While more details of the Tiger Woods scandal continuing to emerge, the inevitable question arises — Why would such a successful, attractive man cheat on his wife and family? Why, in general, do men — and women — cheat? And why would Tiger Woods, one of the most successful professional golfers of all time, cheat on his wife, Elin Nordegren?
Psychological research has examined this question and has a few answers.
Infidelity occurs for numerous reasons, ranging from personality factors (Orzeck & Lung, 2005) to evolution-based theories about how extra-partner relationships are natural while monogamy is unnatural (Barash & Lipton, 2001). It’s not surprising to find personality factors may influence cheating behavior, because people who are more similar in personality are less likely to have interpersonal conflict. Among other findings, Orzek & Lung (2005) found that “cheaters see themselves as more social and active compared to their partners and non-cheaters. Additionally, Extroverts may be inclined to cheat to obtain stimulation and prevent boredom. […] Non-cheaters perceived their monogamous partners as significantly higher on Extroversion, compared to the cheaters’ perception of their monogamous partner. It may be important for one partner to be more extroverted in the eyes of each partner and for oneself to be less extroverted in order to prevent cheating.”
“The findings in this study support the idea that cheaters may seek out more stable partners if they perceive their monogamous partners as being less psychologically adjusted than they are […] and suggest that cheaters may perceive themselves as having stronger intellect and stronger creativity compared to that of their partners, leading them to seek out partners that may be a better, that is, similar, match.”
If happiness is found in our similarity to another person (at least through the eyes of personality), then cheating is an effort to seek out increased compatibility in another partner.
Infidelity isn’t purely sexual, either — a person can cheat on another through emotional infidelity as well. Men tend to display relatively greater distress in response to sexual, physical infidelity by their partner, whereas women tend to display relatively greater distress in response to emotional infidelity by their partner.
Other research shows that both men and women lie in relationships about infidelity, even though men reported more infidelity than women do (36% versus 21%, Stebleton & Rothenberger, 1993). And Corey (1989) suggests that sex is not the primary motivator for most affairs; a problematic relationship is. Adulterers cheat rather than face and resolve these problems.
A recent study of sexual dysfunction and infidelity from Italian researchers (Fisher et al., 2009) sheds additional light on characteristics associated with men who cheat. In a study of 2,592 heterosexual men who had sexual dysfunction, they found that infidelity was associated with relationship problems in their long-term relationship or marriage (especially if the man had a stable, secondary relationship with another woman). Men in the study who had extramarital affairs had higher stress at work, a longer primary relationship span, and higher risk of conflicts within the primal couple and within the family. In addition, the researchers found men who cheated were more likely to have a partner who had an illness or very low sexual desire. Men who cheated in this study were also found less likely to have low sexual desire, and had lower feelings of guilt about masturbation.
The precursors to cheat could be summarized as:
- Significant, ongoing, unresolved problems in the primary, long-term relationship or marriage
- A significant difference in sex drive between the two partners
- The older the primary relationship
- A greater difference in personality than perhaps the partners realize
- And to a far lesser extent, perhaps some theoretical, evolutionary remnants that may have reinforced multiple partners over monogamy (although this is just a hypothetical argument that would be difficult to disprove)
A good, healthy relationship means understanding one another, including one’s sexual needs. In this way, men and women are not so different. Some women prefer romance, but guess what — so do some men. None of these types of generalizations are of any use until you understand the person (not the object) you are in a relationship with. That’s done through simple communication — sit down and talk about your sexual needs with your partner.
An unhealthy relationship that lacks real communication and is on auto-pilot is at risk for a cheating partner. Especially if problems are present in the relationship that are not being realistically addressed in a timely manner (e.g., through couple’s counseling or marriage therapy). Relationships don’t cure themselves — it takes the resolve and commitment of both people in order to make it work.
Why Tiger Woods cheated will likely remain a mystery for some time, until he chooses to share his own personal motivations. But if he’s like most men who cheat, he likely did so because of dissatisfaction with his marriage, a difference in sex drive between him and his spouse, and perhaps greater personality differences between he and his spouse that either of them realize.
Barash, D.P. & Lipton, J.E. (2001). The myth of monogamy: Fidelity and infidelity in animals and people. New York, NY: W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co.
Corey, M.A. (1989). Why Men Cheat: Psychological Profiles of the Adulterous Male. Springfield, IL, England: Charles C Thomas.
Fisher, A.D., Corona, G., Bandini, E., Mannucci, E., Lotti, F., Boddi, V., Forti, G., Maggi, M. (2009). Psychobiological correlates of extramarital affairs and differences between stable and occasional infidelity among men with sexual dysfunctions. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6(3), 866-875.
Orzeck, T. & Lung, E. (2005). Big-Five Personality Differences of Cheaters and Non-Cheaters. Current Psychology: Developmental, Learning, Personality, Social, 24(4), 274-286.
Stebleton, M.J. & Rothenberger, J.H. (1993). Truth or consequences: Dishonesty in dating and HIV/AIDS-related issues in a college-age population. Journal of American College Health, 42(2), 51-54.