The Real Reason People Might Cheat More in Their Early 20s

If you’re in your early 20s and are hanging onto the blind hope that people are less likely to be assholes in their relationships later in life, a new study on why millennials cheat brings some potentially good news: According to researchers from the University of Tennessee, young adults might be inclined to cheat as a side effect of growing up and trying to figure out who they are.

The study, published recently in the Journal of Sex Research, surveyed a small group of 104 “emerging adults” who were 22 years old on average, mostly heterosexual, and said they’d cheated on their primary partner in the past six months. The study authors wrote that they focused on this particular age group because it’s thought of as a time of exploration and experimentation, and it’s possible that cheating is one way twentysomethings try to meet “developmental needs” for independence as adults, and interdependence in their relationships.

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What researchers found is that a majority of respondents (about 76 percent) said they’d cheated for “interdependence” reasons, and a majority of those respondents cheated because they felt a lack of intimacy in their relationship. One 24-year-old man described a situation in which he felt “neglected emotionally” by his partner, who he perceived as not being there for him after a death in his family. The woman he cheated with, however, “would always make herself available to talk.”

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Intimacy is described by researchers as a developmental need for young adults in their early twenties who are essentially still trying to figure out what they want and need from a romantic partner. And, as their research suggests, it’s possible that an unmet need for intimacy could drive a person to seek out intimacy elsewhere.

About 21 of the 104 respondents said a feeling of unmet independence was the reason behind choosing to cheat. One 19-year-old man said he was simply unhappy with his primary partner, and “was tired of being consumed by one single person and having no freedom to be with other people and have no restrictions on [his] actions.” He could have, of course, broken up with his partner if he felt so consumed with her — but that’s not what the researchers in this particular study were interested in.

So why study cheating among this age group? As the study’s lead author Jerika Norona, a graduate student at the University of Tennessee and psychology intern at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, told Broadly, it’s because cheating is an emotionally painful experience and we should 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,” she said. “This way, our interventions can be specialized and consider what emerging adults are going through as individuals and as romantic partners.”

No amount of research can really excuse a behavior like cheating, but maybe if you’ve been in the unfortunate position of being cheated on in your early twenties, this offers a bit of hope. It looks like all the wild changes happening as a person enters adulthood and is still trying to figure themselves out can have a real effect on how likely they are to cheat. So MAYBE things will get more stable with age. Or maybe some people are just guiltless and love to cheat, and won’t ever actually grow out of that.

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