How Do People Make the Decision To Cheat?

To start with, human sexuality is incredibly complex. Decisions about our sexual behavior are typically not planned in advance. Few people intentionally plan on committing infidelity (at least not the first time it happens).

wedding day When making promises to be faithful, most people are serious and have every intention of keeping their word.

But while people generally have the best intentions when making such promises, human behavior is not always governed by the fact that vows were taken and that promises were made.

When it comes to making decisions about love and betrayal, logic and reason have a difficult time competing with our emotions for control. Sometimes our emotions influence our behavior and lead us down paths we had no intention of traveling.

In fact, three separate emotional systems are involved in cheating—sexual desire, romantic love, and attachment. And often these distinct emotional systems pull people in different directions (see Typology of Cheating – Truth, Lies and Romance Blog).

The movie Unfaithful does a great job of portraying how infidelity occurs. In this movie, Diane Lane’s character plays a happy housewife who nevertheless cheats on her husband because of a chance encounter with an attractive stranger. Her emotions, in particular her sexual desire, gets the best of her, resulting in decisions which even she finds appalling.

In short, most infidelity occurs not because it is planned, but because people find themselves in situations where their emotions overwhelm them.

What types of situations influence our emotions and bring out the worst in our behavior?

  • Being to close or dependent on someone other than one’s spouse.
  • Being around someone who is sexually interested.
  • Spending a lot of time one-on-one with someone else.
  • Not feeling close or connected to one’s spouse (e.g., feeling lonely, being upset or angry with a spouse, etc.).
  • Situations that create the sense of opportunity—the feeling that one will not get caught (e.g., meeting someone in private, out of town trips, etc.).
  • Situations involving alcohol or drugs.

When placed in these types of situations, emotions often prompt people to act in ways which are contrary to what they know is right. Sometimes we make poor decisions. Unfortunately, for many people, it is very difficult to always be in control of one’s emotions when one is placed in these types of situations.

What about "will power" or "self-restraint?"

Research shows that will power or self-restraint alone does little to change or influence our behavior (see article on ego depletion or Baumeister et al).

In fact, some cultures have decided that individual will power and self-restraint cannot be trusted. Some cultures have made the decision that the best way to prevent infidelity is to make sure that the situations listed above do not occur—essentially, the belief is that controlling situations is the best way to control behavior.

In western cultures, however, we place greater value on individual responsibility. We do not collectively try to prevent these types of situations from occurring. Rather, we allow situations to happen, but then we hold individuals accountable for their behavior. Additionally, we expect people to behave appropriately.

Individuals are supposed to exercise their self-restraint and have the will power to control their emotions and their actions.

Unfortunately, for many people this does not work.

Perhaps a somewhat related example will help bring home this point:

When one is dieting, relying on will power or self-restraint generally fails to work. The very same problem occurs—people make promises and vows they cannot keep. More often than not, will power and self-restraint are not enough to control one’s weight. To diet successfully, more drastic measures are often needed. Successful dieting often requires a change in lifestyle, environment, social networks, or sometimes even surgery.

Of course, there are some important differences between dieting and trying to be faithful to one’s spouse. The consequences of cheating are much more severe than the consequences of failing a diet (most people admit to failing a diet, but not to cheating). In any case, people do struggle with these issues and making promises alone typically does not result in a lasting change.

Overall, infidelity, like many other human behaviors, is difficult to control. Being faithful to a spouse is more complicated than simply making promises to do so.

Being faithful to a spouse often requires avoiding situations which bring out the worst in our behavior....