12 Reasons Why Men Cheat (From a Therapist’s Perspective)
One of the most devastating things that couples can go through is infidelity. One question I always hear is “why did they do it?” Oftentimes the person who cheated does not know why.
Propensity to Cheat Runs on a Continuum
A lot of people want to know so they can prevent it in the future. I’ve observed that person’s propensity to cheat runs on a continuum or sliding scale.
There are people who would never cheat no matter what kind of situation they are in. Then on the other side of the continuum are others who would cheat even in the best relationship. And then there are all of those in the middle who want to be faithful but given a certain set of circumstances, would do it. Figuring out where your partner lies is important.
(Not only men cheat)
For the simplicity of this article, I am going to keep the focus of this blog post on men who cheat. However, I want to emphasize that it definitely goes both ways.
Here are a list of reasons that I’ve found in my practice that can shed light on why people cheat. Note that for most people, they will fit in to at least a few of these categories, and one can intertwine with another.
Here are 12 reasons why men cheat:
The Relationship Is Struggling
This one is the most obvious. The relationship is struggling. There is no connection, and the couple is just together for the kids or convenience for example. Many times the physical intimacy is gone.
Sometimes someone who cheats in a struggling relationship has a hard time communicating their feelings. Or maybe they have spoken up but feel that their partner did not listen. He may use cheating as a way to deal with his anger.
If people aren’t getting their intimacy needs met in a relationship, and along comes Sally or Sam Coworker who all of a sudden is listening to your partner, it is like drinking water when you are severely hydrated.
Sometimes it is a way to cope with hopelessness in a relationship. They may use cheating as a coping mechanism to deal with hurt feelings. Or they may use cheating subconsciously as a last ditch effort to get their partner to listen to them.
All of these things are unhealthy ways of coping with an unhappy relationship and I always aim to help the cheating partner to find better ways to deal with wounds they feel from the relationship.
I often try to help them see that cheating makes the struggling relationship go from bad to worse. It is a self destructive cycle that needs to be looked at and often reflected in a person’s pattern of dealing with negative emotions. Learning that you can grow during hardship instead of choosing destructing behaviors is a goal for these people.
2. Modeling From Parents
Your parents show you how to live. As children, we take in powerful messages that stay with us for the rest of our lives. And there is no bigger message than to see something lived out by example. This is true for the positive things we saw in our parents, but also the negative things, like infidelity.
I’ve noticed that this is especially true of the same sex parent when it comes to relationships. So if you are a male and you see your father cheating or a female who saw your mother cheating, this will be a powerful message that this is a way of living, to cope, to solve problems, etc.
Oftentimes, seeing a parent cheat sends power messages to their children about the opposite sex. For example: “women are not to be trusted, “monogamous relationships are boring and dead,” “a man who respects his wife is weak,” or “have your fun and get yours because soon enough your wife will take advantage of you.”
Oftentimes a man may not even know they have these feelings towards women. This is why it is important for men who cheat to self-reflect and understand how their views of women affect their behavior.
3. Anger With Opposite Sex Parent
Again, your opposite sex parent is a window into how the world works. Your relationship with your opposite sex parent is a representation of men or women. As a man, if you have a strained relationship with your mother, you are likely to subconsciously (or consciously) feel similarly about women as a whole.
The complicated part is a person may be untrusting of women but still desire the benefits of a romantic relationship.
This gets played out very subtly in life. A man might feel that he cannot trust women if his mother failed him or did not follow through with her promises. In that way, he may not give his whole self to his wife, reserving parts of himself for other women.
A man might have been controlled by his mother so as a result, he feels he needs to take control and make sure he is always the dominator. One way of feeling in control is to never give his whole self to a single woman. Cheating is a way that this may play out.
4. Trauma/hurt from a previous relationship
I have seen the sweetest men who seem to really love their significant other, but cheat on their partner time and time again. What is sometimes uncovered is that they were very devoted to their previous wife and gave her his whole heart. But in the end, she cheated on him and shattered his world.
This trauma damaged the male partner. So he decided to never let this happen to him again. In order to protect himself from the hurt he felt, he always had other women around to make sure he never was this vulnerable again.
A lot of times I see men who don’t want to face those painful feelings. They want to bury it, build walls around their hearts, and move on. It is only when these feelings erupt into behaviors like cheating that they come into therapy.
It is here that they need to process those feelings and heal. When they can heal, they can create a new story with their new partner instead of reliving the old story time and time again.
5. Sex Addiction
Sex addiction refers to excessive sexual thoughts, desires, urges or behaviors that can’t be controlled and cause distress and harm to your relationships, finances and other aspects of your life. Sexual addiction is also called hypersexuality, compulsive sexual behavior and other names.
Oftentimes sex addiction starts when someone is younger. Maybe someone was exposed to porn at a young age and it became an addiction. That addiction often grows stronger and the person needs more and more to feed the addiction.
This could be in the form of massage parlours, prostitutes, or multiple affairs. For some people, the porn addiction could lead to fantasies of sex with other people.
My belief is that sex addiction, or any addiction for that matter, comes from a place of pain. And the addictive substance somehow brings powerful relief to that pain. This is a powerful feedback loop for someone who is struggling with depression or trauma.
It will be important for someone with a sex addiction to be willing to admit it.
People with a true sex addiction will need sex addiction treatment. I always tell my clients that once a week couples therapy is good but if someone cannot stop having affairs, they need to seek more intense treatment around chronic affairs and/or sex addiction.
6. The Thrill of the Chase
The thrill of seeking a partner, the highs of being desired and chased, or being the chaser, can be very exhilarating. Once you have found your partner and things have settled down, however, all of that inevitably fades as the two of you grow deeper in your relationship. Things become more familiar and the excitement fades.
Some people miss the feeling of being desired, they miss the feeling of the chase. Oftentimes, they wonder if they’ve “still got it,” and want to prove to themselves that they are still attractive.
They will seek out these types of relationships for the attention and to feel desirable. Oftentimes these people either have deep insecurities about their attractiveness, or their identity is wrapped up around their desirability from the opposite sex (maybe they are used to the attention and it was their main sense of worthiness).
This is where it is important 1) to have realistic expectations about long term relationships: that the exciting infatuation stage almost always fades when the relationship deepens (and this is not a bad thing), and 2) to make sure you are growing together and experiencing exciting things together, and 3) that you are both showing each other your attraction for each other.
This is something I will come across from time to time, and I’m glad that it is more the exception than the norm. Working with narcissists in my opinion is the very difficult.
Narcissists by nature lack empathy and will use their partners for their own gain. They oftentimes do not care about how their partner feels unless it relates to their own desires or goals. Therefore there is nothing stopping a narcissist from cheating unless it would be detrimental to their own needs. These types of cheaters are the most dangerous because they often do not have any remorse.
I believe that Narcissism runs on a continuum, so there are some who can be helped. However, on the higher end of the spectrum, they will not change.
8. The Correlation Between Biological Factors, Power, Thrill Seeking and Cheating
High achievers who love to conquer are oftentimes very successful in life. They have conquered in the career aspect, and so conquering many women (or men!) just goes with the territory. They receive a high from conquering.
People in power have access to people who are willing to have affairs (think sports figures and politicians), and also they have people who are willing to have affairs as an exchange.
When an interviewer asked Bill Clinton why he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, his answer was so poigniant. He said “Because I could.” He was in a position of power and had many people who were willing to sleep with him.
Research shows that men with higher testosterone levels tend to exhibit more cheating behavior. They also exhibit more risk taking behavior and seek more positions of power. So my take is that power and cheating are correlated because of the accessibility of women to men who have power, but also just the hormonal make up of men who tend to seek and achieve places of power.
On a biological level, people who are more prone to infidelity may be driven by an upsurge in pleasure chemicals like dopamine, vasopressin, and oxytocin. Those who are more extroverted may be more likely to cheat because they thrive on new social connections.
9. A Desire to Explore Other Suppressed Identities
Author Esther Perel talks about how sometimes people have affairs because there is an identity they want to explore. She talks about a woman who had a good marriage and good career, who cheated on her husband who was an arborist, covered in tattoos; they’d have sex in cars or movie theaters.
She was always the “good girl” growing up and having this affair was a way for her to express this part of herself she never got to do growing up. So as a result, she ends up expressing it through an affair.
Esther Perel talks about how in American society there is so much pressure for one person to fill every need. I think it’s important for couples to understand and accept that your partner is human and therefore limited and not feel that something is “missing” from your partner. Instead I would encourage partners to face their feelings and process through what they are missing. And then to discover those identities in healthy ways that work for both people in the relationship.
10. Lack of Healthy Boundaries
Some people have a lack of awareness when things are crossing from platonic to romantic. Or maybe they are aware of when the boundaries are going too far, but they feel they can push them as long as they are not having sex. Flirting can be fun which is why people do it.
However, what happens is that oftentimes the boundary gets pushed so far, that they end of going over the edge. This “edge” may be verbal romantic exchanges to an emotional affair and even physical affair.
In my practice, I’ve noticed that these people usually get a rush from flirting with others but still want to maintain a monogamous relationship. They have no intention of leaving their current relationship. People in this category will sometimes argue that their actions are “innocent,” again, as long as no physical boundaries are crossed.
A lot of the work I do is helping men understand the hurt and disrespect that their women partners feel with flirting and emotional affairs.
11. People Pleasing Tendencies
People pleasers often have great intentions to be friendly with everyone and to make everyone happy. However, I have seen those with people pleasing tendencies get pulled in by others who push the boundaries on them.
They often don’t want to disappoint people, and many times, they want to “help” others. I have seen situations where the people pleaser has a friend in need who doesn’t feel attractive, or has feelings for the people pleaser. The people pleaser wants to help the friend feel good about themselves and has no intention of cheating.
I have found that these types of people pleasers are good natured, generous hearted people. However, when the friendship turns romantic in nature, the people pleaser does not know how to set a boundary for fear of hurting their friend, so they just go along with it. I have seen this happen a lot with emotional affairs.
12. Not Thinking Through Consequences
These are people that don’t think through the consequences of their actions. You have people who don’t want to cheat but they got too drunk at a bachelor party and things went downhill from there.
For those that genuinely want to be committed and loyal and have a good relationship, I see a lot of this type of situation with people who are more inexperirenced. They just don’t know their limits.
They are exploring what it means to be in a committed relationship and also being out in the world. They don’t understand yet the temptations that can put you in a precarious situation.
However the more concerning situation is where a person knows that bad things can happen when drunk or under the influence and yet they still choose to put themselves in a temptation situation.
They are willing to “test their limits” over protecting their relationship. It is harder to work with this kind of situation.
Understanding why your partner cheated is an important step in the healing process. It is not only important for your partner, but also for the person who cheated. It can uncover unhealed wounds that need to be processed. It can often lead to healing not only in the relationship but also in the individual who cheated.
About the author: Lia Huynh is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in Couples and Marriage Therapy/ Counseling. In her decades of practice, she has seen many couples devastated by infidelity. However, she has also seen couples heal and become stronger as a result. If you want to find out more about her and her services, you can do so here.