It’s no secret that men are far more likely to cheat on their partners than women are. If you need any proof of this—and you probably don’t—consider that the vast majority of Ashley Madison’s 37 million “active” users were overwhelmingly male. And, more recently, a YouGov poll found that 21 percent of men (compared to 19 percent of women) had actually admitted to Cheat!ng in the past.
But the question remains: why do we do it? Does a “Y” chromosome biologically guarantee that we’re all doomed to life as terrible jerks? Or is infidelity a more nuanced act rife with psychological complexity? After all, “people don’t just wake up one day and say, ‘You know, I feel like Cheat!ng on my spouse today,’” says Meredith Shirey, MS, LMFT, the practice director of New York–based Manhattan Relationship Counseling and Psychotherapy. As with all things love and lust, it’s often complicated.
With that in mind, we reached out to some top relationship experts to gather the biggest reasons why men cheat, and we’ve included some of them here.
1. AN EX WALKED BACK INTO THE PICTURE:It’s the tale of a million tails—the one that got away. “A lot of times when we’re in a rough spot in our current relationship,” says Shirey, “we tend to disqualify the good.” And when an ex shows up, “we remember that spark.” So you’ve got a situation where he’s ignoring the good parts about his current relationship and ignoring the bad parts—the parts that likely led to the breakup in the first place—of his old relationship. That’s a recipe for disaster.
2. HE WANTS OUT:You may think the relationship is all peaches and gravy; he may think otherwise—and not have the guts to confront you about it. “One of the reasons people cheat is because it’s an impetus for change,” says Kristen Mark, PhD, director of the s*xual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky. “Having that impetus is necessary for some people to get out relationships that they find difficult to get out of.” Think of it as the ultimate “it’s not you, it’s me”—something you shouldn’t do.
3. POOR JUDGMENT AND WILLPOWER:“You’re more likely to put yourself in a situation where infidelity could occur if you’re not happy in your relationship,” says Mark. Whether you’re agreeing to tequila shots at a club with your buddies, or even more dangerous, agreeing to one-on-one dinner with Rachel in accounting, people who are committed to and satisfied with their relationship will avoid those scenarios. If he actively and repeatedly decides to engage in risky situations, something’s up. “People know the consequences of infidelity,” says Mark. “It’s not a secret. It does tear couples apart.”
4. HIS NEEDS AREN’T BEING MET:Get your head out of the gutter; we’re not talking s*xual needs. “It’s something that little things lead to over time,” says Shirey. Perhaps Rachel complimented a new haircut, and his wife hasn’t done that in a while. “Things blossom from there.” Maybe it’s been weeks of fighting. Or maybe it’s been too long since he and his partner shared a laugh. Maybe he feels ignored and neglected. Whatever the reason, there’s a deficit in the relationship that reinforced an emotional disconnect. And instead of addressing the problem head on, thoughts drift to, “Rachel does this for me, and my wife does not.”
5. HE’S FEELING DEPRESSED OR ANXIOUS:Everyone experieces depressed feelings and anxiety to a certain degree. The issue is whether or not those thoughts come from the relationship. “If he’s feeling lonely within his relationship, emasculated in some way, or angry with his partner,” says Laurel Steinberg, PhD, New York–based relationship therapist and professor psychology at Columbia University, it could certainly lead a man to cheat. However, “it’s important to note that Cheat!ng [tends to] exacerbate existing anxiety and depression.” Thus, the circle remains unbroken.
6. HE HAS PROBLEMS GETTING IT UP: “We found that men with a higher propensity for what we call ‘s*xual Inhibition due to the Threat of Performance Concerns’”—getting it hard, keeping it hard, that sort of thing—“are more likely to engage in infidelity,” says Mark. It comes down to a need for validation; if he can’t perform with his significant other, is he less of a man? An easy way to counter those feelings of inadequacy is to try to find a physical connection with someone new.
7. s*x WASN’T FREQUENT, OR SO HE SAYS: “A lot of times men will equate it to s*x not happening often enough,” says Shirey. Yes, he’s searching for a physical connection, but he may also be unfulfilled on an emotional level. After all, the dearth of s*x in a relationship is indicative of the death of the proverbial spark.
8. A LEGITIMATE s*x ADDICTION:“In very few instances, there are people who have a legitimate s*x addiction,” says Shirey. s*x triggers dopamine receptors—the pleasure center of the brain. And like anything else that triggers dopamine—see: cocaine, heroin—it can be addictive. For some people, dopamine activates more from s*x than from other things. “A lot of people try to use it as a cop out, though,” says Shirey. Fellas, don’t do that. Remember: “very few instances.”