Deception and lies about intimate relationships may take many forms. Commonly, infidelity is understood as intimate physical contact with someone outside the relationship, including marriage. In this case one can talk about a physical affair, also referred to as adultery. In a situation when intimacy is shared with a third party but there is no physical contact, one can talk about an emotional affair. As Wojciech Wypler (2016: 11) points out, infidelity constitutes then a “violation of trust and obvious principles guiding a relationship between two people.” A cyberaffair could be considered a gateway leading from an emotional to a physical affair as it can be both a means to the latter and an end in itself.

According to a 2011 CBOS report "Zdrady i romanse" (Affairs and Romances), almost 25% of Poles engaged in intimate contacts with someone in a stable relationship or cheated on their own partner (CBOS, 2011). According to a 2016 research report by the Social Prevention Center (Centrum Profilaktyki Społecznej), there had been an upward trend since 2011. 46% of men and 32% of women, respectively, admitted to cheating, with 24% of respondents declaring extramarital sexual contacts in the preceding year (Jędrzejko, 2016).

Analyzing the above data, one can conclude that the increasing share of people admitting to cheating results, on the one hand, from changes in morality, and on the other, from respondents’ greater honesty. Of significance here is the question of how love is understood. Love, as Eva Illouz notices, becomes nowadays a project subject to optimization, or even a cultural practice regulated by market mechanisms (Illouz, 2016). These attitudes lead to further cultural influences shaping the character of intimate relationships, turning fidelity today more to a personal challenge and choice rather than a social or religious obligation.

The aim of the article is to illustrate the role of infidelity in contemporary relationships of young people who, on the threshold of adulthood, seek love, enter into relationships, make decisions, give in or resist temptations, thus shaping their intimate lives’ trajectories.

Research Methodology and Organization

The research that provided data for this article had an exploratory character and was conducted in the spring of 2020 on a purposefully selected sample of academic youth aged 18–29 (n = 1362). Out of those, 621 complete and usable interviews were obtained (n = 621). The interviews formed another edition of the research project carried out by the Research Lab of the Polish Values and Attitudes Assessment (PPPiW)Footnote 1 at the Institute of Sociology at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw (UKSW). For the first time, however, respondents were asked questions about infidelity and intimacy.

Research topics were organized around the following questions:

  1. (1)

    In your opinion, which of the following situations indicate being in a relationship with someone? There is no true relationship without love; A couple should have common plans for the future; ‘Sleeping together’ does not have to mean you are in a relationship; We share common values and interests; Successful sex life with a partner; Living together with a partner; We can count on each other regardless of the circumstances; Sexting is a way to revive the relationship.

  2. (2)

    Which of the following do you consider cheating? Casual sex; Having sex with someone other than a partner or spouse; Being in an intimate relationship with a third party (not involving sex); Imagining intimate situations and sex with a third party; Pursuing intimate contact via texts/emails with a third party; Sexting with a third party; Swinging; Flirting at a party, bar, cinema, etc.

  3. (3)

    In your opinion, which of the following situations may induce someone to cheat? Being unhappy in the current relationship; Emergence of an opportunity (for an affair); Boredom and stagnation, Little value assigned to the relationship as of now, The most important thing is having fun; Partner does not satisfy me sexually; Partner’s long physical absence; Partner's health problems; Falling in love and entering a relationship with someone else.

In order to determine how young people understand relationship, love, and infidelity, exploratory factor analysis was used. It enabled reduction of dimensions and facilitated sociological interpretation of the studied phenomena. To operationalize the concepts of relationship, love and infidelity, it was necessary to use various variables and many subscales. In each case, application of factor analysis reduced the studied phenomenon to two factors corresponding to the two components of cultural meanings of love: pure relationship (Giddens, 1992), defined by desire and eroticism, and romantic love, defined by devotion, faithfulness and relationship durability.

The survey was conducted online with CAWI (Computer Assisted (Aided) Web Interviews) technique using an Internet channel supervised by Lime-Survey system. IBM SPSS/PASW Statistics data matrix was used for the statistical analysis, which was carried out in two stages. First, in order to show simple visualization of the researched topics, contingency tables were built and then, in order to structure the data, exploratory factor analysis and t-student tests were computed to detect statistically significant differences (Bedyńska & Cypryańska, 2013).

The following analysis is based on 621 respondents with women constituting 78.6% of the sample. The sample’s gender imbalance is a direct consequence of the respondents’ academic profile. Volunteers for the study were recruited mainly from humanities and social science programs, which are numerically dominated by women.Footnote 2

Intimate Relationship and Love

The topics of love and infidelity due to their specificity and subtlety form a genuine challenge for researchers. The phenomena of intimacy and closeness are inherently difficult to measure, both at the data collection stage and during the analytical process. We do not have a clearly defined research tool here; we do not know the number of specific subscales or variables that could capture the problem’s essence without embarrassing the subject. Exploratory factor analysis allows one to search for data structure, determine the number of subscales, and reduce the number of variables by creating indicators that allow for the interpretation of difficult and intimate relationships.

While reflecting on the essence of contemporary intimate relationships, attitudes towards and reasons for infidelity, and the place of emotions and love in these relationships, we first took a step back and determined how respondents define relationship. It was assumed that adolescents’ attitudes to infidelity will depend on their definition of relationship or more precisely, on how they understand it. Respondents could define relationship using a number of associations such as: There is no true relationship without love; A couple should have common plans for the future; ‘Sleeping together’ does not have to mean you are in a relationship; We share common values and interests; Successful sex life with a partner; Living together with a partner; We can count on each other regardless of the circumstances; Sexting is a way to revive the relationship.

To determine indicators of “love”, exploratory factor analysis with the principal axis method was conducted (Table 1). The scree plot criterion distinguished two relevant factors. Together, these factors explain 34% of the variance in the results, indicating that they are strong. Direct oblique oblimin rotation analysis indicated that the first factor is strongly associated with the following items: ‘Sleeping together’ does not have to mean you are in a relationship; Successful sex life with a partner; Living together with a partner; Sexting is a way to revive the relationship. These questions’ factor loadings are respectively 0.546; 0.757; 0.446; 0.540, which are relatively high numbers. The second factor is composed of the items: There is no true relationship without love; We share common values and interests; A couple should have common plans for the future; We can count on each other regardless of the circumstances. Their factor loadings are respectively 0.516; 0.644; 0.481; 0.389.

Table 1 Exploratory factor analysis: Which situation determines being in a relationship?

From the sociological point of view, the first factor can be described as hedonistic as it is associated with the relationship-constituting components emphasizing its sexual aspect. Similarly, as in a “pure relationship,” which we enter for its own sake (Giddens, 1992: 2), sex assumes here a prominent place. In a pure relationship, love is considered a skill which is improved through consecutive experiments and experiences, including sexual ones, as “one may even... believe that love-making skills are bound to grow as the experience accumulates; that the next love will be an experience yet more exhilarating than the one currently enjoyed” (Bauman, 2008: 5). Consumer need for extraordinary experiences and a new, consumer lifestyle, which breaks down with permanence and stabilization, leads to an emphasis on the relationship’s sexual aspect (Szlendak, 2008:135–140). Sexuality generates pleasure—as pointed out by Anthony Giddens—“and pleasure, or at least the promise of it, provides a leverage for marketing goods in a capitalistic society” (Giddens, 1992: 176). Zygmunt Bauman wrote outright that “it is more than what we usually cover by the concept of ‘hedonism’—the fascination with the delights of eating and lasting or the tendency to live a life full of pleasure, entertainment and fun (…) is a reversal of the values attributed to persistence and valuation” (Bauman, 2007: 6).

The second factor can be described as relational because it emphasizes the relationship aspects related to its subjectivity. This subjectivity of love relies on the active interest in life and development of what we love (Fromm, 1956). It reflects romantic love (as exemplified by Harlequin romance books), associated with dependence, trust, support, and understanding. “Loved person had a similar labile psychophysical response that included exhilaration, euphoria, buoyancy, spiritual feelings, increased energy, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, shyness, awkwardness … flushing, stammering, gazing, prolonged eye contact, dilated pupils … accelerated breathing, anxiety … in the presence of the loved person” (Fisher, 1998: 32). As Barbara Łobodzińska writes, the vision of romantic love “comes from the conviction that true love is one and only, and that of all the people around the world, everyone has a second half destined for them” (Łobodzińska, 1975: 201). Some relationship aspects associated with this factor are planning a common future or acknowledgment of mutual responsibilities. Following Janusz Gajda, in this type of relationship, one understands love as the highest happiness, art, life, and religion (Gajda 1993: 42–43). Moreover, we can use arguments that good relations take work (Gabb & Fink, 2015: 18–19).

Considering the obtained results, it can be observed that young people’s love is not always carefree and happy. On the contrary, it is very mature, but not necessarily fulfilled. Romantic love is the desired kind, but, on the other hand, sexual aspirations and cravings are visible. It is likely that, as Zygmunt Bauman wrote, we are dealing here with “a paradox of the most invidious sort: not just that the relationship fails to gratify the need it was meant (and hoped) to placate, but that it makes that need yet more vexatious and trying” (Bauman, 2008:29).

When does Infidelity Take Place?

When individuals’ reasonable and thoughtful decisions, based on fidelity and mutual trust, do not meet expectations, further actions might seem irrational and create additional problems. The main question arising here concerns person’s expectations and their underlying motivations, and whether their actions are in fact irrational. After all, the postmodern world is governed by a completely different set of rules and principles than those applying just a few decades ago. The reality of postmodern societies is a reality of opportunities and controlled risk; it is a world without formalities, norms, and moral codes. This world opens up an unlimited variety of choices and experiences, but this way it also brings about a sense of uncertainty and confusion. In a fluid, postmodern world, the direction of flow depends entirely on us (Bauman, 2018; Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1991; Szlendak, 2008). These rules—or rather their absence—come to predominate over more and more aspects of social life, including the intimate life. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote, contemporary relationships are like a “rudderless,” “frail raft” that “sways between one and the other of the two ill-famed rocks” (Bauman, 2008: 16).

In modern societies, the concepts of relationship durability and fidelity are treated with immense suspicion. Every commitment limits an individual’s freedom, but despite that “we long for great, eternal love” (Szlendak, 2011: 405). Undoubtedly, "love is eternal […] however, it seems that the condition of being in love, which each time is experienced by different people, manifests itself in various ways, has a variable content, and brings out different values depending on the historical era, specific conditions, and finally, every couple’s individual qualities” (Łobodzińska, 1975: 149).

A new cultural and moral paradigm defining male–female relations, built on the foundations of a new individualized form of love, in which “everything is related to ‘me’—and that includes the ‘us’” (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2014: 65), results in a change in the love horizon’s value, a decrease in empathy, and growth of narcissism in the society (Przybył, 2017: 61–69)—as both women and men are “caught up in the infinite loop of an unquenchable desire for happiness” (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2014: 65). This process, along with noticeable discourse changes pointing to the infidelity’s positive implications, brings about a visible intimacy crisis, absence of initiations of lasting relationships, and an increase in the incidence of affairs (Przybył, 2017: 61–69; 2020: 196).

On one hand, infidelity "is the most frequent cause of relationship breakdown" (Wojcieszke, 2010: 301); on the other hand, one can identify a wide variety of sexual relations in which the sexual intercourse or physical contact with a third person takes place under the partner's consent, e.g. polyamory or swinging (Anapol, 2013: 21, Grunt-Mejer, 2014: 161). As wrote “consensual non-monogamies have become a sexual story of intense public fascination” (Barker & Langdridge, 2010:749) so define infidelity isn’t obvious (Table 2).

Importantly, as shown with factor analysis conducted with the principal axis method, infidelity is not always associated with sexual acts (Table 2). Scree plot criterion identified two relevant factors. Together, these factors explain 45.3% of the variance in the results, indicating that they are reasonably strong. Direct oblique oblimin rotation analysis indicated that the first factor is strongly associated with the following items: Being in an intimate relationship with a third party (not involving sex), imagining intimate situations and sex with a third party, pursuing intimate contacts with a third party via texts or emails, and flirting at a party, bar, cinema, etc. These questions’ factor loadings are respectively 0.502, 0.647, 0.720, and 0.602, which are quite high numbers. The second factor consists of the following items: Casual sex, having sex with someone other than the partner or spouse, sexting with a third party, and swinging. Their factor loadings are respectively − 0.813, − 0.812, − 0.401, and − 0.350.

Table 2 Behaviors considered an affair in the respondents’ opinion

In the light of the discussed theories, the first factor can be interpreted in terms of emotional infidelity as it strongly loads the variables related to the emotional, not physical, aspects of a relationship with a third party. Precisely such relationships with a person other than one’s partner strain mutual trust, devotion, and a sense of security in the relationship. As Wojciech Wypler wrote (2016:11), “you cheat when you are in a relationship with one person and go to bed with another. But you also cheat when you enter an intimate, close relationship with, are fascinated by, spend much time, miss, and think about someone else.” In the respondents’ opinion, one might engage in cheating also when they develop an emotional, even intimate relationship with a third party, remain in constant virtual contact with them, or enter a seemingly innocent flirtation.

The second factor is characterized by strong intensity of the variables associated primarily with sexual acts, i.e. a physical affair. Following Bogusław Sygit’s definition, an affair "is an act of marital infidelity committed by persons of different sexes, at least one of whom is in a valid marriage, which is undertaken with the goal to have a sexual intercourse and thus achieve sexual satisfaction, with intercourse taking place consciously and voluntarily, which takes places either with or without the spouse’s consent and knowledge” (Sygit, 1992: 23). Duncombe and Marsden note the broad spectrum over which sexual infidelity spans, from brief one night stands, to long-term affairs which ‘become imbued with the complex symbolism of uncontrollable desire, betrayal, risk, danger and secrecy’ (Duncombe & Marsden 2004: 14). According to this approach, infidelity includes casual sex, sexual relations with someone other than the partner, swinging (which usually takes place under the partner’s consent or participation), and sexting.

Statements that are highly charged with a given factor contribute to the index to a greater extent. Moreover, based on tabular analysisFootnote 3 and student’s t-tests, we know that there are statistically significant differences regarding men’s and women’s approaches to the specific types of affairs (T1 (619) = − 3.150, p < 0.01; T2 (158) = 2.024, p < 0.01). Women more often consider all listed behaviors as acts of infidelity because they adore the "romantic love with its associated mythology" (Szlendak, 2005: 186). Men, on the other hand, are “locked in an emotionless box” (Szlendak, 2005: 188). But it should not be assumed that men do not love their partners. “Men, like women, fall in love and have done so throughout the recorded past” (Giddens, 1992: 59), however, men are pragmatic and so they choose women who will be the most “suitable for their lives” (Szlendak, 2005: 190). Therefore, for them, love is “a mode of organizing personal life in relation to the colonizing of future time and to the construction of self-identity” (Giddens, 1992: 59). Nowadays, men construct experiences of love and intimacy based on rationally made decisions, which, coupled with the added need for sexual diversity (Dawkin, 1989; Wilson, 1998), result in lesser restraint in contacts with the opposite sex. In addition, men’s and women’s cultural expectations regarding intimate relationships are fundamentally different; hence, an act of infidelity for a woman could just be a text message for a man. As Jankowiak wrote “differences in women's responses to infidelity reflect differences in intensity to which a patriarchal ethos is internalized within a culture. It follows that men around the world should be equally vigilant in mate-guarding efforts, whereas women, due in large part to the internalization of a patriarchal ethos, as well as to their marginality, should be relatively indifferent to a spouse's infidelity” (2002:87).

Why Do We Cheat?

Nevertheless, no moral code has “deterred Western men and women—or people in any other society—from cheating on their mates” (Fisher, 2016: 77). Even with feelings of remorse, a sense of immorality, accompanying fears and uncertainties, and despite the dangers for maintaining life stability, people have cheated and keep cheating. It is hard to say who cheats more often; likely, no statistics reflect the real scale of the problem. Undoubtedly, men are more likely to admit to cheating because they are prone to brag about sexual conquests while women prefer to hide their affairs (Fisher, 2016), but we do not know the infidelity’s extent. The motives leading to infidelity are much more palpable.

To identify predictors of infidelity, exploratory factor analysis with the principal axis method was conducted (Table 3). Scree plot criterion distinguished two relevant factors. Together, these factors explain 58.4% of the variance in the results, indicating that they are strong. Direct oblique oblimin rotation analysis indicated that the first factor is strongly associated with the following items: Emergence of an opportunity (for an affair), boredom and stagnation, little value assigned to the relationship as of now, the most important thing is having fun, partner does not satisfy me sexually, partner’s long physical absence, and partner’s health problems. These questions’ factor loadings are respectively 0.761, 0.525, 0.783, 0.441, 0.642, and 0.755, being high numbers. The second factor consists of the following items: Being unhappy in the current relationship, falling in love and entering a relationship with another person. Their factor loadings are respectively 0.858 and 0.778.

Table 3 Causes of an affair in the respondents’ opinion

The first factor is heavily loaded with variables indicating, on the one hand, a need for a moment or an emerging opportunity, and on the other, sexual needs, which are not mutually exclusive. Such-defined attitudes correspond to the hedonistic type of relationship that emphasizes the importance of sexual relationship and immediate pleasure gratification. The matter is not at all about the lack of love or emotions, but rather about achieving personal happiness. As Mariola Bieńko writes, “a relationship is a path to personal happiness. The idea of love has been strongly associated with the freedom that becomes fulfilled in an act of self-realization” (Bieńko, 2017: 51). After all, as we know, since the 1950s, Americans have regarded sexual gratification as an indispensable requirement of individual fulfillment and happiness (Seidman, 2015). In a situation when sex ceases to be the relationship’s central ingredient due to an excess of work and family responsibilities (Hakim, 2012), sexual needs satisfaction may take place outside of the relationship. Lack of sexual accessibility may also be an individual question, while the way in which sexual tensions resulting from the inability to have sex with the partner are released may be a morally ambiguous matter; yet such cases are also encountered (Hakim, 2012).

Remaining within the realm of sociology of emotions, we might label the potential motives of infidelity strongly associated with the second factor as love actions—actions related to the search for happiness and fulfillment in a relationship with someone else. In other words, we enter and build love relationships in order to find a love for a lifetime. The matter is about a “spark” or an emerging “heat” of feelings connecting two people. Leaving aside the question of partner selection (Buss, 2016), the goal is to “achieve a certain emotional state (feeling) that would be induced by mutual attractiveness, likeness, and closeness (intimacy) between the people entering a partner relationship” (Szlendak, 2002: 37). Such behaviors or decisions may result from the fact that the initial phase of love, i.e. infatuation, seems the most attractive (Wojcieszke, 2009: 24–25), which results in initiation of an infinite number of romances, since "multiple attempts at experiencing love each time end up with the conclusion that it had not been a true love because it came to an end” (Łobodzińska, 1975: 200).

As with situations referred to as infidelity, also in the case of motives of initiating "forbidden" relationships we observe statistically significant differences regarding sexual motives depending on gender T(169.7) = 4.5, p < 0.001. Men much more often pointed to the physical motives of infidelity and were definitely less judgmental when assessing this type of behavior. When evaluating the motives of cheating, men take into account mostly physical drives, which means that outside of the relationship they usually look for sex. Women’s romance motives definitely invoke love—or rather its lack—and the need to end the current relationship and enter a new one, although here we do not observe statistically significant differences T (619) = − 1.89, p > 0.05 ni.


The results obtained herein have made it possible to undermine the “belief in a lifelong relationship” (Schmidt, 2015: 357) and to identify indicators shaping relationship as well as infidelity and its motives. Undoubtedly, romantic love is still looked for. Yet, in a way, it contradicts the idea of sexual freedom with the latter gaining more and more followers.

The new paradigm of love, typical for the hedonistic type of relationship, seems to apply at every stage of building and maintaining a relationship. Infidelity itself bears the hallmarks of hedonism because it is the most commonly equated with sexual desire and explained with a lack of its satisfaction; still, infidelity should not be limited to its sexual aspect. Above all, emotional infidelity seems significantly more detrimental because, although outwardly harmless, it has deep motives and violates the structures of trust and security norms. In a similar vein, contemporary young respondents’ state of mind is mirrored in the infidelity’s emotional motives that shake the fundamental, cultural bases of fidelity.

Nowadays, infidelity is no longer morally, socially, or religiously prohibited. These days, behaviors fitting the spectrum of infidelity are the question of individual personal choice in accordance with the contemporary “do it yourself” project (Szlendak, 2002).