5 Different Types of Infidelity

A psychologist is here to help understand how infidelity happens.

man and woman kissing outside a building

quavondo / Getty Images

The consequences of infidelity are numerous, and it is only natural to want to know why your partner chose to cheat, even if knowing why doesn't bring you any relief. There could be any number of reasons, and there are many types of infidelity and cheating that could shed a little light on those reasons.

What Is Infidelity?

Infidelity, or cheating, is the act of being unfaithful to a spouse or other partner. It typically means engaging in sexual or romantic relations with a person other than one's significant other, breaking a commitment or promise in the act.

Each case of infidelity is different and fulfills a different need. Although knowing why a partner cheated likely won't lessen any pain you feel, being able to rationalize the behavior and define it will alleviate some confusion. It can also help you feel more confident in how to move forward from the situation—whether that means working on healing your relationship or moving on should you decide to split up.

Learn more about the five types of cheating below, and what to do if you find yourself the victim of infidelity.

Opportunistic Infidelity

Opportunistic infidelity occurs when one is in love and attached to their partner, but succumbs to their sexual desire for someone else. Typically, this type of cheating is driven by situational circumstances or opportunity, risk-taking behavior, and alcohol or drug use. As social psychologist Theresa E. DiDonato says, "Not every act of infidelity is premeditated and driven by dissatisfaction with a current relationship…Maybe they were drinking or in some other way thrown into an opportunity they didn't anticipate."

After the fact, the more in love a person is with their partner, the more guilt they will experience as a result of their sexual encounter. However, feelings of guilt tend to fade as the fear of being caught subsides.

Obligatory Infidelity

This type of infidelity is based on the fear that resisting someone's sexual advances will result in rejection. People may have feelings of sexual desire, love, and attachment for a partner, but still, end up cheating because they have a strong need for approval. In addition, their need for approval can cause them to act in ways that are at odds with their other feelings. In other words, some people cheat, not because they want to cheat, but because they need the approval that comes along with having the attention of others.

Romantic Infidelity

"Sometimes (but not always) a deficit in an existing relationship leads people to have extradyadic affairs," says DiDonato. This type of infidelity occurs when the cheater has little emotional attachment to their partner. They may be committed to their marriage and making it work, but they long for an intimate, loving connection with someone else. More than likely, their commitment to the marriage will prevent them from ever leaving their spouse. Romantic infidelity means pain for the other man or woman and the cheating partner—rarely does it turn into a long-term, committed relationship. Marital problems have to be quite severe before a spouse will leave the marriage for another person.

Conflicted Romantic Infidelity

This type of infidelity occurs when people experience genuine love and sexual desire for more than one person at a time. Despite our idealistic notions of having only one true love, it is possible to experience intense romantic love for multiple people at the same time. While such situations are emotionally possible, they are very complicated and tend to create a lot of anxiety and stress. In this case, cheating partners, in their attempt not to cause anyone harm, often end up hurting everyone.

Commemorative Infidelity

This type of infidelity occurs when a person is in a committed relationship but has no feelings for their partner. There is no sexual desire or love or attachment, only a sense of obligation keeping the couple together. "Lacking love and lacking commitment to a current romantic partner are both tied to general feelings of relationship dissatisfaction," says DiDonato.

These people justify cheating by telling themselves they have the right to look for what they are not getting in their present relationship. Unfulfilled sexual desires can easily come into play here. "Maybe in their established relationship, individuals aren't engaging in the frequency of sex, style of sex, or specific sexual behaviors that they want," DiDonato adds. "This can contribute to their reasons to cheat."

It is important, for the sake of appearances, that the present relationship last. The cheater does not want to be viewed as a failure, so they stay in an unhappy relationship and seek to fulfill their needs outside the relationship.

Next Steps After Being Cheated On

Now that your confusion has hopefully been alleviated, it's up to you to decide what steps to take next. Marriages and relationships can survive infidelity, but whether or not yours survives will depend on what type of infidelity took place and how much work you're both willing to put in. It's only common sense to know that an opportunistic cheater will cheat regardless of how many times their cheating is discovered and forgiven. That said, any other reasons why your spouse cheated don't mean they won't cheat again, so keep that in mind when deciding what steps to take next. 

Related Stories