I generally like to think of myself as a good person. I hold the door open for strangers, always tip at least 20%, and weep at even slightly sad stories. I like monogamy, have felt gutted when I’ve been cheated on, and when I fall in love, I fall hard. And yet I have been unfaithful to a handful of my partners.
“Research shows that people cheat for a variety of reasons, which often have to do with people not getting their needs met in their relationship,” says Joanne Davila, Ph.D., of Stony Brook University. “Common unmet needs that people report are sexual (they’re unhappy with the quality and/or frequency of their sex life) and emotional (they want more intimacy or closeness). Others simply fall out of love with their partner or in love with someone else. And others may cheat to get revenge on a partner who has hurt them.”
While men used to be more likely to cheat than women, recent data from the General Social Survey shows that women 18-29 are actually more likely to cheat than men. I am one of them, and I suspect this is why.
1. Human desire is complicated.
I truly do think cheating is wrong, but it’s more nuanced than that. I was madly in love with Grace*, one of my college girlfriends. She looked like she just returned from a Mediterranean vacation year round because of her perfect tan, could tie a cherry knot with her tongue, and had a stomach so nice there was a rumor she did crunches before every pregame. She was incredibly smart and outspoken. (She was also very mean, but that’s another essay.) I was, by all definitions, obsessed with her. But still, one night, after I danced with a blonde girl at a concert, we hooked up. Just because I’m in love doesn’t mean I’m not attracted to other people or that I don’t crave new sexual experiences. It’s not that simple.
While this attitude is typically associated with men, it shouldn’t be. “Newer research is very clear that women need sexual variety, novelty, and adventure at least as much as men, probably more,” says sociologist Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.
2. I want the comfort and excitement at the same time.
I love the ease and intimacy of a monogamous relationship, but I also love the excitement of flirting with strangers. I know the obvious answer would be to have an open relationship, but I haven’t sharpened my communication skills enough to handle that yet. “People may cheat because they want the best of both worlds: the security and consistency of a committed relationship and the excitement of intimacy with new partners,” says Cal State sociologist Victor Corona, Ph.D. “We want to have our cake and eat it too.”
3. My communication skills are lacking.
I’m not sure what my obsession with online validation and flirting means for me, but therapists and experts alike say that I really need better communication skills. “People cheat because they lack the communication skills to let their partner in on their true desires,” says certified sex educator Corinne Kai. ”The idea that we need to be monogamous and that monogamy only looks a certain way often leads to cheating, because sometimes, monogamous relationships lack intentional communication. People who cheat need to do the self-work to get in touch with their desires and [figure out how to] communicate [them].”
4. I’m impulsive.
I drunkenly order $400 hair extensions, speak my mind without thinking through what I’m going to say, and am the first to get up and sing karaoke. I carry these same impulses with me into my relationships. If there is an attractive girl showing interest in me, I’m going to try to make out with her. If someone wants to have sex with me, and I’m turned on, well, you get the idea.
5. I’m a victim of my changing emotions.
If someone is interested in me, I feel like I have to act on that interest, because I’m low-key shocked that anyone could feel that way about me. What can I say? I, like so many people on this earth, have confidence issues. It’s not that I’m afraid no one will find me attractive ever again, though. I know they will, and I’ll probably act on it the next time, too. On the other hand, when I’m feeling like a goddess, my sex drive goes through the roof. This also leads to cheating.
6. When I’m unhappy, I don’t get out, I lash out.
I have zero ability to break up with someone. Instead of having an adult conversation about what isn’t working, I’m more likely to drink too much and start an argument and/or make out with a stranger. I once dated a super sweet artist who I was terrified of breaking up with (I hated the idea of letting her down), so I just went on a random date and ghosted her. Please believe me when I say I’ve gotten my karma.
Ultimately, cheating is wrong, but humans are messy, life is messy, and relationships are messy. Thanks to my current girlfriend, I have worked on and drastically improved my weak AF communication skills. I also believe in treating others the way you want to be treated, so I’m making a commitment to stop cheating. Right now, I’m happy with my relationship, but if I start to become unhappy, I’m vowing to speak up, not stray.