It’s every woman’s worst nightmare: finding out their husband had an affair. While it’s true that people of all genders cheat, nearly every study on extramarital affairs shows that men are more likely to commit adultery than women. Infidelity is, unfortunately, a common occurrence in married couples, and even men who firmly believe they would never cheat on their spouse can still find themselves in sticky situations, whether it’s an emotional affair with a co-worker or a one-night stand with a stranger.
Men who are caught cheating will often try to minimize, rationalize, and justify their behavior with a million excuses, but in the end, cheating is ultimately a choice. The decision to cheat can be driven by multiple factors, none of which are an excuse for the careless decision, but it can help explain why it happened in the first place.
To understand the explanation behind what percentage of men cheat, we spoke to Briony Leo, a psychologist and head coach at Relish, a relationship coaching company.
Meet the Expert
Briony Leo is a psychologist from Melbourne, Australia, and head coach at Relish. She has a background in trauma counseling, addictions, and health and wellbeing.
What Percentage of Men Cheat?
“Research tells us that on average, around 20% of men are unfaithful to their spouse, as compared to 13% of women,” says Leo. “Of course, the only research available is from self-report surveys, so the number might be somewhat higher—but most surveys and studies support this finding.” According to research from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, instances of cheating are reported more frequently by men, despite some studies that men and women engage in infidelity at similar rates.
To understand why one in five married men cheat, it’s important to consider the gender differences in attitudes towards cheating. In the aforementioned 2017 study, men were less likely to report that extramarital sex was always wrong, and more likely to view it as almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all. This indicates that not only do men cheat more than women but that they’re also more flexible in their attitude towards extramarital sex—at least when they’re the ones committing the infidelity.
At What Age Are Married Men Most Likely to Cheat?
A study from the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) uncovered some surprising data about when married men are most likely to cheat. Before 30, the number of married men and women who cheat is about the same (10 percent versus 11 percent). However, as we age, men become more likely to stray not just in mid-life, but later in life as well. IFS reports that the infidelity rate among men in their 70s is the highest at 26 percent, and it remains high among men ages 80 and older, as 24 percent of men admit to being guilty of infidelity.
Older men are part of the Baby Boomer generation and came of age during the sexual revolution, which could explain their chronic indiscretions. Cultural ideas about marriage change with the times, as many couples can see from the way their marriage is different from their parents, in ways that could be seen as both positive and negative. As newer generations age, we’ll undoubtedly see these trends change, although only time will tell in what direction.
How Common Is Cheating in Marriage?
“Around 15-20 percent of marriages have infidelity,” explains Leo. “The Relish Relationship Report that was conducted at the end of 2020 found that around 26 percent of respondents had experienced infidelity in their marriage: 23 percent emotional, 21 percent physical, and 55 percent experiencing both emotional and physical infidelity.”
Infidelity happens in bad marriages and in good marriages, so the idea that having a “perfect” marriage will prevent infidelity is a fallacy. People stray for a multitude of reasons, and sometimes those reasons do correlate with marital dysfunction, like insecurity, conflict avoidance, lack of connection or sex, or just plain loneliness. Other times, an affair can be a way—albeit, a potentially destructive one—of self-discovery and searching for a new or lost identity. Why would someone who is supposedly in a happy marriage risk it all for a cheap thrill?
In either case, understanding why the infidelity occurred and making sense of the actions that led up to it will most likely lead to some clarity that helps light the path for where two people go from here.
What Percent of Couples Stay Together After Infidelity?
“In general, more than half the relationships (55 percent) ended immediately after one partner admits to cheating, with 30 percent deciding to stay together but breaking up eventually, and only 15 percent of couples able to successfully recover from infidelity,” says Leo.
The future of a marriage post-affair is completely dependent on how both people process the transgression. These earth-shattering events have a way of bringing about the most honest, deepest conversations two people in a relationship can have. Of course, this all depends on if both people are willing to do the work necessary to rebuild things.
It’s the process of navigating these questions with an open and loving heart—regardless of what you want the outcome to be—that will either redefine a marriage or seal it shut. These difficult conversations are often not something you can do on your own, and it’s okay to bring in an expert to help guide you on this treacherous journey and help both people find their footing.
“Often relationship coaching or therapy is helpful since infidelity is a common issue and there are evidence-based ways of understanding and recovering from cheating,” says Leo. “Sometimes, this brings to a head issues in the relationship that had not been addressed, such as a mismatch in libidos, lack of connection, feelings of resentment or feelings of shame or loneliness.”
Renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel says that sometimes an affair can actually help to re-shape a relationship and make it new again. In some instances of infidelity, the breach of trust and betrayal was so deep that it does, in fact, break that first marriage. The question then becomes: Would you like to create a second one together?
Labrecque LT, Whisman MA. Attitudes Toward and Prevalence of Extramarital Sex and Descriptions of Extramarital Partners in the 21st century. J Fam Psychol. 2017 Oct;31(7):952-957. doi: 10.1037/fam0000280.
Wang, Wendy. Who Cheats More? The Demographics of Infidelity in America. Institute for Family Studies. Updated January 10. 2018.