What Really Goes on in the Mind of a Cheater?
New relationship research provides insight into the minds of those who cheat.
Posted Dec 19, 2020
Many people regard infidelity as an unpardonable sin, but as many as 25% of those living in the U.S. have admitted in past research to having engaged in some form of cheating (Hall & Finch, 2006). If you’re one of the 25%, you may not even be sure of exactly what led you to stray. If you’re one of the people who were cheated on, it may be even more difficult for you to understand why your partner decided to violate the bonds of your trust.
According to University of California Riverside’s Dulce Wilkinson and William Dunlop (2020), perhaps some insight into the mind and motives of those who cheat can come from an understanding of personality traits. Previous research identified the traits linked to infidelity as including high levels of neuroticism (tendency to worry and be emotionally unstable), low levels of conscientiousness, and low levels of agreeableness. However, there are many individuals who possess these qualities who go on to have stable relationships that endure without instances of unfaithfulness. Personality alone, then, can’t explain the behavior of the cheater.
With this background, Wilkinson and Dunlop conducted a deep dive into the mentality of a cheater, moving beyond the approach offered by personality psychology and into the thought processes that accompanied, and followed, an incident of infidelity. The UC Riverside researchers employed what’s known as a “narrative identity approach” to analyze the stories told both by those who had cheated (“perpetrators”) and those who were cheated upon (“victims”). In this approach, participants literally tell their own stories, allowing researchers to discover common themes from which an understanding can be gained of how people experience infidelity from the inside out.
Across two studies, online samples of perpetrators (Study 1) and victims (Study 2) wrote about an incidence of infidelity, taking at least five minutes to describe what happened, what they were thinking at the time, and what the meaning of the infidelity was to them both at the time and in the present. The samples consisted of 148 victims, averaging 34 years old, and 142 perpetrators, also averaging 34 years of age. Their responses averaged 127 and 160 words, respectively.
In addition to providing these narratives, participants also completed questionnaire measures assessing, in Study 1, forgiveness (the tendency to forgive), empathy, self-esteem, and personality traits. Study 2 included comparable measures, but also added scales measuring the ability to forgive yourself, an appropriate instrument for perpetrators. Additionally, participants in Study 2 completed measures of psychopathy, Machiavellianism (the tendency to exploit others), and narcissism.
The guiding theory behind the study involved the concepts of “redemption” and “exploration.” Redemption is the “story arc that begins negatively and ends positively” (p. 5). When you talk about a redemptive experience, it’s one that you feel you can grow from even though it was difficult to go through at the time.
The theme of exploration, by contrast, has no particular valence associated with it, but applies to the extent to which you engage in deep understanding as you think back on the experience. In prior work unrelated to infidelity, researchers report that both themes are associated with greater well-being, personal growth, maturity, and even more positive health trajectories.
Turning now to the stories themselves, in the case of a victim, you might be able to see how it’s possible to be hurt by a cheating partner but feel you grew through the process. Unlike a perpetrator, there’s no rationalizing you have to do in order to feel that you’re a better person as a result of this experience.
The situation for cheaters is rather different. For them to feel redemption, they have to accept the fact that they behaved badly and still manage to come out on the other side with a new and improved view of themselves. This example shows how such a process can play out:
“I realized that I committed an act of infidelity the following morning after the incident occurred and understood exactly what had happened… I felt physically and emotionally good to the point that I realized that it had been a very long time since I'd felt the same with my partner. I had given up on feeling this way until this incident happened and realized that I was settling to stay where I was even though I did care about my partner… I did feel guilty that it did. I do feel like it was a catalyst though for me to move forward in my life” (p. 8).
The perpetrators who engaged in exploration didn’t necessarily undergo this same type of shift toward growth, but reflected on the experience, as you can see from this brief excerpt:
“I had been in a committed relationship with the same person for the whole second half of high school, and I felt that he was controlling my life and I wanted to be free. I was finally feeling like I could socialize with others and that other men found me appealing and wanted me and it felt good” (p. 9).
To analyze the narrative data, the UC Riverside researchers used an accepted method of coding the stories according to their primary themes. Nearly one-third of the stories told in Study 2 fit into the theme of redemption. As you may have gleaned from the example above, and in the words of the authors, “many perpetrators felt that, despite being wrong, their actions were necessary” (p. 15).
Furthermore, these redemptive perpetrators were less likely to show forgiveness toward themselves, suggesting perhaps that they try to create “psychological distance” from the experience rather than deal directly with the negative implications. Redemptive victims, by contrast, showed a high degree of forgiveness but low levels of empathy.
As it turned out, the personality traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism showed no consistent relationships to the stories told by the perpetrators. People who cheat, then, aren’t necessarily likely to show unusual levels of those qualities of exploiting others, seeing themselves as deserving of special attention, or even lacking empathy. However, conscientiousness was positively associated with the tendency to engage in exploration both for perpetrators and victims, although perhaps for different reasons, considering that only the perpetrators were the ones to violate social conventions.
You may not feel any particular sympathy for someone who has cheated, especially if you’ve been at the receiving end of their infidelity. However, the Wilkinson and Dunlop results suggest that their inner lives can indeed be troubling.
To sum up, forming a redeeming narrative presents people who have cheated with a challenge as they try to move on with their lives. To gain a true understanding of the mind of a cheater in your life may ultimately require your willingness to hear the other person’s side of the story, whether you choose to forgive or not.
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Hall, J. H., & Fincham, F. D. (2006). Relationship dissolution following infidelity: The roles of attributions and forgiveness. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 508–522.
Wilkinson, D. E., & Dunlop, W. L. (2020). Both sides of the story: Narratives of romantic infidelity. Personal Relationships. 10.1111/pere.12355