woman kissing an anonymous person


And whether infidelity is more commonly the cause or result of a damaged relationship.

Each era has one: a celebrity cheating scandal so egregious, so shocking that it dominates public discourse for days. The 90s were marked by Charles and Diana’s tortured relationship, the 2000s gave us Brangelina, and this decade we’ve already seen some messy episodes, like Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine’s cringey online flirtation. These affairs never fail to fascinate us. Why? One, because we’re obsessed with dissecting the lives of the rich and famous. But also because infidelity is deeply painful and, sadly, quite common — and the fact that it occurs so frequently in Hollywood is proof that not money, nor acclaim, nor being a Victoria’s Secret model, can protect you from it.

“It’s one of the most common problems that we have in relationships,” says Gary Lewandowski Jr., Ph.D., a relationship researcher and Monmouth University professor. One study found that cheating was the second most common reason couples listed for divorce, with many describing it as the “final straw” that ended their marriages. But if the stakes are that high, why do so many of us still take the risk?

Why do we cheat on significant others?

Cheating — whether it occurs between two extremely hot, extremely wealthy people, or between your in-laws — typically happens for one of eight reasons, Dr. Lewandowski tells us. Researchers at the University of Maryland discovered eight specific factors that motivated the nearly 500 people they surveyed, all of whom had admitted to being unfaithful while in a committed relationship.

The most common cause was simply falling out of love. “You’re in a relationship and things are going well, you think you’re in love and then you start to feel yourself growing apart,” Dr. Lewandowski says. That’s when people begin to stray.

The second most common reason is a desire for variety, according to the study. Often relationships can feel like they’ve grown stale, and when that happens people tend to cheat as a way to “inject a little novelty” into their situation, Dr. Lewandowski says. Third on the list is feeling neglected. Oftentimes, when a partner doesn’t feel like they’re receiving enough attention or support, that can push them to seek companionship outside of the relationship.

Fourth is something the researchers refer to as “situation.” This refers to the possibility of an out-of-the-ordinary element pushing someone to cheat. Maybe they’ve had too much to drink and got carried away, or were surprised by an attractive stranger flirting with them during a work trip. “Sometimes that situational factor is just having the opportunity presented to us,” Dr. Lewandowski says. “They haven’t ever really thought about stepping out, but they end up getting caught up in that moment.”

These top four motivations (falling out of love, variety, neglect, and situation) account for about 70 percent of affairs. The other four factors, the study determined, are sexual desire, anger (like cheating as a way to lash out at a partner), not feeling very committed to a relationship, and esteem (using sex with other partners as a way to boost your self-worth).

What Dylan Selterman, Ph.D., who led the study, found striking about the results is that they seem to conflict with the conventional wisdom we have about why we cheat. “We often hear that infidelity is a symptom, not a cause, of a damaged relationship,” Dr. Selterman says. “Our research suggests it’s not that simple: People cheat for a variety of reasons, many of which are not a direct reflection of a relationship’s health.”

Dr. Selterman told TODAY that it’s a “myth” that people only cheat because something’s wrong; sometimes it may just be part of human nature.

“This speaks to the idea that humans are promiscuous,” he says, “and even if things are going well, that does not necessarily mean that there’s not desire for more.”

The motivation might vary depending on gender

Generally, men and women do seem to pursue affairs for different reasons. Men more often feel an urge toward promiscuity for variety’s sake, Dr. Lewandowski says. They’re also more likely driven by pure physical desire and more apt to cheat when someone has slid into their DMs or are tempted in some other way. Women, however, are much more likely to have an affair because they feel neglected, says Dr. Lewandowski.

Surveys also show that men cheat more often than women do. Data from the General Social Survey, a large sociological survey of Americans, found that 20 percent of married men and 13 percent of married women reported having sex with someone other than their spouse.

Researchers believe that may have to do with the instincts baked into us by our evolutionary imperatives. Men are driven by biology to “sow their wild oats” so to speak and propagate as widely as possible, while women are more concerned with finding a suitable partner and cultivating that relationship to provide the best care for their kids. Or so the theory goes, Lewandowski says.

How to prevent infidelity

Adultery is complex, and as we said earlier, it can happen even in strong, lasting relationships. As couples therapist and author Esther Perel puts it: “Even happy people cheat.”

Even still, experts have identified some steps couples can take to prevent it. Lucia O’Sullivan, Ph.D., a monogamy researcher at the University of New Brunswick, says both partners must understand the fact that we live in a big world filled with interesting people and that you’re always going to be exposed to others you find attractive. What’s important is how you manage that attraction.

Dr. O’Sullivan has found that couples who remain faithful commonly use three tactics. They focus on how wonderful they find their spouses and indulge in date nights frequently, consider the negative or obnoxious qualities in a person they otherwise find alluring, and think about the fallout that would occur if they were to slip up.

The best advice Dr. Lewandowski, the author of Stronger Than You Think, can offer is to “take preventative measures,” he says.

“We put a lot of effort into courtship and building that relationship,” Dr. Lewandowski says. But so often, once that bond feels established, many couples fail to put in the work of maintaining and strengthening it. That can lead to trouble.

What Lewandowski suggests is to keep dating — in perpetuity. That sounds…difficult, but what he means by that is carving out some time each week to do something stimulating together. Dr. Lewandowski calls these N.I.C.E. activities, which is short for “novel, interesting, challenging, and exciting.” That can be going to a new restaurant and trying a different cuisine, watching a foreign film, or maybe staying in and experimenting in bed. What’s crucial is that whatever you choose leads to some level of self-expansion.

His research shows that couples who report high levels of personal growth are least susceptible to cheating. So many of us want a partner who can help us learn and explore ourselves, Dr. Lewandowski says, that he considers it a vital aspect of a partnership. When we’re first dating, this need is fulfilled naturally. When we become intimate with a new partner, we take a deep dive into their interests, their friends, and their way of seeing the world, and it broadens our horizons.

But when you’re busy shuttling kids to soccer practice or taking care of aging parents, it’s easy to put self-expansion on the back burner. For the sake of your relationship, Dr. Lewandowski urges you to reconsider: “If your partner’s providing insufficient levels of self-expansion, it’s such a fundamental need that, frankly, you’re going to find it somewhere else.”

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