Do Your Couples Get High From Cheating? - Couples Institute

Do Your Couples Get High From Cheating?

I heard an interesting interview a few weeks ago as I was driving to work. Michael Smerconish was interviewing Celia Moore from the London Business School about research on cheating.

While it is almost universally accepted that people who lie, cheat or steal feel guilty (if they are not sociopaths) unexpectedly her team discovered a positive “hit” from cheating and getting away with it. They call it “The Cheater’s High”.

The most positive emotions after cheating occurred when a person was able to “pull a fast one” and cheat in an area where they believed no one would get hurt.

Some of the most common examples were faking the need for a therapy dog, sneaking into a handicapped parking spot, or cheating on a test. A behavior that seemed especially likely to create a “cheater’s high” was getting a prime parking spot at a large sporting arena like the Hollywood Bowl, where there are a large number of handicapped parking spots.

The researchers also discovered that not only do cheaters feel good about getting away with something, but they will cheat more frequently when they know many others are cheating in the same way.

Listening to Celia Moore’s discussion reminded me of some of the interviews we did with partners when writing Tell Me No Lies: How to Face the Truth and Build a Loving Marriage.

In our interviews, 40% of husbands and 30% of wives acknowledged lying to their partners in the past year. Some of the most common lies were how much something cost (especially clothes for women and hobby equipment for men) and where they were going after work or out to lunch.

We framed this kind of misinformation as conflict avoidance in the book. We believed that the deception enabled partners to avoid conflict, often conflict that seemed unnecessary or conflict that they feared. Therefore, we imagined the lies to be self -protective. We didn’t think about the possible release of hormones in the pleasure centers of the brain.

What an extra layer of reinforcement if partners were also experiencing some aspects of a dopamine high when they cheated or deceived their partners in small ways!

The clinical implications of this research are fascinating.

Please share your thoughts.

  • Have you ever heard a client describe cheating this way?
  • Have you ever experienced “a high” from deceiving or pulling a fast one on a loved one?
  • Did you ever consider how dopamine release might increase the likelihood of deception?

If you’d like to read the whole article, read The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior, by Nicole E. Ruedy, University of Washington, Celia Moore, London Business School, Francesca Gino, Harvard University, Maurice E. Schweitzer, University of Pennsylvania.

For more information or to order our book on this subject, visit Tell Me No Lies.

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Kathleen Hancox Izzo
Kathleen Hancox Izzo

Hi Ellyn,

As I read your post what came to mind for me is my neighbor who has a handicapped parking sticker, though he is far from handicapped. Although I silently criticize him in my mind for cheating, if we go out in his car I feel a “high” from being part of the “in-crowd” that gets the best parking space. Interesting thread you have started.



It is too simplistic to look at cheating as simply an addictive behavior and adopt a disease model. Further inquiry would be necessary to ascertain how the patient interprets the high they experience. For example, one man may interpret the “high” as getting away with it versus another man may interpret the “high” as feeling young and virile again. One woman may interpret the “high” as feeling desired while another woman may interpret it as a sign she is in a dead marriage. The meaning they attach to their experience can illicit the issue(s) that need to be addressed.

Darryl Leis
Darryl Leis

When a person perceives that he or she has gambled and obtains a reward and is able to perceive utility, there is a sense of accomplishment. For some it is the thrill of a competition, as in the thrill of “winning.” For others it can even be a sense of justice, as in how one feels when imagining how it would feel to behave like Robin Hood. I once had a client who stole a car and was proud of himself in thinking that he needed it more than the owner–until after he found out that he had stolen it from someone he knew. I personally believe that the cheater’s high is real for some, especially those that are able to internalize a self-serving mental image of reality (convenient illusory interpretation of reality) that the behavior is utilitarian and that there is no victim. For many opportunists believe that luck is where opportunity meets preparedness and where there is no bad ending.

Greg Rowe
Greg Rowe

This has been an intense focus of my work for the last year or two – starting with the phenomenon of porn addiction which kept appearing around me.

In 2011 I attended a fascinating seminar on the brain and addictions conducted by a Stanford neuro-scientist. She explained that most of the research focus was on substances because that’s where all the funding goes. As someone who works with people with compulsive behaviors I felt I could learn things even if that wasn’t exactly my focus.

At one point she described how the the spike in dopaminergic levels are very different between the first time someone takes a drug and the second, third, fourth times and so on. Starting around the second time the spike in dopamine is higher BEFORE the drug is ingested ie during contemplation and the spike from the drug is never as high as it was the first time. This stopped me dead in my tracks! This was precisely what I was working with: folks who conjure up thoughts obsessively to numb out. This fascinated me!

I was so excited I raised my hand and tried to take her off on this track. Alas she was set on discussing substance addiction where all the data is.

Dopamines cannot be created artificially and ingested. Unlike nicotine, or opiates which stimulate certain neuro-transmitters, nothing replaces dopamine like dopamine. Ritalin can help it increase, as can exercise, and ingesting more protein. But to get a real good dopamine rush one has to give it to oneself. It is the neuro-stimulant that gets us all revved up and ready to pounce. Dopamine taps into our caveman self. In particularly it surges when we contemplate food, sex or a victory.

I would submit that the rush of dopamine obtained from cheating is a sense that one has or is about to have a victory over convention, the law, authority, “The Man”.

In a way I believe it is similar to the dopamine rush that precedes punching someone in the face or going to a baseball game in the hopes of winning. I have a hunch it is a big part of what drives executives in high powered, corporate jobs when they are about to “cut a deal”.

I believe folks who have sex outside of their couple pump themselves on dopamine not just be engaging in the preparatory rituals of extra-marital adventure but also by violating a taboo. Many folks say “It was even more exciting because we were breaking the rules.”

I have heard time and again young women addicted to not eating share with me a rush of scraping a carefully composed plate of food into the garbage disposal as a form of victory over something.

If one has a naturally low level of dopamine these are all great ways to bring the levels up and feel some more aliveness in one’s life. As we know they don’t just have good sides.

David Ortmann
David Ortmann

Perhaps if couples discussed their very natural sexual desires for people outside their coupling, or entertained the idea of a consensually non-monogamous relationship design, they’re might be less “cheating” to get high from.

Julia Flood
Julia Flood

This reminds me of a client who took great pleasure from getting away with hurting her husband in small, barely detectible ways, such as cutting holes into or removing buttons from his favorite clothes. She was highly conflict-avoidant but also had a pre-occupied attachment style, and she often felt rejected by her avoidantly-attached partner. She was deeply angry about her emotional dependency on him but didn’t have the skills to articulate her desires in a vulnerable, differentiated way. Dopamine might be the explanation why the hostile behavior worked for her (made her feel powerful), but it’s hard to imagine that a securely attached and differentiated individual would be as attracted to that kind of Dopamine rush provided by (passive) aggression.

Lois Mitchell
Lois Mitchell

Greg Rowe makes some interesting points for me – the dopamine “rush” in cheating being similar to the adrenalin rush needed for ‘fight/flight’ behavior. I think of it in terms of the push/pull between excitement and guilt/shame.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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