Infidelity is Often About Far More Than Just Sex

December 14, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

It’s not uncommon for people in monogamous relationships to step out on their partners. Studies have reliably found that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 married individuals say they’ve had sex outside of their relationship at some point (sidebar: the way “infidelity” has been defined in some studies is problematic because it sometimes conflates cheating with being in an open relationship, which muddies the statistics. Even so, we know that rates of infidelity are high).

So why do so many people cheat? Intuitively, you might be tempted to think that it’s all about sex. Maybe they’re not having as much sex or the kind of sex they’d like to have with their partner, so they’re pursuing it elsewhere. That’s undoubtedly true in some cases. For example, in a study of people in sexless marriages, about one-quarter of participants admitted to having an affair as a way of coping with their sexual circumstances. However, to say that infidelity is all about sex is a vast oversimplification. People who cheat are often looking for something beyond just a physical interaction with some genital contact.

As sex therapist Esther Perel explains in the video below, “an affair is less about sex, actually, and a lot more about desire. And the desire is about being special, being seen, being desired, and being known—and that brings out the quality of the erotic that is at the center of the affair…It’s less about sexual acts and more about sexual aura.”

Put another way, affairs are often about meeting deeper emotional needs and, in particular, about wanting to feel wanted. This makes sense in light of what I’ve seen in my research on sexual fantasies. As I discuss in my book Tell Me What You Want, across genders and sexual orientations, feeling desired is something that most people fantasize about, and fantasize about often. So if you aren’t getting that need to feel desired met in a relationship, it can be a powerful motivator to look elsewhere.

To learn more about the nature of infidelity, including how people define it, how the meaning has changed over time, and the core elements of an affair, check out the full video that follows, as well as Esther’s latest book, The State of Affairs.

Watch more videos on the science of sex and relationships here.

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Image Source: 123RF/Svitlana Ponurkina

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Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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