In the past, there have been more significant differences in the reasons why men cheat and why women cheat, with men cheating more for sexual variety and women cheating more because of relationship dissatisfaction. But nowadays, that gender gap in infidelity is closing: Men and women cheat for many of the same reasons and at similar rates.
“Women cheat for many reasons, just like men do,” AASECT-certified sex therapist and licensed counselor Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., tells mbg.
We asked relationship experts like Nelson about why women cheat today, plus what to do if it’s happening.
Reasons women cheat in relationships:
1. Women cheat for sex.
“Women appreciate good sex just like anyone else,” Nelson says. “Women cheat when they find a man or woman that turns them on.” If anyone tells you men cheat for sex and women cheat for emotion, she adds, they’re wrong. A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that, although men are still more likely to cheat for sexual variety, it’s still among the top three reasons women cheat.
2. They’re unhappy with their current relationship.
The same study found another top reason women cheat is that they’ve fallen out of love with their current primary partner. Even if the love is still there, in general a woman who’s unhappy in her relationship may be more inclined to cheat. Whether because of anger, home, financial problems, family trouble—the list goes on—they may feel cheating will offer them what their current relationship isn’t.
“Women cheat because the relationship at home is cooling off,” Nelson says. “If there is tension or boredom at home, excitement on the side can be a distraction, a temptation too great to avoid.”
3. It was just a mistake.
The third top reason for women cheating, according to the study? It was just situational. Things like being drunk and “not thinking clearly.”
“Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes, affairs happen because of opportunity,” Nelson adds. “Women can act impulsively and then regret it.” In other words, it’s entirely possible there isn’t much deeper meaning aside from an opportunity that they weren’t able to pass up in the moment.
4. They’re craving intimacy.
Whether it’s physical or emotional, intimacy is one of those needs we all want to see met. If a woman isn’t feeling intimately fulfilled in her relationship, and someone comes along who exhibits that type of intimacy, there will be an attraction. Some older research has found women tend to have a stronger emotional connection to the new person they’re cheating with than male cheaters do, suggesting romance is part of the cheating equation for women.
5. The new person made them feel special.
Sometimes people cheat because the new person gave them a new feeling or made them feel like someone else. “Women report that an affair lover makes them feel special, sexy, and adored, and that attention is hard to ignore, no matter what their spouse does at home,” Nelson says.
6. They’re experiencing low self-esteem.
Low self-esteem can create a desire for outside validation, psychologist Margaret Paul, Ph.D., explains. This might be particularly true if the person isn’t receiving validation from their current partner, but Paul notes it’s really the lack of self-love that can push someone to cheat.
“Mainly what I’ve seen,” Paul tells mbg, “is people cheat when they’re not taking responsibility for themselves or taking care of their own feelings—when they don’t develop the ability to speak up for themselves in their current relationship. They’re abandoning themselves in numerous ways and because of that they’re needy for outside attention.”
In this way, she notes, the instance of cheating or an affair may be less about the attention someone gives them and more about the attention they aren’t giving themselves.
7. They’re using it to numb or cope with difficult feelings.
Cheating may also indicate there’s something within themselves or the relationship that they’re not dealing with. Paul compares cheating to turning to alcohol or drugs, in that people might turn to any of these behaviors as a way to run away from their feelings instead of directly addressing them.
8. They want a breakup or a change.
Sometimes people cheat because they want their relationship to end, and cheating seems like an easier way to break it than to directly confront their partner. But Nelson also points out that sometimes people cheat because they want something in their current relationship to change: “Women cheat to get out of a marriage, or to stay in one,” she says.