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Personality

Does Personality Predict Who Will Cheat in a Relationship?

It depends less on your personality and more on both partners' personalities.

Key points

  • The personality traits of both partners in a relationship are more predictive of infidelity than one's own characteristics, research shows.
  • A couple's shared environment may create negativity that causes one partner to cheat.
  • The exception is that women who are unfaithful tend to be high in extraversion, which is a common finding in prior research.
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
Source: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Unfaithfulness to marriage vows is a common theme across many societies and social groups. It is also a recurrent predictor of relationship dissolution and is thus frequently investigated by psychologists, especially those concerned with sex, romance, and relationships.

The usual research approach has been to focus on characteristics of individuals within heterosexual marriages, usually the unfaithful husband. However, there are many contradictory findings in the research, causing social psychologist Emma Altgelt and colleagues to pursue a different approach than to examine personality characteristics of unfaithful spouses. To do this, they pooled data from two longitudinal studies of newlywed couples to assess infidelity across the first three years of marriage. They focused not only on the personality traits of those who were unfaithful but also the personality traits of the innocent partner of the infidelity.

Both Partners' Personalities Matter

Over 200 heterosexual couples participated in the two studies. They were recontacted at six-month or one-year intervals and mailed measures assessing infidelity and personality traits, including neuroticism, conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and narcissism. Infidelity was defined as having a sexual or romantic affair “with anyone other than [their] spouse over the past six months.” At baseline and each follow-up, couple members reported their own and their partner’s infidelity. A total of 23 husbands and 12 wives engaged in infidelity that was reported by at least one of the couple members.

A husband’s personality traits were not associated with whether he was unfaithful. However, a wife who was unfaithful was more likely to score high on extraversion—a common finding in prior research. A superior approach turned out to be scrutinizing the personality traits of both partners. If both were high on neuroticism or extraversion, they were more likely to engage in infidelity; if the wife was high on narcissism, then a husband, regardless of his personality characteristics, was more likely to cheat.

The authors caution that these results might not apply to older couples (by age or time married) and that these couples are not representative of married couples in general. Because infidelity can be a sensitive and socially taboo behavior that likely occurs more frequently than it is reported, the rate and characteristics of infidelity might be distorted.

The Take-Away

The authors emphasize that it was less one’s own enduring characteristics—the exception was the extroverted woman—that predicted infidelity as their partner’s enduring characteristics. “In this way, the current findings suggest that infidelity may be better explained by partner (versus own) personality.” Thus, it is their shared environment that creates the negativity that causes one of them to be unfaithful. They conclude that “dyadic effects observed here suggest that understanding who is most at risk for infidelity requires considering both partners’ personality characteristics.” It is dyadic characteristics more than individual personality traits that predict infidelity.

An Alternative Perspective

When infidelity occurs in marriages (regardless of the sexual orientation of the two), some couples opt for divorce, others ignore the issue and adapt to this reality, and others take the infidelity as a sign to change course and develop a different kind of relationship—perhaps a polyamorous or “consensual non-monogamous” relationship.

In their review of the literature, psychologists Alicia Rubel and Anthony Bogaert conclude that polyamory could be a viable alternative if one considers that psychological well-being, overall relationship adjustment, jealousy, sexual satisfaction, and relationship stability do not vary between monogamous and non-monogamous relationships. That is, “The majority of research suggests that the psychological well-being and the quality of the relationships of consensual non-monogamists is not significantly different from that of monogamists.”

Perhaps if one partner decides or desires to be unfaithful, that individual might want to give that same option to the other. They might thus be able to save their relationship—and live happily ever after.

Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

References

Altgelt, E. E., Reyes, M. A., French, J. E., Meltzer, A. L., & McNulty, J. (2018). Own and partner personality traits as predictors of infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35, 600–614. doi.10.1177/0265407517743085

Rubel, A. N., & Bogaert, A. F. (2015). Consensual nonmonogamy: Psychological well-being and relationship quality correlates. Journal of Sex Research, 52, 961–982. doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.942722

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