In Love and War

Rethinking the way we treat ourselves.

How Likely Is Your Partner to Cheat?

Findings in 4 areas give us important clues on infidelity.

As a culture, we are fascinated by infidelity. Philandering politicians and celebrities always make headlines—and everyone has an opinion on the matter.

But we are also desperate to understand who cheats and why, and for good reason: Infidelity can destroy our relationships, break up our families, and impact our mental health. So what does the research say? Can we predict who is more likely to be unfaithful? Here are four findings that give us significant clues:

1. Power corrupts, but so does powerlessness.

According to a 2011 study published in Psychological Science, what appears to be a gender difference in cheating may really be about power. Males showed a higher incidence of cheating than women, but the study found that having power in the workplace, not gender, turned out to be the strongest predictor of cheating, in part because it was associated with greater confidence. There were no gender differences in actual and desired cheating. The researchers predicted that as women gain more power in the workplace, their rates of cheating may very well come to rival men's.

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Other research suggests, though, that men may also cheat when they lack power, especially when they feel inferior to their wives and girlfriends (think Sandra Bullock's ex, Jesse James). One study found that men who are financially dependent on their female partners are more likely to cheat. This seems to be related to a sense of threatened masculinity that triggers compensatory behaviors. Of course, this finding does not apply to all men—some may instead respond to their partner's financial generosity with appreciation and a willingness to compensate on the domestic front instead. 

2. Some of us may be wired to stray. 

A controversial but provocative finding suggests that people with a variant of the DRD4 gene (dopamine receptor polymorphism) are more likely to be unfaithful. This gene is also associated with addictive behaviors, which operate through the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for motivating pleasure-seeking behavior. According to the study, people who possess this particular genetic variant need more excitement to feel satisfied, which may lead them to stray. But the researchers note that possession of this genetic variant does not excuse dishonesty. It just might mean that certain people have to exercise greater self-control in the face of temptation if they wish to be in a monogamous relationship. 

Interestingly, the research also suggests advantages to possessing the gene—it’s also associated with creativity and novelty-seeking, and these qualities can be useful in other domains and may even help keep the excitement alive in relationships. So, should you make your partner get genetic testing? Probably not. There are still many unknowns in the field of behavioral genetics, and not everyone who possesses this gene is going to be a cheater. Knowing that you or your partner has it could create unnecessary suspicion and even result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

3. Is there a cheating-prone personality? 

Research suggests that people with insecure attachment styles are more likely to struggle with fidelity, though for different reasons, depending on the type of insecurity: Those with anxious attachment styles, who will tend to doubt their partner's love and need excessive reassurance, are more likely to cheat as a way of seeking greater intimacy. On the other hand, someone with an avoidant attachment style, characterized by discomfort with closeness, may have an affair in an effort to gain space and freedom from a partner.

Other individual differences that are associated with infidelity include higher testosterone levels in men—and higher IQs in both genders. Religiosity tends to be associated with lower rates of infidelity. In one study, participants who were randomly assigned to pray for their partner every day for four weeks were less likely to be unfaithful than others. Even if you are not religious, taking time out to consider your partner's well-being is likely to deter you from behaving in a way that could hurt them.

4. Relationship dissatisfaction is only part of the story.

Research suggests that dissatisfaction with a relationship accounts for only a small proportion of the variance in cheating behavior. In fact, claiming dissatisfaction as a cause may just be an excuse that cheaters use after the fact to justify their behavior, a classic case of cognitive dissonance. In most studies of cheating, participants are asked how happy they were in their relationships after the infidelity has already occurred, increasing the likelihood of inflated dissatisfaction ratings. Even if the dissatisfaction comes first, there are plenty of ways to deal with relationship difficulties without cheating—couples counseling, for example, or leaving the relationship—so dissatisfaction alone is unlikely to be a primary cause.

Further challenging the dissatisfaction explanation, psychotherapist Esther Perel has argued that even happy couples cheat, not to escape bad relationships but to discover new parts of themselves, satisfy needs that cannot be met by their partner alone, or to feel more “alive.” In other words, some people want to have their cake and eat it too. A less selfish—and less hurtful—way to deal with these kinds of desires might be to have an open relationship, but for some people the lying and secrecy itself is part of the thrill.

 

As much as we would like to have surefire methods to identify and avoid cheaters, the truth is we are not very good at detecting liars—some studies say that most of us detect liars no better than we would by blindly guessing. Rather than investing in genetic testing or shunning stay-at-home dads, we are better off building relationships based on trust and open communication, treating each other as we hope to be treated, and being honest if we do make mistakes. 

 

Copyright Juliana Breines

For more see Psych Your Mind.

Juliana Breines, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University.

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