Sociology Explains Why Some People Cheat on Their Spouses

Research Shows that Economic Dependence on One's Spouse Increases the Risk

Why do people cheat? Research shows that financial dependency on one's spouse increases the risk.
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Why do people cheat on their partners? Conventional wisdom suggests that we enjoy the flattering attention of others and that doing something that we know is wrong can be an exhilarating experience. Others reason that some might have trouble staying committed, or simply enjoy sex so much that they cannot help themselves. Of course, some people are unhappy in their relationships and cheat in search of a better alternative. But a study published in the American Sociological Review found a previously unknown influence on infidelity: being economically dependent on a partner makes one more likely to cheat.

Economic Dependence on One's Partner Increases Risk of Cheating

Dr. Christin L. Munch, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, found that in a given year there is a five percent chance that women who are completely economically dependent on their husbands will be unfaithful, while for economically dependent men, there is a fifteen percent chance that they will cheat on their wives. Munch conducted the study using survey data collected annually from 2001 through 2011 for the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which included 2,750 married people between the ages of 18 and 32.

So why are economically dependent men more likely to cheat than are women in the same position? What sociologists have already learned about heteronormative gender role dynamics helps explain the situation. Speaking about her study, Munch told the American Sociological Association, "Extramarital sex allows men undergoing a masculinity threat — that is not being primary breadwinners, as is culturally expected — to engage in behavior culturally associated with masculinity." She continued, "For men, especially young men, the dominant definition of masculinity is scripted in terms of sexual virility and conquest, particularly with respect to multiple sex partners. Thus, engaging in infidelity may be a way of reestablishing threatened masculinity. Simultaneously, infidelity allows threatened men to distance themselves from, and perhaps punish, their higher earning spouses."

Women Who Are Dominant Earners Are Less Likely to Cheat

Interestingly, Munch's study also revealed that the greater the extent to which women are dominant breadwinners, the less likely they are to cheat. In fact, those who are the sole breadwinner are the least likely to cheat among women.

Munch points out that this fact is connected to previous research that found that women who are primary breadwinners in heterosexual partnerships behave in ways that are designed to minimize the cultural hit on their partner's masculinity that is produced by their financial dependency. They do things like downplay their accomplishments, act in deference to their partners, and do more housework to make up for playing an economic role in their families that society still expects men to play. Sociologists refer to this kind of behavior as "deviance neutralization," which is meant to neutralize the effect of violating social norms.

Men Who are Dominant Earners Are Also More Likely to Cheat

Conversely, men who contribute seventy percent of a couple's combined income are the least likely to cheat among men — a figure that increases with the ratio of their contribution up to that point. However, men who contribute more than seventy percent are increasingly more likely to cheat. Munch reasons that men in this situation expect that their partners will tolerate bad behavior because of their economic dependency. She emphasizes, though, that this increase in infidelity among men who are primary breadwinners is far smaller than the increased rate among those who are economically dependent.

The takeaway? Women at either extreme of the economic balance in their marriages to men have legitimate cause to worry about infidelity. The research suggests that economically egalitarian relationships are the most stable, at least in terms of the threat of infidelity.