A study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy sheds light on how a person’s motivations for cheating affect the outcome of the affair. They found that people who said they cheated out of a lack of love or anger toward their partners tended to engage in affairs that were longer and more likely to result in the end of their primary relationship. Those who cheated due to situational factors such as stress or intoxication engaged in affairs that were shorter and less sexually satisfying.
While many studies have explored infidelity, most have focused on cheating as a consequence of a poor quality relationship. But study authors Dylan Selterman and his colleagues point out that people’s experiences with infidelity are more nuanced than that, noting that affairs can also be driven by personal motivations like a desire to boost one’s self-esteem or seek out a variety of sexual partners.
“I became interested in the topic of infidelity after doing a study on people’s dreams. I found that people regularly reported dreams of either themselves or their partners cheating on them. That got me interested in studying the experience of infidelity,” explained Selterman (@seltermosby), a senior lecturer at the University of Maryland Department of Psychology.
The researchers opted to conduct a study to explore whether these different motivations for cheating are associated with specific emotions, behaviors, and outcomes during and after an affair.
A sample of 495 individuals who had previously committed at least one instance of infidelity participated in the study. The subjects filled out questionnaires that assessed their motivations for committing the cheating offense, their behaviors within the affair, and the outcomes of the affair.
The researchers differentiated between eight motivations for cheating. Four were directly related to aspects of the primary relationship — anger towards one’s primary partner, a lack of love for one’s primary partner, low commitment toward one’s partner, and perceived neglect from one’s partner. Another four were not directly related to the relationship — a desire to boost one’s self-esteem, a desire for more sexual partners, a desire for more sex, and situational factors such as blurred judgment due to intoxication or stress.
The results revealed that cheaters whose motivations arose from a lack of love for their partner had affairs that were more emotionally and intellectually satisfying, more intimate, and more sexually satisfying. Additionally, affairs motivated by lack of love, desire for sexual variety, or desire for self-esteem were longer in duration and characterized by more public displays of affection. Affairs motivated by situational factors, on the other hand, tended to be more short-lived, less public, less sexually satisfying, and less emotionally and intellectually satisfying.
“Not all affairs are the same in terms of the emotions that people feel or the behaviors that people engage in. The specifics of the affair can be linked with the motivation to have the affair in the first place,” Selterman told PsyPost.
Motivations for cheating were also associated with whether or not the primary relationship stayed intact. Those who said they cheated out of anger or low commitment were more likely to break up with their original partners after the affair. Those who cheated due to situational factors, by contrast, were less likely to end their original partnerships.
The researchers note that affairs that were more emotional and romantic were associated with lower relationship health, which is in line with the deficit model of infidelity that suggests that cheating occurs out of unfulfilling relationships.
“Specifically, lack of love and neglect motivations predicted participants’ reported intimacy with affair partners, saying “I love you,” going on dates, public displays of affection, and longer affairs, while situation motivation was inversely associated with these experiences,” Selterman and team report. “This suggests that when people feel emotional shortfalls in their primary relationships, they may be seeking a deeper quality of romantic connection or intimacy in their affairs to augment feelings of missing or insufficient intimacy from their primary partners.”
Those who cheated out of anger were also more likely to confess to their partners, while those lower in anger were more likely to keep the affair a secret. Being less motivated by sexual desire and sexual variety was also associated with a higher likelihood of confessing to the affair.
Selterman and his colleagues emphasize that infidelity experiences differ from relationship to relationship, and understanding the nuances of each situation is key when assisting such clients during marital counseling.
“It’s not always the case that people have affairs because of some underlying problem like conflict or lack of love in their relationships. Sometimes people have affairs for other reasons like to boost their self esteem or to get a promotion at work,” Selterman told PsyPost. But “the sample is highly skewed toward young adults in dating relationships, so we need more data to see if these results emerge in older married populations.”
The study, “What Do People Do, Say, and Feel When They Have Affairs? Associations between Extradyadic Infidelity Motives with Behavioral, Emotional, and Sexual Outcomes”, was authored by Dylan Selterman, Justin R. Garcia, and Irene Tsapelas.