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Why Do We Keep Cheating on Each Other?

Current research suggests certain demographics are cheating more than ever before. But why?

Men cheat on their spouses more often than women. That fact has been supported by decades of research. Though, there is one age cohort that lends itself to a more even ratio. The “cheating gap” is considerably less drastic among millennial men and women than it is among older demographics. But that’s not because millennial men are cheating less. It’s because millennial women are cheating more.

To be clear, instances of infidelity increase with age in both men and women. But according to information gathered by the General Social Survey (GSS), millennial women are the only ones who manage to actually outdo the guys. Now, there are folks who might actually celebrate adultery moving into a more equal-opportunity space.  And there are those who might lament the fact that we haven’t seen any significant drops in this kind of activity. But maybe we shouldn’t throw our focus behind the infidelity itself. Maybe we should start examining why it just doesn’t seem to be going out of fashion.

To learn more, we spoke to Dr. Robert Weiss, clinical sexologist, psychotherapist, and international educator, about the cheating gap, what accounts for the new statistics, and the current state of (extramarital) affairs.

What are the most common causes for infidelity?

That’s a gigantic question. It really ranges. Sometimes it’s about insecurity – seeking extramarital validation to bolster a flagging ego. Other times it’s about wanting out of a current relationship, but not until you’ve got another one lined up. Maybe it’s about feeling like you deserve something special that other people don’t, or feeling unappreciated, ignored, or neglected in the primary relationship. It could have to do with past trauma. It could be about wanting alleviate boredom, or wanting to end a current relationship but instead of simply stating that you’re unhappy and want to break things off, cheating, getting caught, and forcing your spouse to do the dirty work.

How would you define “cheating,” today?

The definition of infidelity that I use in my book Out of the Doghouse and elsewhere is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner. This definition of cheating does not talk specifically about affairs, porn, strip clubs, hookup apps, or any other specific sexual or romantic act. Instead, it focuses on what matters most to a betrayed partner — the loss of relationship trust. For the betrayed partner, it’s not any specific sexual or romantic act that causes the most pain. Instead, it’s the lying, the secret keeping, the lies of omission, the manipulation, and the fact that he or she can no longer trust a single thing the cheating partner says or does.

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How commonly would you say this sort of thing occur?

To be honest, nobody really knows. Studies have suggested that around 20 percent of people in committed relationships cheat on their partner. But there are so many different definitions of cheating that it’s really hard to quantify. Does chatting with an old flame on Facebook count? What about looking at porn? What about sexualized chat on a webcam with a person who’s thousands of miles away that you’ll never see again, let alone meet in person?

What are the big warning signs to look out for? 

Look for improved appearance in your significant other. Secretive phone or computer use, is another sign, as are periods where your significant other is unreachable. Significantly less, or more, or different sex in your relationship is something to look out for. Unexplained expenses are a red flag. Pay attention to if your partner is hostile towards you and your relationship, or if emotional intimacy has faded. When you ask about cheating, does your partner deflect or avoid the subject?

What can couples keep in mind to keep their relationship healthy?

Open, honest communication is the key to any healthy relationship. Couples can discuss what their boundaries are, and they can mutually agree on which behaviors are okay and which are not.

Given the trends, is it possible that cheating is becoming more common?

Again, cheating is hard to quantify. But with the advent of apps and the proliferation of online porn, I would say that cheating is probably on the rise. Digital tech makes access to sexual content and contacts more anonymous, more affordable, and just plain easier. But some couples may be okay with a lot of online behaviors and not call what they’re doing cheating.

In your experience, is cheating more about sex, or more about pursing romance? Or maybe the answer lies somewhere in the middle?

Cheating is more about keeping important sexual and romantic secrets than anything else. If you’re engaging in sexual and romantic behaviors and keeping that secret from your primary partner, you’re cheating.

Can relationships recover from infidelity? If so, how?

Relationships can recover. In fact, they can become better than ever. But there is a lot of work involved, and it takes time. The key is becoming fully honest and remaining fully honest, plus healthy, mutually agreed-upon boundaries.

*This interview has been slightly edited for clarity