How Common Is Cheating, Really?

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Cheating and infidelity hardly fall into the definition of a healthy monogamous relationship, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen (or that it's not something people worry about). Yesterday, Jesse James, also known as Sandra Bullock's ex-husband, tried to explain why he cheated, saying, "In general, both women and men cheat...It's part of life." Whether this is statistical commentary or an excuse for his actions, it does bring up an interesting question: How common is cheating?
Cheating might feel like it's everywhere, but experts have a hard time pinpointing exactly how many people cheat, because (duh) nobody wants to be honest and own up to the fact that they do it. "The general belief is that if a person is lying to their partner, why wouldn't they also lie to a researcher?" says Anita Chlipala, LMFT, a dating and relationships expert. One expert we spoke to estimated that 25% of men and 14% of women cheat in a lifetime; another said they thought it was between 20-60% of couples in a lifetime. So infidelity could happen to a small sliver or the majority of people — it's hard to say at this point. Not to mention, most studies are done on heterosexual couples, so there's a big subset of the population that's not even being included in those estimates.
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Cheating also encompasses a spectrum of behaviors, and every couple has different definitions for what cheating really entails. (And for the record, open relationships, or sex outside of an otherwise monogamous relationship with the consent of both partners, is not cheating — by definition, cheating involves lying.) Chlipala suspects that the number of people who cheat might actually be growing because of these flimsy definitions. "One of the prime reasons why people cheat is because of opportunity and circumstance," she says. "Now, people have access to dating apps, or they can reconnect with an old flame on Facebook — and some people are surprised that emotional cheating is actually a thing." Many cheating scenarios start innocently and spiral, she adds. One survey found that 76% of women thought it was cheating to send flirty texts, compared to 59% of men.
What we do know is that socioeconomic background matters, and affluent men are more likely to cheat, but the reverse is true for women, says Andrea Bonior, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships. Chlipala says that she thinks cheating can be contagious, and you're more likely to do it if people around you are. In fact, research suggests that divorce could be contagious, so it's not far-fetched to think cheating could work the same way. "We derive social norms from looking around, so it's reasonable that a group of friends who are being unfaithful to spouses would be more likely to consider that," Bonior says. Even though your cheating threshold could change, she adds that "norms are a powerful thing," so you have to be careful about what you consider acceptable behavior.
So, whether or not cheating is actually a "part of life" for everyone, it's pretty clear that the statistics aren't quite there to back up that claim. We might have some insight into factors that affect someone's likelihood to cheat, but it's definitely not true or worth it to say that cheating is the norm — because, as far as we know, it's not.
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