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You Can Cheat and Still Have a Great Relationship, New Survey Says

Will stepping out become more acceptable?

When you cheat, does it make you a bad person? This is a subjective question that no one could ever definitively answer. But when you cheat, does it make you feel like a bad person? Is one always filled with remorse if they step out on their partner? Depictions in popular culture from movies to song lyrics have made many of us believe that cheaters are wracked with guilt, but a new study contradicts this common mindset. It also debunks the idea that people stray because they are unhappy in their marriage. So, are cheaters actually good people in happy relationships who just don't believe in monogamy? Read on to find out more.

READ THIS NEXT: If Your Partner Has These 4 Qualities, They're More Likely to Cheat on You.

Married people who had affairs expressed little remorse.

Man cheating on his wife on the phone.
Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

A new report on the psychology of infidelity published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior has found that "married people who have affairs find them highly satisfying, express little remorse, and believe the cheating didn't hurt their otherwise healthy marriages."

The lead author of the study, Dylan Selterman, an associate teaching professor in Johns Hopkins University's Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, says the findings challenge the mainstream notions many of us have about infidelity that have been engrained in our brains from popular culture—particularly from the cheater's perspective.

"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," Selterman said in a press release. "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 study surveyed Ashley Madison users.

Woman hugging a man because they are just friends

Selterman and his team of researchers from the University of Western Ontario surveyed nearly 2,000 active Ashley Madison users, a website for facilitating extramarital affairs, before and after they cheated on their spouses. Their goal was to "better understand the psychological experiences of those who seek and engage in extramarital affairs"—a continuation of Selterman's past research.

"I've been studying infidelity in romantic relationships for over 10 years," Selterman told Best Life. "This study in particular allowed for me to follow up on some unanswered questions from some of my past studies, like what happens to people's relationships after they have affairs."

In this study, participants were asked questions about the state of their marriage, why they wanted to have an affair, and about their general well-being. They were generally middle-aged and close to 90 percent male—so it's important to keep in mind that this data does not show how females feel when having an affair (though 37.5 percent of active Ashley Madison users are female).

"Given that relatively few women participated, it's not possible to do statistical comparisons with men because the numbers are so skewed," says Selterman. "I'd love to get more data on women."

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The cheaters reported high levels of love for their partners.

Young couple drinking juice in a market, looking lovingly at each other
Renata Angerami / iStock

Is having great sex (or just having sex) the key to a loving marriage? According to this report: no. A majority of the participants reported "high levels of love for their partners, yet low levels of sexual satisfaction."

While popular culture may also make us believe that many people cheat because they are unhappy in their marriage, this survey concluded that sexual dissatisfaction was the top-cited motivation to have an affair.

According to the press release, "fundamental problems with the relationship, like lack of love or anger toward a spouse were among the least-cited reasons for wanting to cheat." Again, keep in mind that a majority of the participants in this survey were male.

Half of the participants said they were not sexually active with their partners at all, which motivated them to stray but didn't affect their love for their spouse or their feelings about the state of their marriage. More common motivations to have an affair were "the desire for independence and sexual variety."

But back to the main takeaway from this survey: Having a happy marriage did not make the cheaters feel bad about having an affair. The researchers found that "participants generally reported that their affair was highly satisfying both sexually and emotionally, and that they did not regret having it."

The study does not take into account if the cheaters were "caught."

man caught cheating in bed
Ground Picture / Shutterstock

This survey does, however, beg the question of whether or not the participants who felt no regret and still considered their marriage a happy one after cheating were ever caught having said affair.

Selterman told Best Life that about 80 percent of the participants surveyed reported that their partners didn't know they were unfaithful. "It's possible that participants' feelings of regret would be higher if their partners found out," he says. "Very few of our participants were 'caught' by their partners."

When the partners did know about the infidelity, Selterman says "they were okay with it or had some kind of open relationship." This leaves only a tiny number of participants who were in "exclusive" relationships whose partners found out about their affairs.

READ THIS NEXT: 6 Red Flags That Spell Cheating, Therapists Warn.

What does this imply for the future of monogamy? 

A happy couple in their 50s enjoying a dinner date; the woman is smelling a rose
Inside Creative House / Shutterstock

We all know that marriage isn't always easy: Getting along with someone, seeing eye to eye, and, yes, only sleeping with one person for the rest of your life can be challenging. If you take the sex component out of the equation, would it make staying together easier in the long run? It seems some of the participants in this survey—perhaps even the researchers—would agree. Or at least they have come to the conclusion that having an affair doesn't "lower relationship quality or lower life satisfaction."

The results of this survey suggest that people don't always have affairs because something is wrong in the relationship. "Participants sought affairs because they wanted novel, exciting sexual experiences, or sometimes because they didn't feel a strong commitment to their partners, rather than because of a need for emotional fulfillment," the report found.

When asked if he thinks our ideas of infidelity and marriage might change in the future, Selterman says that it is a possibility. "I think monogamy is very hard and a lot of people take it for granted," he explains. "It's possible that relationships will open up more, or at the very least become more 'monogamish.' I think people may be more forgiving of their partners' infidelity in the future if they understand that this doesn't reflect an underlying problem in their marriages."

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