How Many People Cheat? Statistics And Figures For Infidelity In The U.S.
Updated March 12, 2020
Reviewer Michele Turner
Cheating is a hot-button topic. Although almost everyone knows someone who has cheated or has been cheated on, it remains somewhat a taboo topic of conversation that is still relegated to whispers behind closed doors, or gossip reserved for time out with friends. Despite the enduring taboos and discomfort surrounding infidelity, it is actually a fairly commonplace practice, and is not quite as distant as many people seem to think. Far from a significant determiner of delinquency, cruelty, or severe emotional problems, infidelity occurs in even the most dedicated relationship, and does not require a lot of provocation to occur.
What Is Cheating?
There are many different definitions of cheating, but the most consistently agreed-upon description of cheating is this: engaging in a physical or emotional affair without the express consent of the person with whom you are currently involved. Infidelity can be wholly emotional, wherein you experience love and commitment toward someone who is not your partner, or it can be a single instance of sexual involvement, where neither of the involved parties ever meet again. Cheating runs the gamut, in terms of how it plays out and what causes it.
For the purposes of most studies, though, cheating is defined as engaging in extramarital relationships, whether those are emotional or physical relationships, or a combination of the two. Perhaps due to the increased number of divergent traits in non-married committed relationships, most statisticians focus on affairs as they relate to married couples, rather than couples of any other type or commitment level.
Cheating Facts and Figures
The facts and figures regarding cheating continually shift and evolve, as different definitions of cheating emerge, and different physical and emotional relationships become socially normal and acceptable. Even within a malleable frame, however, there are some trends that can be seen within infidelity, including the backgrounds of people who cheat, the motivations behind cheating, and even the duration of different types of affairs.
Virtually everyone is susceptible to cheating. Although cheating was once considered primarily as a male activity, the incidence of women cheating has continued to climb. Men might still cheat more, but the rate of women cheating has experienced a definite climb in recent years. Even so, the rates of cheating differ according to a few different factors. These include:
Trend data suggests, cheating peaks at age 80 and over for men, while the highest rate of cheating in women usually peaks between the ages of 50 and 59. Despite cheating often being portrayed as a young man's game, men's rates of cheating are actually at their lowest in their youth and in their twenties. The statistics gathered in this study focused on couples who were married, rather than couples who were enmeshed in committed or long-term relationships, which could also play a role in how the numbers panned out.
Sex plays a role in cheating, as well: despite a closing gap in many age groups, men are almost always far more likely to cheat-the one exception being the age group of 18-29, wherein women were 1% more likely to cheat than men. The percentile difference between men and women being more likely to cheat went up and down as age went up and down, but men's dalliances were, as a whole, more statistically significant than women.
The level of education a person possesses also bears statistical significance with regard to cheating. People who possess some college education were more likely to cheat than those with college degrees, and those whose formal education pursuits ended with high school. The exact reason for the incidence of cheating according to education level is not known.
4) Religious Preferences
Individuals who attended some sort of religious meeting once per year or less reported higher levels of cheating than those who attended a religious meeting a few times per year-and these individuals reported higher incidences of infidelity than those who attended religious meetings every week.
How Common is Cheating?
Cheating is not very common at all; at or fewer than 25% of men admit to having cheated on their spouse, while at or fewer than 15% of women admit to having cheated on their spouse. Although these numbers might be higher than is comfortable for people who believe that cheating is always wrong, there is some comfort in knowing that not everyone cheats, no matter how common it may seem, and that there seems to be firm belief in the importance of trust and commitment.
Interestingly, the same study that provided these statistics denoted that the vast majority of people surveyed suggested that cheating was never an acceptable decision. 81% of participants indicated that they believed cheating to be wrong in every single case, compared to only 73% of respondents 40 years prior. Even among cheaters, infidelity was considered unacceptable by the majority: 64% of individuals who acknowledged their own infidelity also believed that cheating was always wrong, no matter the circumstances involved.
The Most Common Reasons for Cheating
There are some common threads when men and women cheat on their spouses. These reasons are not always present, but do possess statistical significance with regard to infidelity, and the likelihood of having an extramarital relationship. These include:
1) Emotional Neglect
Emotional neglect is the most common reason for cheating among women. Women are more likely to engage in infidelity if they feel that their partner is not providing for them emotionally, and may seek out emotional validation and support from someone outside of their marriage. This search can result in an emotional affair, but can also lead to sexual infidelity.
2) Sexual Dissatisfaction
Men are more likely to cite sexual dissatisfaction as the primary reason for having an affair-with an especially significant peak after their partner gives birth. While men did not necessarily suggest that their deviance was warranted, having a dissatisfying or absent sex life is the most common reason men give for having an affair.
Boredom with an existing relationship can also lend itself to infidelity. Couples in long-term relationships are more likely to have an affair than couples who have been together for a shorter period of time, suggesting that the familiarity of a long-term partner can be seen as a detriment, rather than a boon.
4) Low Self-Esteem
Low self-esteem is linked to cheating, because many men and women derive their confidence from how attractive they are to the people they are sexually interested in. If you have chronically low self-esteem, an affair can (briefly) reassure you that you are wanted and desirable, and can, for a while, help you feel as though you are worth time and attention again. Unfortunately, this type of ego boost usually does not last, as it is not built on anything permanent or consistent, which can create a cycle of low esteem, cheating, an esteem spike, and an esteem crash.
When Is Cheating Considered Acceptable?
This, too, depends on gender. Males were more likely to justify cheating if sexual needs were not being met within an existing relationship, while women were more likely to justify cheating if emotional neglect was involved. Cheating was considered more acceptable to men in heterosexual relationships if their partner cheated with a woman, while cheating with a man created feelings of jealousy and anger. Conversely, women were more likely to feel angry if their partner cheated with someone of the opposite sex, but far more likely to actually terminate the relationship if their partner cheated with someone of the same sex.
As a whole, cheating is still not considered an acceptable practice, even in progressive or liberal circles; between 81% and 86% of study participants are recorded as saying that there is no instance in which cheating is acceptable or justified, including more than half of all individuals who acknowledged engaging in infidelity, themselves.
Cheating Facts and Figures
The sheer number of facts and figures relating to infidelity reveal just how widespread cheating truly is, and how diverse and varied people's attitudes, opinions, and beliefs about cheating are. Although most people uniformly believe that cheating is unacceptable, there remain numerous people who have stepped out on their partners, and felt justified or reasonable in the moment(s). Cheating, then, is not quite as cut-and-dried as many people seem to think, and the circumstances surrounding infidelity can play a significant role not only in how often infidelity occurs, but also in how acceptable it is deemed, how the person who has cheated is received, and how forgiving the relationship is after an infidelity has occurred.
Cheating can signal issues within a relationship, as well as issues within an individual. Couples and individuals alike can seek relationship counseling to determine what path is best to work toward healing, whether that means healing a broken relationship, improving communication patterns, or learning to let go of a fear of intimacy and connection. The therapists working through ReGain.Us are qualified to offer therapy to singles and couples alike, and may be able to assist you or your partner.
Infidelity is painful, no matter how you view it, or no matter where you stand in a relationship. The instigator of infidelity, their spouse, and the person with whom they are cheating are all involved in a web of pain, confusion, and frustration-feelings that are not easily allayed, even in the wake of adrenaline often caused by sneaking around and engaging in risky behavior.