Infidelity is among the most commonly reported causes of divorce in the United States. Cheating can happen in any relationship, and it’s not surprising that the pandemic has been tough on couples. Increased stress combined with being locked into less-than-ideal situations has raised the incentives for people to stray.
To learn more about the landscape of infidelity during the pandemic—as well as the reasons why people cheat in the first place, and what you can do if you think your partner's having an affair—we talked with Dr. Justin Lehmiller, research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, author of Tell Me What You Want, host of Sex and Psychology Podcast, and member of the Men's Health Advisory Board. Here’s what he had to say.
1) Can you weigh in on the state of cheating in 2021?
This is one of those topics where I don't think we have the full picture in terms of exactly what happened since Covid started, because I haven't seen a lot of research specifically on it. But I think there are reasons to believe that infidelity both increased and decreased during the pandemic. So, for example, if you think about last year, particularly when moving into lockdown, people were working from home. There were far fewer opportunities for in-person infidelity. Partners had much more opportunities to monitor each other and to know where they were at all times. People weren't leaving their homes— they weren't traveling, they weren't going out into all of these situations where infidelity often arises. And so, I think it's reasonable to predict that in-person infidelity probably decreased. But at the same time, online, and virtual infidelity may have increased, because if you look, for example, at websites like Ashley Madison, that facilitate cheating and infidelity, they were reporting a surge in users on those websites. So, I think the story of how infidelity evolved during the pandemic is, maybe it didn't change overall in terms of the rates of cheating, but the types of cheating the people engaged in, I think, may have shifted from more of the in-person behaviors to more virtual behaviors.
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2) How is the definition of infidelity and what it constitutes evolving?
Infidelity has never meant just one thing. And different people define it in drastically different ways. Some of the different ways of thinking about infidelity are that there are in-person sexual forms, there are virtual online forms, there's emotional infidelity, there's financial infidelity—there are all kinds of ways that we can define what infidelity is. And it is something that is ever-changing, because as we develop new ways to express ourselves sexually, that opens up more opportunities for diverse behaviors to be considered cheating. So, I think with the rise of more sexual technologies and ways for people to connect online, we're going to see more and more of that being counted as cheating.
3) What new tell-tale signs and/or patterns are emerging that lead people to cheat?
As we've studied the science of cheating and infidelity, we've found that it's a very complex phenomenon. There are biological, psychological, and social factors that all play a role in when and why somebody might cheat. So, for example, on the biological side, some people are what we call sensation seekers. And they have this heightened need for sexual thrills because their brains are less sensitive to dopamine, essentially. And so, they need something that is more thrilling and sometimes more risky, to get the same rewards that other people feel. And so those individuals may be more predisposed to cheating simply because of their brain chemistry.
We know that on the psychological side of things, there are all kinds of factors that can play a role there. And that would include your general attitudes toward cheating. You know, some people have more permissive attitudes toward cheating than others. Also, people's religious upbringing and other factors like that can play a role and whether or not they're likely to cheat.
And then we also know that on the social and environmental side, how things are going in your relationship are really important indicator of whether people are likely to cheat. And so, when people are sexually dissatisfied, that does tend to increase their propensity for infidelity. The more that we study this, the more complex we find that it is, and there isn't just one singular factor that predisposes people to cheat.
4) Does gender factor into predicting infidelity?
So historically, men have been much more likely to report infidelity compared to women on surveys. But if you look at research conducted in recent years, the gender gap seems to be narrowing. And in some studies, they're finding that gender really isn't a very big predictor of infidelity anymore. What we don't know yet is whether that's because women are cheating at higher rates than they were in the past. Or if they’re just more willing to admit to this behavior than they were before. We know that there's more pressure on women to respond in a socially desirable way when it comes to their sexual history, because there's a sexual double standard.
I think another contributing factor is that so much has changed in heterosexual relationships, specifically with regard to women's power in those relationships. In the past, women were much more economically dependent on men in heterosexual marriages, so the potential costs associated with cheating were much higher. Whereas, I think men have historically held more power. So gave them more license to cheat in some ways. And so, I think that part of the story here is just that sort of shift in gender roles and economic power. And that may also be contributing to why it seems to be the case that more women are cheating now than they were in the past.
5) On the topic of gender, do men and women react differently when it comes to sexual vs. emotional infidelity?
There’s a lot of research that has found that men tend to be more upset by sexual infidelity. And women, tend to be more upset by emotional infidelity. But that research has been criticized a lot because it's been posed as this forced choice thing where you kind of have to choose between sexual versus emotional infidelity. And those things often go together. So, if somebody says they're more upset by emotional infidelity, they might be assuming a sexual component to that as well. And so, it's sometimes been hard to know what to make of some of that research. And, you know, if you look at the literature, most people are upset by both types of infidelity regardless of gender. So, they don't really have a great answer for that, just because it's kind of a messy research area, in my opinion, in terms of the way they assess. It's kind of a package deal for a lot of people. Again, most people tend to be upset by both.
6) How about level of commitment between two partners (ex, casual, cohabitating, married, etc.)?
We do know that rates of cheating tend to be higher in non-marital relationships. So, when people are dating, or cohabiting, rates of infidelity are much greater than if you just look at people who are married. I think that makes sense, because marriage tends to involve a much greater level of commitment. And people might have more explicit discussions about what is and is not allowed. I think in a lot of other types of relationships, people often just kind of slide into it without ever establishing their rules and boundaries. I think that opens the door for more behavior that sometimes unintentionally violates what the other person might consider to be acceptable. In marriage, it tends to be really devastating. I think it's because people have made this really big commitment to one another. And so, it might be perceived as an even bigger issue, because the stakes are much higher in that context.
7) How about sexual attitudes and behavior?
I have seen research finding that people who have more liberal sexual attitudes and who have engaged in more diverse sexual behaviors are more likely to have committed infidelity than people who are more sexually restricted. I think that that just says something about broader attitudes toward sex. You know, if you're somebody who has much more restrictive attitudes towards sex, you are probably going to have more restrictive attitudes toward infidelity. Those things just kind of go together.
8) You’ve written extensively about infidelity not always being driven by an unhappy relationship. Do you have an estimate of what percentage of cases of infidelity are NOT rooted in an unhappy relationship?
No one, as far as I know, has ever really reached an exact percentage. But what we see in the research is that, historically, there's been this link between being sexually unsatisfied and being unsatisfied in your relationship with having greater odds of cheating. People assumed it was sort of just this kind of linear effect, that you know, the more you go toward the unsatisfying, the more likely you are to have cheated. But as people have started to look at things more closely, they're seeing that there is this subset of people at the highly satisfied end, who are cheating. It’s a much smaller number than the people in the group that are unsatisfied. For them, cheating is not driven by how they feel about the relationship. It's often driven by factors that are totally unrelated to that relationship. I've spoken with a number of sex therapists who have dealt with these types of cases and it's often about a search for one’s self, or some deep rooted anxiety, or other issue that that individual is experiencing. For example, sometimes, they need to just feel alive and they find that sex provides that sense of temporary relief. That ties in sometimes with people having a midlife crisis, going back and questioning everything, and thinking about what a different path might look like. So, for those individuals, it’s certainly a less common reason to cheat. But it tells us that people can be in very happy relationships and love their partners, but there might be other psychological factors that propel them to step outside of their relationship.
9) Are there any strategies to prevent infidelity?
I don't think there's anything you can do to guarantee that you won’t have infidelity in a relationship. And I say that, in part, because we have that data showing that people can have these very happy, healthy, satisfying relationships, yet still change. But there are things you can do to reduce the odds of infidelity in your relationship. And one of them is to start by getting on the same page with your partner about what the relationship is, isn't, and what your rules and boundaries are. Many people in monogamous relationships have a tendency to just assume monogamy without ever negotiating or defining that. We know that different people define monogamy in different ways – and they define cheating in different ways. So it's really important to have that conversation and get on the same page. Because, otherwise it makes it easy for someone to do something that unintentionally hurts the other person.
Also, if you're in some type of sexually open relationship, infidelity can still happen there. So, what the rules and boundaries? Just because you're allowed to have sex with other people doesn't mean that you're allowed to do anything you want with other people. So, it's really all about very clear communication. The other big thing is that we see in the research is that dissatisfaction with the relationship is really the most robust predictor of infidelity. So, what that suggests is that if there are other issues or problems – sexually or otherwise – in the relationship, it's important to address them early on instead of letting them fester and become worse over time. That is something that can set the stage for more relationship problems of every type, including infidelity, down the road.
10) I’ve read that infidelity peaks each January. Is there any truth to that, and if so, why?
What I have seen in the research is that there is some seasonality to infidelity. But it tends to peak in the summer months. That goes along with some broader changes that we see in sexual behavior. So, in the summer, people tend to be more interested in sex in general, we see more online searches for sex, prostitution, and pornography. We see rates of STDs go up. So, people just become more sexually active in general. And that also includes more infidelity. Part of what might be playing a role there is that people tend to take more vacations in the summer, and they're often drinking more when they're on vacation. That might create more opportunities for cheating. But it is just also tied to that broader change in sexual desire that happens in the summer months. There’s some really fascinating new research finding that exposure to sunlight boosts testosterone and sexual desire, so it might actually be about being in the sun more, that just puts us more in the mood for sex. That might open the door to engagement and more sexual behavior across the board.
11) What is the first thing you should do if you suspect your partner is cheating?
The answer to this depends on whether you know for sure that they have cheated or whether you simply suspect. So, if you have a suspicion that your partner's cheated, but you don't know for sure, I think the first step is sort of reevaluating the evidence that you have. Because sometimes, people interpret things as signs of cheating that could very well be caused by other factors. So, for example, if your partner seems to be less interested in sex with you lately, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're having sex with someone else. Maybe they're just going through a really stressful time at work and that's pushing down their sexual desire. So, think about the evidence before you just come out and confront them with cheating. That can potentially start a big fight and it can actually undermine your partner trusting you, if you accuse them of something that they didn't do. I'd say to really think carefully about the evidence, and maybe do a broader check in about your sex life and relationship to see if there might be something else going on.
If you do know for sure that your partner has cheated, because you obtain more evidence, or maybe a friend told you something that they've seen, or maybe you've walked in on them cheating – that's when you kind of just need to go right to communicating about it and trying to understand, you know, why did this happen? And what can we do to address this issue and try and save the relationship?
12) What’s the #1 thing you should not do if you suspect your partner is cheating?
There are lots of things you shouldn't do. One thing is: don't go out and just engage in retaliatory cheating because a partner has cheated on you. Some people feel really hurt and betrayed and they want to get back at their partner. So, they go out and cheat themselves. Now, if you don't know for sure that your partner has cheated, and you just think they have, you know, that's probably not going to set the stage for a healthy resolution. Another thing is that when people suspect their partner of cheating, they start talking to close friends or family members who know their partner. While it's well intentioned, people are just searching out for additional information and advice, you know, it brings other people into the picture who might interfere with your decision. They they might not give you objective information, because they're trying to support you. So I think you need to be careful about who you bring in, in these cases. It might be more helpful to consult with a sex and relationship therapist who can give you a neutral third party perspective, as opposed to talking to your best friend or a family member.
13) How can someone best support a friend whose partner has cheated?
I think the single most important thing is to just be there for them and offer them whatever type of support it is that they need. Don't go prying for all of the details and asking them about everything that happened. If they want to share that with you, they can, but let that be their decision. Because by pressing for more information, you might be creating more distress. So ultimately, you're there for social and emotional support. And maybe that's just listening to them talk. Maybe it's going out and doing something social, like grabbing a drink. It’s providing the type of support that they want and need in that moment.
14) Does infidelity have to spell an automatic end to a relationship?
It doesn't have to spell the end of a relationship—we know that many relationships do survive infidelity. But in many cases, it also leads to a breakup or divorce. It ultimately depends on the circumstances in which infidelity occurred. So, for example, if it's a onetime thing, versus an affair that carried on for years, the emotional impact of that could be very different. Some people find infidelity simply to be a bigger deal breaker than other people do. Sometimes, a partner who commits infidelity is very apologetic and seeks to make amends. And other times they don't. So, there are so many individual circumstances that matter here. But it is possible to work through infidelity. Oftentimes, consulting with a relationship therapist is really helpful for working through that trauma—allowing both partners the space to talk and listen to one another, so that the partner who cheated can really understand the other person's hurt feelings, and also so the partner who was cheated on can understand why their partner may have done it in the first place. It's important to pick your therapist wisely, so that you're not getting a therapist who's going to just, you know, sit there and blame and shame and only let one person talk. So, having a certified sex therapist is the best approach for getting a healthy outcome from these cases. (Lehmiller recommends finding a therapist through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), since they have received extensive training in infidelity and relationship issues.) Some relationships do emerge from infidelity stronger than before because sometimes it forces couples to really have they conversations they've never had before, to clearly establish their boundaries and ground rules.
15) What’s your best piece of advice for a couple who’s experienced infidelity and wants to repair broken trust?
I think the advice is different for the person who was cheated on versus the person who committed the act. For the person who committed infidelity, it's important for them to own up to their behavior, and to be willing to work on the relationship and make amends and to make changes. And for the person who was cheated on, it's important to find a way where you can move forward and really rebuild trust in your partner, and in that relationship. If infidelity is going to be this thing that you're going to forever hold over their head, and you're never going to be able to forgive them, it's going to be much harder to move forward in a healthy way. So you have to find some way to process and deal with that trauma and repair the wound to your relationship. And that might involve working with a therapist alone or with your partner. But you have to find some way to forgive in that relationship. It has to be this thing where both partners are mutually working together to repair and rebuild that relationship, because it can't all just be a one-sided effort.
Ryn Pfeuffer is a queer sex and relationships writer, and over the past two decades, her work has appeared in more than 100 media outlets including Marie Claire, Playboy, Refinery29, Shape, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, and WIRED. Ryn is also the author of 101 Ways to Rock Online Dating (2019). She lives in Seattle with her rescue dog, Mimi. You can find her on Twitter @rynpfeuffer or IG @ryn_says.