Cheating: Why do people do it?

Cheating, two timing, infidelity, having an affair, going behind someone’s back, being unfaithful…whatever you want to call it, we’re talking

Polly Sangar

Cheating, two timing, infidelity, having an affair, going behind someone’s back, being unfaithful…whatever you want to call it, we’re talking about the same thing. However, we can experience this differently.

Some people feel their partner has cheated if they flirt with or text someone else, whereas others may feel that it’s only cheating if there is physical intimacy and/or an emotional involvement. It depends on your own personal values and those of your partners’.

Whether or not somebody has cheated is about the boundaries you have in your relationship. All relationships have communication and agreements which ensure the people committed to one another feel supported and safe in the partnership.

Don’t assume that your partner shares the same values or want the same things. Conversations early on in a relationship can be helpful to clarify and agree a shared set of relationship ‘rules’ around what constitutes cheating, which can be re-visited periodically as these may shift over time. What may look like cheating to another couple, might be perfectly acceptable and understood in the realms of your relationship.

Many clients I see who have had some form of cheating in their relationship report common similarities; one partner has become more secretive, their energy and focus has been directed away from the relationship and they’ve started to engage with someone else emotionally and/or sexually.

So, the age-old question… why do people cheat?

If only there was a simple answer! As a relationship therapist, I can safely say that there is no single reason. The only real consistency I find is that there is no consistency – the fact that there is never usually just one factor. Cheating is in most cases, a symptom of issues within a relationship, rather than a single issue in and of itself. – Polly Sangar

Some of the regular contributing factors I find are…

Individual Issues

Many couples come to me, with the one who has cheated getting all the blame.

However, when we discuss this openly, often the person who has been unfaithful is facing their own set of personal circumstances which have played a part. For example; a reaction to a traumatic event such as a death, a loss or an injury of some kind. In addition, when the conversation gets opened up, it is common for both partners to see how they’ve contributed to the relationship becoming a place where infidelity has been able to happen… not that this makes it ok!

Some people never truly understand why they cheated, but some discuss their own issues as being relevant factors, which are rarely to do with the relationship itself.

Something is “missing”

Clients, especially those who have cheated on a partner often tell me the phrase – “something is/was missing”. They’re searching for something they want in their relationship, but don’t feel they have.For example – more sex, a different kind of sex, attention, emotional warmth, fun, excitement.

Finding themselves

Often people cheat as a way of rediscovering parts of themselves they feel they have lost within their current relationship. They’ll say “I used to do XYZ…” or “I used to be fun and happy…” etc. Similarly to both individual issues and having something missing – the person who cheats is experimenting with their own identity, desires and needs – separate to the relationship.


Many people I work with can fall into this category – as it’s a big one! Through therapy, people who cheat often admit they want to “escape” their current relationship. It’s bringing them unhappiness or discomfort, so they move towards something which does not. Similarly, some people can use cheating as a way to communicate to their partner that they’re unhappy in the relationship, or as a way of ending the relationship if perhaps they don’t know how else to do this.

Or, sometimes unfortunately, people cheat… just because. – Polly Sangar

Whilst long-term and more serious relationships often experience one or more of the above factors playing a part, more short-term relationships, the ones we have when we are younger or those more casual in nature sometimes just don’t run as deep. If there is a lack of commitment and agreed boundaries, the ‘cheater’ may not think they have cheated, understand the implications or have enough interest in the relationship to do the emotional work and communicate why.

Chances are, if they did, one or more of the reasons above may come up. As I said… it’s often not one reason, it can be a mix of some, or many.

The above is also not to suggest that cheating on your partner is ‘okay’ or consequences will just disappear because you can provide an explanation. Cheating is something which, as a symptom of other problems, is still a huge risk to your relationship and can really hurt your partner.

The important thing is to understand your actions and take responsibility for them, which will serve you whether you want to, or have the option to remain in the relationship or not. If you’re someone who has been cheated on, considering the above may go some way to helping you process the situation and provide space for you and your partner to work through the issues, if that is what you choose to do.

I have seen cheating destroy a relationship many times, even if both partners try to work through it, it becomes something which they are unable to overcome or forgive.

Equally, I’ve seen relationships rise from the ashes of infidelity, where both partners can communicate openly and work through it. Sometimes, it can even enhance their understanding of one another and deepen their commitment.

If you’ve been cheated on, or you’ve cheated on your partner and would like some support either individually or as a couple, you can book in for an initial session with a qualified counsellor here.