Anyone who has been cheated on knows how emotionally devastating it can be. Many of us have gone searching for a reason our partner cheated, or—heartbreakingly—believed we were the cause of the infidelity. 

Unfortunately, cheating happens; research found that in 2018 and 2019, 20% of men and 13% of women admitted to sleeping with someone other than their spouse while they were married. 

Despite the pain, understanding why people cheat can give us insight into relationships and human behavior. We’re discussing what cheating is, why it happens, and how to move forward after cheating rocks your relationship. 

Whether you’re trying to heal from infidelity or curious about the complex dynamics at play, we’ve got you covered. Cheating can shake up a relationship, but there are ways to move forward and grow from it. Let’s explore the key things to know about cheating and how to regain control after it’s happened to you.

What Is Cheating?

Every relationship is unique, so it makes sense that everyone has their own definition of what qualifies as infidelity. Some define cheating as strictly sexual, while others see it more broadly to include things like emotional affairs. Even a solo act like watching pornography is considered a no-go to some. Ultimately, cheating is whatever you and your partner agree it is. 

As dating and relationship therapist, Dr. Gary Brown, puts it, “If you have an agreement with your partner that your relationship is monogamous, and you have an emotional and/or sexual affair with someone else, then you are violating your agreement with your partner — and you have cheated.”

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, without open communication between partners, the lines around what counts as “cheating” can get a little blurry. As you’ll see, cheating isn’t always cut-and-dry; one person’s expectations could be totally different from their partner’s. That’s why it’s important to have honest conversations about boundaries. Talking about what cheating means in your relationship can help you avoid misunderstandings and heartbreak down the line.

Types of Cheating

According to psychologist Gregory Kushnick, cheating comes in a few forms. He says it’s about where you direct your energy and your support. If those things are flowing away from someone’s partner and toward another sexual and/or romantic prospect, then it’s cheating.

“Cheating can be physical, emotional, and/or digital. Cheating involves channeling sexual energy or deep, emotional support toward someone who could potentially represent a sexual partner. It usually, but not always, involves some form of deceit and neglect of your partner’s needs.” – Dr. Gary Kushnick, PsyD

 Physical Cheating: This includes secret rendezvous, one-off hookups, and, for some, less obvious things like getting a secret lap dance at a strip club. Many people place other kinds of physical intimacy in this category as well, not just sex. This includes things like kissing, cuddling, and intimate touches.

Essentially, physical cheating is any touch that you’ve agreed not to share with anyone outside of your committed relationship. While the offenses in this category vary widely in severity, it is the one that is most universally regarded as crossing a relationship boundary.

Emotional Cheating: An emotional affair can do just as much damage as a physical one, sometimes even more. In a relationship, emotional intimacy is incredibly important. Developing an intimate emotional connection with someone new can hurt and alienate your partner.

This is not to say that other relationships should have no emotional intimacy at all. In platonic relationships, it’s important to build a level of emotional intimacy. However, this can become inappropriate if your partner is left out of the loop. It can also be considered an emotional affair if the new relationship comes at the expense of your emotional connection with your partner.

Digital Cheating: As the name suggests, this is cheating that happens in digital spaces. This could include things like exchanging steamy photos or having phone sex with someone other than your partner. Many consider spending time in adult Internet chat rooms or other NSFW interactions online to be digital cheating as well. 

For some, pornography may fall under this label as well. While consuming porn is likely a solo act, it isn’t always totally innocent. If your viewing habits are a secret from your partner, it could be hurtful for them to find out. This may be especially true if the performers you typically watch don’t resemble your partner at all.

Intellectual Cheating: This one is a bit tricky to define. Many people consider their romantic partner to be their best friend, as well. Intellectual cheating happens when one partner in a relationship begins to rely on someone else for the same friendship and companionship that they once received from their partner. 

This is not the same thing as sharing interests with friends. While not every interest or intellectual philosophy needs to be shared between partners, it can be hurtful to be excluded. According to sex and relationship therapist Laura Berman, PhD, Intellectual cheating happens when someone begins sharing ideas and interests with a third party, even though their partner is also interested. Ultimately, it comes down to directing energy away from your partner, Berman says.

Do Cheaters Love Their Partners?

Life is complicated, and so are relationships. While cheating can happen because partners have fallen out of love, in reality, cheaters often do love their partners. A committed relationship is a lifelong project, and nobody is perfect. That said, it is always your choice whether or not to forgive a partner who has cheated, regardless of the circumstances. 

Opportunistic cheating happens when someone who genuinely loves and feels attached to their partner commits infidelity. These situations are typically one-off scenarios. As social psychologist Theresa E. DiDonato says, “Not every act of infidelity is premeditated and driven by dissatisfaction with a current relationship…Maybe they were drinking or in some other way thrown into an opportunity they didn’t anticipate.”

No matter the situation, experts say cheating is the result of poor impulse control and selfishness. As licensed marriage and family therapist, Jeff Yoo puts it, “All humans can be tempted. It comes down to the core of who the individual is.”

Why Do People Decide to Cheat?

People cheat in relationships for many different reasons. It’s important to remember that whatever their reason, it’s not your fault. 

Insecurity – it’s not about you.

There is an element of this in most cases where infidelity is an issue. When someone has low self-esteem, they might seek approval from any source they can. This approval-seeking could lead them to do things they otherwise might not even consider, like crossing a boundary in their relationship. 

For instance, a big argument with their partner might cause someone to feel like they’re not good enough. This could lead them to seek approval and affection from someone else. On a normal day, this might never happen. However, in a vulnerable state, the validation of someone else’s affection can make cheating seem more enticing.

Attachment issues

Attachment style has a big influence on how we behave in relationships. Someone’s attachment style alone can’t determine whether they’ll cheat in a relationship, but it can offer some insight when infidelity does happen. For example, cheating may be a way for an avoidantly attached partner to regain a sense of control and safety in the relationship. 

Being in love requires a lot of vulnerability, which can be scary. Someone with an avoidant attachment style responds to this call for openness with an instinct to run away, or to avoid the situation. This can make communication difficult, leading to resentment and setting the stage for infidelity.


It’s sad but many people don’t believe themselves to be worthy of love. This is most often learned from past experiences where parents, trusted loved ones, or previous relationship partners have treated them poorly. Unless we can break patterns in our relationship choices, we learn to accept the treatment we receive. 

Sometimes, when a person is used to being in this kind of relationship, they haven’t learned how to behave in a healthy, peaceful relationship. They may cross a boundary in your relationship as a misguided way to “test” your love; your reaction to their infidelity is a way to confirm what they already believe about themself. 

Inability to End the Relationship

In some cases, someone may cheat because they believe it will make you break up with them. Instead of having a conversation about their concerns in the relationship, this kind of cheater chooses to force your hand by doing something that will make you stand up and say it’s time to go your separate ways.

How to Move Forward After Being Cheated On

While relationships sometimes do survive infidelity, cheating is often a catastrophic betrayal. Dealing with the emotional fallout of infidelity while grieving the end of a relationship can be overwhelming. It’s important to take steps to protect your mental health. 

It’s okay to take things slowly. Being cheated on can be difficult to bounce back from, so be patient with yourself. Don’t force yourself to get back out there before you’re ready. Your time will come; just take it one day at a time. 

The end of a relationship is an opportunity to begin a new chapter of your life. Try to take some time to reflect on your past relationships, and acknowledge the ways you’ve grown through heartbreak. Don’t forget that you can choose how to move forward now, too. 

You can choose to be loved by people who value you and treat you well. We often internalize things from life experiences that can lead us to relationship trouble later on. If you find that your past relationships bear similarities, it’s worth looking closer. 

When you recognize and understand the patterns that are holding you back, you can interrupt them. This is a vital part of the healing process and the path to a happy, healthy relationship.

In Conclusion

Someone’s reason for cheating isn’t always obvious or straightforward. It could be because they feel insecure, have issues with how they connect to others, or they’re just not sure how to handle being loved. Sometimes, people cheat because they’re trying to push their partner away.

If you’ve been cheated on, it’s important to take care of yourself and not rush into anything. Take your time to heal and think about what you want for yourself moving forward.

Cheating hurts, but it can also teach us about ourselves and what we need in a healthy relationship. You deserve to be treated with love and respect, and understanding the “why” behind infidelity can help you find that in the future.