The Scientific Reason Spouses Cheat On Business Trips

Alcohol, opportunity, and sleep deprivation all play a role — but many people cheat on business trips for another surprising reason.

Originally Published: 
A man in a business suit kissing a woman.
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Plenty of cheating spouses are satisfied with their relationship, yet still, they cheat. And these individuals more often than not do so on a business trip. Part of the reason for the venue is that they believe what their spouses don’t know won’t hurt them. But a growing body of research shows there are other signs of a cheating spouse than opportunity or the ability to get away with it — though that is a requirement. Many husbands and wives cheat while traveling for work because they want a break from themselves. It is not about sex; it’s about escapism.

“Going out of town for business allows people to try on a fantasy life,” explains Christine Snyder, a psychotherapist who specializes in treating couples after infidelity. “One without quarreling with your spouse about your dirty socks on the floor, coordinating carpools for your kids’ soccer practices, or sitting in your cubicle like most other days of the week.“

Instead of being the exhausted dad on the couch, you get to be the sexy businessman at the hotel bar — and that guy can get into a lot more trouble.

More than half of employed Americans get the chance to live this fantasy, traveling for their careers in some capacity. This might explain why up to 20% of men and 13% of women admit to cheating in general (data on infidelity always comes with the unavoidable caveat that most people are not completely honest with infidelity researchers). Up to 36% of men and 13% of women reported cheating on their partners when they went on business trips, according to data on nearly 100,000 people.

When people travel to trade shows and conventions, where other married people are escaping in bulk, the numbers are even higher. A study of more than 2,000 employees revealed that 66% of respondents reported that they either witnessed cheating or cheated personally in these scenarios.

The same survey suggests infidelity is one of many ways business travel translates into bad behavior, and other examples of this influence infidelity as well. More than 70% of respondents said people drank too much alcohol at conventions and trade shows and 42% said they slept too little.

Other evidence suggests that business trips are destabilizing for a lot of people. Traveling by plane for just a day costs people almost three hours of sleep, some estimates show. Sleep deprivation has been linked with increased unethical and even deviant behavior as well. This can make it easier to take that fantasy life too far.

When you’re already sleep-deprived from everyday life, bad decisions become all the more likely. “The risk-taking behavior stemming from chronic sleep deprivation may involve making poor business decisions, cheating on one’s spouse, gambling, risky sex, or driving fast,” says Anil Rama, M.D., a physician and professor at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. “The risky behavior is likely due to the impairment of the nervous system that sleep deprivation causes.”

As much as all sleep deprivation, alcohol, and opportunity play a role in infidelity on business trips, some scientists have found that this type of cheating may be more about the pursuit of power. One study of over 1,500 working professionals demonstrated that elevated power was positively associated with cheating and the urge to cheat, and the correlation between power and infidelity was equally strong for men and women. (This may help to explain why it appears that more women may be cheating as they gain more power in the workplace.)

Researchers suspect that power gave people an inflated sense of their ability to attract other people, and that’s why they cheat. However, a follow-up study of 610 men and women found that power was surprisingly not linked with more casual sex among single adults. This indicates there may be something specific about infidelity that attracts people in high-powered positions, many of which come with travel and the money to cover their tracks.

“One of the strongest predictors of infidelity is actually power at work, which many scientists think indicates those who are prone to cheat will, when they have the ability to conceal it,” says psychophysiologist and neuroscientist Nicole Prause, Ph.D. “Financial resources and travel support acting on these desires, but it also may be that people who violate their monogamy agreement violate other social agreements too, like being ruthless in business to get power.”

Snyder agrees with Prause that many powerful people who travel for work may be prone to cheating, but has seen in her clinical practice that they are the exceptions, not the rule. “Many of us are so appalled by infidelity that the only way we can wrap our heads around it is to paint the person as a diabolical monster,” Snyder says. “But the people who do have sex with others on business trips are often very normal and average people.”

No researchers or experts believe business trips cause infidelity, but it is correlated with them for all of the above reasons. Since traveling for work is rarely a choice, it’s not practical to suggest spouses stop doing it for the sake of their marriages. Instead, couples may benefit from figuring out exactly what they’re trying to avoid in their real lives when they’re out of town. This will reduce the chances of infidelity a lot more than locking yourself in your hotel room, no matter how many conventions there are.

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