Why People Cheat: Ashley Madison Study Challenges Long-Held Beliefs About Infidelity

New research reveals many people who cheat still deeply love their partner or spouse, yet show little regret about their behavior

BALTIMORE — In an era where societal norms are constantly being redefined and examined, a recently published study on infidelity throws a spotlight on the complex psychological nature of extra-relational affairs. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Western Ontario delved into the minds of users of Ashley Madison, a notorious dating platform specifically designed for those seeking affairs. The results reveal insights that challenge long-standing assumptions about why people cheat, opening a Pandora’s Box of fresh questions about human behavior within intimate relationships.

This groundbreaking study, one of the most comprehensive investigations of its kind, unearths a number of paradoxical findings. Perhaps the most striking is that many of those engaged in extramarital or extrarelational affairs reported harboring strong feelings of love towards their primary partners. This seemingly contradictory behavior uncovers a puzzling intersection of emotional attachment and infidelity, suggesting that the reasons behind unfaithful behavior are far more nuanced than previously understood.

The research reveals that individuals can grapple with moral consistency, endorsing values that ostensibly prohibit infidelity, while simultaneously engaging in affairs.

“In popular media, television shows and movies and books, people who have affairs have this intense moral guilt and we don’t see that in this sample of participants,” explains lead author Dylan Selterman, an associate teaching professor in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, in a statement. “Ratings for satisfaction with affairs was high – sexual satisfaction and emotional satisfaction. And feelings of regret were low. These findings paint a more complicated picture of infidelity compared to what we thought we knew.”

The demographic scope of the study was primarily middle-aged, predominantly male users of Ashley Madison. While this skewed sample does limit the ability to generalize the findings across different genders and age groups, it nonetheless provides unique insights into a demographic that has been less frequently studied in the context of infidelity.

How Ashley Madison users were polled

The research involved the analysis of responses from a large cohort of active Ashley Madison users. Participants were broken down by three groups: Sample A, Sample B, and Sample C. The groups were given either one of two different questionnaires given at separate periods of time, or they were asked to complete both.

Sample A (810 respondents, 684 men and 118 women, average age 51.48 years) completed the first questionnaire. Sample B (868 respondents, 780 men and 72 women, average age 52.77 years) completed the later survey. Sample C (234 respondents, 204 men and 29 women, average age 53.66 years) was the longitudinal sample, consisting of participants who completed both questionnaires, and could be matched across both timepoints.

The surveys asked questions about the participant’s relationship status, quality, satisfaction, intimacy, and conflict; as well as about their own self-esteem, life satisfaction, sociosexuality, and motivations for having affairs.

For the second survey, additional questions were asked to those who had had an affair about how satisfying it was emotionally and sexually, whether they regretted the affair, and what sexual behaviors they engaged in with their affair partners. Participants who reported not having an affair by the time the second questionnaire was given were also asked to provide reasons for this outcome.

Through careful data analysis, researchers were able to paint a vivid picture of the motivations and sentiments experienced by those engaging in infidelity. Despite maintaining significant emotional bonds with their partners, these individuals indulged in these affairs, and derived considerable physical and emotional satisfaction from them.

Not only did they experience pleasure from being unfaithful, but they also expressed minimal remorse or regret over their actions.

Man caught cheating on his partner after she found evidence on his smartphone.
The study found that men who cheat typically still have strong feelings of love for their spouse. (Photo by Kmpzzz on Shutterstock)

These results pose a significant challenge to conventional wisdom surrounding infidelity. In the past, scholars and the public alike often attributed infidelity to dissatisfaction within the primary relationship. It was widely assumed that those who chose to have affairs were either unhappy with their partners, struggling with conflict in their relationships, or seeking something that their current relationships did not provide. This study, however, suggests a far more complex reality.

‘Diversity of motivations to cheat’

Interestingly, despite their cheating ways, participants still displayed a high degree of love for their partners, made substantial efforts to improve their relationships, and even reported high personal life satisfaction. These are typically factors that would encourage fidelity, yet they coexisted alongside the participants’ infidelity. Notably, sexual dissatisfaction was identified as a prominent motivation for pursuing affairs. This observation underscores the idea that satisfaction in a relationship and desire for extramarital experiences are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

“People have a diversity of motivations to cheat,” notes Selterman. “Sometimes they’ll cheat even if their relationships are pretty good. We don’t see solid evidence here that people’s affairs are associated with lower relationship quality or lower life satisfaction.”

The study also delved into the realm of consensual non-monogamy, with some participants indicating they were in relationships where cheating was allowed. This group adds another dimension to the discourse on infidelity, shedding light on the spectrum of relationship agreements that can coexist with infidelity.

No regrets

An important finding of this study was that the quality of the primary relationship did not predict feelings of regret following affairs, nor did it necessarily decrease as a result of the participants’ infidelity. As noted, this contradicts prior research suggesting that infidelity is an indicator of problems in the relationship, and raises new questions about the interplay between relationship satisfaction and infidelity.

While the study offers new insights, researchers also caution against overgeneralizing the findings due to certain limitations. One key constraint was that the size of the sample for the longitudinal data was smaller than anticipated. This means that although the study provides valuable initial insights, further research is necessary to replicate and expand upon these findings.

“The take-home point for me is that maintaining monogamy or sexual exclusivity especially across people’s lifespans is really, really hard and I think people take monogamy for granted when they’re committed to someone in a marriage,” says Selterman. “People just assume that their partners are going to be totally satisfied having sex with one person for the next 50 years of their lives but a lot of people fail at it. It doesn’t mean everyone’s relationship is doomed, it means that cheating might be a common part of people’s relationships.”

The study is published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.


  1. Why marry?! Stay single, and don’t hurt people that think you are loyal to them. It’s so wrong.

    1. Men are hardwired to spread their genes to as many females as they possibly can. Women on the other hand are wired to be very selective about who they breed with. These are biological facts. Period.
      Marriage and monogamy tend to be a far more difficult concept for men than women because we are simply not programmed to only be with one female. That’s how nature made us.

    1. “You don’t love your spouse if you cheat. It’s really that simple.”

      Childish Nonsense.

    2. Totally agree. Cheating is a form of betrayal. Marriage vow is a covenant between two people, and not a light thing. People who break their covenant have low character.

      1. A head-in-the-sand society that fosters unrealistic standards and expectations of behavior has low character, or at least the individuals and organizations that do so rate high on self-righteousness as do the celebrity egotistical hypocrites who claim superior morality (at least until they get caught.) I wonder how many suicides have been committed by people who were incapable of following the guidelines communicated by their tele-evangelist of choice.

    3. The most selfish cheat. Regret only enters into it if/when they are caught. Since this group was still on AM it’s unlikely they had been caught (yet). This skews the data.

    4. True. I’ve endured so much physical pain like my insides being ripped open and stabbed. But nothing compares to heart break. If you think cheating is ok than you sir are cold hearted and have no soul. Finding someone who is cool with an open relationship is ideal but committing yourself to someone and breaking them is unforgivable. I got pisd from that shit. I almost lost my damn mind. It takes focus away from your children and creates horrible behavior and with that comes a vicious cycle. So congrats on being ignorant and selfish. Cheating is for the weak..and apparently theres alot of weak ass men these days. Sad

  2. Seems like this study asked people who were in the middle of an affair or were hoping to embark on one. Ask the Ashley Madison user who has just been caught…the results might be a bit different, as this study only examines motivations of cheaters while they’re in the act.

    As someone who was caught, the affair itself was great while it lasted; the fallout once I was caught? Not so much…plenty of regret.

  3. There were interesting aspects to this article. But, your last line tries to make cheating normal. It is not normal. By you trying to normalize it shows your bias in coming to conclusions that are not in evidence.

    1. Cheating is absolutely normal. That and money are what end most marriages.

  4. We polled a self-selected group of sociopaths who premeditate and seek out infidelity with intent, and it turns out that they don’t have any remorse! What a profound finding that will challenge our perceptions of monogamy forever!

    1. My sentiment exactly. People who engage in planned premeditated cheating are ok with it – and rationalize the contradiction? No way!!!! What a finding!

  5. Polling a sample population of all cheaters and discovering a result of “cheating is normal” is akin to polling a sample population of all murderers and discovering a result of “murder is normal”.

    1. Yup. It is a bad study for that reason.

      However given the number of marriages that end due to infidelities’, it is clear that it is very common.

  6. My takeaway is, a cheater is going to cheat, or once a cheater always a cheater. If it’s not based on being happy or satisfied in your relationship it seems to come down to you either you think it’s acceptable to cheat or you don’t. Which is kind of scary, because very very few people are honest and will tell their spouse they plan to be non-monogamous. They will just say they’re faithful and go on their cheating way. I agree with Maria, if you can’t be faithful stay single, because inevitably you will just ruin the life of the person you supposedly love10, 15, 20 years down the line…and probably the children you birth as well.

    1. It is foolish to think that a relationship will last forever.

      That isn’t how human biology works.

      1. I believe that’s why marriage was a God concept and not a man concept. It was always meant to be sacred and sacrificial. It’s become a legal construct.

  7. Drawing conclusions about what defines a “normal marriage” from a study which only asks people who are cheating on their spouse…. is horrible research methodology. There’s no reason to believe from this specific population that “cheating might be a common part of people’s relationships.” That conclusion alone causes me to question everything presented about this study. Sounds like the researcher is looking to ‘normalize’ their cheating behavior.

  8. The study is about 10 men to 1 female. This totally skewers the result. Men have affairs while still loving their spouse is common place. Men can compartmentalise their emotions in a way women do not.

    However, it is far less likely a woman having an affair is still that much in love with her male partner as the male partner would be if he were having the affair.

  9. Polyamory really is the way to go.
    Tell your lovers there are others. Pretty simple.

  10. Yeah polling men actively seeking affairs might introduce some bias to your results.

  11. Self report or self descriptions by respondents are highly limited in completeness, insight, and full disclosing honesty. Couples who experience this type of behavior in their relationship usually have little insight into what motivates their behavior and rationalization. We may listen to their explanation, but suspect limited self understanding.

  12. Do the study participants truly feel a “high degree of love” for their partner after cheating? Or do they mislabel their guilt? A person cheats because they feel entitled to something they are not getting in their relationship. Love is not entitled.

    I believe they do not feel love, but EITHER guilt OR euphoria at the ability to get away with it, and mislabel that, bring flowers to the “little woman,” and cuddle with her (after showering at the gym on his way home from his tryst.)

    Honestly, I don’t believe that a spouse of any gender, who has any degree of empathy and/or emotional intelligence, would be capable feeling no remorse, and having a high degree of love for their spouse.

  13. It’s interesting to see the various factors that contribute to cheating, such as lack of emotional connection, desire for excitement, and dissatisfaction within relationships. The article explores the complexities of human relationships and highlights the need for open communication and addressing underlying issues. Thanks for sharing this intriguing study and providing insights into a topic that many people grapple with. Keep up the great work!

  14. Some species, individuals are wired for monogamy but most are not.
    The conflating of romance, marriage, love, and fidelity is a western religious idea meant to protect women from having to raise children without the support of a male.
    The benefits of this can be seen when comparing two parent homes with single parent upbringing.
    Intelligent people can differentiate between sex and love and do not confuse the two.
    In real life there are as many married females who “cheat” as married males, but they are never going to admit to it as the punishment of a divorce is far worse (excluding that abomination ‘Alimony’) for them. Some 25% of second children do not match the DNA of the husband. (see Charles and Harry for details).

  15. People who cheat have two traits: a sense of entitlement and a tendency for thrill-seeking. Cheaters can rationalize their cheating any way they want, but they clearly think they ‘deserve it’ and also gain a thrill by being able to fool their unsuspecting spouse. If it were as simple as not feeling loved enough, then the rational choice would be to try and fix things and possibly attend marriage counseling…not jump straight to cheating.

  16. Been cheated on. Several times, found out after the fact. The cheater never seemed to feel remorse. Never seemed to comprehend the enormous emotional pain it created. Fifty years later the pain is still intense. In a real sense it ruined my life. That’s what the cheater did. The cheater owns that. So, ask yourself, Is the cheater a “good” person?

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