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.