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Who Unfaithful Partners Are Most Likely to Cheat With

... and the roots of public displays of affair affection.

Key points

  • An individual's motives for infidelity impact their choice of affair partner.
  • Dyadic motivations, such as lacking love in one's primary relationship, were associated with longer affairs.
  • Situational motivations, like being drunk or stressed, produce less satisfying, shorter-lived affairs.
Image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay
Source: Image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay

Most people don’t enter into relationships with a wandering eye. Those who do often demonstrate a predisposition early on, through words, behavior, or both. Yet as I explain in a previous post, the signs of straying can be subtle. When detected, the faithful partner can become hypersensitive to a flirtatious partner’s perceived chemistry with extra-relational alternatives. But in reality, is that the best way to forecast a fling? Research has some answers.

Motives for Infidelity Impact Partner Choice

Many people worry about their partners working with attractive singles, often feeling threatened by the presence of prospective paramours. In reality, straying appears to be more a function of relational dissatisfaction than the desirability of co-workers.

Dylan Selterman et al. (2021) examined how motives for infidelity impacted partner preference, and the experience of an affair.[i] They found that dyadic motivations such as feeling a lack of love or being angry with a partner were associated with having longer affairs, going out more often with affair partners in public, and dissolving their primary relationship. In contrast, what they term "non-dyadic situational motivations," such as being intoxicated or feeling stressed, were associated with having shorter affairs and less satisfying sexual experiences with affair partners, and were less likely to dissolve a primary relationships.

Regarding the motives for infidelity in the first place, Selterman et al. focused on the deficit model of infidelity, which suggests that “sub-optimal relationship experiences” such as high amounts of conflict, poor communication, and decreased relational satisfaction, were most significant in terms of predicting infidelity. In other words, people have affairs because their primary relationship is not meeting their expectations in some area. They found that people motivated by lack of love, sexual desire, and an enjoyment of variety were more satisfied with their affairs. On the other hand, they found that people who were motivated by situational factors were less satisfied with an affair, which was, accordingly, more likely to be short-lived.

Public Display of Affair-Affection

Some people find out about a partner’s infidelity because it was put on public display—which is not just awkward and embarrassing, but also emotionally devastating. What kind of people are likely to boldly venture out on the town with an extra-relational partner? According to research, it's people who are looking for the romance they feel is lacking in their primry relationship.

Selterman et al. found that emotional and romantic variables were associated with relationship health, for better or for worse. They explain that lack of love and neglect motivations prompted intimacy with affair partners for longer periods of time, professing of love, public dating, and displays of affection, while situational motivation was not linked with this behavior. They explain that people who perceive a lack of emotional connection with a primary relational partner may be in search of a deeper intimacy or romantic connection to fill the gap.

Steering Clear

The goal is to avoid becoming involved with someone predisposed to cheat in the first place. Honest partners break up before re-pairing up, thereby avoiding engaging in deception and betrayal. Moving slowly on the front end when vetting prospective partners will increase the likelihood of finding a faithful match with whom you enjoy chemistry and compatibility. Your proactivity will be time well invested, because relational quality is priceless.

Facebook image: Andrii Nekrasov/Shutterstock


[i] Selterman, Dylan, Justin R. Garcia, and Irene Tsapelas. 2021. “What Do People Do, Say, and Feel When They Have Affairs? Associations between Extradyadic Infidelity Motives with Behavioral, Emotional, and Sexual Outcomes.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 47 (3): 238–52. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2020.1856987.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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