Cheaters: Who Are They and Why Do They Do It?

Why do people cheat?  There are many reasons that people cheat.  You may hear people say that we as humans have an innate nature to cheat; however, that argument may work for men (in that their desire to procreate to continue our human race) but not so much for women.  So why has cheating become a norm in our current evolutionary marking?  One reason is that our culture has changed dramatically which yields ideas of open sexuality, freedom to do what one pleases, access to the Internet which exposes us to various stimulus and familial relationships that sculpt how we are in our adult relationship(s).  Let’s dive into the various types of cheaters, their underlying motivation and potential childhood experiences that lead cheaters to cheat.  Keep in mind that these are generalizations that yield exceptions.


Serial Cheaters – these cheaters tend to be the ego driven cheaters.  They cheat because they can and because it gives them a sense of worth.  They cheat often and, more times than not, don’t show any remorse for doing so.  It makes them feel alive and wanted and that is their driving force.  When they cheat dopamine (a hormone) is released making them feel good which in turn can cause them to develop and addiction to cheating. 

Let me mention briefly how dopamine works.  Dopamine acts as our reward and pleasure center.  For instance, if someone ate chocolate for the first time and it made them feel elated and overjoyed.  Their brain then releases dopamine which increases their pleasure sensation.  The brain then makes a connection that eating chocolate will lead to a feel good experience.  After a while, every time this person sees chocolate they would want it, maybe even crave it, because of the pairing their brain made about eating it and feeling good…just as it did the first time.  As you can see, dopamine can be very powerful in facilitating addictive behaviors.


Biologically dopamine is released when something feels good; however, that does not account for the attributes a person has that would make them cheat on their partner.  For example, not all people who experience pleasure after sex turn into cheaters.  As for the serial cheaters, one attribute that sets them apart is that they do not possess the empathy needed to understand how their behaviors harm the person that they are in a relationship with.  They may pacify their partner’s upset by buying them gifts or reassuring that it will never happened again, but underlying the smoke screen is the reality that their drive to cheat is stronger than the hurt of their partner. 


This type of cheater may have had some early childhood/teen experiences that lead to their cheating behaviors.  For example, they may have seen their parent(s) engage in cheating behaviors or observed their sibling, to whom they admire, cheating.  Those observations could have lead to the immoral belief that cheating is acceptable.  Maybe they were hurt by their first love and never rebound from the emotional pain they experienced.  That experience could have drove them into an impenetrable defense wall that will shield from a deep emotional connection with their partner. 

This type of cheater could potentially be drawn to fetishes that would eventually lead them to attend play parties to get their needs met.  The drive of this cheater is the fulfillment of getting their desires quenched.    There are many possibilities as to why this type of cheater cheats.  One thing for sure is that their partner cannot change them no matter how hard they try.  It is up to the cheater to seek help and realize that their behaviors are unhealthy and causes pain.  When seeking help, they will uncover their past experiences to unveil the hurt, pain or lack of empathy they are holding on to. 

Situational Cheaters – these cheaters have a proclivity to cheat when the circumstance is right for their interest.  For example, girls/guys day out with friends…alcohol is involved…and bam “it just happened”.   Some people use alcohol as a scapegoat for bad behavior without taking responsibility for their actions/mistakes. 
Another example of this type of cheater is one that has had a stressful day at work and when considering going home (to tend to nagging, argumentative spouse, children or both) the idea of decompressing elsewhere is more desirable.  So they stay at work late and alongside them is the temptation that lurks Monday-Friday…and bam “it just happened”. 

Not all of this type will find an excuse like alcohol, drugs or work to justify their cheating.  Sometimes this type of cheater may be put in a precarious situation that they thought they could handle, just to find out that they couldn’t.  They assumed that they did not have it in them to cheat and as a result they are very remorseful and find it very difficult to disclose the infidelity to their partner.  They tend to be a little more empathetic to their partner’s emotional response. 

This type of cheater may find it difficult to confront issues with people who are close to them.  They may have experienced a person shutting them down or responding unfavorably when they expressed themselves in the past.  Another possibility is that this type of cheater could have had a good upbringing and experienced being shut down in their adult relationship(s).  If they are empathetic and work toward better communication with their partner along with seeking counsel to help mend their broken relationship, this type of cheater may not have the need to cheat in the future.

Preferential Cheaters – these cheaters cheat with a particular type of interest.  They may like a certain hair color, body figure, gender, race, etc.  This cheater may prefer to have a partner that is opposite of his/her preferred type due to life circumstances; however, they may find it difficult not to be drawn to their type outside of their relationship.  In some instances, this type of cheater may try to quench their thirst by asking their partner to change their appearance or role play the type of person they desire. 

If this type of cheater does not get his/her thirst quenched, they are likely to seek replenishment.  They would seek only those that fit their profile such as a person with red hair or of a certain age.  In some instances they date their preferred type and only that type but cannot get enough and seek outside of their relationship for others that fit their preference.

Perhaps during this cheater’s earlier years they experienced sexual arousal by an image or person that exhibits a particular attribute.  In turn they could have become fixated on only that stimulus to sexually arouse them.  They may not have been able to achieve arousal from any other means and developed a pattern of having a “type”.  Most people have a type; however, if someone manipulates their spouse to conform to a particular type or become obsessed with seeking pleasure from a particular type that is where the issue lies.  This type of cheater would need to seek counseling to uncover the underlying patterns of their preference and break down the walls built up to receive pleasure and satisfaction from their partner whether or not they possess the attributes that this type of cheater is drawn to.   

LSE Cheaters – this is the low self-esteem cheater who seeks reassurances from those outside of the relationship in order to fulfill their need of being loved, accepted, wanted, reassured, etc.  This type of cheater finds validation in the ability to attract and be attractive to others. 

This type of cheater feels justified in cheating especially when they become upset with their partner.  They tend to cheat in retaliation to make them feel better about themselves.  They may love their partner but find themselves seeking outside attention to prove that they are special…even if their partner reassures them often.  No amount of praise or outside stimulus is enough for this partner because the problem exists within their own evaluation of themselves and not those of others.
Their upbringing had a lot of disappointments and feelings of not being good enough.  Behaviors from their loved ones could have fueled the fire.  They may have experienced passive aggressive behaviors from their parents and their siblings/peers and they were left with a void that bruised their self-esteem.  Not knowing what caused the passive aggressive behaviors could make them evaluate everything they do and second guess themselves. 

This type of cheater may have not experienced familial emotional discord but perhaps had been bullied as a child/teen.  Their peers evaluation of them meant more to them at the time than the reassurances that their parents gave them about being special.  They were left feeling not as good looking, as smart, as athletic, etc. as their peers.  When they grow up they want to tend to prove just how good they are.  For this cheater, to get the attention and desire from someone other than their partner would prove they are just as good and they will experience a sense of being vindicated. 

This type of cheater would need to seek therapy to uncover their underlying feelings of inadequacy to then help heal their negative views of themselves. 
Sexually compulsive cheaters – These cheaters were formally known as the sex addict.   They are cheaters that are unable to control their sexual thoughts, desires, behaviors and actions despite negative outcomes such as marked stress and impairment in their social, financial, work and other areas of their lives.  Some clinicians argue that someone claiming to have a sexual compulsion is making excuses for their indiscretions.  Others argue that someone who has a sexual compulsion mimic symptoms of those who suffer from alcohol and drug additions; all seeking outside means to boost their mood and/or achieve a high. 

Due to the disagreement of someone being classified as having a sexual compulsion as opposed to someone who is selfishly impulsive, there is not a label to classify the sexually compulsive individual in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM 5 – a tool used by clinicians to classify a person that possesses a mental health diagnosis).  Some people still label the act of a sexual compulsion as someone who suffers as a sex addict (reminder that this individual suffers in other areas of their lives and feel marked stress as a result from their behaviors) but do not get it confused with those who are merely sowing their royal oats! 
As for this type of cheater, they may have the most beautiful or handsome spouse but yet still cheat.  For example, you may recall the uproar that occurred years ago when the media broke the story about Halle Barry being cheated on by, now ex-husband, Eric Benet.  Now how does that make sense?  She is beautiful,  has her own career, she appears to be independent and so on…excluding what happens behind closed doors of course.  If you recall correctly, Eric’s defense was that he had a sexual addiction.  Whether he had an underlying compulsion or not shows that the go to for justifying cheating behaviors is to claim to be a sex addict. 

For those individuals who choose to classify themselves as a sex addict to avoid the consequences of their behaviors undermine those individuals who actually struggle with a having a sexual compulsion.   But for those who do suffer from this, they have a struggle indeed because in essence, they are unable to control themselves and tend to put themselves in very compromising positions and are fueled by the high and/or other pleasure sex gives them. 

This type of cheater may have experienced sexuality way before their brains were ready to understand and grasp the concept of sex and sexuality.  They may have been exposed to pornography, people having sex, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, or viewed mature movies/television shows that had a high sexual content.   Others in this category may have had a healthy childhood but may have been exposed to excessive sexual behaviors later in their teen and early adult lives.  For them, they may have picked up the habit of excessively watching pornography resulting in them being engulfed in the fantasy which in turn peaks their interest to want to recreate what they see. 

This type of cheater may find it hard to be satisfied sexually.  They may very well love their partner but have the belief that their partner does not fulfill their insatiable sexual desire.  This cheater may have the delusion that their sexual seeking behaviors are not cheating but merely an itch they need to scratch.  They seek after the high no matter how they get it.  This type of cheater may branch off into other forms of sexual stimulation such as paraphiliasm, exhibitionism, nymphomanism, eroticism and in some cases pedophilism (opportunistic subtype). 

Codependent Cheater – These cheaters are so dependent on their partner that they find it difficult to leave the relationship when they are not happy.  Instead of leaving the relationship they cheat as a symbolic form of them disengaging from their partner.  They tend not to leave the relationship simply because they are comfortable in the role they play.  Whether they are the caregiver, receiver, taker or dependent, they fear who they are outside of the relationship. 

Although they show signs of being comfortable, they may display how unhappy they are by disengaging emotionally or physically.  They don’t want to be the bad guy and dissolved the relationship so they act out in hopes that their partner will make the decision for the both of them.  When their partner continues as usual, this type of cheater does not understand why their partner ‘just doesn’t get the hint’. 

This type of cheater may have come from an early household where they were parentified, observed one or both parents struggling with an addiction and/or observed or experienced ongoing domestic violence.  They tend to have a lower self esteem.  They could need counseling to break the chains of their codependency to individuality.  They would also seek treatment to learn to have a voice and not respond passively to their partner when they are unhappy.

Experimental Cheater – this type of cheater seeks to understand their sexuality by experimenting with someone of the opposite sex.  They are confused about their desires and may experience a bit of shame.  They may have thought about homosexuality or bisexuality as a sin or with negative connotation.  As their desires increase with their thoughts or arousal toward the same sex, they began to get curious and struggle with how they view themselves and their ideas about homo/bisexuality with their sexuality. 

This cheater may first experiment with watching homosexual/bisexual media (pictures/movies/intrigued with homo/bisexual couples/concepts).  Then they may build up the courage to approach someone of the opposite sex.  Some may even act on the curiosity/urge and engage in sexual acts with someone of the same sex.  This cheater may condone their cheating as an act that didn’t matter because it was with someone of the same sex.  Other types of this kind of cheater may engage in sex with the same sex but do not have a desire to be in a relationship with the same sex person and use that as a way to fulfill their urge/curiosity “with no strings attached”!  Others may internalized their sexual feelings and go into a depression phase because of their thoughts about homo/bisexuality (ex. some religious people, extremist or cultural pressures). 

This type of cheater may have suppressed their urges and desires from their early years because it would have been too scary for them to act out on them.  Some may have had a family that had strong adverse reactions to gay/bisexual lifestyles, the cheater’s own belief systems about that lifestyle, fear that they would be an outcast due to the culture that they live in which condemns that lifestyle and/or their own feelings of shame. 

TheoryTesting Cheater – this type of cheater seeks to uncover if problems in his sex life with his partner is due to them or their partner.  They have an affair to see if they can get it up or merely develop a desire to want to engage in sex.  This cheater internalized their lack of sex life and believes they are broken, undesirable and lack the means to having a fulfilling sex life with their partner.  Sometimes these cheaters blame themselves and other times they blame their partner.

For those cheaters that blame their partner they believe that if they seek sex with someone else, they are helping their partner.  They believe that seeking other techniques or ways of engaging in sex can enhance the sex life with their partner.  They then can share what they learned and apply it with their partner.  So in theory they believe that they are stepping out of their relationship to have an affair to help their relationship.

For this type of cheater that believes it is their fault, they seek outside of the relationship to feel desired and wanted by someone else.  That validation builds up their depleted sense of self giving them false confidence. 

It is important to know and understand what type of cheater your spouse is in order to decide if you want to continue in the relationship or not.  Recovery looks different depending on how your partner cheated and the reasoning behind it.  You would have to decide on how realistic it would be for you to heal and for your partner to cease their acting out behaviors. 
Questions you may ask yourself are:

  • How willing am I to stay in this relationship?
  • Is this relationship worth saving?
  • Am I realistic as to what type of cheater my spouse/partner is and am I okay with it?
  • Healing will time, is my partner willing to help heal our relationship or does he blame me for the affair?
  • Does my partner give me confidence that they will stop cheating?
  • Is my partner willing to make sacrifices for our relationship (letting his mistress/mister go)?
  • Had he/she cheated more than one time?
  • Am I willing to seek help?

If you are ready and willing to seek help to process the affair, call The Center for Growth / Therapy in Philadelphia and one of our qualified therapists can help you.