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Is Cheating Ever Justified? Experts Weigh In

Forgivable? Maybe. Justifiable? Not so much.

It's no secret that cheating is a dealbreaker for plenty of people in relationships. After all, even a single act of betrayal can undermine trust and cause irreparable damage to the bond. In fact, according to recent research by USA Network (via Time), 94 percent of people surveyed say they would rather never get married than end up with a person they knew would cheat on them. Similarly, 82 percent of people surveyed say they have a "zero tolerance" for infidelity.

However, that wasn't the most shocking revelation from the survey. More surprising was the fact that 54 percent of those same surveyed people said they also believed that cheating could be justified. Though they don't want to be cheated on, they also feel that certain extenuating circumstances might excuse the behavior.

Whether you're the person cheating, the other man or other woman, or the person on the receiving end of a deceit, you may yourself be wondering: Is cheating ever justified? Read on to find out what therapists have to say.

RELATED: 8 Red Flags That Spell Cheating, Therapists Warn.

How Is Cheating Defined?

Unfaithful man spending time with another woman in the bar, enjoying drinks and conversation.

Cheating has always been difficult to define, in part because it's taboo to talk about. Some experts say it's getting progressively harder to navigate as our relationship norms shift and evolve.

"Cheating is a complicated concept in 2024 with the rise of ethical non-monogamy and open relationships blurring the boundaries of monogamy," says Liz Hughes, LPCC, the owner of Mind Body Therapy and an affiliate of ADHD Advisor.

Given that cheating is often understood on a couple-by-couple—or even person-by-person—basis, it's worth asking: What is adultery?

"Cheating means breaking an agreement within your relationship regarding what each of you can do with others. So, each couple has to define cheating for themselves," says Suzannah Weiss, resident sexologist for Biird and author of Subjectified: Becoming a Sexual Subject.

Weiss says the most common definition of cheating is engaging in any kind of physical intimacy with someone outside the relationship. However, some people view different sexual acts through a different lens. For instance, while you may think of penetrative sex as an unmistakable example of cheating, oral sex, kissing, or holding hands could be considered grayer areas to some.

Emotional cheating can be just as complex. "Frequently texting, calling, or hanging out with someone in a romantic way could count as cheating as well if it causes your partner to feel violated or uncomfortable," Weiss notes.

"The other gray area when it comes to cheating is digital interactions," she adds. "Discuss in advance, for instance, whether going on a site like OnlyFans would be considered cheating in your relationship."

She recommends discussing your own boundaries and definitions when you decide to make your relationship official.

"By putting boundaries in place, there is no confusion about what is or is not justified," agrees Rachel Goldberg, LMFT, founder of Rachel Goldberg Therapy in Studio City, California.

RELATED: 6 Ways to Rebuild Intimacy After Cheating, According to Therapists.

Can Cheating Ever Be Justified?

Man using his phone in bed while woman sleeps next to him, signaling cheating
Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

As Weiss points out, cheating is very common—at least one in five Americans admit to having done it, and more have likely cheated without owning up to their actions. However, this doesn't mean that cheating can be justified, she says.

"Cheating is a consent issue. If your partner consented to a monogamous relationship with you—not a non-monogamous one—having other partners is a type of consent violation," she explains. "It violates your partner's sense of emotional safety as well as potentially their physical safety (if contracting STIs is a possibility). Cheating also deprives the cheater of a relationship where they can be completely open and honest. That's why, even if you have understandable reasons for cheating, the best approach is to either break up or open the relationship rather than drag your partner along in a situation that they did not consent to."

"Based on my experience with patients, cheating cannot be justified," agrees Brandon Simpson, AMFT, ASAT, an associate sex addiction therapist at Novus Mindful Life. "When we justify an action, we are trying to either minimize the impact the action has on another or change the other person's perception of the action, which is gaslighting."

RELATED: 14 Daily Affirmations for a Happy Marriage.

Common Reasons for Cheating

There's a wide range of reasons that people commit infidelity—whether that's physical cheating or an emotional affair. These are the top 10 most common catalysts, according to the therapists.

The cheater is sabotaging the relationship.

A man sitting on the bed with his head in his hands with a woman in the bed and another woman at the door, as he's been caught cheating.
Ground Picture / Shutterstock

Some people cheat because they consciously or subconsciously want to end the relationship but can't bring themselves to do so directly.

"They see cheating as a deal-breaker in a relationship and engage in cheating to cause an irrecoverable crisis that will lead to the demise of their relationship," explains clinical psychologist Monica Vermani, PsyD. "An individual may lack the courage, communication skills, or the ability to effectively and honestly end a relationship in which they feel unhappy or disconnected. In some situations, after persistent failed attempts to end a relationship, a partner might feel that there is no other way out than to behave in a manner that will lead to the end of the relationship."

They're looking to fill a void in their relationship.

cropped image of couple sitting on couch, woman with face in her hands
Tero Vesalainen / Shutterstock

Someone who cheats isn't always trying to end the partnership, but they may still be expressing their dissatisfaction with some aspect of it.

Kristie Tse, MA, LMHC, NCC, founder of Uncover Mental Health Counseling, notes that this typically happens when one or both partners stop investing in the relationship, ultimately eroding the emotional connection.

"People who feel unfulfilled, bored, disconnected, or that they are not getting what they want or need from their partner often choose to look elsewhere to have their needs met while still in their relationship, rather than end a relationship that is unfulfilling," agrees Vermani.

Oftentimes, the cheater will try to justify their actions by focusing on what was lacking in the relationship prior to the infidelity. For instance, if they feel dismissed, emotionally distanced, or sexually unsatisfied, this will take center stage in place of their own actions.

They're coping poorly with big life changes.

Back view of an offended woman looking at stubborn lover refusing reconcile after a fight

Though cheating may have deeper underlying issues, it tends to occur more often during big life transitions, Tse notes.

"Major changes such as job loss, childbirth, or a midlife crisis can create stress and disconnection, prompting infidelity as a coping mechanism or escape," she says.

They're looking to fill a void in themselves.

Young couple with man apologizing after fight or cheating; the woman sits on the couch while he hugs her from behind
Gorynvd / Shutterstock

Other times, cheating has nothing to do with the partnership or the person being cheated on. Instead, the cheater is trying to fill a void they feel within themselves, Vermani says.

"Some individuals endlessly seek out people who have attributes, capabilities, or traits they admire and lack in themselves, rather than develop their skills, capabilities, and traits they admire in others for themselves," the psychologist explains. "In real life and real relationships, someone looking for self-actualization from their partner is often let down and looks outside of their relationship for what they are not getting from their partner."

Weiss adds that oftentimes, people cheat because the person they are cheating with brings out a different side of them—"maybe a wild side, or a freer side, or a younger side, or a more sexual side," she notes.

"It's as if they get to be a different person when they are with that other partner," she explains. "This desire to allow a certain side of yourself out through cheating could indicate that you're not feeling fully seen, valued, or appreciated in your relationship. Therapy could help to mend your relationship so that this hidden side of you could be invited into it."

They're looking for excitement.

affair in the workplace, cropped image of a man leaning in towards a woman sitting on a table
Lipik Stock Media / Shutterstock

Oftentimes, people find themselves drawn to cheating because it offers excitement or intrigue that's typically absent from more stable, long-term relationships.

"While cheating on a partner often—but not always—involves sex, it rarely involves only sex. People who cheat are often bored and looking for the excitement, drama, and validation they receive from someone new," says Vermani.

Goldberg agrees that this is a common catalyst for cheating. "Relationships can become monotonous, and a new person can present as exciting and tempting," she says.

They have low self-esteem.

Woman in foreground crying while a man in the background looks angry at her

Vermani adds that it's also common for people with low self-esteem to step outside of their relationships.

"Low self-esteem leads to feelings of emptiness, disconnection, shame, guilt, and worthlessness. People with a low sense of self-worth often seek validation in the attention, excitement, and novelty of new relationships," she tells Best Life.

Tse agrees that some cheat to boost their ego or self-esteem: "The attention and affirmation from a new person can temporarily fill a void or insecurity they feel within themselves."

They're sexually dissatisfied.

Couple in bed, turned to opposite sides, not having sex distant

Other times, cheating really is all about sex: either sexual dissatisfaction in the current relationship or a broader desire for sexual variety.

"A gap in sexual compatibility or frequency can lead some to seek physical intimacy elsewhere. Unrealized fantasies or desires can also contribute to this breach," says Tse.

They're out for revenge.

couple sitting on edge of bed looking distant and unhappy

Goldberg says another common reason people cheat is that they're seeking revenge for something their partner has done, including infidelity.

"People who suspect that their partner has in the past or is currently cheating on them may cheat on them as a means of retaliation," agrees Vermani.

A cycle of betrayal, deceit, and revenge signals a deeply unhappy marriage or a profoundly unhealthy relationship.

They lack a healthy relationship model.

man talking to male therapist

Sometimes, people cheat because they have unresolved issues from their own childhoods or family structures. Without a healthy relationship to model their own after, they may simply not have the tools to stay committed in a relationship.

"People who are raised in a home where a parent cheated on their partner often repeat these patterns. They may have difficulty trusting or believing that their romantic partner will be faithful to them," says Vermani.

They struggle with substance abuse problems or sex addiction.

Bartender pouring strong alcoholic drink into small glasses on bar, shots
bogdanhoda / Shutterstock

Finally, in some cases, cheating is a symptom of something greater—like a substance abuse problem or sex addiction.

"Drugs and alcohol inhibit one's judgment," Goldberg notes.

However, it's important to remember that having impaired judgment isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card. If anything, it's a sign that you have double the work to do: first, on the underlying issue of addiction or compulsion, and second, on repairing the harm you've inflicted on your relationship.

RELATED: 5 Questions Your Partner May Ask If They're Cheating, Therapists Say.

Can Your Relationship Recover From Cheating?

Mental health therapist looking at man pointing and blaming woman.

The experts widely agree that while there is no justification for cheating, there is often room for forgiveness, repair, growth, and healing.

Hughes says the first step is to acknowledge that cheating causes "raw human suffering on both sides." Though only the cheating partner has harmed the other with their actions, both parties will need to invest in the process of repair.

"If you've stepped out of the relationship and cheated, the realization that the trust once had in your relationship may be irrevocably broken can be devastating. If you've been cheated on, the self-doubt and pain that follows the betrayal of learning your partner cheated on you can last for years," she tells Best Life.

"With hard work and lots of repair, I have seen people come back together as a stronger couple and work things out. I've also seen people split for good and never speak again," Hughes continues. "My belief is that if you have cheated and are ready to own up to your mistake and work to repair the issues that led to the cheating, there may be hope to heal and move forward in the relationship. If you are still in the pre-contemplative stage of change and continue to make excuses for the cheating, you probably aren't ready to do the work that is required to help your partner heal from the rupture that occurred in the relationship."

Goldberg adds that any couple trying to move past such a major breach of trust should seek support from a therapist. The cheating spouse should also plan on doing lots of guided work on themselves to avoid repeating their mistakes and causing further damage.

RELATED: 4 Signs Your Partner Will Never Cheat, According to Therapists.

Cheating vs. Having an Affair: What's the Difference?

Woman in bed, worried about cheating partner.
Halfpoint / Shutterstock

Some people differentiate between cheating and having an affair, while others view all forms of infidelity as equally insidious—and equally difficult to come back from.

"The difference between cheating and having an affair is that cheating is a broad term that includes various types of infidelity, such as a one-night stand or bonding too much to a coworker. An affair, on the other hand, is typically long-term, more secretive, and involves both emotional and physical aspects," says Goldberg.


Couple sitting on a couch together in the office of a male couples counselor

If your own marriage or committed relationship has been rocked by your partner's cheating, the most important thing to remember is that your mental health is now of top concern. Regardless of whether you plan to break things off or attempt to repair and rebuild with your partner, you'll need to make a conscious decision to center your own healing and self-care.

If you're the offending party, it's important not to focus on justifying your actions but on understanding how your actions have harmed your partner and the relationship itself. Even if the relationship ceases to continue, you should dig deep to make amends, understanding that your cheating has likely been deeply hurtful.

The experts also recommend thinking long and hard about whether the relationship is worth saving before attempting to stick it out. As Goldberg points out, some couples weather the storm and stay together for the sake of children, finances, or a fear of moving on, but may ultimately have been better off cutting ties.

"They may 'recover' in that they stay together, but the dynamic remains unhealthy and neither are happy with each other," she says.

Even the temptation to cheat, as defined by you both, should signal a need for major reflection and repair. "If someone starts to look outside of the relationship, they need to self-reflect on what is leading them to that scenario, openly communicate, or choose to leave the relationship instead of cheating," Goldberg says.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more