Infidelity According to Psychology

Find out what the experts say about infidelity and how it can be overcome.
Infidelity According to Psychology
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 13 December, 2022

As a rule, infidelity represents  a tremendously important personal drama. It involves the violation of trust in a couple, where commitment, desires, pacts, and intimacy are undermined. This extremely common human experience often causes the heart to fracture, giving shape to a situation that isn’t always handled in the most efficient manner.

There are many reasons why a partner may be unfaithful. Relationship experts claim that dynamics based on betrayal go far beyond character, personality, or deficits in a relationship. However, whatever the case, the result is always the same: dissatisfaction, suffering, problems that become entrenched, and the complex dilemma of how to act after infidelity.

“Infidelity is not a decision that is made, but if you want to be unfaithful you decide to face the costs of the consequences.” 

-Walter Riso-

The causes of infidelity according to psychology

As we mentioned earlier, there’s no one cause for infidelity. That said, some common triggers in unfaithful people have been identified.

Three hearts representing infidelity

Neurological factors

Interestingly, there’s increasing evidence of the involvement of elevated testosterone as a predictor of infidelity. Sari van Anders, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist at the University of Michigan (USA). She’s conducted some fascinating assessments of T (testosterone) levels in both men and women. She found that the higher the levels of this hormone, the greater the desire to seek other sexual partners.

Types of attachment

Attachment is an affective bond that allows one person to achieve or maintain closeness with another. John Bowlby’s attachment theory states that, depending on the type of attachment with which we were raised, it determines a lower or higher risk when it comes to evidencing behaviors based on infidelity.

  • An anxious attachment defines individuals who are most fearful of rejection. They’re profiles with little or no impulse control. This is a risk factor when it comes to betraying partners.
  • A disorganized attachment identifies individuals who are unable to genuinely bond with partners in relationships. They’re unpredictable, lacking the emotional maturity with which to build firm and secure commitments.

A study conducted with married couples indicated that attachment anxiety positively predicts marital infidelity. On the other hand, attachment avoidance isn’t related to infidelity.

Risky lovers

Some people carry an accentuated sense of risk in their personalities. Their dopamine levels are higher and they need intense situations to carry out forbidden or exciting actions to intensify their feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. For instance, they’re often extremely interested in betraying their partners and having sexual encounters outside their relationships.

Power and economic level

As a rule, individuals with more power and higher incomes demonstrate higher infidelity profiles. This isn’t just because they have more opportunities to do so, but because they often link up with like-minded people, those with the same social, psychological, and motivational traits and the kinds of attributes that encourage boundary-crossing.

The results of one study showed that power is positively associated with infidelity since it increases confidence in the ability to attract partners. This association was found for both actual infidelity and the intention of future unfaithfulness.

On the other hand, research conducted on relationships, infidelity, and finance indicated that economic dependence increases the probability of infidelity in both men and women. According to the author of this study, there’s a five percent chance that women who are economically dependent on their husbands will be unfaithful, while in men this possibility is 15 percent (American Sociological Association, 2015).

Sexual desire

Sexual desire is the most common explanation for infidelity. Libido, the uncontrollable desire that has nothing to do with falling in love, gives rise to situations where certain profiles take the plunge and commit infidelity. However, others, despite being aware of sexual attraction, give more value to the emotional pacts made with their partners and don’t cross those boundaries.

Emotional infidelity

Today, we live in an increasingly hyperconnected and digital world. This means that infidelity based solely on the emotional element (no sex involved) is really common. For example, some people develop friendships that reach more intimate and complicit levels than with their partners. It’s often due to the weight of routine, the need for something new, or simply the search for what can’t be found in their existing relationship.

Motivations to be unfaithful

Men are more likely to have affairs than women and often seek more sex or attention (Wang, 2018). In fact, they express their love in a more physical way, so sex often becomes an important pathway to connection and intimacy.

If men aren’t sexually satisfied, they take their rejection seriously and can easily feel ‘unloved’. Consequently, they’re more likely than women to cheat due to feelings of insecurity.

On the other hand, when women cheat, they’re often trying to fill emotional voids (Tsapelas, Fisher & Aron, A, 2010). They tend to complain of disconnection and seek to be wanted and appreciated. Moreover, women are more likely to feel unappreciated or ignored. This leads them to seek the emotional intimacy of extramarital affairs.

Typically, an affair is a ‘transitional’ phase for a woman. It’s like a way of ending their existing relationship. They’re seriously looking to finish it and the other person helps them to do so.

Dissatisfaction

In most cases, infidelity arises from feelings of personal dissatisfaction. This is a feeling of unhappiness with one’s life. But when is this feeling usually born? In reality, it often drags on for a long time before the partner meets the person with whom they’re unfaithful.

unfaithful man

Frequently, dissatisfaction is the result of fears, insecurities, and indecisions. It means that life goes by without any incentive or personal meaning. That’s because the individual isn’t bold enough to face, resolve, and decide when confronted with situations that make them unhappy.

On other occasions, dissatisfaction increases within a relationship because it simply isn’t working and no decisions are taken. As a consequence, the partners maintain an increasingly distant, cold, and monotonous relationship where the only solution they see is avoidance and increased dissatisfaction.

“Life and trust can be lost only once.”

-Publilius Syrus-

However, as we mentioned earlier, fidelity is one of the fundamental pillars that allow the stability of a relationship. If this is broken, it’ll generate mistrust, which is an important and necessary value in a secure relationship.

The dissatisfied person in a relationship who’s unfaithful is avoiding reality. In fact, they’re afraid to face it. It could be due to certain fears or low personal self-concept. They suffer crises, friction, and discrepancies, both personally and as a partner, due to old unresolved conflicts,

Man moving away from his partner due to infidelity

Infidelity in a relationship is extremely frequent.

A professional will be able to guide the unfaithful partner to address their internal reality, self-esteem problems, or their inability to build a firm and secure relationship. They’ll assist the individual in learning how to get the courage and security to help them make better decisions for leading a happy and fulfilled life.

The effects of infidelity

Working from a behavioral point of view, psychologists Kristina Gordon and Donald Baucom cite the following effects when a deceived partner discovers infidelity:

Cognitive effects

One of the first reactions of the deceived partner is rumination. These thoughts can become so overwhelming and uncontrollable that they might interfere with their concentration and ability to function normally.

Another important response in the individual who discovers their partner has been unfaithful is the way in which they view them, as well as their relationship. After all, trust has been broken – both in this relationship and for any future ones. In effect, they no longer feel secure.

Behavioral

There are different kinds of behavioral reactions. Among the most common are the manifestations of aggressiveness in the betrayed. For instance, they may be violent toward their partner or a third party.

On the other hand, they might avoid contact with their unfaithful partner and immediately separate. This helps them avoid the suffering produced by their partner’s infidelity.

They may also exhibit hypervigilance in an attempt to ensure themselves that the infidelity has ended or obsessively ask questions inquiring into what happened. They may also communicate with their partner in an extremely aggressive manner.

Emotional

The emotional suffering is enormous. Feelings of anger, ridicule, depression, anxiety, the feeling of being a victim of someone dear to them, etc. appear.

Moreover, the discovery of infidelity can sometimes lead to depression associated with the loss of a lover or partner or a change in the status quo that was really beneficial.

Many authors consider that the emotional reactions that occur in the victim of infidelity are similar to those that appear in post-traumatic stress disorder. For example:

  • Sleep difficulties.
  • Irritability with fits of anger.
  • Hypervigilance in ensuring that problems won’t occur again.
  • An exaggerated scare response.
  • A strong physiological reaction to stimuli that remind them of the betrayal. For example, movies, TV, comments, etc.

Research shows that infidelity can also cause increased anxiety and depression, in addition to stress.

The effects of infidelity are also seen in children. A study suggests that children with parents who’ve had affairs may have trust issues with their future romantic partners. Also, they tend to behave in the same way in their adult relationships.

On the other hand, it’s been found that women tend to be more distressed by emotional affairs and men tend to be more upset by physical ones. This difference was reinforced by a large study conducted on infidelity.

Is it possible for an unfaithful person to change their attitude?

An unfaithful person can stop being so as long as they have the desire to have a stable relationship. If this is the case, it’s best that they seek the attention of a psychotherapist. They’ll be able to help them manage those personality traits that prevent them from remaining faithful to their partner.

Likewise, if the partner’s desire is to continue the relationship, despite the infidelity, ideally, the problem should be addressed through couples therapy. In this case, both partners must have the desire to resolve the conflict. However, if both parties don’t cooperate, couples therapy won’t be able to offer them the desired or expected solution.

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  • American Sociological Association (2015, 1 de junio). People more likely to cheat as they become more economically dependent on their spouses. https://www.asanet.org/press-center/press-releases/people-more-likely-cheat-they-become-more-economically-dependent-their-spouses
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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.