The Science of Cheating

Most people agree that infidelity – whether emotional or physical – is inherently wrong. No one likes to have their trust violated, and it’s safe to assume that no one wants to be cheated on – so why do people do it?

Studies show that while 90% or more of people disapprove of infidelity, 30-40% of people cheat at some point in their relationship! If so many people think it’s wrong, why does it happen?

The answer to that question is actually quite complicated, and is rooted in biology, psychology, and a whole range of human behaviors. In fact, there’s some contention in various scientific communities about why people participate in a behavior that is almost universally condemned by conventional society.

From a biological standpoint, abundant testosterone plays a role in driving men (and women) to cheat. Our animal brains are still hardwired, in some sense, for the survival of our genes and – again from a purely biological perspective – men have a better chance of passing on their DNA by pursuing multiple partners.

There is a science behind cheating.
There is a science behind cheating.

Now, this is NOT a clear-cut reason for men to cheat. It is, however a little bit of insight into why men are more prone to infidelity, particularly of the physical/sexual variety.

Women have an equal (but opposite) biological predisposition for seeking a provider and protector – again for the sake of the survival of offspring – and may be more prone to commit emotional infidelity to meet this instinctual need.

With this in mind, it makes sense that men report feeling more hurt by their wives’ sexual infidelity, and women report being more hurt by their husbands’ emotional infidelity. Both men and women recognize their predispositions (in some unconscious way), and take particular offense when confronted with them.

Of course, this deep-seated, biologically driven stuff is overpowered by our ability to make conscious, rational decisions. It may drive some of our desires, but it doesn’t drive our actions.

The real reasons behind cheating are almost always emotional and psychological.

In a 2009 study by Gary Neuman, 92% of cheating men reported that unmet emotional needs, feeling underappreciated, and not feeling desirable were the reasons that drove them to cheat.

This is not to say that men don’t sometimes cheat for sexual reasons, but there is likely an undercurrent of emotional dissatisfaction driving them along.

For women, a survey by an affair/dating website found that 73% of women said they cheated because of a sense of annoyance or anger at their husbands’ behavior.

Two of the largest offenders are feeling neglected and feeling controlled.

Women sometimes cite sexual desire as a reason for cheating, but again, most of these cases have an underlying emotional component. Women also report seeking affairs as a way to claim independence from overly controlling husbands.

Everyone’s situation is unique, but it’s pretty clear to see that the largest driver of infidelity – for both men and women – is a sense of dissatisfaction and disconnection in the marriage, prompting people to seek those missing pieces of feeling wanted, respected, and independent in the arms of another person.

All of the evidence suggests that as our connection to our spouse becomes weaker (whatever the specific reason may be), we become more and more likely to seek solace from someone else – even when we know it’s wrong.

Feeling distressed can make people act erratically, and when we wear away our ability to make rational decisions, those biological desires for connection are more likely to take over.

It should also be noted that affairs, secrecy, and the knowledge of doing “something bad” can also provide a thrill for people feeling stagnant in their relationships. Seeking this kind of “excitement” is also a symptom of dissatisfaction, feeling underappreciated, and feeling stuck in an unhappy relationship.

So, with all of these psychological, physical, and emotional factors that can drive people to cheat, what can you actually do about it?

Because so many of the problems stem from feelings of disconnection and under-appreciation, talk to your spouse before these problems get out of control!

If you are feeling neglected, speak up! If you think your spouse may be struggling with such feelings, ask them about it directly and do everything in your power to change the behavior that’s making them feel that way.

You can do regular “check-ins” on the state of your marriage – you should be generally aware of how your spouse is feeling about the relationship anyway, but it’s a good idea to stop from time to time to make sure you’re both on the same page.

For both husbands and wives, it’s important to also view your own behavior with as much objectivity as possible. Are you pushing your spouse away? Ignoring them? Being too controlling? Overlooking time spent together?

We can safely assume that the vast majority of all affairs stem from unmet emotional needs, and that means we know exactly where to start to prevent them from happening.

For more advice on how to strengthen your marriage, check out the StrongMarriageNow System today!
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Dr. Dana Fillmore and Amy Barnhart, co-Founders, StrongMarriageNow.com

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8 comments

Dee 8 years ago

It all sounds so nealty packaged, sounds so level-headed and good. But, when your spouse will not share those feelings of disconnectedness with you,when they will continue in their victim mode and wont talk about things then it must go to a deeper level than biology. There is something inherrently wrong with a person who will not share their feelings with a long time spouse and then choose to cheat then blame the betrayed spouse for all of it. There is something missing inside them, lack of character, lack of intergrity, physcological damage, something. To keep closed up for years then blame the betrayed spouse for all of it is pure evil and destructive. THere is more than biology going on there. Its mental sickness.

betrayeddad 8 years ago

I recently found out my wife has been sleeping with her boss (how cliche) for the last six months. She doesn't know I know yet but she suspects something is wrong. What do I do?

Ray 8 years ago

Wow, Dee. I could not have written this better. Thank you. This was my situation and I was blamed for everything. If only there were some type of acceptable and deterministic screening that everyone could have done before I chose to marry her. We have tests for STDs on which, if done and shared, we can make informed choices to stay or move on. The one thing I can say is that at 40+ years old we have hopefully matured our filters and ability to heed rather than ignore warning signs. Unfortunately when choosing a mate in your 20s you believe love will prevail over those annoying little signs and you ignore them. So pass on your knowledge to the youth around you and teach them how to stay married before they actually walk down the aisle. I now understand marriage is a skill that is learned. We currently take the approach to jump first and figure out how the parachute works on the way to the ground. Not everyone figures it out before it's too late - splat! Thank You, Dr. Dana for the help you gave me in trying to save my marriage. It was over before I bought the videos though. I learned a lot from them and will apply that if I ever do it again.

fedupwife 8 years ago

How do I deal with a husband that cheats on me alll the time, over and over? I would say how it make you feel over & over, he listens but the next day or two after he proceeds to do the same thing with the next woman he sees (usually youngers girls age 20 - 25). How do i deal with a husband of 5yrs marriage that is like this?

Mike_Olsen_SMN 8 years ago

Hi Ray, I'm happy to hear that they were still helpful, even if the marriage ended. We are pro-marriage, but pro-happy marriage and we understand that sometimes it is best to see it end. Best of luck to you in the future!

Mike_Olsen_SMN 8 years ago

Hi Dee - We have a lot of advice on communication and resolving these issues with you spouse, but if you've done all you can and the relationship is emotional abusive, it may be time to consider the relationship. Here is some advice if this is still an issue. https://www.strongmarriagenow.com/ed-asks-my-wife-is-having-an-affair-and-she-wont-stop-seeing-him/

Mike_Olsen_SMN 8 years ago

Hi Fedup, we do have some advice for dealing with reoccuring affairs - https://www.strongmarriagenow.com/ed-asks-my-wife-is-having-an-affair-and-she-wont-stop-seeing-him/

Mike_Olsen_SMN 8 years ago

Hi Betrayed, the situation won't be resolved until addressed. Maybe ask her, at a time you will be calm and ready to listen to what she has to say and not just react, ask her if she has anything she would like to tell you. If she does not, tell her what you know. Try to get to the bottom of why this is occurring. We have several articles of advice of how to repair the relationship. https://www.strongmarriagenow.com/survive-affair-infidelity-in-marriage/