Marriage is susceptible to all kinds of pressures; some internal and some external. Sometimes one partner goes outside the marriage to fulfill emotional or sexual needs—but what leads to cheating, and can it be prevented?

Psychologists are locked in a constant battle over what constitutes cheating and whether one spouse can stop the other from having an affair, while divorce lawyers deal with the fallout every day.

What Counts as Cheating?

If you asked ten people to define cheating, you’d probably get ten different answers. Some people consider a wandering eye the mark of a cheater, while others define it as strictly sexual conduct outside a marriage or committed relationship. Some people feel that online affairs are cheating, while others think that flirtation—even in person—is completely acceptable.

What Psychologists Say

Generally, the only consensus psychologists can reach is that the definition of cheating is in the eye of the beholder. One person might be fine with the exchange of a few steamy e-mails, while another would march straight to a divorce lawyer’s office over them.

It’s also tough to determine the reasons people cheat—they’re different in every relationship. If you’re dealing with a cheating spouse, your best bet is to come right out and ask. However, getting a straight answer from the guilty party isn’t always easy.

Why Cheaters Cheat

Psychologists suggest that people cheat for myriad reasons. Some include:

  • Poor self-control. A person who has difficulty controlling impulses might act without thinking. If the opportunity presents itself, a person with poor self-control might cheat.
  • Selfishness. Someone who puts his or her needs and wants before their partner’s may not care that there could be negative consequences for their actions.
  • A need for attention, whether physical or emotional. When a person doesn’t get the fulfillment they need within a relationship, they may go outside it to have their needs met.
  • Boredom. Some people are natural thrill-seekers, and they may thrive on the excitement an extramarital affair will provide.
  • Insecurity. People who are insecure might use an affair as a way of feeling more secure by thinking things like “I can get others to have feelings for me; that’s how good I am.”

After Cheating: Your Options

If your spouse cheats on you, you have two main options: stay or go. Staying means you’ll have to forgive your spouse and learn to let go of the hurt, anger and resentment they caused you. You can (and probably should) talk to a lawyer about leaving the marriage if you don’t think you’ll be able to embrace forgiveness. Talking to a divorce lawyer doesn’t always end in divorce, but it will give you a clear picture of your options and what your life might be like without having to deal with a cheating spouse.