A new study explores how infidelity can be a means through which young adults try to navigate their own development—but also finds that this isn't always the case.
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A new study published this week in Journal of Sex Research suggests that for some young people, cheating on their partners is a side effect of becoming an adult and figuring out who they are.
Researchers from the University of Tennessee were interested in gaining a better understanding of why young people engage in infidelity. In this mixed-methods study, they gathered 104 adults who on average were 22 years old, mostly heterosexual and reported cheating within the last six months. Prior to starting the survey, participants were given a paragraph to read that revealed how typical cheating is to help them feel comfortable disclosing their secret affairs. They then divulged details about their current and past romantic experiences, offered a written account of why they chose to be intimate with someone other than their boyfriend/girlfriend, and answered questions that determined how attached they were to their partners.
Read more: People Explain Their Reasons for Cheating
A majority of respondents (76 people) reported cheating for interdependence reasons: For example, many said they felt their intimacy needs—characterized by poor communication, lack of a spark or feeling unloved—were unmet by their partners. Others referenced loneliness, boredom or simply a lack of shared interests. Alternatively, a smaller number of people (23) said that they cheated for reasons having to do with their own identity and autonomy. One subject, for example, wrote about his girlfriend having a hard time with him identifying as bisexual.
Additionally, 65 people blamed stepping out on their partners for reasons on alcohol, the attraction of someone new, and the excitement of doing something forbidden. One 23-year-old woman reported: "I was not ready to be tied down, but rather craved something more thrilling and adventuresome. The comfort and consistency of a regular boyfriend was not for me. It was more exciting to be intimate with someone in that moment overseas."
Analyzing these results through a developmental lens, the study's authors write: "Because emerging adulthood is thought to be a time of exploration and experimentation, it is possible that engaging in infidelity is a path through which individuals seek to meet their developmental needs for independence and interdependence and promote their individual development."
However, the study also notes that developmental theory only partially explains why young people may cheat. The study reports that "there were 65 occurrences of reasons for infidelity that could not be categorized according to developmental needs." Other factors, like alcohol or social context, also played a role in some of these instances.
The study also identifies two different relationship attachment styles that may correlate to reasons for cheating: People who generally avoid getting too close to people tend to think their partners are not meeting their intimacy needs, while those who worry about losing that closeness in their relationship think their partner isn't giving them enough space.
Jerika Norona, a graduate student at UT and current psychology intern at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, is the lead author on the study. Cheating and getting cheating on is typically a hurtful experience for all involved, she tells Broadly. That's why it's important to understand why young people do it. "Emerging adulthood is a unique developmental stage in which young people have a lot of figuring out to do, and it's important to consider the developmental context in which infidelity occurs. This way, our interventions can be specialized and consider what emerging adults are going through as individuals and as romantic partners."
Norona suggests people consider what they want out of a relationship before getting in too deep. "This can help their individual and relational goals coincide. If they don't, there is possibility for adaptive and explicit discussions about how those needs can be met within the relationship."
If that doesn't work, she continues, they can always just break up, "which is also normal."