How often have you heard someone say “I wasn’t thinking!” or “it was a one-time thing!” after cheating on a partner? Maybe you witnessed it IRL, in a movie, or maybe the words came out of your own mouth. As cliché as those phrases might be, after the fact, people who say them often mean it—because, according to experts, our motivations to cheat are often subconscious, or outside our control.
I’m not saying we don’t have free will when it comes to being monogamous. Stepping out on your boyfriend because he’s gotten lazy and gained a bunch of weight since you got together, has started boozing a little too hard for your taste, or even because he cheated on you first, is not an excuse. What is real, though, is the fact that your sexual attraction for him is waning, so you’re tempted to look elsewhere; or that you didn’t deal with the anger sparked by his cheating, so you’re looking to lash out and hurt him back.
“About 45 percent of women cheat on their partners, versus 60 percent of men,” says psychologist and couples therapist Dr. Lonnie Barbach, head of content for the relationship app Happy Couple. “The first thing to do is to see if the idea or act of cheating is sending a signal that you’re not happy in your relationship, and find a way to address the emotional or sexual problems. Realize you’re likely to be caught—and then what?”
Whether you fall into the “I cheated once and never plan to do it again” camp, are a serial cheater, or simply find yourself fantasizing about acting on a cheating impulse, it’s a smart move to look at what could be at the root of your cheating behavior.
Below are six of the most common reasons why women cheat on their partners, according to experts.
You Recently Experienced a Life-Changing Event
One-off cheating often happens on the heels of major life transitions such as a death, illness, or becoming a parent, says certified sex and relationship therapist Marissa Nelson, LMFT. “I’ve seen many clients act out and reach outside of their relationship for validation, acceptance, or to avoid stronger feelings that have been triggered during these times,” she says. “Sometimes people want to feel comforted and know that someone pays attention to them and desires them.” Sounds like the role a partner should play, right? But when our emotions go haywire after a major change, sometimes it’s easier to distract ourselves with something (or someone) new and shiny, rather than go to our partners, who would likely want to talk about what’s really going on.
You Were Cheated On
Unfortunately, the old “eye for an eye” adage is still very common when it comes to being unfaithful, says Nelson. “While many women in my practice feel a tremendous amount of guilt, shame, and remorse for cheating, I have also seen women be very casual, unattached, or cold about cheating,” she says. Never more so does this apply than when the partner in question has already been cheated on. “Often women feel that their affair is payback or retribution—or, at the very least, justified—after a partner’s infidelity.”
Your Sex Life Is Meh
While women aren’t quite as motivated by sex as men are (that 60–45 difference is no coincidence), it’s still a factor—and, sometimes, the sole reason why women cheat. “Men affirm themselves sexually by conquests while women self-affirm by being pursued,” says Barbach. Being pursued for, or having, sex with someone who isn’t your S.O. fills an emotional hole if you’re battling insecurities or a fear of being abandoned by your current partner. That’s even likelier to be the case if your sex life has dwindled, or the sex has become less satisfying. “Women may wonder, Can I have an orgasm with someone else?” says Barbach.
Your Partner Is Super-Busy or Struggling
While we all want to be caring and supportive when our S.O.s are under duress, sometimes if they’re dealing with a lot of shit in their own life, it can translate to our feeling neglected—and looking for attention and connection elsewhere. “When you don’t feel understood or attended to, that can be a risk factor for cheating,” says Barbach. “If your partner is a workaholic, preoccupied with his own hobbies or responsibilities, or even battling depression, that can lead to an emotionally dry relationship.” And when it’s dry at home, you’re naturally going to look for an emotional and sexual oasis elsewhere—which is why it’s key to talk to your partner before things get so out of hand that you feel compelled to cheat in order to meet your basic needs.
It’s in Your DNA
While you may not be as deeply biologically programmed to “spread the seed” as men are, monogamy still isn’t the most natural sexual state for humans, says Barbach. “Only 5 to 10 percent of mammals are monogamous,” says Barbach. “We’re not really biologically meant to be monogamous. Our genes only care about replicating for the survival of the species and evolution.” So if you find yourself eyeing that hot guy at the bar next time you’re tipsy on girls’ night, or even fantasizing about your cute coworker at inappropriate moments, know that it’s actually natural; there’s nothing wrong with you. But what does separate humans from other mammals is higher intelligence and free will—so rein in those impulses if your relationship is important to you.
You Want to Save Your Relationship
It might sound counterintuitive, but some people step out on their S.O.s in the hope that getting certain needs met elsewhere will allow them to exist more happily in their current relationship. “Sometimes people want to keep the good part and get satisfied sexually or emotionally by someone else, and then come home to their partner,” says Barbach. In that case, you could be a candidate for an open relationship—or, you need to ask yourself the tough questions about whether your relationship is right for you. Even though monogamy is tough, it’s not impossible, so if you find it that difficult to commit to exclusivitiy, it could be that you’re simply with the wrong partner.