How to Avoid Heartbreak: 3 Ways to Spot a Cheater

What makes romantic partners likely to stray? Unfaithful couples tell us.

Posted Mar 13, 2018

Alejandro J. de Parga/Shutterstock
Source: Alejandro J. de Parga/Shutterstock

Most people have been there. Either personally or vicariously, at one time or another, we have experienced the heartbreaking cycle of love and betrayal. Wouldn't it be great if we could spot the red flags of potential infidelity before we fall in love? Research reveals that, in many cases, we can.

1. History Repeating Itself

For some unfaithful partners, a relational indiscretion is an isolated incident, never to be repeated. They learn their lesson after losing a cherished relationship due to their own infidelity. But not all straying partners cheat only once. Some become serial offenders, and in these cases, knowing about a partner's relational past may predict the future.

Knopp et al. (2017) explored the risk for serial infidelity by tracking adults through two romantic relationships and having them report their infidelity.[i] They found that people who reported cheating in a first relationship were three times more likely to report cheating in their next relationship, as compared to partners who were faithful in the first relationship.

More broadly, the study results indicated that people who had been unfaithful themselves, or who knew or suspected that a partner had been unfaithful, were at higher risk of having similar infidelity experiences in their next romantic relationship. They found no evidence, however, that a partner's past infidelity (suspected or known) impacted a person's own infidelity.

2. Calculating Mate Market Value

Although it sounds unromantic and impersonal, research reveals that some partners size each other up in terms of market value. Starratt et al. (2017) sought to determine the factors that make it more likely a partner will be unfaithful.[ii] Their research focused on mate value, defined as "an individual's overall attractiveness as a potential mate on the 'mating market.'" They found that reporting an intention to be unfaithful is higher when infidelity is more likely to increase one's own mate value, or to lead to a replacement partner of higher value. 

They uncovered two factors that predicted infidelity — surgency (for women) and agreeableness/commitment (for men). They note that women who were higher in surgency, defined as “a trait indicative of one's interest in and ability to become upwardly mobile in a social hierarchy,” were more likely to report an intention to be unfaithful.

For men, the researchers note that when considering mate value traits, men who are more commitment oriented and/or agreeable are likely to catch the attention of other women, who may be higher in value than their current partners, and who may be willing to engage in sexual activity. Therefore, because the perception of relational alternatives is one predictor of infidelity, so too is men's commitment orientation or agreeability.

3. Negative Communication

Beyond past indiscretions and market value, relational challenges also contribute to projected infidelity.  

Allenn et al. (2008) found that, generally, couples that suffer from marital infidelity experience more problematic communication before marriage, such as less positive interaction and more negative and invalidating interaction.[iii] 

Some couples predict infidelity shortly after the marriage. In a study asking newlyweds whether they believed they were likely to be unfaithful, Shackelford et al. (2008) found results linking personality and marital satisfaction with anticipated infidelity.[iv] 

They found some support for the fact that partners with spouses who are particularly disagreeable or unreliable were less satisfied with their marriages, leading them to estimate that they were more likely to have an extramarital affair within the next year.

Living Happily and Faithfully

Choosing a mate who will be loving and faithful is an admirable, attainable goal. Thoughtfully and patiently getting to know a new love interest is time well spent investing in your future. Some things are meant to be taken slowly; a successful relationship is one of them.


[i] Kayla Knopp, Shelby Scott, Lane Ritchie, Galena K. Rhoades, Howard J. Markman, and Scott M. Stanley, “Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater? Serial Infidelity Across Subsequent Relationships,” Arch Sex Behav 46, 2017, 2301–2311.

[ii] Valerie G. Starratt, Viviana Weekes-Shackelford, and Todd K. Shackelford, “Mate value both positively and negatively predicts intentions to commit an infidelity,” Personality and Individual Differences 104, 2017, 18–22.

[iii] Elizabeth S. Allenn, Galena Kline Rhoades, Scott M. Stanley Howard J. Markman, Tamara Williams, Jessica Melton, Mari L. Clements, “Premarital Precursors of Marital Infidelity,” Family Process 47, No. 2, 2008, 243-259.

[iv] Todd K. Shackelford, Avi Besser, and Aaron T. Goetz in “Personality, Marital Satisfaction, and Probability of Marital Infidelity,” Individual Differences Research 6, No. 1, 2008, 13-25.