What Causes People To Engage In Adultery?

Updated August 17, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lisa Childers, LCSW

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Adultery is officially defined as "sexual acts between a married person and someone who is not that person's spouse." To commit adultery is an inherently controversial act, and is the most commonly cited ground for divorce. Many people have speculated about the potential underlying roots of adultery and what prompts individuals to cheat on their spouses. However, before the causes of infidelity can be examined, the act of adultery itself must first be probed.

An Overview Of Adultery

In Western culture, adultery is heavily frowned upon and even illegal in 21 out of 50 American states. Punishments include enforcing grounds for divorce, fines, and incarceration. However, despite the ethical breaches and potential legal consequences, the Statistic Brain affirms that a considerable amount of people have engaged in adulterous acts at one point or another.

Adultery-Related Statistics

57% of married men and married 54% of women have admittedly been unfaithful to their partners at one point or another. Similarly, 22% of married men have engaged in extramarital affairs, as have 14% of married women. 17% of men and women have furthermore cheated on their spouses with a brother-in-law or sister-in-law. The average affairs last for two years, and roughly 2.5% of children are the result of an adulterous relationship. Finally, 74% of men and 68% of women admitted they would engage in infidelity if they knew it would never be discovered.

One can commit adultery at any time and within any relationship. Many people believe that unhappily married individuals are the only ones who commit adultery; however, this is not always true. According to Trustify, adultery is more likely to happen after two years of marriage. Opportunities to commit adultery, such as work-related trips, also seemingly increase the likelihood of infidelity.

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Technology And Adultery

The emergence of technology has also enabled individuals to commit adultery in many regards and made it more challenging to uncover those who are guilty of adultery. 10% of adulterous relationships start online, and 40% of these online affairs transcend into real life adultery. Apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram also make it easy for extramarital lovers to communicate with one another via direct and private messaging. Apps that allow individuals to conceal various calls and text messages also makes adultery considerably more manageable than it was in past times.

Many people may be shocked to learn that not only has technology enabled people to commit adultery, but it has also blurred the lines regarding what does and doesn't constitute the act of adultery. For instance, some people view sexting or sending explicit pictures to someone who is not one's spouse as cheating; however, not everyone shares this outlook and many who do so would deny that they have committed adultery with a fairly sound argument, and in some cases it would not qualify as a strong ground for divorce.

Some people claim and believe that so long as no physical contact is made, then one did not commit adultery. Of course, there are also debates about whether people honestly believe this or simply make this claim to justify cheating on their spouses despite privately believing that they are guilty of adultery.

Potential And Probable Causes Of Adultery

Marital Unhappiness

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It is common for a married woman or man to engage in an adulterous relationship simply because they are unhappy in their current marriages. The cheating husband or wife may feel as though their spouse does not listen to them, fails to show care/attention, or simply doesn't love them anymore. The majority of people would argue that the reasons above do not justify infidelity. However, marital unhappiness is one of the most common reasons behind the commission of adultery. Many other causes of adultery stem from a lack of happiness in the unfaithful husband or wife's marriage or married woman or man’s relationship.

Boredom/Need For Something New

Sometimes, adultery is triggered by sheer boredom, reports Our Everyday Life. Without specific steps or changes, certain marriages can begin to feel like routines or schedules. In various cases, the bored married woman or man becomes dissatisfied with their predictable, familiar marriage and begins to seek a thrill elsewhere.

However, an unhappy spouse does not always seek out a lover. Sometimes, the married woman or man meets a new person. The potential chemistry or initial attraction may excite the unsatisfied spouse who then decides to engage in adulterous acts with this other person. Whether or not the extramarital relationship lasts after the original passion and exhilaration last on many factors.

Revenge

Cheating husbands and wives periodically engage in adultery simply to get back at their spouse. Their urges to get revenge can be motivated by perceived wrongs or transgressions committed by their partner. A married woman or man who knows that their spouse had an affair with a coworker may then respond by entering an extramarital relationship of their own. Sometimes, the unfaithful married person views cheating in response to prior cheating as "evening the score" or otherwise getting back at their spouse who hurt them.

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Rarely does cheating for the sake of revenge engender positive outcomes or "even the score" as one may initially be trying to do and would likely only strengthen ground for divorce. As the age old saying goes, two wrongs don't make a right.

Sheer Narcissism

Business Insider cites narcissism as yet another cause of infidelity or adultery. A happy, fulfilling, and even exciting marriage is not enough for a narcissist. If they are narcissistic, then the married woman or man feels compelled to be loved, wanted, and desired by more than just their husband or wife. Therefore, the narcissistic spouse may either seek out extramarital lovers or simply cheat on their partner when the opportunity presents itself.

Narcissists have a tendency to bring out the darker corners of human sexuality, and are infamously regarded as cheaters and unfaithful individuals who appear to stumble upon ground for divorce. These people tend to feel as though societal norms such as monogamy and parenthood are beneath them. Narcissists view themselves as superior to others and believe that rules are for other people, and that they are immune to consequences, such as societal punishment for adultery. The give-and-take dynamic which inherently occurs in marriage is often too much for a narcissistic and can prompt them to feel as though they are losing control over their marriage. This perceived loss can prompt the male or female narcissist to cheat on their spouse; in their twisted mind, they are "regaining" control and power in their marriage.

Lack Of Sexual Satisfaction

Adultery is sometimes motivated by a lack of sexual satisfaction in the cheating person's current marriage. The married woman or man may genuinely love their spouse, yet cheat on them because they believe their extramarital lover can satisfy them in a way that their married woman or man cannot.

Many people have countered the other potential cause of adultery, stating that a man or woman who truly loves their spouse could never cheat on them. However, the validity of this claim remains highly debatable. Nonetheless, sexually unsatisfied husbands and wives have, in fact, cheated on their spouses. Each person is aware of whether they love their spouse.

Falling Out Of Love/Falling In Love With Someone Else

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Although falling for an extramarital lover is seemingly rare, it can and does occur. Sometimes the cheating spouse meets someone else outside of their marriage and feels as though he/she and the other individual have a connection. Sometimes the unfaithful husband or wife views emotional or sexual intimacy as 'love,' especially if these feelings have been lacking in the marriage.

Ultimately, the only person who knows whether he or she loves someone else is themselves. In some cases, husbands or wives have left their current marriages to pursue healthier relationships with their paramours. Sometimes these relationships work out and other times they do not. Nonetheless, falling in love with another person or simply falling out of love with one's spouse can incentivize the commission of adultery, often as a means to give the partner ground for divorce.

Exposure To Other Cheaters

A somewhat surprising study cited by Fox News states that the children of parents who had affairs are more likely to also cheat on their future spouses, even if they witnessed their parents receive some sort of punishment for adultery. Of course, this is not to say that every child with parents who have engaged in affairs will become cheaters. However, one's environment does significantly impact their values, beliefs, and choices later in life. The decision to participate in adultery is ultimately up to every person; however, exposure to adulterers can make one more prone to committing the act themselves.

Adultery and Anger

When one partner engages in adultery, it can cause the other person in the relationship to feel angry. Imagine your spouse engages in a sexual relationship with someone besides you. You may be plagued with the idea that your partner had sexual intercourse with somebody else. It is a horrible thing to envision. You want to believe that your partner only desires you. When you know they had sexual relations with another individual, that makes you question your reality. When you got married, it was an understanding that you and your partner would only engage in sexual intercourse together. If your spouse violates that rule, that is considered adultery. All kinds of thoughts could go through your mind. You could be angry because you feel betrayed. Your ego could be affected. You may wonder why your partner engages in sexual intercourse with somebody else. You could question if you are still attractive. The fact that they had sexual relationships with another person doesn't mean that you aren't attractive. They sought out sexual intercourse with another individual because of their issues; it does not have to do with you. You have a right to be angry about what your partner did. Your anger is valid, but try not to personalize their actions. They committed adultery because of their own issues.

Religious Conflict and Adultery 

Latin adulterium means "contamination." If you think about it, you are tainting a marriage by committing the act of adultery. The Merriam Webster's definition of adultery is "voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than that person's current spouse or partner." There is a lot of mention of adulterous behavior in Judaism and Christianity, If you're a religious person, you know that adultery violates one of the ten commandments. Your significant other has had sexual intercourse with another person. According to Christianity and the new testament, they violated one of the ten commandments. Having sexual relationships with someone besides your spouse is considered adultery. In the ten commandments, it states: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." There are many places in the Bible, where Jesus Christ refers to adultery as a sin. It's a plain statement, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." The commandment is telling the reader to be faithful to their partner. There's no ambiguity here. The Bible values the sanctity of marriage. In fact, there is a passage from the book of Matthew, where Jesus Christ states that even looking at another woman in a lustful way is considered adultery. In Matthew 5:32, Jesus says, "That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving. For the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and. whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." According to Jesus and the bible dictionary, adultery and fornication are linked. That means that having sexual intercourse with someone who isn't your spouse is what defines adulterous behavior. Though the Bible is clear, "Thou shalt not commit adultery," many people still engage in the act regardless of religious views or values. Many individuals have sexual intercourse outside of their marriages, and it damages the relationship irreparably. When you commit adultery, there are so many people who were hurt by these actions. Engaging in sexual intercourse outside of your marriage may seem like an exciting idea at the time, but ultimately it's not worth it. There are consequences to your actions.

The Consequences 

Adultery happens in every society. The majority of cultures find adultery to be morally wrong. In some religions, people are given the death penalty for committing the crime. There is no criminal conversation where there is a question as to if adultery is a crime or not. Adultery is forbidden according to the seventh commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." In addition to Christianity, Muslims prohibit sexual intercourse outside of the marriage. Koran is against adultery. It states that the act is "a shameful deed and evil." In Hinduism, the marriage relationship is honored and sacred. Adultery violates that. Buddhism says that adultery promotes suffering and harms the person who committed it and one's spouse. In the olden days, adulterers were put to death for their transgression in some religions. The crime of adultery was and is still taken seriously. These days committing an adulterous act doesn't get you to put to death, but it will likely end in divorce. People who are unfaithful are often not trusted by their partners after these transgressions. Many religions consider adultery as a ground for divorce.

Adultery and Divorce

If you or your spouse engage in sexual intercourse with another person beside each other, it could lead to divorce. The divorce law that would dictate in your divorce proceedings varies state by state. Adultery is not grounds for divorce in some states but is in others. It's not a criminal conversation, but a civil one. According to a law dictionary, in order for the act to be considered adultery, you need to have sexual intercourse with someone outside of your marriage. Thinking about having sexual relations with someone outside of your marital relationship does not count as adultery. It's important to know that survivors of sexual assault have not committed adultery. For the crime of adultery to be committed, you need to engage in consensual sexual intercourse with another person who isn't your spouse. It's important to note that adultery requires consensual sexual intercourse. Remember, the Merriam Webster definition states that adultery is "voluntary." Many sexual assault survivors blame themselves for their trauma. And they may believe that they cheated on their partners, but that is not true. A person who commits adultery does it consensually and voluntarily. There is no accidental adultery. An individual who commits adultery does it with purpose and wants to cheat on their spouse. They engage in consensual sexual acts with somebody outside of their marriage. It's a deliberate act of sexual infidelity. If you decide to commit adultery, you are engaging in risky behavior. Engaging in the act of sexual relations outside of your marriage could result in disastrous consequences.

Working on Honesty in Your Marriage

A woman and a man in a marriage who want to work things out can do you so in therapy. The husband and wife relationship can be salvaged if both people are willing, to be honest with one another. In the United States, we don't see the death penalty use for adultery. What we see is broken marriages and hurt feelings. Adultery isn't a criminal conversation, it's an emotional one. A woman and a man who have experienced adultery in a marriage can get through it if they are willing to talk about it in an honest way. One of the partners engaged in sexual relations with somebody outside of the marriage, and it hurt their spouse. It's important not to villainize your spouse for committing adultery. Don't have a criminal conversation but rather focus on how to get through this violation of trust. Whether you are religious or not adultery is hurtful. The words "thou shall not commit adultery" have been etched in many people's minds. 

We know that having consensual sexual intercourse with somebody outside of the marriage is morally wrong. But many people engage in this behavior, and sometimes there are no consequences. There are times when one spouse gets away with it, and the other one never knows. If you find out that your partner has had sexual intercourse with somebody else, it can be devastating, but therapy can help.

How Therapy Can Help

Adultery is a betrayal. When you find out that your spouse cheated on you and had sexual relations with somebody else, it is painful, and you may have a lot of feelings. You could be angry, depressed, hurt, or frustrated. These are just a few emotions that may go through your mind. A licensed mental health professional will help you work through these emotions. It's not as simple as "thou shall not commit adultery." Someone engaged in this crime and hurt the other partner. They had sexual intercourse with an individual, not in their marriage, and as a result, the relationship is in danger of ending. A couples counselor can help the two partners understand why the adultery occurred and see if there's any hope to save the marriage. It's important to note that just because someone had sexual intercourse with somebody outside of their marriage doesn't mean they're in love with that person. People cheat on their partners for a variety of reasons. They may have had sexual relations with somebody outside of the marriage because their relationship with their partner lacked intimacy. So they strayed from their marriage and had sexual intercourse with somebody else. Remember that a couple's counselor is there to help you. They have seen marriages in dire states. Your therapist can help you and your partner understand why the sexual relations happened outside of the marriage and what to do next.

A Final Word

While the potential and probable causes of adultery are plentiful, this does not make the act any less harmful or hurtful. Many marriages have greatly suffered or even ended due to one or both spouses lack of fidelity, as it provides ample grounds for divorce. Despite the overall disapproval of unfaithfulness in marriage, many people seemingly engage in adultery for their reasons. As a result of this, some people have suggested that expectations of monogamy are unrealistic. However, others have strongly countered this assertion.

Every one of us will encounter hardships or difficulties in our relationships and marriages. However, what ultimately makes the difference is how we choose to handle them. There are many productive alternatives to adultery, including talking with your spouse, going to couples counseling, or sitting down with a professional for a one-on-one session

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Life is full of challenges and difficulties. Sometimes, the best course of action is to pause, reflect, and think carefully about the next step to take. Making decisions in the heat of the moment is rarely a good idea and often breeds hardship, including social punishment for adultery.

Here at ReGain, we pride ourselves on having the best, licensed professionals to provide high-quality counseling and therapy. Seeking help should always be revered as a sign of strength, not of weakness. Ultimately, the decision is yours, but if you ever feel inclined to reach out to ReGain for any reason whatsoever, you can do so by clicking here.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is considered adultery? 

The legal definition of adultery according to most systems of family law is “consensual sexual relations when one of the participants is legally married to another”. Put less archaically, the adultery definition is when a married man or a married woman has some variation of sexual intercourse with someone who is not their spouse.

This is very important in fault divorce states. A fault divorce state is a state that demands a grounds for divorce - such as one of the individuals being caught in adultery. While most states do not use the fault divorce system, committing an act of adultery will likely give your spouse the upperhand in court, whether or not such a thing is explicitly stated in your state’s family law. 

What is adultery in the Bible? 

The sin of adultery is mentioned in the Bible, but the way that the term adultery was used in the Bible may not harbor the exact same definition that comes to mind when many of us think of the word “adultery.” At face value, the Bible has an unforgivingly broad definition of adultery along with allegories that contain brutal punishment for adultery. Yes, it does coincide with the legal one in that it encompasses sexual relations outside of marriage, but it also includes “evil thoughts”, which can be as simple as the tendency of a man or woman to lust over another prior to marriage. Additionally, if a married woman divorces her husband and marries another man, then per the biblical definition, she has committed adultery. It is also worth noting that it is the only forgivable ground for divorce. En sum, any form of sexual immorality, at least from a Judeo-Christian perspective, is adultery, per the Bible. 

It is worth noting that the Bible, at least rhetorically, appears to appeal to a double standard in the way that it talks about adultery or discusses adultery. In general, it tends to place more responsibility on the married man, but contains more anecdotes on punishment for adultery in which the married woman is the one who committed adultery. Many people have criticized this rhetorical tendency of the Bible and accused it of reinforcing the double standard through which we view human sexuality. 

There are quotes from the Bible related to adultery. For example, proverbs 6:32 reads, “whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he [that] doeth it destroyeth his own soul.” There is also a famous passage in the bible called, “Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.” [John 7:53-8:11.] “Jesus and the woman taken in adultery” is also referenced as “The Passage of the Woman Caught in Adultery.” Other more commonly referenced, simplistic words adultery related to in the Bible are exodus 20:14, which simply reads, “thou shalt not commit adultery.” Here are some other words from the Bible related to adultery: 

“The man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” [Leviticus 20:10] 

“I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” [Matthew 5:28]

What happens when you commit adultery? 

First and foremost, the thing that tends to happen when one has committed adultery is their partner will feel very hurt and betrayed. It is important to know that if you commit adultery, you are not only making things worse for yourself, but for your loved ones as well. 

Secondly, it is important to remember that the spouse having committed adultery is the most commonly cited ground for divorce, both in the instances of fault divorce and otherwise. Whether it is written in your state’s family law or not, you will more than likely have the lower hand in court proceedings if you are guilty of adultery, as those who commit adultery tend to be less popular in the eyes of the jury. 

Thirdly, in many states, adultery is illegal. Punishment for adultery in such states ranges from fines to jail time. Outside of the US, punishment for adultery, particularly of women, is much more common. In some countries, a case of adultery can be punishable by the death penalty. By law adultery is a crime in a variety of locations, but it is only punishable by the death penalty in a handful of countries such as Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Yemen. Those accused of adultery who were raped will have to provide proof of the assault to avoid death penalty in some countries, meaning that those who were assaulted but are unable to prove it may lose their lives to the death penalty. The death penalty isn’t used for adultery in the United States and most other countries; even in areas where by law adultery is a crime. 

To say the least, when you commit adultery, you should expect a souring of your intra-marital relations, and a disadvantage in the court of family law. However, in countries such as the United States and Canada, you will not face the death penalty as some in other areas unfortunately will. Areas criminalizing adultery in the United States include but are not limited to Michigan, Utah, Illinois, Idaho, Florida, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kansas, Mississippi, New York, Wisconsin, Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia. Many states currently criminalizing adultery are considering or hoping to make it so that adultery is no longer a legal crime. Additionally, in some countries, such as India, by law adultery is no longer a crime. In areas where by law adultery isn’t necessarily punishable, adultery is simply a likely ground of divorce or an ugly battle in a relationship. It’s undeniably painful when one’s spouse steps outside of a partnership. Put in simple words adultery and cheating are known to harm relationships. In states such as Utah, however, by common law adultery involves serious consequences. An adultery criminal or someone who engages in adulterous conduct will face a misdemeanor criminal offense in the state of Utah after the case of adultery is proven. Someone convicted of adultery, who faces prosecutions for adultery, or who was proven to have engaged in adultery may face a sentence of up to ninety days in jail. 

Note that adultery voluntary sexual involvement with more than one person when consented on both sides (or an open relationship) and polyamory are all very different things. Adultery voluntary sexual contact with someone outside of the relationship without consent and similar situations are cheating, whereas consensual open relationships or multi-partner relationships with agreed on rules are not. Open relationships are often very healthy, and they rely on communication, as do all other partnerships. In these partnerships, everyone involved must be clued in and happy with the collectively discussed and agreed on circumstances of the relationship. 

Do you have to be married to commit adultery? 

Adultery at dictionary definition is, again, “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than that person's current spouse or partner.” That said, per the legal definition of adultery, which tends to be something along the lines of “marital infidelity”, no. 

Definitions for adultery or definitions of adultery vary. However, colloquially, the term adultery can apply to relations outside of any monogamous relationship- be it a marriage or a more casual one. Of course, sexual intercourse between a married person and an unmarried person would be inherently adulterous on the married persons end. Therefore, while you may not be committing adultery if you are unmarried and have sexual intercourse with a married person, you are participating in an adulterous act. Don't be the person to give someone else’s marriage ground for divorce, or help them become the recipient of some sort of punishment for adultery!

Is adultery a flirt? 

Again - the colloquial definition of adultery is fairly elusive, so whether or not someone who flirted has committed adultery is frankly up to their husband wife or partner. Even so, it could possibly be ground for divorce or ground of divorce for some people. Some couples choose to work through flirting behaviors and even adultery, whereas others decide to cut ties. The specifics of how a relationship unfolds after these behaviors will depend on the unique couple, their views, and their desires.

That being said, in most states, the legal definition of adultery tends to refer to explicitly sexual behavior. Therefore, it is unlikely that you have committed adultery from a family law perspective unless you have participated in some form of sexual activity as a married man or married woman. Overall, places that prohibit adultery have terms that constitute adultery to include any form of sexual contact, activity, or behavior by the adulterous spouse. 

Remember that in states that prohibit adultery or in states prohibiting adultery, the punishments that constitute adultery may vary and you may face serious repercussions if prosecuted for adultery. Additionally, even in areas where by law adultery is not a crime, those accused of adultery may be less favored in certain situations. Being accused of adultery or being an adulterous spouse is not something you want, whether by law adultery is a criminal offense in your area or not. 

What is the difference between fornication and adultery? 

In modern terms, fornication refers to any kind of sexual activity before marriage, whereas to commit adultery is to voluntarily have extra-marital sex.

However, according to the adultery definition that we get from the Bible, many expressions of human sexuality can be described as committing adultery, therefore an individual who is guilty of fornication would ultimately be considered guilty of adultery. Adultery is no longer defined this way by many people and groups. 

Fornication is common enough in modern society that it is certainly considered to be far less morally reprehensible than is the decision to commit adultery. That is reflected by the fact that the modern adultery definition is much more specific, and does not include fornication. However, when children are involved, certain systems of family law may be easier to navigate for married couples. However, there is no punishment for fornication in the United States that compares to existing punishment for adultery in some states.  

Is dating during divorce adultery?

Legally speaking, this depends on the phase in which the divorce is in. If the couple is not legally divorced yet, then it would be per the legal adultery definition. Furthermore, if the divorcee is the one doing the dating, it could strengthen the divorcers' ground for divorce, regardless of the system of family law. In states in which there is a legal punishment for adultery, this may be a sort of gray area.


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