Across literature, reality television and cinema, infidelity has captured audiences for decades. Perhaps there is nothing as gripping as watching a couple fall in love, but when it comes to staying in love, that’s when the conflict and challenges arise. Whether you’re a cynic or a romantic, the threat of infidelity looms large over many a relationship. Perhaps now more than ever, when we have infinite choices with regards to dating at our fingertips, available with a mere swipe of the thumb, infidelity seems more prevalent. But is that really the case?
In the United States, infidelity is among the most common reported causes of divorce. Of course, you don’t have to be married to experience cheating. Any relationship can suffer the deep wounds inflicted by cheating and it appears that during the pandemic, a time of added stress and less-than-ideal situations, more people were motivated to stray.
Speaking with Men’s Health US, sex researcher Dr Justin Lehmiller explained why the pandemic had created a landscape of infidelity and the reasons why people cheat. Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, author of Tell Me What You Want and host of Sex and Psychology Podcast, also gave his pointers about what you can do if you think your partner’s having an affair. Here’s what he had to say.
The state of cheating in 2021
Lehmiller explained that he has reason to believe the pandemic both increased and decreased infidelity over 2021. “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,” he said.
While these circumstances may have led to a decrease in in-person infidelity, Lehmiller admits that with online and virtual tools available at your disposal, it’s reasonable to predict that such types of infidelity increased. Websites like Ashley Madison that facilitate cheating reported a surge in users. “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 behaviours to more virtual behaviours.”
Infidelity has never meant one thing
When it comes to a concrete definition of infidelity, Lehmiller is reluctant to give one. As he explains, each person will have their own definition of what constitutes cheating which is informed by their own behaviour and attitudes towards sex, emotional infidelity and even financial infidelity. Lehmiller argues that it’s something that is ever changing as well, “because as we develop new ways to express ourselves sexually, that opens up more opportunities for diverse behaviours 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.”
The biological, psychological and social factors that lead to cheating
The science of cheating is, as Lehmiller describes, a “complex phenomenon” but even so, there are some signs that could suggest someone is going to cheat. On the biological side, Lehmiller suggests those who cheat are often sensation seekers who have a heightened need for sexual thrills due to their brains being less sensitive to dopamine. Needing something more thrilling or risky to get the same rewards that others feel, these individuals may be more predisposed to cheating simply due to their brain chemistry.
Psychologically, there are general attitudes towards cheating that can play a role, particularly if someone is more permissive of such behaviour. Upbringing can also play a role in this, too. And from a social standpoint, how things are going in someone’s relationship can be an important indicator of whether someone is likely to cheat.
The narrowing gender gap
As Lehmiller explains, recent research shows that the gender gap in terms of cheating is narrowing. “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 behaviour 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.”
Adding to this, Lehmiller suggests men tend to be more upset by sexual infidelity, while women are more upset by emotional infidelity. However, this research has been criticised due to the posed forced choice, with Lehmiller admitting that these things often go together.
Levels of commitment and cheating
According to Lehmiller, cheating is higher in non-marital relationships, such as couples who are dating or cohabiting. “Marriage tends to involve a much greater level of commitment,” he says. “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.”
As Lehmiller adds: “I think that opens the door for more behaviour that sometimes unintentionally violates what the other person might consider to be acceptable. In marriage, it tends to be really devastating.”
It’s not always a reason of unhappiness
While it’s often said that infidelity emerges as a result of an unhappy relationship, Lehmiller stresses that this isn’t actually the case and that things like being sexually unsatisfied can also lead to cheating. As more people have looked at the research, it’s also emerged that cheating can be driven by factors totally unrelated to the relationship, like anxiety, self-esteem, or other issues pertaining to the individual.
Rules and boundaries
When it comes to preventing cheating, Lehmiller admits that there’s no guarantee you won’t have infidelity in a relationship. But to reduce the odds, you can start with having an open and honest conversation with your partner. “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.”
The same goes for a sexually open relationship: have a conversation and sex rules and boundaries with clear communication.