When you partner cheats, it’s almost never about you. You may be a loving spouse, and your unfaithful spouse may love you very much. People cheat for complicated reasons, studies suggest. That might not be much of a consolation prize for scorned husbands and wives, but it sure makes for fascinating scientific research and may provide a measure of comfort.
Here’s why people cheat, according to science:
It Doesn’t Mean They’re Unhappy
While it is true that some people cheat to escape unhappy relationships, experts are beginning to suspect that this the exception, rather than the rule. Clinical experience suggests that most cheaters are, in fact, trying to escape something else entirely—to embark on a (misguided and hurtful) journey of self-discovery, or a search for some lost identity. “For these seekers, infidelity is less likely to be a symptom of a problem, and more likely an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation,” psychotherapist Esther Perel wrote in The Atlantic.
Cheaters so often blame unhappy marriages for their infidelity due to a cognitive bias known as the “streetlight effect”, in which an intoxicated man looks for his lost keys, not where he dropped them, but where it is well lit. “The problem is that, unlike the drunk, whose search is futile, we can always find problems in a marriage,” she explains.
“They just may not be the right keys to unlock the meaning of the affair.”
It Has Little to Do with Your Looks or Personality
A majority of men and women who cheat report that their spouse is more attractive than the person they cheated with, according to (an admittedly questionable) survey from Victoria Milan, a website for people looking to cheat. After asking more than 4,000 users about the details their infidelity, they found that many men thought their original partners were superior in other ways as well — only 25 percent of men said their mistresses were more interesting, too.
It’s Typically About Opportunity
There’s no one type of cheater and older and younger couples, married and unmarried couples, and couples with and without kids all have comparable rates of infidelity, an anonymous survey commissioned by MSNBC revealed. Still, the data did indicate that most cheaters have one thing in common: They were presented with the temptation to cheat. Another study of 423 people, published in The Journal of Sex Research, found that men and women often cheat for similarly opportunistic reasons such as “people were hitting on me,” and “the other person was really there for me.” Sure, it takes more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time to cross the line of infidelity, but opportunity seems to matter more than anything else.
It Might Have a Lot to Do with the Cheater’s Childhood
There’s evidence that when either partner in a relationship exhibits an anxious attachment style (characterized by fear of rejection or abandonment), they’re more likely to cheat. That makes some sense within the context of Attachment Theory, and a handful of studies have confirmed that individual attachment styles formed in infancy and early childhood can have lasting impacts on romantic relationships. As the authors of one study on the subject put it: “these processes are largely spontaneous and effortless, and they may be somewhat shaped by biology and/or early childhood experiences.”
There’s Very Little You Could Have Done to Prevent It
There’s not much you can do to prevent your partner from cheating. Most mate-guarding strategies observed in humans don’t work particularly well, and border on abusive behavior—controlling a spouse’s behaviors, isolating him or her from others, spying, stalking, threatening infidelity, emotional manipulation, degrading competitors, threatening and becoming violent. If anything works, it’s emphasizing love and caring, being a good provider, keeping up your physical appearance, and other behaviors that happy and healthy couples engage in, regardless of the threat of infidelity.
The takeaway is sobering, but simple. The best way to prevent infidelity is to do what a healthy couple would do anyway. And the best way to understand a partner’s infidelity is to arrive at the scientific conclusion: it’s probably not your fault.