Why Do People Cheat? Their Reasons Are Often Counterintuitive
April 27, 2023 by Emily Mendelson
Ashley Madison is an infamous online dating service advertised as a means of facilitating extra-marital affairs. It has been the subject of significant media and scientific attention due to the unique nature of the site and the 2015 data breach and subsequent leak that exposed the personal information of customers.
Most research pertaining to Ashley Madison has focused on the perceived immorality of the site itself and of its users . But what do we know about the actual users of the site? What motivates people to visit? And how do they feel about the behaviors they’re engaging in?
A recent article published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that Ashley Madison users’ experiences with affairs are “counterintuitive and, at times, self-contradictory.” In this study, a group of 260 Ashley Madison users were surveyed regarding how they felt about their primary relationship, as well as their motivations for seeking out an affair . Let’s take a closer look at the findings.
How Many Ashley Madison Users Have Actually Had Affairs?
On average, participants in this study were not using Ashley Madison for first-time affairs. In fact, more than half of the sample (approximately 65%) that was actively looking for affair partners had already had an affair prior to using this online service.
Among those seeking affairs, however, relatively few were successful in actually meeting up with someone, with 8-14% reporting having gone on a date and 20-30% saying they had sex with someone else. Note that the percentage ranges reflects different measurements at two time points in the study.
How Many Ashley Madison Users Are In Open Relationships?
Previous research on Ashley Madison users has found that approximately 17% of them indicated that their affairs were consented to by their primary relationship partner , indicating that affairs such as the ones facilitated on Ashley Madison are not always nonconsensual. In this study, 9-12% of participants reported that they were in open relationships, and 6-11% said that they identified as being in a consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships.
Thus, to at least some degree, websites like Ashley Madison, may bring together a mix of persons in both consensually non-monogamous and non-consensually non-monogamous relationships.
Does Low Sexual and/or Relationship Satisfaction Motivate Affairs?
There are at least 8 main motivations for infidelity, including: anger at a spouse, desire for autonomy, lack of love, low relationship commitment, neglect from relationship partner, sexual dissatisfaction, situational motives, and desire for sexual variety. In line with previous research, sexual dissatisfaction was the most strongly endorsed reason for pursing an affair. Desire for autonomy and low commitment to the relationship were also strong motivators to pursue an affair. This suggests that motivations for pursuing affairs tend to be more self-focused, such as the desire for independence, as opposed to partner-focused, such as anger or lack of love.
These results challenge the idea that infidelity is always a result of lack of love or relationship conflict. In the words of the study’s authors, participants “expressed high amounts of romantic love toward their partners, with moderate amounts of satisfaction and conflict, and many taking significant steps to improve their relationships (e.g., marital counseling). Moreover, participants also felt positively about themselves, scoring well on life satisfaction.”
Here, we see how infidelity is not something that is always pursued due to low relationship quality.
Do People Regret Their Affairs? And What Predicts Whether the Relationship Survives?
Very few individuals who pursued affairs were regretful of doing so. In fact, participants were highly sexually and emotionally satisfied with their affair experiences on average. Interestingly, and in contrast to popular beliefs about infidelity, relationship quality did not decrease as a result of having an affair.
Additionally, having an affair did not decrease the likelihood of a relationship surviving. Rather, this study found that the motives for having an affair were better predictors of whether a relationship dissolved than engaging in an affair itself. For example, individuals who were motivated to have an affair due to sexual dissatisfaction (like the majority of participants in this study) were less likely to stay together with their relationship partner than those whose affairs were motivated by situational factors.
These results challenge common preconceptions about infidelity, which often imply that relationships are “game-over” if someone cheats. Relational boundaries and dealbreakers are often a lot more complicated. Regardless of whether an affair occurs, motivations to purse an affair are more accurate in predicting whether a relationship survives.
These findings paint a complex portrait of Ashley Madison users. For one thing, they tell us that not everyone on the site is engaged in infidelity; rather, some are in a consensually non-monogamous relationship. And for those who are cheating, the results aren’t necessarily what you might expect, with people often engaging in affairs despite being in highly satisfying relationships, and affairs themselves not necessarily predicting the end of a primary relationship.
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 Hackathorn, J., Daniels, J., Ashdown, B. K., & Rife,S. (2017). From fear and guilt: Negative perceptions of Ashley Madison users. Psychology & Sexuality, 8(1–2), 41–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/19419899.2017.1316767
 Selterman, D., Joel, S., & Dale, V. (2023). No remorse: Sexual infidelity is not clearly linked with relationship satisfaction or well-being in Ashley Madison users. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-023-02573-y
 Thompson, A. E., Wilder, D., & Kulibert, D. (2021). Examining variations in participation and outcomes of consensual and nonconsensual extradyadic behavior among Ashley Madison users. The Journal of Sex Research, 58(9), 1194–1204. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2021.1908509
Image Credits: Sandy Millar via Unsplash
Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & 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.Read full bio >