What's the deal with cheaters?

by Dorian Minors

May 8, 2014

Analects  |  Newsletter


In this article, I talk about what makes people more likely and less likely to cheat. Want to know the answer to ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’? Well, so do we, but we talk about that too. If you’re worried your partners messing around, this article will give you the low down on what kind of person is likely to do it and how you can stop it from happening.

On cheating and infidelity.

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Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Article Status: Complete (for now).

Affairs are the top reason for divorce across many cultures. It’s also a leading cause of spousal abuse and murder, whether it’s proven or only suspected. So that’s a fun way to start an article, right? Worse still, Buss and Shackleford found that 30-60% or men and 20-50% of women cheat over the course of a marriage (as of 1997). Just awesome. Real inspiring stuff.

The hardest thing about infidelity is figuring out what it is. People can get upset about fantasies, secrets, porn, all the way up to physical interaction. Now, reading between the lines of our sexual arousal article, we might know that women are more likely to be upset about suspected emotional cheating and men physical ones. When women are in a relationship, they’re often more concerned about stability on a very, very biological level. They want a man who can show that ‘family’ quality. Men are a bit more shallow evolutionarily, really just focused on whether they’re spending time looking after the right family (read: the right baby).

But on a less general level, cheating is so different for every person, it makes it hard to really nail down what constitutes an infidelity. And as you know if you’ve been here a while, psychologists absolutely hate that.

What we can figure out is why people cheat. People who are very impulsive or more narcissistic tend to cheat more. This is pretty obvious, self-absorption comes with the territory there. In fact, personality traits heavily associated with empathy (agreeableness and conscientiousness) are often low in cheaters, as Dave Schmitt in 2004 would have us believe. We also tend to cheat more when our partner is jealous or possessive. Something like a rebellion there. When we’re unsatisfied in our marriages, we cheat. Prior to marriage, cheating is determined by less tangible things. Our devotion to the sex/love/marriage ideal is related. People who do are also often quite high on sexual sensation seeking, and tend to view love as a game (or, for those who read that last article I linked, think unrestricted on the socio-sexual scale). We’re also far more likely to cheat if we think we can fool our partners. What the studies don’t tell us is how these traits relate to subsequent infidelity within marriages; we still don’t really have an answer to the old ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’ adage.

“If you both commit, maintain and really work at being a ‘good’ couple, you’re much less inclined to cheat. Seems intuitive, but now it’s science too.”

There are also things that make people less likely to cheat. Our levels of commitment obviously. But also how good we are at maintaining our relationships (think, inter-chain connections), our positivity, our openness and our ability to assure and reassure. These things protect us from infidelity even when we’re doing it long distance. Maintain our relationships well and generally speaking, they’ll stay maintained. At least in this respect.

In 1980, Rusbult (our conflict resolution woman) came up with ‘Investment Theory’ as a way to explain why people stay with cheaters. Basically, our satisfaction, our investment (financial, time, inter-chain connections) and our commitment all factor into why we might stay with our partners. The fourth and final element in Rusbult’s theory is the quality of our alternatives, something you may have read about in our article on interdependence. If we perceive that we have nothing better to go to, we’re far more likely to stick around. The problem here, is in a relationship we tend to think our partners are unique; no one can replace them; no one will do it as well as them. This, of course is not always the case. Plenty of fish in the sea as they say.

Ok, so what happens after an affair? Well, overall it has a pretty bad effect, as you may have anticipated. Glass, in 2003 showed that we experience a lot more tension and conflict after an affair than before it. But, others (Charny and Parnass, 1995) have shown that if the couples accept this new, uncomfortable element as a part of their marriage (and everyone is confident it won’t happen again), the marriage can actually grow stronger. Unfortunately, this is not often the case and when divorce follows an affair, it’s usually very, very bad for the kids. This kind of dissolution becomes a very strong predictor for insecure attachment styles.

So, infidelity happens pretty commonly. I suppose it really comes down to how much you both invest in the relationship. And whether your partner is an asshole. Look out for people who ‘play the game’, and like it. Or who constantly (not just to spice up the relationship) want to try new things sexually. Be wary of them and maybe check out whether it’s happened before in their relationships. If these two things combine and they aren’t very invested in you, there’s a much higher risk. But then again, that’s not always a guarantee… Love sucks don’t it?

Check out the four signs your relationship is on the rocks if you’re worried about things. Or maybe you feel like you’re always breaking your partners ‘rules’, and things are getting messy? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

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