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What causes serial cheaters to cheat?

Serial cheating refers to a pattern of repeated unfaithful behavior in an intimate relationship. Serial cheaters engage in multiple acts of infidelity over time, despite the harm and pain it may cause their partner. But what motivates this compulsive behavior? There are several psychological, interpersonal, and cultural factors that can contribute to serial cheating.

Personality factors

Certain personality traits and disorders may increase the likelihood of serial cheating:


Impulsive individuals act on urges and desires without considering consequences. They seek immediate gratification and often give in to temptation. Impulsivity is associated with sensation-seeking, risk-taking, and low self-control. Serial cheaters may be unable to resist urges to pursue short-term pleasures outside the relationship.


Narcissists have an inflated sense of self-importance and feel entitled to special treatment. They crave endless validation and attention. Serial cheating can be a way to bolster fragile self-esteem and get ego boosts from multiple partners. Narcissists may also cheat due to feeling invulnerable to consequences.


Psychopathic traits like callousness, manipulation, and lack of empathy also increase the risk of serial cheating. Psychopaths use deceit and exploitation to get what they want. They have little remorse for hurting others. For psychopaths, serial cheating may simply reflect their general tendency to use people as means to their own ends.

Attachment issues

Insecure attachment styles arising from early childhood experiences can motivate serial cheating. Those with an anxious attachment style crave love but fear abandonment. Those with an avoidant attachment style may distance themselves from intimate relationships and have difficulty relying on partners. Serial cheating can be an attempt to fulfill unmet attachment needs – getting affection or avoiding emotional closeness.


Beyond personality factors, there are key motivations that drive serial cheaters:


For those with low self-esteem or narcissistic tendencies, cheating can provide validation. The ego boost of being pursued, desired, and chosen by someone new serves as an affirmation of their worthiness and desirability. Adulation from extra-marital partners may feels addictive.


Some serial cheaters are motivated by excitement, novelty, and pleasure. The euphoria of newfound passion outside the relationship provides a thrilling high. Affairs allow them to explore their sexuality with multiple partners. The sensory and emotional stimulation feeds their hunger for variety and arousal.


By maintaining secret second lives, serial cheaters enjoy the feeling of power, autonomy, and control. Deceiving a spouse without getting caught can impart a rush of adrenaline. The ability to maneuver between partners and compartmentalize aspects of life is viewed as an impressive skill.

Unmet needs

Serial cheating may attempt to fulfill needs not satisfied in the primary relationship, like intimacy, passion, romance, attention, fun, understanding, or shared interests. Instead of addressing problems with their partner, serial cheaters look to affairs as an easier route to fulfillment.

Avoidance of commitment

For some, serial cheating reflects an unwillingness or inability to fully commit to one partner and establish true emotional intimacy. Maintaining multiple relationships creates distance and keeps any one partner from getting too close. Cheating then becomes a way to hold back while reaping relationship benefits.

Interpersonal factors

Dynamics within the primary relationship can also give rise to serial cheating:

Poor communication

Couples who lack effective communication skills may be more prone to cheating. Partners who avoid discussing problems honestly, expressing their needs, or engaging in constructive conflict allow problems to fester. Poor communication fosters resentment, distance, and dishonesty – fueling infidelity.

Sexual dissatisfaction

A lack of passion, emotional intimacy, adventure, or fulfillment in a couple’s sex life may motivate serial cheating. Instead of working on sexual issues with their partner, the serial cheater seeks satisfaction through affairs. Their sexual needs become tied to the thrill of illicit relationships.

Broken trust

Past infidelity in the relationship that was never fully resolved can lay the groundwork for serial cheating. The betrayal of trust leads the harmed partner to withdraw emotionally to protect themselves. But this distances fuels further cheating as the dismissing partner seeks a fulfilling connection.

Unrealistic expectations

Partners with unrealistic expectations of their spouse, relationship, or themselves are primed for serial cheating based on constant disappointment. Rather than reflect on expectations, they blame the relationship. Affairs provide an escape into an idealized realm of passion, romance, and affirmation.

Childhood modeling

Having a caregiver who was a serial cheater can normalize this behavior. Through childhood observations, the serial cheater learns relationships involve secrecy, compartmentalization, and splitting intimacy among multiple partners.

Sociocultural factors

Broader social and cultural influences also contribute to serial cheating:

Factor Description
Gender norms Norms of masculinity that emphasize sexual prowess, virility, and conquest increase cheating among men.
Sexualization of culture Media and culture that normalize objectification, sexual entitlement, and casual sex promote infidelity.
Peer group values Friends, colleagues, or social groups that are accepting of cheating shape personal attitudes about infidelity.
Religious views Conservative views of marriage as an unbreakable covenant may prevent divorce but not cheating.
Workplace culture Work environments that encourage risk-taking and normalize infidelity increase cheating.

Enabling factors

Situational factors also make serial cheating more likely:

Financial independence

Having discretionary income enables activities and liaisons outside the relationship. Serial cheaters may support second lives through lies about their spending.

Social networks

Broad social networks, work connections, and technology provide more opportunities to connect with potential affair partners. Abundant choice enables serial cheaters to find validation, fun, and variety outside their marriage.


Frequent business travel or recreational trips provide freedom from scrutiny, routines, and responsibilities – fueling cheating opportunities. Geographic mobility allows maintain affairs in multiple locations.

Lack of accountability

Serial cheaters avoid situations that require transparency, truth-telling, honesty, and integrity. Without accountability, lies are easier to sustain long-term. Holding serial cheaters responsible to their claims is key.

Psychological impacts

The compulsion to serially cheat can be psychologically and emotionally damaging:

Guilt and shame

Carrying so many secrets and lies often burdens serial cheaters with guilt, shame, and remorse over their behavior – despite continuing it. They may cope through repression, rationalization, and compartmentalization.


Fear of being caught leads to constant anxiety and hypervigilance around covering tracks. Serial cheaters anxiously monitor their primary relationship for signs of suspicion. Infidelity consumes mental energy.


The intimacy serial cheaters claim to seek is ultimately elusive. Splitting themselves among different facades leaves them detached and alienated. Loneliness often persists despite multiple partners.


For some serial cheaters, infidelity becomes addictive. The secrecy and excitement provide a potent neurological and emotional rush. Like any addiction, greater amounts are needed to achieve the same effect over time.

Impact on primary relationship

Serial cheating inevitably inflicts damage on the primary relationship and partner:

Betrayal trauma

The intimate betrayal of trust through serial cheating causes intense relational trauma. The wounded partner can develop PTSD-like symptoms including hypervigilance, emotional dysregulation, anxiety, and persistent distrust.

Loss of intimacy

Emotional and physical intimacy deteriorates as the serial cheater focuses attention outside the relationship. The partner feels neglected, resentful, and rejected. Restoring intimacy requires hard work by both parties.

Diminished commitment

The serial cheater’s lack of commitment erodes the couple’s shared vision of the relationship. The betrayed partner may also disengage as a means of self-protection from further hurt. This reduces dedication to the partnership.


Covering up the affairs involves endless lies, omissions, distortions, and gaslighting. The deceived partner feels confused and unable to grasp reality. Honest communication is obliterated by deception.

Divided self

Trying to preserve their primary relationship, serial cheaters engage in extensive compartmentalization. Their identity, values, and life become fractured. Integrity and authentic living are sacrificed.


Repairing the damage of serial infidelity requires tremendous work on the part of both partners:

Remorse and apology

The serial cheater must fully own their behavior through expressing genuine remorse and apologizing for the profound betrayal of trust. Blame, defensiveness and excuses must be absent.


Complete transparency around activities, spending, communications, and use of time is required to rebuild broken trust. Serial cheaters relinquish privacy and commit to radical truthfulness.

Examination of motivations

In-depth exploration of the root causes within themselves that motivated their serial cheating is needed to provoke internal change. Individual and couples counseling facilitates this process.

Address relationship issues

Whether poor communication, sexual problems, or unrealistic expectations, the issues underlying the cheating must be discussed openly and strategies developed for improving the relationship.

Establish boundaries

The serial cheater accepts external boundaries on their time and activities set by their partner. Couples counseling helps negotiate fair expectations. Boundaries demonstrate respect for the harmed partner’s healing.


While some serial cheaters may display entrenched behavioral patterns, infidelity is preventable:

Communicate needs

Partners should seek to regularly communicate their emotional, physical and sexual needs to maintain intimacy and prevent temptation to cheat.

Practice empathy

Understanding a partner’s inner world fosters compassion. Empathy makes us more forgiving of imperfections and committed to someone’s wellbeing.

Cultivate passion

Couples should make time to nurture fun, adventure and romance. Exploring new activities and expressing affection prevents taking the relationship for granted.

Limit risk factors

Avoiding excessive alcohol, recreational drugs, or environments that could enable cheating helps maintain fidelity.

Get counseling

Seeking help at the first signs of compulsive behavior, insecurity, or relationship deterioration can prevent cheating and foster self-awareness.


Serial cheating stems from complex psychological factors, relationship dynamics, and situational temptations. While deeply damaging, infidelity does not have to be a permanent roadblock to intimacy. With consistent effort, respect for a partner’s pain, development of empathy and self-control, serial cheaters can reform their patterns and rebuild loving trust.