Once a cheater, always a cheater? The science of cheating

By Suzannah Weiss

One in five Americans has had sex with someone else behind their partner’s back, according to one YouGov poll. Why? It’s a question for the ages. Even people who cheat themselves are often unclear about their own motives. 

Cheating often reflects issues that the relationship or the cheater are facing, says practicing psychologist and Harvard lecturer Holly Parker, PhD, author of If We're Together, Why Do I Feel So Alone? Among the people that Astroglide’s resident sexologist Dr. Jess O’Reilly has counseled, explanations for cheating include: “We haven’t had sex in eight years; I love him, but I just don’t see him as a sexual partner anymore,” “I was drunk and I regret it,” “I thought I was in love,” I wanted the friendship and the connection at the time,” and “I think it was the novelty that drew me in.”

A review of research on cheating in Current Opinion in Psychology identified the factors that make someone more likely to cheat. Some are circumstantial. For example, if you’re stressed out or insecure, you may use cheating to soothe yourself or feel good about yourself, says Parker. If you’re unhappy with your relationship or you and your partner are apart for a long time, you might look elsewhere to fulfill unmet needs. Or, if you’re not very committed to your partner, you might feel you don’t have much to lose by cheating. 

Certain personality traits also correlate with cheating, including self-centeredness and a sense of grandiosity or entitlement, according to the study. But on the flip side, people with an insecure attachment style — that is, those who feel unworthy of love and are scared to trust and get close to people — are also more likely to cheat. Interestingly, people with cheating in their families are also more likely to become cheaters, perhaps because they learned that was what love looks like. It also may be easier to cheat if you don’t link sex with emotion. 

Dr. Jess doesn’t believe we’re hard-wired for monogamy, but that’s not an excuse for cheating, nor does it mean nobody should be monogamous. “Monogamy may not be natural, but it’s still desirable for some people and that’s perfectly fine,” she explains. “If you want to be monogamous, find a like-minded partner and make it work. Similarly, if you don’t want to be monogamous, be open and honest about your desires — many people are opting for consensually non-monogamous relationships. What’s important is that you opt into whatever arrangement you choose (being single, monogamous, consensually non-monogamous, monogam-ish) as opposed to stumbling into a relationship because you haven’t considered your options.”

So, does all this mean “once a cheater, always a cheater?” Prior cheaters indeed are more likely to cheat, according to a study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Those in the study who cheated on their first partners were three times as likely to cheat on their next ones, possibly because they’d become desensitized to the guilt that can come with cheating. But this doesn’t mean everyone who has cheated will cheat again.

“Good people can make bad decisions,” says Parker. “And they can learn and grow from them and permanently change their behavior. Infidelity often breaks up relationships, and that’s understandable. At the same time, there are also a number of couples who choose to remain together and focus on healing, working on the issues that lead to cheating, and rebuilding trust. And this is understandable, too. In the end, the most important thing is that both partners are honest with themselves and with each other as they decide not only whether transformation is possible, but also whether they’re willing to put in the effort required to heal and move their relationship to a healthier and more connected and loving place.”

Image Source: Tony Futura 

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