Shelley J Whitehead

Why do people cheat in relationships?

11 November, 2022

When people cheat in relationships it can be devastating. But there are always reasons why people cheat, so with an understanding of the reasons people cheat, you are not only forearmed to look out for the signs but can also take active measures to prevent the cheating from happening in the first place. 

Cheating often happens when the 6 basic human needs aren’t being met

The ‘6 basic human needs’ are primary driving forces in life, fundamental to every individual in the world, regardless of culture or background. 

These 6 needs are: certainty, variety, significance, love/ connection, growth and contribution.

If you’d like to read a little bit more about these needs you can take a look at my article entitled ‘what are the 6 basic human needs’, but for now we’re going to stay focused on how these relate to cheating: people often compromise values (such as honesty or integrity, which enable trusting relationships) to get an unmet need fulfilled. If a relationship is lacking in love/ connection they may look elsewhere for it; if their life in general is feeling monotonous or static another relationship can become a source of that much-needed variation or of growth; if someone doesn’t feel valued or important enough they may seek significance or contribution outside of their relationship…and so on.  

Poor boundaries can lead people to cheat

Boundaries can be neatly described as the act of taking responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings and needs (and not taking responsibility for the thoughts, feelings and needs of others). This definition doesn’t suggest that you shouldn’t be caring and considerate for those around you – the emphasis here is on the responsibility element. 

In my work as a relationship coach, I have often seen that people with poor boundaries – i.e. those who do not take personal responsibility for meeting their own needs and look too much to their partners to fulfil all those needs – find themselves feeling dissatisfied. As a result, they misdirect their frustration towards their partners and can be inclined to cheat, as they feel they need to get all their needs met via their significant other. 

In its most extreme form, this can take the form of codependence, but this kind of boundary-blurring is, in fact, a surprisingly common thing. 

Another way that poor boundaries can lead to cheating is in the shape of a lack of ‘self-boundaries’ (i.e. the standards we set for ourselves), where long-term goals and standards are sacrificed for short term gratification. Someone might believe wholeheartedly in the concept of the vows of marriage and hold fidelity and honesty as values that are important to them, but at the same time may have poor-impulse control that will lead them to sacrifice these goals for the in-the-moment-rewards of gratifying the impulse to seek out the thrill of a new relationship. 

Most psychologists and coaches consider boundaries an active thing, rather than a passive philosophy. A boundary has been set when you take an action to protect the boundary. These actions often involve the setting of a consequence for the boundary being broken. For example, if you are defining a boundary in a relationship, you might say to your partner: ‘if you cheat on me, I will leave you’. In this example a clear consequence has been set. If you haven’t defined what your boundaries are or, equally, if you have defined a boundary but then don’t see through the consequential actions required to maintain the boundary (for example, forgiving your partner when they have cheated on you), you are communicating a message that you will tolerate boundary-breaking behaviour. Whilst I am not saying that it is a simple thing (to know how to react and respond when your partner has cheated), I would always advise you to be very clear about communicating what is and isn’t acceptable to you. 

How to prevent your partner from cheating

Relationships are complex and personal. Not all answers can be summed up in neat little lists. However, there are a few basic practices you can do that will help prevent cheating from occurring in a relationship:

  1. If you are at the dating stages of a relationship, ensure that you qualify for shared values and standards. This means: if monogamy is important to you, find out whether or not they feel the same way. What about honesty? And integrity? Are you aligned in terms of your basic views?
  2. Are you taking care of your 6 basic human needs? And is your partner taking care of theirs? How can you support each other (without taking full responsibility) in ensuring that everyone is getting needs met (whether from inside or outside the relationship)? Ensuring that everyone has the means and the freedom to get their needs met, without compromising values or standards, is critical in healthy inter-dependent (rather than co-dependent) relationships. 
  3. Are you clear on your boundaries and what you need to have in place to ensure that you take responsibility for your own behaviours? If you are clear about what standards you need to hold yourself to, in order to keep working towards your own longer-term goals, you will find it easier to stay true to these self-boundaries and not let yourself down by sacrificing important goals for in-the moment short-term gratification. 
  4. Are you clear about communicating the kinds of consequences that will protect the boundaries that are important to you? Being clear with yourself is the first step, then communicating these to your significant other is the next step – both important in ensuring that you are in alignment with yourself and with your partner. 

If you’re interested in learning more about any of these areas, please do send me a message (via the ‘contact’ page) to let me know what you’d like me to write about. I love sharing my tools, tips and guidance with you and supporting you on your journey to thriving relationships.

Shelley J Whitehead
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