues.
On the flip side, some folks turn to cheating as a way of breaking up with their partner. "Rather than come out and say that they want to end the relationship, the person cheats hoping that their partner will find out and break up with them," Emily Mendez, MS, EdS, a mental health expert, tells Bustle.
They may secretly hope their partner sees illicit texts popping up on their phone, or starts to wonder why they’re staying out so late at night and eventually asks what’s up. It’s obviously so much healthier (and kinder) to end things outright. But for those who struggle with direct communication, they might find themselves taking the cheating route, instead.
Raina, 44, says the reason she cheated stemmed from an abusive childhood, which landed her in an abusive first marriage, and then in an unloving second marriage. Both times she cheated on her husband, first as a way of getting out of a toxic situation, and second as a way to continue on a path of self improvement.
"I had spent two years in therapy trying to get over past abuse," she tells Bustle. But her second husband wasn’t listening to her needs, or helping her along the way. In fact, he was even encouraging her to stop taking helpful medication.
Frustrated, when another man came along, she couldn’t help but start an affair with him. "He gave me space, but also support," she says, which helped her feel confident enough to continue working through what she’d been through in her past, and to seek out what she wanted for her future.
"Today, I am independent and strong. I don’t feel the need to depend on a man. While I do regret hurting people, I can’t regret either of my affairs. One gave me my children and the other gave me myself."
Not everyone who lacks confidence will have an affair in order to feel better. But experts say this is yet another reason why someone might sneak around behind their partner’s back.
"When someone is feeling down about [themselves] the thrill of sex with a new/forbidden person provides a temporary feeling of self-worth," Tracy K. Ross, LCSW, a couples therapist, tells Bustle. "For example if things aren’t going well at work and [they] feel uncertain about [their] value, an outside lover can temporarily address that feeling."
Nothing’s better than positive attention, flirty texts, and the excitement of being wanted. So when someone is feeling bad about themselves, cheating becomes all the more tempting.
"The majority of people who cheat are not fulfilled emotionally," Ellen Bolin, a certified professional relationship coach, tells Bustle, which explains why so many people turn to emotional affairs — which often lead to physical affairs — as a way of curing a sense of loneliness within a relationship.
This is, of course, not the best way to solve the issue. Painful affairs can be avoided if couples speak up and let one another know when/if they’ve feeling neglected, unheard, or lonely.
If someone is bored with their relationship, it makes sense why they might turn to cheating as a way of spicing things up for themselves. But experts say, more often than not, cheating is a choice made by those who are bored with their own life in general, and that has little to do with their partner.
"It’s a way to feel alive, special, seen by someone else," Ross says. "[And] the sneaking around is often more exciting than the sex itself." In other words, having something to hide, and something that adds a bit of danger to their life, can give them the exciting story they’re looking for.
These reasons all make sense. But, as Deonne says, it’s important to remember that "cheating is a temporary fix to a deeper issue."
Cheating may also be an act of revenge, which can stem from anger — for any number of reasons. "The person may be frustrated in their relationship, or feel like their partner doesn’t care, doesn’t listen, doesn’t support them," Klapow says. "In an act of defiance — but also avoidance of the problem at hand — the person cheats. So instead of directly confronting the problem, they avoid it and act out by cheating." And that’s not cool.
Knowing an affair isn’t always all about sex won’t make it any less painful for the person being cheated on, but it may help both members of a relationship understand why it happened in the first place. By talking about problems before they get out of hand — and making sure you’re both fulfilled — an affair doesn’t have to happen.
Dr. Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist
Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, marriage counselor
Bethany Ricciardi, sex and relationship expert
Emily Mendez, MS, EdS, mental health expert
Tracy K. Ross, LCSW, couples therapist
Ellen Bolin, certified professional relationship coach
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