8 Reasons Not to Cheat

Why people choose to remain faithful to their partners


Research suggests that between 11% and 69% of North Americans in a long-term relationship have cheated on their spouse.

This is a sizable proportion, and so it should not be surprising that psychologists are interested in discovering why people cheat.

Still, most studies indicate that the vast majority of us do not cheat. Given this, research into the reasons why people remain faithful may be overdue.

Menelaos Apostelou and Rafaella Panayiotou of the University of Nicosia in Cyprus decided to correct this oversight, in their paper published this month in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Apostelou and Panayiotou began by considering the reasons people might cheat, in the hopes that this might shed some light on why some do not. Some people cheat because they want to leave their current partner but do not feel confident to do so until they have found a new partner. Others, perhaps also sensing their relationship is coming to an end, dip their toes into the pool of potential partners to get a better idea of their own attractiveness.

There may also be gendered advantages to cheating. For example, while women are constrained in the number of offspring they can produce by the necessity of a lengthy pregnancy, men can have offspring with as many fertile women as they can woo. Therefore, this may be a motivation for men (or, at least, for our male ancestors, who lived and loved in the days before contraception). Meanwhile, because men are less demanding of physical attractiveness in a short-term rather than a long-term partner, women are better able to compete for sexual access to highly attractive men if they don’t demand those men commit to a relationship. So, women may be motivated to cheat on their less attractive spouses if they can expect a fling with a hottie.

But cheating is risky, and people are probably less likely to stray if there is a good chance they will be caught (they may suffer violence or reputational damage) or if cheating is too costly (it takes too much time, effort, or money).

These costs are also likely to be gendered, with women more likely than men to be assaulted or murdered by a long-term partner who suspects infidelity, and with a greater stigma attached to women who cheat.

Apostelou and Panayiotou interviewed 40 men and women about why a person might choose not to cheat on their partner. After discarding duplicate or similar reasons, the researchers were left with a list of 47 reasons. These reasons were as diverse as “I love my partner” to “I have not met someone attractive enough to do it” and “I fear my partner would do the same”.

To impose some sort of order on this exhaustive list, the psychologists then asked almost 600 new volunteers to review the 47 reasons and rate how likely each would be to deter them from cheating on their own partners.

This method allowed Apostelou and Panayiotou to see which reasons tended to go together. They found that the 47 reasons reliably clustered into eight groups — or overarching reasons — for not cheating.

The most important reason why people choose not to cheat is that they are satisfied with their current relationship. People whose partners treated them well, or who didn’t want to hurt their partner, or who didn’t want to risk destroying their relationship, were most confident that they would not cheat.

The next most important reason was that cheating would induce feelings of guilt. People who didn’t want to lie or live a double-life, or who would feel ashamed or that they had betrayed their partner, were strongly against cheating.

These two reasons were also the only reasons for which Apostelou and Panayiotou found a sex difference: women were more likely than men to report not wanting to cheat because they were satisfied with their relationship and didn’t want to feel guilty.

The third most important reason was a fear of retaliatory infidelity: that cheating might lead to the partner cheating too. The fourth reason was a lack of provocation or a triggering event: these people said they didn’t cheat because their partner hadn’t given them cause, or they hadn’t been tempted… yet.

The fifth strongest reason was a fear of the partner’s reaction should the cheater be caught, and the sixth was a fear of public shame, perhaps because of social or religious norms prohibiting infidelity.

The seventh of the eight reasons for not cheating were a fear of trouble, such as the discomfort of confessing to the partner or to relatives and friends, or even a fear of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. And the final and least important reason was fear of social stigma: what a person worried their wider social group or ‘society’ would think of them.

It is clear that many of the reasons are similar: the four lowest ranked reasons are concerned with the reactions of others and of the cheater’s feelings about the reactions of others. And it is surprising that the effects of gender were not more prevalent. For example, we might expect that women would be more concerned by their partner’s reaction and by the social stigma, but this did not appear to be the case.

Apostelou and Panayiotou also point out that “people may not have an accurate understanding of the reasons which prevent them from cheating,” which, if true, might mean that the original list of 47 reasons was not complete or entirely accurate.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps reassuring to know that your partner is least likely to cheat on you if you’re nice to them. And people say relationships are complicated…

Apostelou, M., & Panayiotou, R. (2019). The reasons that prevent people from cheating on their partners: an evolutionary account of the propensity not to cheat. Personality and Individual Differences, 146, 34–40. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2019.03.041

The content of this post first appeared in the 16 April 2019 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

Evolutionary psychologist. Studies human attraction and mate choice. More at RobertBurriss.com