Chances are if you’ve been in a few relationships in the past, one of your exes may have cheated on you or you may have strayed yourself. According to one statistic, 90 per cent of people think cheating is unacceptable but 30 to 40 per cent of people cheat. Infidelity is one of the most complex and least clear cut areas of relationship research. Why do people cheat and is it true that “a leopard never changes its spots” and “once a cheater, always a cheater”? Can you protect a relationship from infidelity? Is fidelity as simple as it might seem?
The gender gap
Men cheat more often than women, correct? This has always been considered the case largely because males have more testosterone, giving them a higher sex drive and due to evolutionary purposes and ‘survival of the fittest’ this makes sense. Women don’t share this evolutionary ideology and are only looking for the best mate and will carefully select someone who will give her children with strong genes and be able to provide for them.
However, women cheat too. The UK’s last major study of sexual behaviour in 2000 discovered that 15 per cent of men had “overlapping” relationships in the previous year, compared to just nine per cent of women, so this theory seems to be correct. However, the head of analysis says the closer results may be in part due to the fact women are more likely to be honest about their cheating than men.
Other research suggests that more complex factors are at play. Compared with previous generations, women have more options, more money and more choice and generally behave more like men. One 2010 survey found that women are 40 per cent more likely to cheat than they were 20 years ago, when more women stayed at home and opportunities to meet more people were limited. One study from the University of Connecticut analysing data from 9000 people aged between 18 and 32 found that both men and women are prone to cheating on their partner when they’re more economically dependent on them. It found that men who are 100 per cent economically dependent on their spouses were at most risk, three times more than women married to male breadwinners. The sociologist leading the study suggested that this was because dependent men feel their masculinity is threatened and playing away fulfils their need to engage in behaviour that is culturally accepted as being associated with male breadwinners. In contrast the study found that women who earned a larger percentage of the couple’s income were less likely to cheat.
Is personality to blame?
If you display two out of the so-called ‘Big Five’ personality traits, then you are likely to cheat, according to a number of studies. Those individuals who score low on “agreeableness”, which means caring about others emotions and being kind and “conscientiousness”, so having discipline and being dependable are more likely to cheat. Other traits that make people at a greater risk of playing away included narcissistic tendencies and thrill seeking.
Ever dated a commitment-phobe? These people have an avoidant attachment style and are therefore uncomfortable with intimacy. Eight studies by Nathan DeWall, a University of Kentucky professor of psychology concluded that this style of attachment made them more likely to commit infidelity because they remain uncommitted, even when they are in relationships.
Religion and politics also play a part. Unsurprisingly those people who are very religious or very politically conservative are less likely to stray because of their rigid values. According to one study, people who cheated were about half as likely to be religious than non-cheaters.
Is it because of a bad relationship?
Is it always case of “once a cheater, always a cheater?” Not necessarily, say psychologists. If you are in an unhappy relationship or you have unresolved issues, you may be more likely to cheat on your partner. It makes sense that the happier we are with our partners and the more fulfilled we are emotionally, then the less likely it is that we will have our heads turned by another person. Studies have shown that couples that have similar personality, education levels and belief systems are more likely to stick together.
One study found that people nearing milestone ages are more likely to pursue affairs. A 2009 survey discovered that people who were looking at starting a new decade age wise – so 29, 39, 49 etc. – were more likely to engage in affairs. The study concluded that the prospect of getting older made us question whether were are truly happy in our relationships and if not then we would look for a solution.
One of the other main reasons people cheat is because of the situation they are in. So even if you are happy in your relationship, working with a very attractive colleague who is flirting with you, may make you consider cheating on your partner, for example. If you live in a built-up urban area, you are more likely to cheat. Cities simply have more people there, with a larger pool of people and an environment of greater sexual anonymity.
There is a grey area when it comes to cheating and everyone has their own opinion of what constitutes infidelity: Is it becoming emotionally involved with someone else? Or flirting with someone else? Or engaging in specific types of contact? Cheating is complex because definitions vary widely. However, if someone violates their partner’s expectations, then the outcome is the same, where one party feels betrayed.
Looking after your relationship and protecting it from infidelity
When you commit to someone it is important to talk about what you consider cheating to be. Understand each other’s boundaries or create boundaries together so you increase the likelihood of the romance lasting and you do not hurt one another down the line. If you have always struggled to stay faithful, consider your reasons, then start your next relationship with a blank slate.