More people cheat than you might imagine. Here are the numbers.

Woman, cheating on partner, looks into the camera and wonders how common is cheatingShare on Pinterest
HOWL/Stocksy United

Cheating in relationships is common in the United States among all age groups.

The internet makes this phenomenon easier than ever, expanding opportunities for different types of cheating. And getting caught.

If you’ve cheated on your partner or been cheated on, you’re not alone. It’s a tale as old as time and you can take heart: folks on both sides of infidelity can heal.

A 2010 research article suggests that finding accurate statistics on infidelity may be problematic for several reasons, including:

  • Not everyone defines cheating in the same way. Does flirting count? What about virtual affairs?
  • Infidelity in LGBTQ+ communities has not been well-studied or reported.

Here’s what we do know about the prevalence of cheating.

A 2021 survey by Health Testing Centers polled 441 people and reported:

  • a little over 46% of respondents in a monogamous relationship said they had affairs
  • nearly 24% of marriages affected by infidelity reported staying together
  • 47.5% of relationships affected by cheating said they established and enforced new relationship rules, such as sharing phone passwords, to minimize the likelihood of more affairs

Research in 2020 analyzed data on infidelity in marriage from 1991 to 2018 by the General Social Survey (GSS). The most recent data on extramarital sex within demographic groups was unpacked, and the numbers are interesting.

men who say they cheat23%
women who say they cheat12%
married people who say they cheat12%
divorced people who say they cheat26%
infidelity of Black people24%
infidelity of white people16%
infidelity of other POCs13%
cheating in 55 to 64 year olds18%
cheating in 41 to 54 year olds16%
cheating in 18 to 40 year olds11%

It’s possible that the pandemic may have influenced an increase in virtual or online infidelity.

A 2020 research article reports that a dating site for married people had an increase in 1,500 new members per day compared to 2019. Researchers speculate that increased internet use and marital tensions under lockdown might account for this statistic.

As common as infidelity is, it often feels personal.

What actually is an affair?

Infidelity is sexual or emotional activity outside agreed-upon relationship boundaries. An affair can be a sexual activity but isn’t necessarily. Sometimes it’s hugging and kissing. Sometimes it’s not even that.

According to LuAnn Oliver, a couples therapist licensed in Virginia, affairs can include:

  • a one-night stand
  • compulsive sexual behavior
  • emotional infidelity
  • strongly desiring a particular someone else (coveting)
  • desiring your existing mate and someone else
  • an online flirtation or sexting

Why do people cheat?

A 2021 study used machine learning algorithms to find factors predicting infidelity. Some top predictors in cheating were:

  • Online cheating
    • Interest in trying specific sexual activities never achieved with their partner (anal sex)
    • Longer relationship length
    • Solitary desire (personal sexual desire)
  • In-person cheating
    • Low relationship satisfaction
    • Low romantic love
    • Solitary desire (personal sexual desire)

Sometimes people cheat for revenge or attention. Other times, folks cheat when their inhibitions are lowered while under the influence of a substance.

Relationship expert Esther Perel believes people cheat to transform regret, or to express a new identity, according to this Atlantic article she penned.

Romantic ideals and the concept of self-fulfillment can also affect modern infidelity.

Oliver, a certified emotionally focused therapist (EFT) has seen “people underestimate what it takes to have a stable, meaningful, connected, long-term relationship.”

It’s easy for folks to avoid talking with their partner about what they really need for intimacy.

Oliver describes this common pattern: “You begin chatting with a colleague; the reward center in the brain lights up. One thing leads to another.”

How likely is someone to get away with it?

Of the participants reporting infidelity to Health Testing Centers, about 22% never communicated the relationship to their partners.

Still, an affair can be discovered.

In the 50s, this involved searching coat pockets for romantic restaurant matchboxes or receipts for gifts. Today, phones can be treasure troves of easy access and sometimes graphic information.

Another way people get caught is by contracting an STI — 53% of those who get a sexually transmitted infection by cheating communicated their infidelity.

Oliver says couples tend to visit her in therapy once the affair is over. She adds that cheating affects both partners negatively, creating stress and upheaval, but at different times.

For the one being cheated on

If you feel betrayed, the period post-affair can be a low point — particularly if you discover the cheating after a long period of lying, Oliver says.

If the partner who cheated discloses the infidelity by choice, sharing it honestly, Oliver says she’s seen couples recover much faster.

You may find yourself questioning your identity, even if the affair wasn’t about you.

Worth noting

If you feel as though you’ve lost your identity in a relationship after being cheated on, here’s how you can rediscover your values.

Was this helpful?

For the one cheating

If you’ve cheated and talked to your partner about it, you may be feeling relief. You may feel more atonement than regret.

But this could be salt in a wound to your partner.

You might find it beneficial to the relationship to stay open to questions and concerns, even after you’ve ended the affair and moved on emotionally. Moving forward, it may be good to set expectations of what infidelity means for you both.

Whether you’ve had an affair yourself, or have been cheated on, you’re not alone. And healing is possible.

“Couples can and do recover from affairs,” says Oliver. “Many, many have, and many, many will. Once the affair is over, they can dig into what they’ve been neglecting. It’s important not to feel shame for staying in a relationship after an affair.”

While consciously rebuilding trust works for some married couples, “divorce, also, isn’t the end of the world,” Oliver says. “For some, it can be a doorway into new opportunities.”