Once a cheat, always a cheat?

Of course, infidelity is an area rife with conflict and differing perspectives. In an environment in which having multiple partners is a social norm, infidelity if it exists at all inromantic relationships, may take on different meanings. The individuals involved may react differently, and only experience infidelity if context-specific norms are violated, resulting in betrayal. In cultures where monogamy is the norm, emotional and sexual infidelity are likely to be deemed transgressive —moral, religious, social and possibly legal transgressions, with ensuing consequences. Infidelity often involves deliberately manipulative and deceitful behaviors, acting like one person and, in some cases, later on being revealed as someone else.

This can be a deeply unsettling, disorienting experience, making especially the one being deceived but also the one being unfaithful, come to doubt their own ability to know who they can trust. It can strike at the heart of identity,making us become unfamiliar to ourselves and one another. Doubt and confusion may influence subsequent relationship choices, since a sadly common story is that people thought they could trust the person, only to find out they were again wrong — and often it seems that loyal people are seen as untrustworthy, when they are not. Trust radar (“trustdar”?) appears to be thrown off by betrayal, and in my opinion and experience this often starts young.

Can we agree to disagree?

In mixed societies, societies like ours with turbulent eddies of changing and clashing values and norms, infidelity is likely to be multilayered, requiring a complex balance among many perspectives — if a balance is even achievable or desirable. Some folks believe in strict monogamy, others are in “open relationships” or may sexually identify as inherently polygamous, pansexual, asexual, and so on. In any event, judgment is one main axis around which the debate revolves — those who judge and how they judge, and those who do not judge, and how they engage in discourse. Common ground can be hard to find, and the intense emotions surrounding infidelity often lead to polarization.

The researchers here acknowledge that infidelity is difficult to study due to variations in definitions of what infidelity is, and related terms, “such as infidelity, unfaithfulness, cheating, extra-marital or extra-relational affairs, extra-dyadic involvement, and extra-dyadic sexual involvement are commonly used in the literature…they all attempt to assess the same underlying construct, which we refer to as infidelity.”

The note that — in spite of changes in norms for intimate romantic relationships — the majority of couples expect monogamy. Nevertheless, infidelity is common, with a yearly incidence of 2-4 percent for both men and women, as noted in this recent post on research about what prevents couples from cheating. The lifetime rate of infidelity is estimated at 20 percent for married couples. Infidelity harms both people in the couple, the people around them including the paramour, as well as children and other friends and family who are bystanders to the betrayal. Infidelity is often experienced as betrayal trauma, and represents a serious and damaging breach of trust for the majority of couples, and a form of painful rejection.

What factors are associated with infidelity?

Included in the many consequences of infidelity are strain on the relationship, often leading to splitting up. Infidelity is one of the most commonly reported precursors to divorce, and one of the most thorny and intractable problems couples therapists face in their work. Risk factors for infidelity from prior research include:

  1. Low relationship commitment
  2. Declining sexual and relationship satisfaction
  3. Specific personality traits (e.g. avoidant attachment style;extroversion, neuroticsm and lower agreeableness, in terms of the “Big 5” personality traits)
  4. Permissive attitudes about sex/infidelity
  5. Being in a social context which approves of infidelity

Regarding serial infidelity, Knopp and colleagues point to two major theories, though the literature on infidelity in general is rich, complex and growing: 1) how many high-quality alternative partners are available and 2) attitudes about whether infidelity is acceptable. From these perspectives, the following general factors are most relevant:

  1. When people know people who are appealing, and available, they are more likely to succumb to temptation.
  2. People who have already had affairs know that they exist, and can happen.
  3. People who already have had an affair are more likely to find infidelity acceptable in the first place (for whatever reasons — social, upbringing, personality, etc.).
  4. People who engage in infidelity are more likely convince themselves affairs are acceptable in order to lower cognitive dessonance(a form of inner conflict).
  5. Therefore having an affair may make it more likely to have another affair, as efforts to alleviate cognitive dissonance may result in a shift toward greater acceptance of infidelity in order to integrate unfaithful behavior into one’s view of oneself.
  6. For some, unfaithful behavior may lead them to address underlying issues and alter their behavior and beliefs and again come to find infidelity to be unacceptable.