Fears of infidelity affect most marriages at one time or another. And while cheating is as old as commitment itself, modern technology and social media do complicate things, opening the door to “micro indiscretions” that blur the line between emotional and actual betrayal.
But spouses do cheat, and cheating spouses tend to be predictable in the choices they make. When an unfaithful husband or cheating wife decides to cross that line, they don’t step out with just anyone – the vast majority of extramarital affairs happen between people who know each other and are already in the same social orbit.
There’s a lot of research out there looking at how many people have cheated, their reasons for cheating, and what “counts” as cheating; however, surprisingly little work has looked at who people are actually having sex with when they commit infidelity. Is it usually with someone they know, or with a stranger? And does this differ for men and women?
Who Do People Cheat With?
A new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology offers some answers. In this study, researchers analyzed the responses of 13,030 Americans collected between the years 2000 and 2016. In each year of the survey, a question was given to those who were married and reported having engaged in extramarital sex that asked about the other person with whom they’d had sex.
The response options included:
- close personal friend;
- neighbor, coworker, or long-term acquaintance;
- casual date or pick-up;
- person you paid or paid you for sex;
It turned out that most people reported extramarital sex with a close personal friend (53.5%), followed by the category of neighbor/friend/long-term acquaintance (29.4%). It was far less common for people to report cheating with a casual date or hook-up (21%) or to engage in some type of transactional sex (i.e., buying or selling sex; 7.9%). About 8% selected the “other” option. Note that these numbers add up to more than 100% because participants could select more than one choice, given that they didn’t necessarily only cheat with one other person.
Men and Women Infidelity
Men and women did not differ when it came to the percentage of them who reported cheating with someone they knew well; however, they differed in their odds of having sex with a stranger. Specifically, whereas 24.3% of male cheaters had sex with a casual hook-up, the number of female cheaters who had done so was 15.5%. Likewise, whereas 7.2% of male cheaters engaged in transactional sex, just 1.3% of female cheaters did the same.
Put another way, men were more likely to cheat with a casual or paid partner than women, a finding that appears to reflect men’s greater willingness to engage in casual sex in general.
It’s important to highlight that these findings are limited to the context of extramarital sex and, more importantly, the survey didn’t distinguish between infidelity and open marriages, meaning both of these things got lumped together. As a result, some caution is warranted in generalizing these findings.
Why Is It So?
That said, these results tell us that when married people cheat, they seem disproportionately likely to do so with someone they know.
Why is that?
One possibility is that there are simply more opportunities for cheating to emerge with someone you see frequently. However, it could also reflect the fact that when people cheat, they’re often looking for more than just sex. Many people are also looking for intimacy and emotional connection – things that may be easier to obtain when you already have an existing friendship with someone.
People Your Spouse Is Most Likely to Cheat With
Men and women who cheat usually start and conduct their affairs in everyday places: the office, the gym, the neighbor’s house, or online, through either an opportunistic encounter or by rekindling a former flame. What do all of these situations have in common?
They all spark temptation and offer opportunity. There may be few definitive signs that a wife is cheating or a husband is having an affair – but once infidelity comes to light, clear patterns and trends emerge. If most cheating spouses tend to fall into affairs in the same five scenarios, what are they and what can you do?
1. Reaching Out to an Ex
Social media has not just made it easier for old friends to reconnect. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like have made it that much easier for husbands and wives to reach out to ex-significant others.
As much as people may want to believe that they can legitimately be friends with a former lover, more often than not it is a result of poor boundaries with an ex. This can compel people to cheat on their way out of a dying relationship.
Keeping in contact with one’s ex increases the likelihood of cheating with them when things are not working out in their current relationship. The compulsion to stay friends might even be a symptom of being a psychopath or narcissist, one study found, even when there’s not infidelity involved. Ultimately, it might be best for everyone to resist the urge to catch up over a drink.
2. Hooking Up With Someone at the Gym
Exercise is a great way to maintain physical and mental health, but it may also be a great way to find a hot body to make bad decisions with. Not only is going to the gym one of the most popular excuses to meet up with a fling, but nearly three-quarters of Ashley Madison users also admitted to working out to keep someone other than their spouses satisfied.
On top of that, people tend to get turned on by watching each other exercise, which could elevate this risk of discovering a sexual partner. While the temptation to cheat may not be the best excuse to cancel your gym membership and pack on the pounds, it’s a good incentive to stay single-minded during your workout and only your workout.
Better yet, researches show that couples who workout together stay together. So if you’re really worried about your partner – or just want to limit distractions – it might be time to take them up on their invitation to join them at yoga.
3. Cheating With a Neighbor
Many extramarital temptations hide in plain sight, namely across the street or next door. Researches show that married people frequently chat with their neighbors, mostly because infidelity is often motivated by opportunity.
Interestingly, women cheat with neighbors more than men do, because men are more afraid of getting caught doing it so close to home. However, a majority of men reported that they would not be suspicious of their neighbors having sex with their spouses. This might help to explain why some women do it – because they can.
4. Crossing the Line With a Work Colleague
About 36% of men and women have cheated with coworkers, according to the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. Mind you, those are just the ones who admit to it. There’s also evidence that the better people are at their jobs, the more likely they are to cheat.
Many people spend as much time with people from work as they do with their spouses, and when they develop emotional bonds over shared struggles, boundaries can quickly become blurred. It can start with something as seemingly innocent as jokes about having a ‘work husband’ or ‘work wife’.
This allows the coworkers to over-identify with each other’s struggles which, in return, causes them to play the nurturing, supportive role that should be exclusively reserved for their spouse. Temptation can increase depending on marriage stressors, relationship satisfaction and if their careers have them traveling frequently with colleagues. Business trips make it easier and more tempting for individuals to cross those boundaries without raising the suspicion of the partner, who assumes that they’re working.
5. Meeting a Stranger Online
While spouses are more likely to cheat with someone they already know, social media platforms, dating apps, and other websites have also made it much easier to cheat with strangers too. And they make it possible to pursue an affair even when most of us are stuck at home during coronavirus quarantines.
Whether it’s Ashley Madison, Tinder, Craigslist, or Reddit, all anyone needs to start some extramarital trouble is a decent internet connection. And for people with more impulsive personalities the Internet can make cheating more than tempting, even downright addictive. The internet is a rich source of limitless opportunities for stranger sex.