An Ingenious Way to Predict If Your Partner Will Cheat
New study says look at the mom and dad to find out who will be unfaithful.
Posted December 16, 2017
It would certainly be useful to know whether your partner is going to cheat. You may think that you’ve already got a pretty good sense of this from the way your partner behaves toward you: Loving, caring, and attentive, it seems as though your partner would never stray, and your relationship is bound to be a good one with years of happiness ahead. Still, it might be helpful to have a more reliable way to predict the future. New research suggests you may have to look no further than your partner’s parents. Texas Tech University’s Dana Weiser and University of Nevada Reno’s Daniel Weigel (2017) conducted a series of investigations on intergenerational patterns of infidelity to determine whether, as they suspected, people "learn" to cheat if they grow up in homes where their parents were known to be unfaithful.
Weiser and Weigel propose that, of the many ways to define infidelity, the best involves “concealment of behaviors and the resulting emotional fallout” it engenders. They go on to propose that in the United States, “infidelity is particularly viewed as unacceptable for romantic relationships." What leads people to be unfaithful, then, if it causes so much turmoil? People may have individual inclinations to be unfaithful to their partners, according to the authors, but they also learn in their families of origin whether it’s okay to stray. Social learning theory, they propose, provides a useful framework for understanding the transmission of infidelity patterns from parents to their children. You learn by watching your parents that being faithful produces positive outcomes, and therefore you are more likely to be faithful yourself. Conversely, if one or both of your parents are seemingly enjoying themselves by engaging in extramarital affairs, these behaviors will be vicariously reinforced in you. In this way, people develop “complex schemas about romantic relationships” (p. 935).
To test the social learning explanation of intergenerational transmission of infidelity, the team conducted a series of three studies on a combination of undergraduate and online adult samples. Importantly, although the majority of participants were in dating rather than marital relationships, the measures of infidelity used in the study assessed any instance of cheating, not just cheating in one’s current relationship. The researchers also defined infidelity not by some absolute standard, but by whether the participants believed that their behavior violated their own definition of faithfulness. In the “Infidelity Beliefs Questionnaire,” participants indicated their levels of agreement or disagreement with statements such as “A relationship can become stronger after an infidelity" (positive outcomes); “Infidelity causes relationships to end” (negative outcomes); and “It is okay to have sex with an individual who is not your romantic partner” (acceptability). Participants also rated how likely they were to engage in a number of cheating-related behaviors.
The research team first established that, as predicted, people whose parents were unfaithful were more likely to accept the favorability of infidelity, and then be more likely to engage in cheating behaviors themselves. Such factors as trust and feeling confident in their own ability to be happy in a relationship played no role. However, the second study revealed that parental infidelity was not directly related to offsprings' beliefs about infidelity. The authors reasoned that parental infidelity alone, therefore, isn’t enough to set the stage for beliefs by their children about whether or not they felt cheating was acceptable. Instead, in the third study, which included a larger and more diverse sample than the previous two, Weiser and Weigel examined the potential intervening role of parental communication regarding infidelity. It’s one thing to grow up in a home where a parent is having an extramarital affair, but doing so discreetly, and another where it’s evident, either from the parent’s behavior or from overhearing the parents arguing, that infidelity is taking place.
This older and more diverse sample also reported a higher level of infidelity than the other two, with one in three participants stating that they had been unfaithful at some point in one of their relationships. Additionally, a main focus of this third study was whether parental communication about infidelity would have an impact on infidelity beliefs which, in turn, would predict reports of cheating. Participants rated how much statements about infidelity were similar to messages they received at home, as well as whether their parents directly told them that infidelity was either desirable or not in a romantic relationship. These family communication measures played a far greater role than mere exposure to parental infidelity.
The authors concluded that, in line with their predictions, “parental infidelity sends memorable messages to offspring about the greater acceptability of infidelity,” messages that are “internalized and used to construct offspring’s belief systems." Given certain limitations of the study, particularly its reliance on retrospective reports, Weiser and Weigel also note that the results require replication and, ideally, a longitudinal design to track infidelity over time. However, as the first of its kind, this intergenerational approach yields some promising, as well as theoretically interesting, ideas.
To apply this research to your own life, therefore, start by taking stock of what you already know about your partner's background. If you’ve been in the relationship for many years, and your partner has remained faithful, you’re probably on safe ground. However, if you’re trying to decide whether to get into a committed relationship with someone you don’t know that well, finding out about his or her parents can give you the basis for some predictive insights. This might not be the topic of a romantic dinner date conversation, but it might be easily observable from what you learn about your partner’s parents as your relationship evolves. It’s possible, of course, that when people grow up in families marked by infidelity, they vow never to fall prey to temptation, but if the social learning approach is valid, that vicarious learning could prove to be difficult to overcome.
To sum up: If you truly care about your partner, exploring the role of family communication patterns about infidelity could help stave off problems in your relationship before they ever develop. Relationship satisfaction has many sources, and if being faithful is a value in which you believe, then understanding your partner’s perspective will help yours become that much more fulfilling and enduring.
Weiser, D. A., & Weigel, D. J. (2017). Exploring intergenerational patterns of infidelity. Personal Relationships, doi:10.1111/pere.12222