When we picture cheating, we likely picture sexy, stolen moments. Titillating trysts in tucked-away hotel rooms and near-cinematic levels of espionage. The cheater is starved in a sexless, even hostile relationship back home — basically forced to cheat or suffer a miserable life. Think about Diane Lane in Unfaithful or Tony Goldwyn in Scandal. It’s this element that makes their onscreen affairs so damn hot.
But a new survey throws cold water on that pop-culture myth: It suggests that many cheaters continue to sleep with their partners the whole time they’re prowling about. A cheater’s main relationship can look an awful lot like a normal, happy one from the outside, suggesting we are far more in the dark than we thought when it comes to infidelity — why people cheat, what it really looks like and what it really means.
The idea that people cheat because they’re deprived isn’t the only long-standing assumption about affairs that experts have slowly overturned. Here are a few myths about sneaking around that no longer hold water:
Myth 1: People cheat because they’re not getting any
Illicit Encounters, a U.K. dating site for marrieds, recently surveyed 1,000 users and discovered that 64 percent of them continued to sleep with their partners while carrying on a side diddle. This means they aren’t necessarily out their scratching an itch a partner can’t scratch. They’re just scratching a second itch altogether (or third, or fourth, as the case may be).
The reasons they haven’t given up on their main squeeze may vary: Four out of 10 surveyed said the amped-up new sex made them more randy than before, so they sought out more sex with their main partner while still dipping into the second well. Another 33 percent said they kept up the sex ruse so their significant other wouldn’t become suspicious.
Of course, if you’re being cheated on, none of those motives are going to make you feel better: Either they’re fucking you still because it’s perfectly good and they still need some outside action, or they’re fucking you even though it’s not so hot anymore — just so you don’t get wise to the truth.
If there’s anything useful here, it’s this: While many experts advise you to watch for telltale cheating signs like a total lack of sex, the red flag may be the opposite: great sex out of nowhere. The kind so good, and so unusual, it’s almost as if they’re having it with you while thinking of someone else.
If you’re the person cheating with a married or taken person, the news isn’t good for you either. Only 22 percent of cheating people told their partner in crime that they were still fucking their spouse on the regular. Which means you’re sleeping with someone who is likely still sleeping with their first partner, only pretending to you they never get any.
Myth 2: It’s the only time they’ve cheated, they swear
Even though people who get caught cheating always swear they’ve never done anything like this before, and have only been catting around a few weeks, at most — just once, just the tip! — it’s probably not true. Another survey found that at the point you figure out they’re cheating, it’s most likely their third affair. It takes most unsuspecting spouses or partners about four years before they piece together what’s going on.
Myth 3: Your partner is cheating with someone way hotter than you
We like to think a cheater has sought out an exciting, illicit affair with a cream-of-the crop specimen who would put us to shame in the looks department. Turns out that most people fuck someone they think is less good-looking than the partner they’re cheating on. Why? Men said it wasn’t looks that mattered — it was the feeling that the new partners were “more passionate, better listeners and more caring than their significant others.”
Cheaters also don’t always fuck someone younger, busting up the myth that adulterers are just looking for a young trophy. A survey of 4,000 cheaters found that just 30 percent of men said they had a younger lover than their wives or girlfriends.
More than half of women surveyed said their main squeeze was better looking than their lover, too. But about 50 percent said the lover was in better shape. Sorry, guys. But here’s the statistic that matters: Nearly 90 percent of women said the new lover simply made them feel more appreciated.
Myth 4: Cheaters are trawling the internet or bars for a lover
In spite of what affair sites would have you believe, most cheaters fuck someone at work because — surprise — they’re right there, around all the time and an easy target. The convenience outweighs the thrill of the hunt.
Myth 5: Cheating women are rich, glamorous and alluring
When you imagine the type of woman who would be up for a little cheating, you probably picture a high-powered, glamorously bored, jetsetting type of woman who wears expensive fabrics, carries a giant designer purse and owns something called statement jewelry.
Turns out she is a sad lady who is more or less trapped in the movie Pleasantville. The average cheating woman, at least one who uses a site like Ashley Madison, shops primarily at Banana Republic, a store full of grays, blacks and neutrals that overcharge in exchange for the illusion of being professionally tailored. She’s a normal lady — someone who, say, eats her salad at her desk and takes a walk on her corporate lunch break with Tammy — just one who’s banging her kid’s piano teacher.
Myth 6: Cheating men are sexy, exciting, Don Draper–esque players
Myth 7: Women cheat less because they’re happier with monogamy
It shouldn’t surprise you that men have always cheated more than women (20 percent of men say they have; just 13 percent of women). But it might surprise you why women cheat less: It’s not because they are happier in monogamous relationships (they aren’t). It’s not because they don’t fantasize about other men (they do).
It’s because there is far more pressure on women to behave in sexually appropriate ways because of cultural expectations that they are wives and mothers with less of a sex drive. To say nothing of the fact that for most of history, women have relied on men to provide for them.
The more women can provide for themselves, and the more we’ve removed those stigmas to women embracing their own sexual desires, the more they’ve cheated. Just like men. Current studies show that millennial women actually cheat more than their male counterparts. Progress is a bitch, amirite? This is backed up somewhat by another survey on why women cheat that found that women were more likely to cheat if their mothers had as well. It’s not because dear old Mom taught them how to fuck around, it’s because they were less concerned about her disapproval because she’d cheated too.
Whereas in the past a dependent woman would know where her bread was buttered, nowadays a lonely housewife may be most likely to cheat because she is so profoundly deprived of what women now expect to find in relationships: a little excitement, and some dick.
Myth 8: Cheating is more ‘dangerous‘ for women
It is an oft-repeated factoid that women cheat for “emotional” reasons and men cheat for “physical” reasons, but the above research suggests that’s changing and either men and women can cheat for either reason.
What’s more, women cheating for emotional reasons is pegged as more dangerous because that means she’s more likely to fall in love, which means she’s more likely to leave. In other words, it’s more dangerous because it can effectively end the relationship by creating a viable alternative to it. Whereas when men fuck, it’s “supplemental,” like a good daily vitamin.
This only amounts to danger if the primary relationship was actually worth saving. Besides, men are more likely to actually die while cheating. Men are more likely to have a heart attack cheating with another lady in a strange place than whilst fucking the madam at home. They are also more likely to fracture their penis. More dangerous? You decide.
Myth 9: People who cheat are miserable in their relationships
This one is perhaps the most contrary to everything we think we know about cheating: Often, people cheat even when they are in an otherwise happy relationship. Therapist Esther Perel, who counsels couples through infidelity, tells Business Insider that many of her patients come in telling her they love their spouse but are having an affair.
For this reason, she says it’s a mistake to see infidelity as a sign that a relationship is broken or bereft of any nourishment. Sometimes it is, but often, she says, there is nothing wrong with the partner, but something “wrong” with the cheater.
“Many times, people who stray are also hoping to reconnect with lost parts of themselves, with the lives un-lived, with the sense that life is short and there are certain experiences … that they are longing for,” Perel says. “They are looking not just for another person, but in a way they’re looking for another self.”
According to one patient of Perel’s, a woman who had cancer and cheated on her husband, she was looking for “vitality.”
In other words, often someone is cheating not to escape you, but to escape themselves. This might be why some men are more likely to cheat, some research found, before big milestone moments like birthdays.
That sounds like an identity crisis, but the point is that such crises can happen at any age, to anyone and for a number of reasons. It can happen to a woman who just beat cancer or a man who just turned 40.
It may not be that reassuring to hear that an affair wasn’t really about you. But perhaps the knowledge would, at least in theory, make it far easier to address the root causes of infidelity. And for the record, many people do. Infidelity may still be a leading cause of divorce, but some research suggests 75 percent of couples stay together after the affair.
Taken together, much of what leads to cheating is not exciting in the least: It’s often quite boring and sad. Such revelations might lead us to realize that there’s nothing to be envious of in a cheater’s shortcut to vitality. Perhaps pity. Perhaps a second chance. We shouldn’t have to put up with it, of course. But we should be trying to figure out how to keep the vitality alive, so no one has to make a midnight run to Banana Republic in an Audi again.