The Real Reasons People Cheat on Their Partners; by Dr. Kate Balestrieri

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Sarvika Aggarwal

09 August 2023

5 Mins

Infidelity is a problem across geographical borders, within marriages and unmarried partnerships, across various ages, genders, religious, racial and socioeconomic groups. The wreckage of an affair can leave lifelong effects on the betrayed partner, children, extended family, and even the person who has been unfaithful in the relationship.

The definition of infidelity varies significantly, yet most definitions consider the violating boundary to be sexual contact with someone outside the primary partnership, without the knowledge or consent of the primary partner. Clinically and relationally, the definition for infidelity may be a bit broader and more inclusive of any form of emotional, sexual, or financial betrayal of one’s primary partner.

According to one study, men are more likely to leave a partner after sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity. The opposite was true for women, who were more likely to abandon a partner who committed emotional betrayal. But what makes people cheat in the first place? The reasons are plenty, and although distinct they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Reasons Why People Cheat On Their Partner

Anger: The Most Common Theme

Adultery often involves anger, revenge, and a desire for power in relationships. When feeling neglected or mistreated, one partner may seek solace through engaging with others. This can restore their self-worth and provide a sense of equilibrium. The underlying anger may stem from early wounds or trauma, leading to anger and mistrust in adult relationships. Sex becomes a primary strategy for relieving the hurt that underlies their anger, a phenomenon referred to as Eroticized Rage by Patrick Carnes.

Unresolved conflicts unmet needs, and a lack of communication contribute to relational anger and infidelity. By acting out their anger through sexual thoughts or behavior, the unfaithful partner seeks revenge and projects shame onto their unsuspecting partner.

Feelings of insignificance, rejection, and lack of support drive individuals to seek revenge and regain power. Unresolved trauma and unmet needs from early caregivers or previous partners play a significant role in this dynamic. Cheating becomes a means of gaining control when feeling disempowered in a relationship.

Insecurity & Feeling Invisible

Not surprisingly, low self-esteem is a big risk factor for the fidelity of relationships. When one partner feels invisible to their partner, or feels insecure or down on their own selves, the allure of attention from another can be a big hit to the brain. For partners whose esteem is largely derived from the attention and validation of others, and even for those who have an internal source of esteem, it can feel alarming and saddening when your partner stops seeing you as passionately as they once did.

This happens in most relationships at one point or another, but people with healthy esteem will go to their partner and discuss it, tending not to take it so personally. With the advent of social media, it has become easier and easier to get a quick hit of attention from others or the fantasy of what life might look like if you were with another person, and this can snowball into blurred boundaries for the person who feels invisible and ill-equipped to find a way back into their partner’s main view.

Interestingly, when partners start to feel seen in other areas of their lives, they often show up differently with their primary partner, creating a spark of newness alongside generating attention and validation within the relationship.

Fear of Scarcity

Fear of scarcity can drive infidelity when sex or attention is lacking in a relationship. The desire for connection is inherent in all humans, and when that connection feels compromised, some individuals enter a self-protective mode that includes seeking intimacy outside their relationship as a backup plan. This primal survival strategy can momentarily cloud even the most rational judgment.

Not only does the scarcity of sex or love contribute to infidelity, but the fear of rejection or exclusion in social or friend groups can also play a role. In certain groups where pursuing sex and intrigue is part of the social dynamic, individuals who don't conform to the group's norms may fear losing their standing and being excluded from gatherings. This triggers fears of rejection and abandonment, pushing individuals into survival mode.

When this behavior is intertwined with the group's identity and how its members define themselves, even content partners may succumb to real or perceived peer pressure to engage in sexual acts in order to maintain their friendships and ensure their survival within the group.

Boredom

In her book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Esther Perel remarked that frequently an impetus for infidelity is boredom. Infidelity can stem from boredom and a desire for novelty and self-discovery. The routine of everyday life can lead partners to become blind to each other's actions and feel a sense of monotony.

The allure of the forbidden also plays a role in infidelity. Breaking the rules or engaging in taboo behavior can create excitement and arousal. This attraction to the taboo is not limited to affairs but can extend to any behavior that goes against one's values or boundaries.

Ultimately, all the reasons for cheating can be traced back to unmet needs. It is crucial for individuals to identify and assert their needs in relationships. Building a commitment to open communication and navigating competing needs is vital for preventing infidelity and establishing a strong foundation for long-term relational happiness.


Dr. Kate Balestrieri is a Licensed Psychologist, Certified Sex Therapist, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, PACT Trained Therapist and Ambassador and co-founder of the Triune Therapy Group in Los Angeles, California. She is the founder of www.modernintimacy.com, a new platform bringing together experts to discuss mental health, relationships, and sexuality across the world.

Follow her on IG @drkatebalestrieri.


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