108: Why Do People Cheat?

Sep 27, 2022

Some people are very preoccupied, perhaps even obsessed, with the question of why people cheat. People always want to know, “Okay, so what’s really going on with the person who’s cheating?” Other times, people are curious about the patterns of people who cheat, and in a way, these sound like potentially interesting questions to answer. But are they helpful questions?

The matter of infidelity is so loaded, and these questions reflect a common fear that people have of being cheated on, coming from the widespread idea that cheating is objectively very bad in every way. These questions also assume there is an individual reason why each person cheats, like they’re a narcissist or a sociopath, which isn’t necessarily the case.

With all of this in mind, Dr. Marie Murphy is here to show you why, although every single person is responsible for their actions, nobody acts in a vacuum. Social conditions create the context in which cheating happens, so you’ll learn about the circumstances that make it more likely that cheating could occur, and how these structures come up against individual agency.

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me by clicking here!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why so many people are genuinely afraid of being cheated on.

  • 2 reasons why finding explanations in individual responsibility and fault bring solace to most people.

  • Why all humans are individually responsible for their actions, but that doesn’t mean other factors aren’t at play.

  • What society has taught us about romanticizing monogamous relationships.

  • How certain societal constructs are set up to make cheating more likely in some scenarios than others.

  • Why people get caught in a web of the competing forces of societal structure and agency.

  • Everything society doesn’t teach us about relationships, marriage, divorce, infidelity, and individual agency.

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy. I’m a relationship coach, and I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do.  No shame, no blame, no judgments.  If you are in the midst of an infidelity situation and you’d like my help sorting it out, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, so we can work together no matter where you’re located.


Today, we are going to talk about why people cheat.

My impression is that some people, maybe a lot of people, are very preoccupied – perhaps even OBSESSED – with the question of why people cheat.  It’s certainly a question that I am asked fairly regularly.  Maybe I’ll have just met someone, and they’ve asked about what I do, and I’ll tell them, and they’ll say, “Oh, interesting!” and then after maybe a minute or two of chit-chat, they’ll something like, “Okay, just tell me – WHY do they do it?  Why do people cheat?”  And sometimes, something pretty similar happens when I’m talking to another professional who helps people in their relationships in some capacity.  Maybe they help people find more happiness in their marriages or maybe they people find partners, or whatever.  They’ll tell me, “Wow, what you do is amazing,” and then they’ll say something like, “So, what’s really going on with the person who’s cheating?” or something like that.  Other times, people kind of beg me to tell them what the patterns are in why people cheat.  And in way, this sounds like a potentially interesting question, but it basically boils down to the same one: why do people cheat?  Give me THE DEFINITIVE ANSWERS AS TO WHY.  

There two things I want to say about these kinds of questions.  This first is that I think they reflect a common fear of being cheated on.  There is a widespread idea out there – as you may noticed! – that cheating is very bad.  We tend to believe that doing it is bad, and being cheated on is bad.  Bad in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons.  And whether as a cause or a consequence of this, a lot of people are really afraid of being cheated on.  And I do mean afraid.  A lot of people think that cheating would be a terrible thing to happen in their relationship, and a terrible thing to be on the receiving end of, so to speak, and so they really want to know exactly why it happens so they can figure out how to avoid having it happen to them.  

Now, I’m going to insert a disclaimer that you’ve probably heard before if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, but if this is your first time, and you don’t really know what’s going on, let me say this.  My point is never that cheating, or anything we might think of as infidelity, is awesome and great, and that we should all get out there and start cheating immediately, and that being cheated on is not a problem, and if it happens to you, you should just be fine with it.  No.  That’s not my perspective.  But my perspective IS that infidelity happens, and that we’re all a lot better off if we can learn how to treat it in a more neutral and less loaded way.  And I think questions about why people cheat reflect just how loaded the matter of infidelity is, and how collectively freaked out we are about the possibility that someone could cheat on us. 

The second thing I want to say about the “why do people cheat?” questions is that people asking them usually presume that there is an individual explanation for why people cheat.  And when I say “usually,” I’m just being magnanimous.  What I really want to say is, people pretty much always assume that the reasons why people cheat can be located in the individual.  Meaning, someone cheats because they’re selfish.  Or they have entitlement issues.  Or they are addicted to sex or love or both.  Or they are “out of integrity” with themselves.  Or they don’t care about other people.  Or they’re fundamentally unable to honor commitments.  Or they are incapable of true intimacy.  Or they’re a narcissist.  Or they’re a sociopath!  Or whatever.

Listen people, I know these ideas are out there.  And I know a lot of people buy into explanations like these, for why people cheat, and I know some people have found solace in these sorts of explanations.  So, while I never want to be flagrantly disrespectful of other people’s ideas, or of ways of thinking that other people find useful, I have to tell you that I think explanations like these really aren’t all that helpful.  And, I think that most of them are total horseshit.  And I mean that as respectfully as possible.  I could just say, “I simply don’t agree with these perspectives.”  But, it is a little more fun to say horseshit.

I really am sympathetic to people’s affinity for these sorts of explanations of cheating, though.  For two reasons.  One, as I talked about a moment ago, is that we tend to think that cheating is very bad, and that if we’ve been cheated on, something horrible has happened.  And when we think something horribly wrong has happened, we tend to want explanations for WHY it has happened.  Right?  AND, we tend to like explanations that are grounded in individual responsibility, or fault.  And that’s a common theme across the board – it doesn’t just apply to infidelity situations.  If someone kills someone, we want to know why THEY as an individual did the thing they did.  There’s a lot more I could say about this, but I’ll stop myself from going off on an insufferable tangent here.

So, to recap the big points I’ve made so far.  We tend to want to know WHY people cheat, we tend to want to know why because we fear cheating, and we tend to want individual-level explanations for why people cheat.  

With that in mind, what I am going to propose to you today is that although we are all responsible for our actions, we do not act in a vaccum.  Today I am going to propose that social conditions create the context in which cheating occurs, and more specifically, I am going to suggest that there are social circumstances that make it pretty darn likely that some people are going to cheat, or do things that we think of as infidelity.  That doesn’t mean that everyone will.  We are not forced into cheating.  But I am going to suggest that way certain social arrangements are set up makes it pretty damn likely that some cheating will occur.

Here's what I mean by that:

We, as a society, tend to glorify, and valorize and effectively fetishize romantic relationships.  Especially monogamous ones.

We love to see people fall in love.

We believe in “true love” and “soul mates.”

We love to see people get into committed relationships.

We love the idea of romantic love being this thing that happens between two people and only two people.

And then there are weddings.  Oh god, do we love weddings.

We really fucking love the idea of marriage.

We love the idea of romantic love lasting a lifetime… or maybe even longer.  

We love the idea of marriage so much that we kind of shove people into getting married – sometimes literally and sometimes more subtly – often before they’re old enough to rent a car in some states.

We tell people that marriage will complete them.  That it’ll be great.

We treat people as full adults when they’re married – or at least, as fuller adults than we treat non-married people.  In many societies, the achievement of what social scientists call “full personhood” requires not only getting married, but having children, but marriage does get you part of the way there.

Marriage – for many of us, anyway – isn’t exactly compulsory, but most of us are given some pretty strong nudges in that direction.

To that effect, we don’t exactly present marriage as one option out of many.  We don’t sit people down when they’re young and say, hey kid, it’s possible that you may want to engage in romantic and sexual relationships as you grow up.  You might want to have a long-term partner, but some people prefer having shorter-term relationships, or even no relationships.  You might want to commit to a monogamous relationship, but you might not.  You might want to get married, but you don’t have to.  Nobody tells us stuff like this.  And moreover, nobody tells us what the full spectrum of options might look like for living out our sexual and romantic lives.  And nobody says, hey, there are all of these options, and they’re all equally legitimate.  So in a sense, many people freely choose to enter into monogamous relationships, but that choice is made under certain conditions.  It’s kind of like being given the opportunity to vote when there’s only one candidate on the ballot.  

On top of everything I’ve said so far, we may glorify love and relationships and weddings and marriage, but we don’t tell anyone what marriage is actually like.  We don’t talk that much about how strange and hard it can be.  We don’t teach people how to be individuals within a relationship.  We don’t teach people how to balance being faithful to themselves with being faithful to their relationships.  Hell, we don’t even teach people how to be faithful to themselves in the first place.

We don’t tell people that there are many ways of doing marriage, or doing commitment.  We don’t tell people that there are many ways of defining and practicing monogamy.  We don’t tell people that you don’t even have to be monogamous in order to be in a committed relationship.

And we buy into the idea that once you’re married, you’d better be faithful to your partner.  And we tend to believe that if you are unfaithful to your partner, you aren’t just doing something that’s outside of the bounds of your relationship, but you’re doing something terrible to them.  AND, by extension, you’re probably doing something really bad to other people too.  Like your family, and your partner’s family, and maybe everyone else you know.

On top of all of that, we don’t offer our collective sympathies to people who are having challenges in their marriages.  Of course, there’s a whole section of the self-help industrial complex devoted to couple’s therapy and fixing your marriage and all that kind of stuff.  And some of that stuff may be great, and some of it may be useless at best, but in general, we tend to see marital trouble as a failing of some sort, or an indication that there’s something wrong with you, and as a secret that needs to be guarded closely.

And so when we are having trouble in our marriages, as so many people do, we may not have any idea what to do about it.  When we want to leave our marriages, we may feel trapped.  When we feel bored in our marriages, we may have no idea how to handle that.

AND many of us believe that if we get married, we have to stay married.  And if we’re unhappy, that’s a sign that there’s something wrong with us, or there may not be any solution to our problem, or both, so we're pretty screwed.  Sure, divorce is common these days.  But there is still a really prevalent idea that if we get married, it’s better to stay married than get divorced.  Some people of course believe a more extreme version of this, which is that if you get married, you CAN’T get divorced.  Which in many cases is not literally true, but if we believe it, we will act as if is true.

I want to suggest that when we put all of this stuff together, we box ourselves into pretty tight corners, and we all but set ourselves up to cheat.

Or, put a little differently, as a society, we create conditions in which cheating is likely to occur.

Now, some people would say that the problem is that monogamy is categorically bad, and marriage is categorically problematic, and that’s why people cheat.  Some people say that people are NATURALLY inclined to be polyamorous, and if we didn’t have all of these artificial constraints, like marriage and monogamy, then cheating would not be a problem.  And I have two things to say to that.  One is, this argument isn’t relevant if you’re currently married an cheating.  Right now, monogamy and marriage are features of the social landscape, and saying we should abolish both of them isn’t going to solve anything if you’re already in a monogamous relationship and you feel pressured to stay in it.  But the other thing I have to say is, even people who do not practice monogamy grapple with questions about what it means to be faithful or unfaithful, or what it means to cheat.  It is possible to do something that your partner think counts as cheating even if you are not in a monogamous relationship with them, and I have clients who are in this sort of situation, and believe me, their struggles are essentially quite similar to the struggles people who are in ostensibly monogamous relationships experience.

Just to be clear and fair, I do want to point out that for some people the social pressure to get married and stay married isn’t a problem!  For some people, entering a monogamous marriage at a fairly young age works out just fine.  

But for some people, it doesn’t.

And what happens a lot is, by the time someone realizes that they aren’t all that thrilled with marriage in general, or their marriage in particular – or both – they’ve already signed up for the full catastrophe.  The full catastrophe is a line from Zorba the Greek, where, in response to being asked if he’s married, Zorba replies, "Am I not a man? And is man not stupid? I'm a man, so I'm married. Wife, children, house--everything. The full catastrophe."

I love this line, but I want to say two things about it.  One, we can see how this might apply to people in general, not just men who marry women.  And two, I disagree with Zorba about men being stupid, or people being stupid.  We sign up for the full catastrophe because it is so often the only option we’re aware of!  It’s the only way to proceed in life that we can conceive of!  Or if it’s not the only option we can imagine for ourselves, it may seem like the most acceptable option, or the most legitimate option, or the most obvious option.

And if we’re in a situation where we have already committed to a marriage that’s supposed to be monogamous, or entered into some version of the full catastrophe, and we’re finding ourselves unsatisfied with that situation – whether because we’ve gotten involved with someone else or for other reasons – we may not want to rock the boat.

We may not want to hurt our partner.  We may not want to lose the social esteem we receive for being married.  And all of this can be even more true if we have children with our spouse, and we’ve created the idealized nuclear family.  And we may be terrified to say that we want to leave our marriage for reasons that don’t seem legitimate enough.  

Wanting to be free to explore other relationships – or to pursue a relationship that you’ve already started - is not often considered a legitimate reason for wanting to leave a marriage.  Alas.

But yet we may very much WANT to explore other relationships.  We may yearn for connections with people other than the person we promised to be faithful to for life.  We may have really meant it when we said, “till death do us part,” but… then five years went by.  Or ten.  Or fifteen.  Or twenty.  And we’re learning that our experience of life has changed a lot since we were however old we were when we got married, or committed to our partner.

But since nobody tells us that it’s okay to feel this way, we don’t know what to do.  We had a roadmap to getting married, but we don’t have a roadmap for dealing with the experience of actually being married.  Nobody told us there would be boredom, and dissatisfaction, and disinterest.  Nobody told us this was normal, and nobody told us how to deal with it.  And nobody told us how to deal with a desire for experiences that don’t fit within the bounds of our marriage as it was originally defined.  

And so, we may on the one hand desperately want to be “good.”  We may really want to do the things that others expect of us, even if it’s only because they expect them.

But we may also yearn to live out what we consider to be the fullest expression of our lives.  We may want what we want, and we may want to be able to pursue what we want.  And we may not have any way to reconcile the tension between what we said we were going to do, and what we really WANT to do.

So what do we do when it seems like our desires are irreconcilable, and that problem seems insurmountable?  Well, sometimes we cheat.

Now, none of this mean that it’s society’s FAULT that you are cheating.  Not exactly.  Not DIRECTLY.  And you are responsible for your actions.  But your life is occurring within a certain set of social conditions, and it’s important to recognize their influence on you. 

My Ph.D. is in sociology, and in sociology we talk about societal influences and individual actions in terms of structure and agency.  Structures are patterns and institutions, sometimes tangible, and sometimes intangible, that enable and constrain social life.  Structures make certain choices in life available to us, and obvious to us – and make other choices less available, or less obvious to us.  And agency is individual consciousness and action.  Or the capacity of individuals to think and act creatively – or perhaps, not so creatively as the case may be.

So for example, we can say that marriage is a social structure.  It has tangible and intangible manifestations.  We have rituals like weddings.  We have laws governing marriage and the dissolution of marriage.  We have religious traditions that bless or prohibit marriages.  We have all of the messages about marriage that exist in popular media.  All of that stuff exists at a level of social life that is greater than any one individual.  And we, as individuals, technically get to decide for ourselves how we respond to all of the marriage stuff.  Sometimes we go along with the structures that are obvious to us.  Sometimes we challenge them.  For instance, some people say, “Fuck marriage, I don’t want anything to do with that.”  That’s one way to use your agency.  But other people use their agency to conform to the norms we are exposed to, or the structures that are obvious to us.  We may get married because everyone else we know has done it or is doing it, and it seems like the thing to do!  And that is a use of our individual will, even if our choices reproduce existing social arrangements.  The problem with structures is that we may not be fully conscious of them.  A lot of the time, they’re just part of the air we breathe.

Structure and agency inform each other.  We couldn’t have one without the other.  If lots of people stopped thinking that marriage was a good idea, and stopped getting married, we’d probably have a new social structure, after a while – or, to put it differently, the social structure of marriage would change.  But in order for that to happen, we would need enough people to think and behave differently in relation to the current social structures associated with marriage.  And that may be “difficult” to do, because structures are, by definition, established patterns and institutions.  And it can take a fair amount of effort to step outside of established patterns and institutions.  That doesn’t mean we can’t do it!  We absolutely can, and that’s what creates social change.  But there are lots of times when we as individuals do not have the awareness or the motivation or the resources to act in ways that challenge existing structures.

Okay.  I hope that wasn’t too abstract, or too jargon-y.  The point that I want you to take from this is that we’re all existing within a sphere of societal influences, some of which may have a very powerful impact on our decision making and our actions.  That doesn’t mean we can’t make original choices – we absolutely can, and I’m going to say more about that momentarily – but our capacity to do so is shaped by social structures, in this case, messages about marriage, that are bigger than we are.

So to reiterate what I’ve said before, so many of us get into marriages or monogamous partnerships because there is so much social encouragement to do so.  Because the social structure of marriage and all it entails is a big feature of collective life.  But although we have all of these forces propelling us into marriage, we don’t have that many resources for figuring out what to do if we don’t want to be married anymore.  Or if we are engaging in anything we think counts as infidelity.  All of our shared ideas about marriage help get us into it, but they don’t offer as much guidance for what to do once you’re in it, or how to decide if you want to stay in it or not, once you’re invested in the whole thing – OR how to exit a marriage if you so choose.

Let me be clear that I’m speaking in general terms here.  I’m talking about patterns.  I’m not saying that there literally are not ANY resources for figuring out what to do if you don’t want to be married anymore.  Of course there are some.  But even if there is a whole section on the self-help shelf in the bookstore devoted to this topic, leaving a marriage is, in general, not accorded as much social support as entering a marriage, to say the least.  That’s the big point here.

Additionally, there isn’t much structural support for leaving a marriage to be with one’s affair partner.  Quite the opposite.  Within the notions of marriage that are dominant these days, leaving the marriage to start a relationship with your affair partner usually isn’t considered a “good reason” to leave a marriage.  Again, this doesn’t mean that EVERYONE on the planet believes that it isn’t acceptable to leave your marriage for your affair partner, but a lot of people do, and this may have a powerful impact on the way we think about our own lives.     

So what do we do with all of this?  How can you use what I’ve just said to help you navigate your own life?

First of all, recognizing that there are powerful social structures that shape our experiences of living is really important.  Without abdicating our responsibility for our actions, we can recognize that our choices are shaped by forces that we may not be aware of, but are pretty powerful indeed.  Sometimes people say things to me like, “I don’t know why I got married when I did, I don’t know what I was thinking.”  And I’ll ask some questions, and it may become pretty clear that the person I’m talking to essentially believed that they had to get married when they did.  When we think we have to get married, we’re probably going to get married.  That may sound simplistic, and it is simple, but it’s really important for us to be aware of this.

Now, a lot of us try to get through life without challenging social structures in any major way.  We may go about our business without feeling the need to challenge any major aspects of the social world we know.  We may not WANT to rock the boat.  But then, something happens, and we realize that we’re either going to have to compromise what’s most important to us, or make some waves.  And that’s when we start to use our agency in new ways.

You may not be able to change the fact that people out there believe that marriage is good and it’s supposed to last forever and there’s something wrong with you if you get divorced.  You may not be able to change the fact that some people do believe that cheating is bad.  But you can decide what you’re going to make that mean for your life.  Your greatest opportunity lies in learning how to effectively take responsibility for the things within your power to control, and in learning how to develop a different relationship to the many things you do not have the power to control.  You may not be able to change broadly entrenched social norms in an instant, or a year, or a decade.  But you can change how you relate to them.  You may have to LEARN how to do this, but that’s okay – I can teach you.

And, by being willing to do things that may go against the grain, we make it easier for others to do the same.  If we allow ourselves the opportunity to critically examine whether we want to stay in our marriages, and we allow ourselves the option of leaving them if we choose, and we allow ourselves the option of forming above-board relationships with our affair partners, and we make it our business to learn how to deal with whatever anybody else might have to say about that, rather than allowing the fear of other people’s opinions to change our lives, we not only get to live the lives that are most right for us, but we lead by example.  We make the options we exercise more available to those who come after us.

This is kind of another topic altogether, but since it’s relevant, I’ll mention it briefly here: marriage doesn’t have to end in death in order to be successful.  Families can and do reconfigure themselves without the world falling apart.  Infidelity may indeed be a breach of an agreement you’ve made, but that doesn’t make it a blight on your worth as person.  Infidelity may be disruptive, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.  When we believe these things, and live from these beliefs, we start to create social change as well as personal change.  

Okay!  To wrap things up for today, I want to underscore the point that all of our individual actions and individual experiences are shaped by the social context in which they occur.  That’s not to say that widespread social pressure to get married and stay married is the single, causal factor that explains exactly why any one particular person cheats.  But instead of looking for individual-level explanations for very common occurrences, very prevalent human behaviors, we need to look at what’s going on in the cultural fog, so to speak.  In the air we all breathe.  And part of what’s going on out there are a lot of ideas that encourage us to get married and stay married, without helping us figure out whether we actually WANT to do to those things, and what to do about it if we don’t.  And that can leave anyone in a real pickle.

And what I do as a coach is to help people find their way out of these kinds of pickles!  Yes, social structures are powerful, but you are a powerful person with agency!  And what I help you do is recognize and make use of your agency, so that you can take responsibility for the many things you DO have the power to control in your own life, and deal differently with the things you can’t control.  So if you’re ready to empower yourself to deal with your infidelity situation in a way that you feel great about, let’s get started.  You can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  All sessions are held via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.  I can’t wait to meet you!

All right, everyone!  Thank you for listening.  Have a great week.  Bye for now.  



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