It took me more than a year to shake the dark cloud that hovered over me after my ex-fiancé cheated. I was 21 at the time and devastated that my first love had left me for another woman. And, like so many others who’ve been in a similar state of utter despair, I wondered: What had I done wrong?
After several months of wallowing and drinking my pain away—do all broken-hearted people turn to Long Island Iced Teas, or was that just me?—I realized something very important: It actually wasn’t my fault that my longtime boyfriend decided to have sex with another woman before ending our relationship.
A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research tackled this very topic: Why do people cheat? Spoiler alert: There are tons of reasons, including many that have absolutely nothing to do with their primary relationship at all.
One of the main goals of this study was to update what researchers have found in the past: Older studies had focused on what might be wrong with a person’s current relationship that might make them want to cheat, such as losing interest in your partner or feeling neglected by them. This study, however, recognized that maybe a person’s infidelity really has nothing to do with their partner or how things are going at home.
The authors asked 485 young adults (the average age was 20) to participate in an online questionnaire and share how much they agreed with 77 statements describing different motivations for infidelity. Those statements were broken up into eight categories: anger, sexual desire, lack of love, low commitment, esteem, situation, neglect, and variety. Some of those statements included:
I was conflicted, confused, or curious about my sexual orientation and wanted a different kind of romantic/sexual experience.
It seemed a possibility that my primary partner might cheat, so I wanted to reduce that feeling of vulnerability and avoid being hurt first.
An opportunity, incentive, or advancement in the workplace was offered to me if I provided something sexual/romantic in exchange.
I was overwhelmed at the time due to external stressors (e.g., school, work, family issues) and was not thinking clearly.
I was drunk/intoxicated and I was not thinking clearly.
Overall, the study’s authors found that there’s “a great variety and diversity in motivations associated with infidelity.” For example, 70 percent of participants at least somewhat agreed that they had cheated because of a situational issue, such as being on vacation or having one too many tequila shots, while 74 percent said they may have strayed because they were interested in mixing things up and having a variety of partners.
As the authors point out, “it would be a mistake to conclude that all affairs (and infidelity-related behaviors) similarly result from deficits in the primary relationship.” And, incidentally, when they broke down the results by gender, men were more likely to endorse statements that fell in the category of sexual desire (they thought there was a lack of chemistry with their main squeeze), while women were more likely to agree with the items that pertained to neglect (they may have been feeling ignored).
Dylan Selterman is a social psychologist at the University of Maryland and lead author on the study. “One of the biggest myths in relationships is that people think, ‘Oh, my partner cheated therefore there is something wrong,” he told TODAY. “There’s an underlying problem either with me or the relationship.’ That’s not necessarily the case.”
“‘Doing everything right’—that can mean many different things,” Selterman continued. “It could be the case that you think things are going very, very well, but in your partner’s mind maybe not so much.”