Relationship cheaters get a bad rap, but new research suggests that married people who have affairs often feel great about their infidelity and are rarely racked with guilt. Even more surprisingly, the study authors found that cheating is not generally motivated by a lack of love for one’s spouse or unhappiness in one’s marriage, and that playing the field doesn’t always lead to relationship problems.
The researchers surveyed around 2,000 registered users of Ashley Madison, a website that hooks up married people who want an affair. After analyzing participants’ responses regarding the state of their marriage, their motivation for cheating, and their overall life satisfaction, the authors detected some surprising trends.
“People have a diversity of motivations to cheat,” explained study author Dylan Selterman in a statement. “Sometimes they’ll cheat even if their relationships are pretty good. We don’t see solid evidence here that people’s affairs are associated with lower relationship quality or lower life satisfaction.”
Curiously, cheaters reported high levels of love for their spouse and rarely cited issues like anger or a lack of commitment towards their significant other as their main reason for playing away from home. However, around half of participants said they were not sexually active with their partner and identified a lack of sexual satisfaction as the driving force behind their infidelity.
A desire for independence and greater sexual diversity also stood out as motivating factors, and most respondents reported high levels of satisfaction in their extramarital affairs.
“In popular media, television shows and movies and books, people who have affairs have this intense moral guilt and we don’t see that in this sample of participants,” said Selterman. “Ratings for satisfaction with affairs was high – sexual satisfaction and emotional satisfaction. And feelings of regret were low. These findings paint a more complicated picture of infidelity compared to what we thought we knew.”
Results also indicated that engaging in extracurricular activities was not linked to a decrease in relationship quality with one’s spouse. However, the authors point out that the vast majority of respondents were middle-aged men, and it’s unclear if this contentedness is shared by women or non-binary people who have affairs.
The study also failed to include any of the participants’ partners, so it’s not possible to say whether those who are cheated on agree with the comments of their unfaithful spouses.
Nonetheless, Selterman says that “the take-home point for me is that maintaining monogamy or sexual exclusivity especially across people’s lifespans is really, really hard.”
“People just assume that their partners are going to be totally satisfied having sex with one person for the next 50 years of their lives but a lot of people fail at it.”
The study is published in Archives of Sexual Behavior.