Why Do People Cheat on People They Love?


Betrayal Hurts

When someone you love and trust decides to hurt you, the pain cuts deep, so deep that the stories sometimes go down in history, whether they’re real or fictional. We know the stories of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Traitor,” Archie and Veronica in Riverdale, and the classic betrayals of old like Edmund Pevensie and his siblings in Narnia, Jesus and Judas, Samson and Delilah, and so many more. Whether you’re standing on the other side of that betrayal with a dagger in your back or you’re just reading about it, you’ve probably wondered, “Why? How could they do that?”

Cheating is essentially betrayal. It’s taking a bond of love and pulling the rug out from under the unsuspecting person who trusts that they are safe and secure in that relationship. Just like in the examples above, betrayal doesn’t necessarily mean that the betrayer no longer loves the betrayed. Edmund loves his brother and sisters, and Judas loves Jesus. But somehow in that moment, and in the moment when a loved one cheats on their romantic partner, the temptation of the temporary benefits of cheating outweighed the value of a lasting relationship. But still, both the cheated and the cheater are stuck asking, “Why?” Why do people cheat on people they love?

Why Do People Cheat?

Though every situation is unique and warrants its own careful consideration, there are some common reasons that people cheat in romantic relationships. Though there’s some research that suggests men cheat for different reasons than women cheat, there are still plenty of shared elements across the board. It’s important to note that you can have an explanation for an action that still does not excuse that behavior. These reasons are not excuses, but they may help to understand how and why the cheating took place. 

Reasons Why People Cheat

1. Sometimes, the cheater is actually just “done” with their current relationship and doesn't know how to end it. This is no excuse for breaking the trust their partner has in them, but there are times in both marriage and dating relationships when, perhaps, the person who ends up cheating has been “over” their partner for a while. Either because there are several years invested in the relationship, children in the situation, or just plain cowardice, the betrayer is too scared to say the words, “I’m breaking up with you.” Breakups and divorces are difficult, even for the person who initiates them. The fact is that at one point there was probably love there, and it can be a terrifying thing to imagine giving up that feeling of security, even if the relationship no longer fulfills you.

2. Often, the cheater looks for something on the side because they feel a lack of something in their current relationship, like they’re missing something. Maybe they feel lonely because their partner is busy, traveling, sick, or emotionally distant. Maybe they feel neglected or ignored at home, and they look for acceptance and intimacy elsewhere, when they really want it from their partner. Again, the healthier choice would be to communicate the desire for more intimacy with their partner, rather than choose betrayal, but sometimes reaching for cheating is like reaching for comfort food… it’s just temporarily filling a void, not really satisfying the need.

3. Others cheat out of sheer overwhelm or as a response to past trauma. If they have abandonment issues, certain mental illness, or a number of fears regarding security and relationships, they may subconsciously feel that it’s unwise to turn down any opportunity for love and affection, even if it means betraying their partner. They may, in a way, be incapable of refusing any opportunity for intimacy, whether it’s real or false, because of a deep-seated fear of being alone or unliked. Because the traumas that cause these fears often result in substance abuse as well, it’s sometimes the case that the cheater is abusing alcohol or drugs when they step out on their partner. The sensory overload of being intoxicated at the same time as being in a tricky situation is too much for them to handle in a way that reflects their values. Again, this reason is no excuse, and the cheater in this case needs treatment and to honestly confront their own problems.

4. Sadly, there are also those who cheat out of plain ole selfishness. It’s true. Maybe their expectations of their current relationship are unreasonably high, and they think they “deserve better,” when really, they’re being treated perfectly well and don’t care who they hurt in the process. Maybe they just think one night of harmless fun doesn’t matter, when really it can decimate a family and break a heart. In this case, it’s likely that cheating isn’t the only way in which this person is being selfish in the relationship. It’s also the case that this reason, among all the others, may be the most difficult to forgive, because there may be no remorse.

Can You Rebuild Trust?

Remember those examples of great betrayals? Some of those ended better than others. Some of the betrayers at least regretted what they did, which is something. They learned a lesson. They might not repeat the same mistakes, given the opportunity. But Edmund Pevensie from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is a great example of a betrayer who actually found redemption. Sure, this example isn’t one of romantic cheating, but bear with the comparison for a moment. He became swept up in the promise of feeling special, which is the same way many romantic cheaters have been enticed into their actions. He felt, briefly, that he deserved something more than he was getting, and in a moment of isolation and selfishness, he gave away information that could have had his family and much of Narnia murdered in cold blood. When he was caught, everyone had a right to want him dead in return. When he saw the error of his ways, he ran from the White Witch, asked Aslan’s forgiveness and repented to his siblings and promised to regain their trust, and though it must have been incredibly hard for his siblings, Peter, Susan, and Lucy, they eventually couldn’t help but forgive their beloved brother. They found a stronger relationship on the other side of the trauma.

Moving On Will Require Some Work

A word of caution: not every cheater deserves the same amount of renewed trust as Edmund. If you’ve cheated or been cheated on, it’s important to note that he worked to earn that. If that work doesn’t happen, it’s time to consider breaking up. But a word of hope: cheating and betrayal are not always the end of a relationship. Perhaps it might mark the end of a certain era of your relationship. Perhaps it will never be the way it was before. Perhaps it will be more distant. Perhaps it will be sweeter. The important thing is for the person who committed the betrayal to be able to honestly confront themselves about how and why it happened, and for the betrayed to weigh whether their new boundaries can include someone who once broke them.

If you’ve cheated, been cheated on, or you’re the child of a parent who cheated on another, it can be difficult to swim in all the feelings that happen after an event like that. Please feel free to reach out to someone at TheHopeLine, where we can chat with you about the next steps, whether to approach the other people involved in the trauma, and how to set boundaries and seek healing in the aftermath. You’re not alone, and there is always hope. Remember that while Christ’s story is one of redemption, it is also one of consequences, and while healing is always a possibility, the fact is that a cheating situation has to be honestly confronted before that can happen.

Are you the cheater? Whether your relationship survives or not, move forward. To have meaningful relationships in the future try these 5 life-changing steps

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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