It’s a big question, and predictably, it doesn’t have a simple answer. People cheat for a variety of reasons, but when the deed’s done, they’re rarely proud of themselves. Cheating’s arguably a form of abuse, and at the very least, it’s a gross violation of trust.
We spoke with two people who betrayed trust in very different ways. Samantha, a 30-year-old woman living in St. Louis, started a relationship with a married man; Lewis, a 31-year-old man from Southwest England, cheated on his girlfriend of seven years. By listening to their stories, we hoped to find out why people engage in these types of relationships—and how they feel when the inevitable fallout occurs.
Lewis says that he never set out to cheat.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Lewis tells Urbo. He repeats the phrase several times, as if he’s trying to convince himself of it—as if he’s trying to provide some sort of silver lining to the dark cloud hanging over his head.
He and his ex met on a night out in their local bar/nightclub hybrid, bonding over their mutual dislike for the terrible dance music the DJ was playing. It was an instantaneous attraction that metamorphosed from a one-night stand into a seven-year relationship, complete with two cats and a cottage which boasted a large, old-fashioned wood burning fireplace that they would hang stockings with their initials over at Christmas. For a long time, their relationship was picture perfect.
“Honestly, there wasn’t anything much wrong with our relationship. Our sex life was actually okay, even in that last year—we still had sex three times a week,” he says. “I loved her very much, I still do. But we had been together since I was 21. The relationship consumed all of my twenties. I’m just not sure it was realistic—at least not for me—to be with that one person forever.”
Perhaps Lewis simply met his soulmate too early in life. A study by Match found that the average age people meet the person they end up marrying is 27—with most women finding “the One” after 25, and men slightly older at 28. Many studies point to getting married after 30 as the key to a successful union. By the time Lewis’ relationship fell apart, he was just at the point where most men are finding their life partner.
In the end, Lewis’ curiosity got the better of him.
Between the two of them, life could get stressful; Lewis has a mentally ill brother, while his girlfriend’s father battled addiction. Occasionally, he wondered what life would be like without the restraints of bills, check-ups on his big brother, and inebriated dads on the doorstep.
When life presented that opportunity, he grabbed it. That first time, Lewis had been out with his friends in a town around 30 minutes away from where he and his girlfriend resided. He had just finished a big job, and they headed out to a pub near the worksite. After spending some time there, he headed over to a club down the road.
He made his way to the dance floor with his friends, setting up camp next to a group of girls.
“Most of my friends are in relationships, but they were all talking to these girls,” he remembers. “It started harmless enough.”
After that first kiss, it was as if a floodgate had opened. He went out more, making out with multiple girls. He kissed one in the middle of a bar in his hometown, less a mile away from where his girlfriend was in bed at home.
“Anyone could have seen me,” he says, eyes wide as if he can hardly believe he did it, even now.
Then, during a holiday in Croatia for his friend’s 30th birthday, he finally went to what he calls “the point of no return.”
“A couple of the lads and I were walking down these little alleyways with these three girls, and before we knew it we were at their front door,” he says. “After we sat down in their flat for a few drinks, one of the girls and I headed to a bedroom.”
“When my friends realized what was going on, they started banging on the door. They all loved my girlfriend and didn’t want me to make a big mistake, but by that point, the damage was already done.”
None of Lewis’s friends mentioned what had happened in Croatia, but the guilt plagued him. He became distant from his girlfriend, and their arguments became more frequent.
Lewis still struggles to understand why he did what he did.
He insists that he wasn’t ready to settle down, but we wondered: What if some people simply aren’t built for monogamy? Polyamory and polygamy involve having consensual relationships with more than one person at one time, while an open relationship typically involves two people consentingly having physical relationships outside of their romantic relationship.
With the latter in particular, the rules vary greatly: Some have a tell-all policy, whilst others believe that what happens outside of the relationship, stays outside of the relationship. According to 2017 statistics on infidelity, 22 percent of men say they’ve cheated on a significant other—so could an open relationship be a far more viable option for someone like Lewis?
He doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think I can be with one person forever,” he says, “but I don’t want to be in a relationship with more than one person at one time.”
But statistically speaking, people like Lewis might find monogamy difficult. A recent study suggests that the adage “Once a cheater, always a cheater” could hold some truth.
The research looked at data collated from a U.S. survey of 1,300 people aged 18 to 35, who answered questions about their romantic relationships at regular intervals over five years. At the start of the study, all the participants were unmarried. During each interval of data collection, participants were asked whether they had ever had physical relationships with someone other than their partner since they started seriously dating.
Over the course of the study, 44 percent answered yes to this question—at least once. Participants were also asked whether their partners had cheated; 30 percent knew at least one of their partners had cheated, while 18 percent suspected they had.
Sure enough, the data indicated that cheating in one relationship predicted cheating in the next relationship—in fact, cheaters were 3.4 times more likely to cheat the next time around. Forty-five percent of those who cheated in their first relationship did so in the next, and of those who didn’t cheat initially, 18 percent cheated with their next partner.
But Lewis isn’t convinced this rule applies to him.
“I haven’t been in another relationship long enough to know,” he said. “I hope not, though.” Before meeting his girlfriend, he hadn’t had a serious girlfriend; his longest prior relationship was a month or two.
Lewis believes that his cheating is more a symptom of poor timing. If he had met his girlfriend later in life, he believes things would be different. He’d have spread his proverbial wings in his early twenties—and would likely be better equipped to deal with each of their familial problems and the stress it would put on their relationship.
“It often felt like we were playing parents to two people who were supposed to be looking after us. It really took the joy out of things sometimes. It was hard.”
He also knows it’s not a valid excuse, and the guilt he feels is still as acute today as it was back then.
“We stayed together for another four months,” he says, “but the strain became too much.”
In the end, it was Lewis who called things off, and they moved out of the house they’d shared for six years. He now lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a different town and has been there ever since the breakup. He isn’t sure if his ex knows about him cheating; he never brought it up.
“But it’s a small town,” he says. “I’d be surprised if she hadn’t.”
Lewis hasn’t been with anyone since his girlfriend.
Like Lewis, Samantha is plagued with guilt.
“I didn’t think of myself as the type of person who’d be the ‘other woman.’ I wouldn’t cheat, either,” she says. “It was a point of pride for me.”
For Lewis, it was “Everything happens for a reason.” With Samantha, it’s “I’m not that type of person.” She repeats this phrase several times throughout our conversation.
When the affair started, she was 26 years old, and her life was on the right track.
She was living in a small St. Louis apartment, she had a decent job, and she regularly hung out with the same small group of friends. On paper, everything in her life was going well. Then, something changed.
“I didn’t expect it or plan it, but yeah, it happened,” she recalls. “The worst thing I’ve ever done, no question.”
After a party, Samantha slept with a friend’s husband. A week later, she did it again. Soon, she was part of an affair; she was “the other woman.”
Before she tells her story, we want to make this clear: Generally speaking, Samantha is not a woman of poor character (and no, she didn’t ask us to say that). The point she wants to get across in telling her story is that romance is complicated, people aren’t always predictable, and—most importantly—cheating sucks for pretty much everyone involved.
“I’ve moved on, but it’s still something I think about from time to time,” she says. “I’m not proud of myself. And everyone seems to know about it—[screw] you for bringing it up, by the way.”
We asked Samantha to tell us about the night the affair started.
She was hanging out with friends—including the married man, who we’ll call Paul—at her own apartment. Paul’s wife, Laura, wasn’t there.
“She was a friend of mine from high school,” Samantha says. “I wouldn’t say a really close friend, but I saw her, like, more than a couple times a month.”
She didn’t know Paul nearly as well.
“I didn’t even invite him, and I certainly wasn’t planning on [anything happening],” she says. “I wasn’t really into him. He was cute, but I was at their wedding, so he wasn’t on my radar.”
The rest of the scene played out like something from a terrible movie. One at a time, Samantha’s friends left. Eventually, she was alone with Paul, and he asked to stay over, and things escalated from there.
“He said he wasn’t okay to drive, and I’ve always had an open-couch policy,” she says. “I really don’t think he was planning on anything. He had his issues, but he, uh, wasn’t capable of thinking that far ahead. That’s the nice way of putting it. …But we kept talking, and we connected, I guess.”
The next day, the reality of the situation started to set in. She had betrayed the trust of one of her friends—and it wouldn’t be the last time. For the next two months, the affair continued.
As for why it started, Samantha doesn’t know.
“I’ve read stories online where women said they were empowered by being the ‘other woman,’ or that it taught them about who they were,” Samantha says. “That wasn’t my experience. After the first night, everything got worse, every single day.”
She still felt drawn to Paul, and while they were together, she felt almost normal.
“He said he was still in love with her, and I believed him—he had no reason to just say that,” she says. “But I thought that I was in love, too.”
Today, she says she was just confused.
“I felt okay when I was with him because it was someone I could share this messed-up experience with,” she says. “That seemed like love to me, I guess. Or maybe it didn’t seem like I was doing something bad if I could say, ‘Well, I’m in love, so it’s okay.’”
That’s a common sentiment among cheaters, and while Samantha isn’t technically a cheater, per se, her impulse is understandable. A 2013 psychological study found that unfaithful people tend to trivialize their actions to minimize feelings of guilt. However, Samantha says that cognitive dissonance didn’t help her much in the long run.
“I knew it was wrong the whole time,” she says. “I’m not a dramatic person, I don’t go looking for big, dramatic blowouts, but I wanted one to happen. I couldn’t sleep, and I had serious stomach issues. I wanted it all to end, even when I didn’t.”
Things came to a head, appropriately, after another long night of partying.
“I wasn’t completely in my right mind, and I called Laura,” Samantha says. “I was honest. I was way too honest. I don’t know what I expected, or if I even expected anything, but she told me she knew, and she said a few things that broke my heart.”
Over the next several weeks, Samantha dealt with the fallout.
That meant hearing from friends. Some didn’t want to hear from Samantha; others gave her honest feedback.
“People blame you. I didn’t hear words like ‘homewrecker’ outside my own head, but I know people were thinking it. It decimated my group of friends, and honestly, that’s what needed to happen.”
Confronted with her actions, Samantha made some changes. She quit her job, moved to her parents’ house for a while, and took time to reflect on her choices. She also lost a few friends—but she notes that Paul didn’t seem to get the same treatment.
“I do feel like Paul got more sympathy from our friends,” she says. “I don’t know if it was because he was a [man], or if it was just that ‘homewrecker’ trope, but people treated him differently.”
At first, she said it didn’t bother her; later in our interview, she admitted that it was a big deal.
“Really, that hurt more than almost anything,” she says. “He barely knew some of our friends. We made the same exact mistake—the same thing, except I didn’t break a f****** vow—and they were able to forgive him, but not me. But maybe there are other reasons, I don’t know. I don’t really blame anyone.”
That’s not to say Paul got off scot-free. After seeking counseling, his wife asked for a divorce. Samantha says she lost touch with him after that.
“Once everything was out in the open, I had no interest in continuing it,” she says. “It was like a spell was broken. I realized that I wasn’t really ready to be in a relationship with anybody, let alone a relationship that complicated.”
We had to ask: Does she want forgiveness from Laura?
“Well, yeah,” she says, “but it’s not coming. And that’s just how it is. Maybe if she wasn’t married … but, no, I can’t start looking for ways to justify it. Even this [interview] is a little too much. I don’t want her finding out about this.”
It’s been five years since the affair, and Samantha’s in a good place. She volunteers for charitable causes, she has new friends, and she’s more comfortable with herself as a person. We ask whether the affair helped with that process in some way—whether, as Lewis insists, “everything happens for a reason.”
“I don’t want to give a mistake that much credit,” she says. “I mean, we’re made from our mistakes, but I can’t say, ‘Oh, that was a great idea since I learned so much,’ or whatever. That would be stupid. It wasn’t a trip to a [psychiatrist], it was a series of bad decisions. No bueno.”
Her story certainly isn’t uncommon.
While it’s hard to find trustworthy statistics about cheating—surveys rely on self-reporting, and many cheaters don’t admit to their affairs—some research indicates that it’s remarkably common.
The Washington Post referenced the work of researcher Shere Hite, who found that 70 percent of married women and 72 percent of married men admitted to cheating on their spouses. Other studies put the number much lower, but even going by conservative statistics, we can safely say that infidelity isn’t unusual.
Of course, cheaters have a variety of reasons for their transgressions. One study asked cheaters to explain their rationale.
Respondents could choose multiple reasons for their transgressions; researchers found that 57 percent of people cheated to boost their self-esteem, while 74 percent wanted more variety in their partners. Seventy-seven percent of people say that they cheated because they felt a “lack of love,” and 70 percent cited neglect from their partner or for situational reasons (for instance, inebriation).
In any case, cheating hurts—even for the people doing the cheating.
“I still feel bad about it, even now,” Lewis says quietly. “[My ex] was so confused about everything, and I couldn’t tell her why I was so distant. It was definitely a defense mechanism—in my f******-up view, if we were on the rocks, then I couldn’t feel as bad about sleeping with someone else. Even though I still did.”
We asked Samantha whether she has any advice for women (or men, for that matter) who find themselves in similar situations.
“I guess just be on your guard,” she says. “What I know now—I thought at the time it was going somewhere or I’d learn something about myself or the guilt would eventually go away. It doesn’t. And if I’d known that it was something I was capable of, I would have been on my guard. I would have made sure that I didn’t do something that stupid.”
Granted, some people have their affairs and go on with their lives without feeling a shred of guilt; others are more like Samantha and Lewis. Every story is different, but they all start with the same type of betrayal.
“The fact that you’re calling it ‘cheating,’ that you used that word, that [implies] a broken trust,” she says. “I don’t think it’s ever really something positive. Even if it feels right at the time.”