Why Do People Have Affairs? New Research!

by | May 3, 2024 | Research, Sexual Intimacy | 28 comments

The reasons people cheat woman looking at a phone with evidence of affair

This new research about cheating is fascinating.

It was published online just on Tuesday, and I’ve already incorporated it into the marriage book we’re editing right now that’s due at the publishers next week!

But listen to this:

The evidence from this study exposes the falseness of the belief that having more sex with your partner will keep them from cheating. Observed from the factor we constructed to measure the passion component of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love…neither the quality nor the frequency at which couples have sex serve as a deterrent for infidelity…

Despite the components of passion and intimacy appearing to be relatively meaningless toward averting infidelity, there is a silver lining. That is, it is evident that the decision to be unfaithful is solely an individualistic quality in which zero culpability should be directed toward one’s partner.

Sean G. Jefferson, Monica Padilla Vega & Kimmery Newsom

Journal of Deviant Behavior, Revenge Sex: Weaponizing Infidelity

That’s earth-shattering.

Frequency of sex and passion does not keep your partner from cheating–if they want to cheat.

Wow.

The study was a 2000 person strong subset of a public dataset, looking at a sample of married adults drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The median age was 29.3.

This info about why people cheat shows that evangelical books are quite simply wrong.

It’s likely too much to say that they are lying, because I don’t think it’s intentional.

But they’re WRONG. Fundamentally, absolutely wrong.

Think of how many books warn women that if they don’t have enough sex, or give enough sexual favours, men will cheat?

  • Love & Respect explains that women are partially to blame for affairs, because if he doesn’t get sexual release, he’ll come under satanic attack
  • The entire thesis of His Needs, Her Needs is that if you don’t meet each other’s needs, including giving him sex (and making sure to enjoy it), your spouse will cheat.
  • Every Man’s Battle tells women to give husbands “bowls of sexual gratification” so that they’re able to control their temptation to stray
  • Gary Thomas talks about how sending nude pictures can keep his mind neurologically fixated on her, so he won’t think about other women

I could go on and on and on and on.

And they were all wrong.

People cheat because they want to cheat.

The findings of the study apply to women as well as men, so women who cheat do so because they want to as well. But in evangelical literature, this advice tends to be aimed at women: Fulfill his sexual desires, or he will be tempted to cheat, because, after all, he’s just a man.

Who benefits from this type of advice? It’s obviously not the marriage, because this isn’t even related to decreasing infidelity stats. And we know, from our surveys for The Great Sex Rescue, that this advice hurts women’s marital and sexual satisfaction.

So why is it so widely taught? Here’s my theory:

Authors teach this because fundamentally they likely aren’t emotionally healthy themselves, or they live in communities where emotional health is relatively rare, and so they don’t understand it. They carry a lot of shame, so intimacy, vulnerability, and authenticity–the key ingredients for emotional connection–are too difficult. Thus, sex allows them to feel connected without having to do the work of connection.

If they can convince women to have lots of sex, then men can feel connected and cover up the shame they’re feeling without actually having to address that shame or do the emotional work of actually becoming truly connected.

And so it is easier to pressure women to have sex than it is to teach about what actually builds emotional connection (and thus ultimately builds her libido). 

Combine this with the desire to remain in power in the relationship by having authority over women (so that they can feel important without having to earn respect or act in an honorable and respectable way), and you have a recipe for marriage advice which puts burdens on women while excusing men from the things that seem scary and may actually expose the underlying fears and shame they’re dealing with.

That’s it. That’s what I think is going on. And that’s why so much of our advice in evangelical circles bears such bad fruit. We’d rather continue emotionally unhealthy dynamics in the relationship which allow men to remain in power uncontested and which allow men to not deal with their actual issues than we would talk about what builds true connection. 

That’s actually quite sad. But I can’t see any other explanation for why our resources are so fundamentally wrong about so many things, and cause so much harm.

For an antidote to all this bad advice in evangelicalism, please see our book The Great Sex Rescue, based on our survey of 20,000 women!

For the last few weeks we’ve been up to our eyeballs in research.

We’ve been reading peer-reviewed journal article after peer-reviewed journal article to see the latest findings in how long it takes women to reach orgasm, or what the orgasm gap is, or what goes into affectionate feelings for each other. We’ve been reading up on research.

We’re trying to make sure we’re not saying anything in our marriage book that doesn’t have research backing, AND we’re also trying to make sure that our book itself is influenced by what research says. And, of course, we’re looking at our own results from our four different surveys, including our recent matched pair one.

And you know what the literature says, over and over again? Findings that are consistent with emotional health, emotional maturity, and mental wellness. 

We have yet to discover anything in the research which, if followed, would lead to less emotional health, less emotional security, more relationship insecurity, less sexual and marital satisfaction.

Yet all through evangelical self-help books, that’s exactly what our advice does.

It points people to relational dynamics that would make marital and sexual satisfaction worse; that would increase abusive dynamics; that would lead to less emotional wellness. (See our grading rubric for specifics!)

 

 

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I’m finding it so encouraging lately to hear from people who want evidence-based advice.

Whether it’s the outcry over Josh Howerton’s recent sermon essentially telling women to act like blow up sex dolls on “his” wedding night; Mark Driscoll blaming sexual sins on women; John MacArthur saying that ADD and OCD and PTSD don’t exist–people aren’t letting them get away with it.

Sure, these men will always have supporters, and lots of them. But so many Christians are looking at it, and saying, “you don’t speak for me. And I certainly don’t believe you speak for God.”

And then, at the same time, I’ve had some amazing experiences speaking where I met so many people face-to-face who have been impacted by our books .

Research, evidence, that is in line with Jesus is setting people free.

You are not responsible for someone else’s sin.

Your body is not a sin management tool to keep someone else from sinning.

Sex is meant to be intimate and as much for women as for men, and you don’t have to consent to being treated like a sex doll.

I’m about to take a break from the blog and the podcast until June.

I’ll be around TOMORROW for the Sexual Attachment Conference with Jay Stringer and Adam Young–you can still sign up, and if you’re not available tomorrow you can get access to the talks afterwards. And use BAREMARRIAGE for $25 off!

And I’ll be spending next week finishing up th second round of edits for our marriage book The Marriage You Want that’s coming out next spring! (I know it’s still so long to wait, but it will be worth it!).

And then Keith and I are going on vacation for two weeks before we’re right back at it.

If you want to catch up with me, please follow me on Instagram and Facebook, where I’ll likely be posting pictures and some thoughts!

I usually start vacations exhausted, but I’ve noticed a subtle shift lately.

I don’t know if it’s just my attitude or what–but I feel like things are changing.

So many people are just not willing to give these false teachers any time of day.

We know what real research and healthy advice looks like, and we’re just not taking people who can’t see it seriously anymore.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like there’s been a tipping point lately. I think it may have been the Josh Howerton thing, I don’t know. But something has shifted.

And so I think I’m going to be able to actually enjoy some time off, rather than gasping for air and wondering if I can keep going. And I’m excited for what’s coming this summer (we’re relaunching our puberty and sex course, and so much more! We’re going to concentrate on breaking cycles!). 

So thanks for sticking around. Have a wonderful few weeks. And keep spreading the helpful research!

 

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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28 Comments

  1. Jen

    Thank you for sharing this study! I appreciate having the research to back up this understanding.

    I’m in total agreement with your assessment as to why authors write this way. They are broken, trying to understand the system they are in, trying to understand (or more likely avoid) their own pain. And let’s face it: blaming women is a trope as old as time, so it’s easy to see why male authors would continue on that path. And women? Well, they are threatened with hell if they disagree, so it’s not surprising that some go along.

    We are being set free! Enjoy your rest, eat lots of ice cream (or whatever floats your boat), sleep. Blessings on your and your family!

    Reply
  2. Nessie

    Great research! I’m glad it came out in just in time to include it in your book!

    You mentioned in the podcast yesterday that men display anger as the only “allowed” emotion (rather, many sources say men are unemotional but apparently anger isn’t an emotion now via their word re-defining, ha). Anyhow, I’ve learned a lot about how anger is the manifestation of fear in many cases. I truly believe these emotionally unhealthy men are truly, deeply fearful of many things.

    They fear not being good enough, strong enough, important enough, faithful enough, etc. Honestly, “enough” is quite hard to quantify and is highly subjectve in these areas! I wonder then if that is why so many resources project that subjectivity of “enough”on to women- about modesty, clothing, respectfulness, tone of voice, etc.

    I apologize if this drifted a bit too far off topic. My thought process overlaps a lot, haha.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think this is absolutely true. Anger tends to be a secondary emotion. You feel something else that is scary, and so it gets channelled into anger, which feels safer, because you’re externalizing the problem.

      Reply
      • Ja

        Seems we tend to lean to the theory that only men cheat. 80+ percent of paternity test in the USA show that the husband boyfriend is not the dad to the child. Seems we are leaning more to trying to put the women that have great faithful husbands against them by brain washing them lots of men and women cheat. Should work on fixing the problem without creating more

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Our recent survey of evangelicals showed that men are about twice as likely to cheat as women. So, yes, women cheat too, but in the church, not in the same numbers.

          Reply
        • KLageer

          So that being said, can anyone suggest a course for men on building emotional intimacy with their spouse, since it is so foreign to us?

          Reply
          • Nessie

            Imo Andrew Bauman is a great resource to start with. One of his books is, “Stumbling Toward Wholeness: How the Love of God Changes Us.” https://andrewjbauman.com/

            I appreciate that he looks at the shame that has been placed on men and really wants men to know they don’t need to be ashamed, but realize they are fully capable of doing better and he wants to help them. Much of his stuff revolves around recovering from porn or infidelity but it is rooted in emotional health, so look past that (porn/infidelity) if it is not applicable.

        • Nessie

          I’d love to see the citation because the way in which you presented it, it sounds like 80% of all women having babies cheated- unless by “paternity test” you are already looking at a reduced percentage of the population because of being in a subgroup in which a paternity test is necessary? Which is probably the case, but with your presentation, it too could create more of a problem.

          Reply
        • Megan

          I am not sure that this stat is the mic drop you think it is. In the USA, paternity tests are only run if requested so they will only be run if the presumed father has reason to believe that cheating has occurred. Especially given the riff it will cause if they accuse the mom of cheating and they are wrong, those tests really aren’t going to be run unless you have GOOD evidence that cheating has occurred. It is completely understandable that such a high percentage of paternity tests come back with an alternative father. Paternity tests also tell you nothing about cheating rates in men as that wouldn’t show up in pregnancy. This also tells you nothing about the rates of cheating in those who don’t do a paternity test as they are likely statistically significantly different and therefore not comparable.

          Reply
  3. Jo R

    When the answer to every question and problem is “Women just need to give more sex” (and note that it’s most definitely NOT “women ought to have orgasms too when they give all this sex”), well…

    Words fail me.

    Reply
  4. Paula M Waterman

    I think the answer lies in the fact that people are discouraged from, or are not taught to critically think. Critical thinking is a component needed for equality and respect and if the main goal is to maintain the status quo at all costs, then critical thinking is criticized and and even frowned upon.
    Critical thinking means that we are encouraged to challenge current assumptions, gather evidence from other sources and draw logical and educated conclusions. Unfortunately it is easier and lazier just to assert what we have always been taught or drawn non-causal assumptions.
    As a divorce mediator I see one conclusion in particular that is assumed but not backed up by data. The assumption is that if more divorces are initiated by women, then woman are the majority cause of our divorce rate. The reality is, since all states have a “no fault” divorce policy, it doesn’t matter who file as the petitioner. It could be the woman is filing because she has been physically abused. Or because her husband cheated etc.
    The same with affairs; jumping to the easy, non-critical, ignorant conclusion that one person cheats because they don’t get enough sex at home is not rational, and particularly doesn’t take into account sex and love addicts. Sex addicts can be known to have sex multiple times a day and still have numerous partners. We need to teach people to think critically and encourage open and honest questioning about archaic and ignorant assumptions.

    Reply
  5. Jason J.

    Keep up the great work, Sheila! I hope you have a great vacation!

    Reply
  6. Tim

    This sent me down an interesting rabbit hole…

    The study you looked at seems like one of the best quality ones out there (from my very brief scroll through Google scholar). That said, the statement that “the decision to be unfaithful is solely an individualistic quality in which zero culpability should be directed toward one’s partner” reads less like a scientific finding and more like a value judgement (albeit one we’d probably all like to agree with).

    I don’t have an axe to grind here, other than that being evidence-based means looking at the totality of evidence (as far as it’s practicable), including studies that give results you don’t like. The first four relevant hits on Google scholar for “reasons for infidelity” (excluding one study that just interviewed 11 women) suggest that relationship quality is an important variable explaining some infidelity.

    Of course, someone has to choose to cheat and I think that’s always a bad decision. Intuitively, I would have expected there to be a group of self-absorbed spouses who’d cheat if it suits them, no matter what, and a group who have unsatisfying relationships (which obviously would often include sexual frustration in some form) and lack the character to not look elsewhere for what they feel they’re missing out on. I wouldn’t leap to any conclusions, but the five studies I’ve just looked at (yours plus the four below) seem consistent with that.

    All of that said, “become the kind of person who’d never cheat” and “build the kind of marriage no one would ever want to stay outside of” seem like good advice regardless.

    1. This 2019 systematic review by Iranian authors found that: “ incompatibility of interpersonal characteristics, such as sociodemographic factors, personality, attachment styles, and sexual values, is more closely associated with infidelity engagement than are the intrapersonal characteristics themselves. It is important that a couple’s compatibility be considered before initiating an exclusive relationship, such as marriage. In all the evaluated studies, a couple’s mesosystem or inter-personal relationship had an important role in infidelity, with a positive relationships associated with lower infidelity engagement and vice versa.” https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Arezoo-Haseli/publication/341294961_Infidelity_and_Its_Associated_Factors_A_Systematic_Review/links/64cd1e85806a9e4e5ce7ad3b/Infidelity-and-Its-Associated-Factors-A-Systematic-Review.pdf

    2. This 2018 study surveying 200+ unfaithful spouses found that “The study identified dissatisfaction with the partner or the relationship as the main reason for infidelity for both men and women.” It also supports your comment re men cheating more often than women (though a quick skim of their methods section raises some question marks). Also, Brazilian study so assume findings may be culture-specific.

    3. This 2010 study of 200+ US undergrads (some married, some seriously dating). “Significant predictors of infidelity among men and women are quality of alternatives, believing that sex occurs early in a relationship, and having been cheated on (applied to men only).” ‘Quality of alternatives’ sounds a lot like ‘if I want to cheat I’ll cheat’, but again, cultural factors. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01494929.2010.528707

    4. In a 2007 US study of mostly undergraduates with some community members, “Using a broad definition of cheating, women reported being as unfaithful or more unfaithful than men. Men were more suspicious about cheating and more likely to discover the cheating than women. Women were more likely to break up with their partners, to begin new relationships after cheating, and to report reasons for cheating that may indicate a desire to switch long-term mates, such as being unhappy in the current relationship.” https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-007-9221-5

    Note I’m not currently affiliated with a university so only have access to the abstracts of most of these (including the article Sheila cited). Take my summaries with a slight grain of salt.

    Reply
  7. Willow

    It breaks my heart that it is “earth-shattering” to anyone that people cheat because they decide to cheat.

    It is (or should be) “Psychology 101” that each adult human is responsible for, and can only control, their own actions, emotions, and feelings.

    While there are certainly situations such as “revenge cheating” (my partner slept with someone else, so I will too, to get back at them), or situations where someone cheats because the relationship has broken down (one or both partners have acted in ways such that they no longer find each other attractive or feel good around them), this doesn’t change the original premise that we each are responsible for our actions and decisions.

    “He made me do it!” or “she made me do it!” sounds like what a toddler would say. I’m amazed and sad it takes a peer-reviewed study for people to realize this.

    Reply
    • Erica Tate

      Hear, hear! I’m so pleased that there’s a study like this… but at the same time, I’m so sad that there was ever a need for a study like this. Anyone with two functioning braincells and some common sense could have figured it out without any help.

      When I was a teenager, I was talking about unfaithfulness with my parents, and I remember them saying that if your spouse cheats on you, that’s the end of the relationship. No excuses, no second chances. Once trust is betrayed at that level, it’s never coming back. I never got the idea that they were being nasty/harsh/unforgiving by saying this — just very realistic!

      (And this was in the context of a marriage where both my mum and my dad were totally devoted to each other. My dad would have scoffed at books like ‘Every Man’s Battle’ — it is SO wonderful to have a dad who could appreciate his daughters’ girl-to-woman growth, compliment them on how gorgeous they were becoming, and leave it at that. #SafeMan)

      Reply
  8. Lisa Manske

    What I always found so humorous was when Eggerichs and friends discuss affairs, they always discuss what supposedly drives married men to have affairs, never married women. There is a slightly greater percentage of married men that have affairs compared to married women, but married women do cheat! But to discuss that angle would require Eggerichs and friends to acknowledge that 1) women engage in sex for reasons other than duty 2) if they blame wives for husbands cheating, they’d have to blame husbands for wives cheating, and they simply cannot blame husbands for anything other than being occasionally careless & forgetful.

    Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      Love that observation! Too bad Eggie will likely never see it…

      Reply
      • Nathan

        Another reason the Eggy crowd may not like to talk about cheating women: They claim that men cheat due to lack of sex and a lack of self control when denied sex. However, they can’t use that for women since, in their world, women don’t like or want sex, so why would they lose self control over something they don’t like anyway and cheat? Talking about it would break their model.

        Reply
        • Lisa Johns

          Not to mention that sometimes women cheat because their “husbands” are using porn to satisfy themselves and distance their wives, and the wives are just emptied out trying to deal with all the rejection. According to the eggie crowd, men only turn to porn when their wives are unwilling to satisfy them, so the idea of a man using porn to drive his wife away just… breaks their model.

          Reply
        • Lisa Johns

          Oh, and the fact that the women in these men’s world don’t like or want sex is a HUGE tell on the men’s “ability” in bed… ROFL!!!

          Reply
  9. Jess

    Interesting information. Do you have a link to the actual study you are referring to? Can you please post it in a reply in the comments?

    Reply
  10. Nathan W

    I praise God for the work you (and Beth Allison Barr and Kristin DuMez!) do almost every day. This study is no exception, and I’m glad we can finally scientifically put to death the stupid myth that guys cheat because they aren’t getting enough sex.

    Btw, I know we’ve already established on this blog that the Babylon Bee has some really nasty stuff recently but have you seen they’re most recent satire about the 19th Amendment? Definitely went too far and was no longer funny (especially since there are real people who really think that the 19th was a mistake!)

    Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      It’s ironic that the first “quote” was attributed to Jamie Raskin, since the guys who actually want to repeal the 19th are self-styled staunch republicans. And you’re right, knowing the insidiously spreading rhetoric in favor of repealing the 19th amendment, this really was not funny. But then, the Bee died several years ago, and was replaced by a vicious wasp. I miss the old Bee!

      Reply
  11. Jennifer

    Very interesting article and thanks for the research! Can you also discuss the bible verse
    “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” 1 Corin 7:5?
    Actually this article has opened my eyes to the fact that temptation doesn’t mean that lack of sex causes cheating. Because everyone will be tempted and it is in the person’s choice to sin or not if they are tempted.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      i’ve written quite a lot about that verse! You can start here, and also listen to this podcast! Hope that helps.

      Reply

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