Cheating has been a thing on earth for a very long time, and isn't just a recent phenomenon. Humans do it, yes, but so do many living creatures. Deception benefits individuals in many species; some common forms include mimicry, camouflage, cuckoldry, and bluffing. (4) Humans commonly do whatever is needed to win. Struggles over food, space, mating, especially when any or all are in short supply, can quickly turn nasty.
Paleolithic humans and early indigenous cultures were promiscuous, and this can be tagged to their survival. (14) Propagate, feed, survive and thrive - the rules were simple. And, it was accepted.
Cultural shifts through the centuries redefined relationships and the concept of cheating.
The History of the word "Cheat"
The word "cheat" has been around for over 700 years. It comes from the late 14th century, mid 15th century French word "escheat", which means to transfer a tenant's property to a landlord, (1) and was usually outright fraud by corrupt officials.
So, by the mid 16th century, "escheat" evolved into a shortened version. From the late 16th century, the word referred to something stolen, or a thief.
The first time the word referred to someone who was unfaithful was in the 1930's. (1)
Cheating, Infidelity, Adultery - not all the same?
Cheating, Infidelity, Adultery. They're all used when talking about an affair. But, they can be oh so different.
Infidelity is emotional. It is, at its core, a physical, emotional or social betrayal, erasing the boundaries you've set down in your relationship, to do something that you would not have thought you would do. It doesn't always involve physical sex, but is a betrayal of trust.
Adultery is cheating, and, like infidelity, involves stepping outside of the boundaries of the love relationship, marriage or common-law, to have sex with someone else. One of the partners involved is in a committed relationship. "Adultery" is the legal term used in court when divorce is imminent. Unlike infidelity, adultery tends to be about the sex - not emotions. (2)
Cheating, however, is more than sex and emotion. It is not always frowned upon, and doesn't always refer to one person straying from their partner. We cheat to take advantage or to right a wrong, good or bad.
We celebrate cheating in movies. Movies like "Now You See Me" and Tower Heist are modern Robin Hood stories, where the good guys rob from the rich and give to the poor.
We cheat to escape. Sometimes we'll cheat to get the strength to move away from a toxic relationship and an abusive partner. And this, in every sense, is infidelity, but in the end it saves us.
So, yeah, cheating is adultery, and cheating CAN be infidelity, but it is so much bigger than sleeping with someone who is not your spouse or partner. It can, in certain instances, be a good thing.
Cheating: Why do people do it?
The late American businessman Joseph B Wirthlin said that:
Lying, stealing, and cheating are commonplace. (3)
And, it's true. The thing about cheating is that it IS all around us. We've just about all done it. We all feel the desperation of needing something to succeed, of feeling better, of getting the win. (4)
Most humans cheat in one way or another. It is about taking advantage when one can and, many times, when one needs to. (4)
Cheating empowers people to reach their goals, rightly or wrongly. In life, in business, in sports, in relationships, people tend to cheat. (4) It is a way to get something at the lowest possible cost. (4)
We also tend to cheat when we see other people doing it, getting away with it, when they (co-workers, friends) find it acceptable. This changes our behaviour - we start to think it is OK. (5) Who hasn't stolen pens and pencils from work? And, if you don't get caught, all the better.
Perhaps this is why:
- executives make risky decisions
- people lie on their resumes
- people in relationships stray
- athletes take performance enhancing drugs
Cheating throughout history
Sex in Prehistoric times (Lovers in a dangerous time)
Paleolithic humans and early indigenous cultures were promiscuous, all for the sake of survival. They lived together, slept together and raised children together. Propagate, feed, survive and thrive - the rules were simple.
Paleolithic women were extremely promiscuous, and it wasn't unusual for men to wait their turn for a chance with the same woman. (6)
Cheating Before Colonization
Before European colonization, Indigenous communities around the world were more open when it came to sex and love. Intimate relationships were encouraged, and pre-marital sex and extramarital affairs was not judged. Incest was not unusual in all classes, especially in upper classes. Marriage wasn't always a forever thing, and people moved on to new partners with ease and without judgment. Open marriages weren't as uncommon as you might think. Polygamy was a prominent part of marriage in both lower and upper classes in many cultures. "Key games" like "Ume" in Hawaii (7) and Ghat Kanchuki in India (8) were part of these cultures.
When the Europeans showed up, conservative values of intimacy were imposed on the indigenous populations. Prior to this polyamory (Punalua) was quite common.
Cheating in Victorian and Edwardian Times
In the mid to late 19th century and early 20th century, marriage was encouraged, particularly for women, who had no real power.
Not all women were made for marriage. Setting up a home, looking after children, and, for upper class women, taking charge of servants could be deadly boring for young housewives. Many women were seeking more freedom to live their lives the way they chose, and an affair with another man (or a woman) was that step to freedom and excitement. Cheating wives are not just a 21st century phenomena.
Married men were free to pursue other women and still remain married, as their wives were not allowed to divorce them. On the other hand when lonely wives had an affair, their husbands could divorce them, question the paternity of the children, and tarnish their reputations.
But it was common for upper class married women and any unexpected children to be welcomed into the family fold.
It was also common for married and unmarried men to seek out the company of prostitutes. Prostitutes were seen as "fallen", "tainted". They were punished by society for their boldness, their independence and their spirit.
In the 1970's, 63% of men and 73% of women did not accept affairs as OK. Today 78% men and 84% women think cheating is not OK. (9)
But people still do it. In fact, men, as through history, are more likely to have an affair. But nowadays, women are stronger, more independent, and are also cheating more. Most have their own money, their own careers, and are 40% more likely to cheat today than they were in the 1990's. (9) Their increased presence in the workforce, increased job responsibility, increased travelling, makes it all easier. And, guilt doesn't seem to be part of the equation for many of them.
Why Do People Cheat On Their Partners?
One thing that's surprising about cheating is that it's not always about the sex. One survey says that 92% of men who cheat don't do it because of the sex. It's because they don't feel connected to their partner. The affection is gone. (9)
We tend to paint cheating with a very wide brush. We see it as one thing - about sex with someone else, about ignoring our partners. Most people don't cheat on purpose; there is usually a bigger reason, a story behind it that causes someone to act without thinking, without consideration of consequence. Or maybe because the consequence is an easy out.
It can be, and usually is, about needing something more.
Why do we cheat? Some people believe it is in our DNA, our biological makeup. Nurture vs. nature, gender, a partner who works too much, parenting too much, an opportunity for fun, a boring sexless marriage, abusive marriage, emotionally painful marriage - there are many reasons that often lead to cheating.
Men and women cheat for various reasons, and it's not always black and white. Sometimes it's just a drunken adventure, but most of the time, it's much more. Surveys have been done to find out why, and Ashley Madison conducted many surveys in 2017 and 2018.
Whatever it comes down to, there often seems to be a sadness that is hanging over the person cheating. They are missing something in their lives or in their marriage. Perhaps we're not a good fit with our partner. We may have low self-esteem and that boost of confidence from someone other than our partner is enticing.
But it seems that there is so much more to having an affair than escaping the reality of a miserable marriage. 54% of men and 34% of women (9) had no problem with their marriages before they cheated. Most people aren't looking for a relationship, just looking for fun.
These are the main reasons people cheat on their significant others:
Cheating for the sex
Of this number, 76% said that their affair met their sexual needs. (11)
We are sexual creatures, and sex will always be an important part of our relationships, a vital part of our human make-up.
Cheating to stay in a relationship
Some people cheat to be happier, and to have a healthier, stronger marriage, so they can continue their current relationship. Love is a strong emotion, and people may be willing to cheat, but they are still in love with the one they married, there may be children, and there may be assets that people don't want to lose.
Marriage and relationships are tough, and sometimes when one doesn't get what they signed up for, people look elsewhere. Time should probably be spent fixing it, but sometimes things aren't fixable. And for reasons that may not be visible to anyone outside of the relationship, people stray.
The Ashley Madison survey says that "straying to stay" is quite common.
Of this number, 54% of people surveyed don't want to leave their partner, and want something temporary and fun. About half of them, 51%, say an affair breathes new vigor into them. 50% say they just want sex. (12)
Cheating to get out of a relationship
When you're in a bad relationship, sometimes you don't know how to leave. You feel stuck, and you may think this is the best you can do. It's not unusual to enter the adult dating world in order to and find another relationship, and then gain the strength to leave a toxic one. You might feel better, stronger, and powerful. You can forget who you are with someone else, what your reality is, how awful your relationship is, and just be happy.
And, sometimes having your partner find out, having that conflict enables you to leave the relationship. It may be the ticket for your partner to get out too. It is easy to cheat, be the bad guy, and get out of something that you didn't want to be in anymore.
That's why we may cheat when we're in an unhealthy relationship that we want to leave. Cheating may be the thing that gives us the strength to do it.
Cheating on your partner can be about having the power to choose your destiny, about realizing that you are more, and that you can do whatever you need to do to make yourself happy.
Women are more likely to want their affair to turn into a relationship.(9) They may cheat only to get into a happy relationship.
Cheating To have affection, friendship
According to many of the respondents in the Ashley Madison survey, cheating met their emotional needs. Of the 2,018 members surveyed, all members of Ashley Madison, emotional unhappiness and wanting someone to care was the main reason to have an affair.
48% said that they got more affection from their affair than their spouse or significant other. (12)
Cheating for Self-satisfaction
At some point, we want more, we want to feel more, be more, have more. People surveyed by Ashley Madison said that affairs made them feel "more alive". They are betraying their partners, but not themselves.
People tend to lose touch with who they are, what their core beliefs and values are and find that an affair gives them a sense of control over their lives.
It is not always about a bad relationship; it can be a self-seeking thing. It is not about the partner; it is about the person who is cheating.
A couple of interesting points:
It was always thought that women who cheated were looking for an emotional connection. The reality is that:
- 43% of women said they wanted the physical aspect. (13)
- 5% were attracted to the person because of their brain. (13) The affair partner was generally more educated than their partner.
- 54% of women had their first affair after they had children. As women fall into the domestic role, they get bored and they lose themselves as they care for their families. (13)
And, it is estimated that about 10% of fathers -to-be cheat on their pregnant partners. This, most of the time, comes down to less sex. (14)
Here's who they cheat with
The Ashley Madison survey asked women and men who they cheat with. While some do cheat with someone in the heat of a drunken moment, it is more likely that they put thought into how they cheat and who they are cheating with. Most of the respondents would cheat with someone they know.
- 27% of men surveyed would go to a friend or co-worker (13)
- 28 % of women, if unhappy, would seek out the comfort of a friend (10)
- 15% of women surveyed would go to a co-worker (13)
- 17% of women would cheat with their boss (13)
- 35% of those surveyed (both sexes) have cheated while away on business. (15)
In another survey, 88% of men said that their lover's looks were irrelevant, suggesting again that there is more to cheating than just sex. (9)
Is cheating bad? Not always. Should we be ashamed for doing it? Definitely not. There are reasons for cheating, and we cannot judge what we can't see behind closed doors.
Affairs are complicated. Most people say they don't agree with cheating, but the volume of people cheating tells a different story. By 2018, over 53 million people from around the world had signed-up to ashleymadison.com. Many of those cheaters connect discreetly using specialized married dating apps. Cheating can be a lot more complicated than some might think.
Cheating normally isn't about the other person. It is about the cheater.