Here’s What Happens to Men Who Cheat, According to Science

The first time Fred cheated on his wife, he felt terrible about it. It was a mistake, he acknowledged. It was wrong to have done it.

He struggled with his guilt, and he even thought about confessing what he’d done.

But then he decided that doing that would be selfish; more about unburdening himself than anything else.

Besides, Fred told himself, this had been a one-time thing. An aberration. He’d made a mistake, but he wasn’t going to repeat it. He’d spend a lifetime making up for it.

The second time Fred cheated, he felt badly again. 

Clearly, something was wrong, he thought. In his heart, he knew he wasn’t normally the kind of person who cheated. 

But, he had to admit that he was dealing with powerful forces. 

Whatever it was that had driven him to cheat — attraction, lust, boredom, anger, whatever — yes, the cheating had been wrong, but it was just as important to be honest about what was behind it all.

He thought to himself: I’m not exactly the first guy who ever cheated. The entire course of human history is full of stories like these.

The third time Fred cheated, he felt a little less badly.

Put this transgression against all the positive things that he’d done in life, he realized, and on balance he was a very good person. He wouldn’t let it define him.

Plus, there were at least three people involved here: Fred, and his wife, and the person (or people) with whom he’d cheated. Fred wasn’t saying everyone was equally culpable, but they were all adults making adult decisions and responding to adult circumstances.

Besides, why are you on his case about this?

OK, this seems about the time to take a step back from Fred and take a step toward science and research.

Because the whole scenario above is meant to demonstrate what a recent psychological study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships says happens to men who cheat — specifically where their minds lead them.

Cassandra Alexopoulos, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, surveyed 1,514 male users of the highly controversial website, Ashley Madison, which is literally set up to help married people have affairs.

About 425 of the men Alexopoulos surveyed agreed to a second survey a month later.

Apparently, these men were quite forthcoming about how often the used the site, and how often they “engaged in various online and face-to-face behaviors with someone other than their primary romantic partner.”

In short, the pattern of behavior that I tried to describe with our apocryphal story about Fred (to be 100 percent clear; I made Fred up to prove a point, he’s not based on anyone in real-life) is exactly what she saw.

Among the kinds of things the men in her research told themselves, she wrote:

  • “Being unfaithful never hurt anyone.”
  • “I feel re-energized for the first time in a long time.”
  • “This me is the real me.”

Perhaps it’s a matter of people trying to compartmentalize their cheating behavior against the rest of their lives.

Or perhaps, as Alexopoulos told the website PsyPost, “telling yourself, for example, ‘This new relationship makes me more exciting or fun,’ seems to allow cheaters to reduce their feelings of discomfort.”

I hope it’s clear that I’m not encouraging anyone to cheat. (Alexopoulos wanted to make clear that she didn’t create the study to send that message either.)

Additionally, it’s fascinating to note that men who engage in deception and cheating in their relationships (the study only covered men) might also quickly engage in self-deception.

In a business context, that might be one of the big takeaways. Whether it was Aristotle or Will Durant or someone else who first said, “We are what we repeatedly do,” that’s one of the most cited quotes of all time because it rings so true.

Maybe people who cheat in one part of their lives are more likely to cheat in others, as well. Maybe people who cheat in business and professional relationships are just as likely to tell themselves afterward that it wasn’t as big a deal as it seemed.

And maybe that makes it a little easier the next time.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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