Is Once a Cheater Always a Cheater True? What’s the Science?

Is Once a Cheater Always a Cheater True? Well…not always. However, according to new research, prior infidelities can triple the chance of cheating on a current partner. But they only studied unmarried couples, and I fear they may have asked the wrong question.

New research tells us that unmarried partners who have cheated in the past are three times more likely to be unfaithful in their next committed relationship.
And the research tells us this is a respectably large number.
Almost 45% of the study subjects reported cheating on their partner during their current relationship.
Another variable is prior-partner cheating.

Almost one-third said that they had known their spouse had been unfaithful in the past. Researchers also see a great evening-out of gender and infidelity.

In this study, as in others, both men and women were equally likely to report cheating and being cheated on.

Those who have been cheated on previously were particularly vigilant for the signs. They are four times more likely to suspect their current partner. Dr. Knopp said about his research:

“Our results indicated a threefold increase in the likelihood that a person will engage in infidelity if they already have a history of engaging in extra-dyadic sexual involvement [infidelity], and a two-to fourfold increase in the likelihood of having an partner engage in infidelity if a person knew about or suspected infidelity from a past relationship partner. These findings suggests that previous engagement in infidelity is an important risk factor predicting engagement in infidelity in a subsequent relationship.”

The results come from a survey of 484 unmarried people who were asked about their past relationship history going back five years. The subjects were asked whether they had cheated on their current or  previous significant other, as well as the same information about their partner.

Is Once a Cheater Always a Cheater an Adolescent Conception?

Here’s the significant finding. The high rate of 44% reported cheating on their current relationship, people in the study were unmarried, and we already know that rates of infidelity are significantly lower among married people. 

One curious distinction was that the subjects who had cheated were no more likely to be suspicious of their current partner than those who hadn’t.

“Prior infidelity emerged as an important risk factor for infidelity in next relationships. Individuals with previous partners who have engaged in infidelity may be at increased risk for partnering with individuals in later relationships who also engage in infidelity because these individuals may be more likely to contribute to relationship contexts associated with higher risk of infidelity.” Dr. Knopp

It is not true that cheaters always cheat. Dr. Knopp is in search of distinctions:

“…although a history of infidelity may be an important risk factor of which to be aware, it is not necessarily true that someone who is “once a cheater” is “always a cheater.”

Understanding what distinguishes those who experience repeated infidelity from those who do not remains an important next step…”

Is Once a Cheater Always a Cheater True?

I’d like to contrast this piece of research with another more critical study which highlights the importance of any discussion of marital status and infidelity.

is . once a cheater always a cheater trueA recent study by Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein studied over 12,000 straight and gay cohabitating couples and compared them to married couples.

They reasonably figured that long-term cohabitators would be pretty similar to long-term married couples.

Social scientists were shocked to find that there are real and profound differences between long-term married couples and those who are merely cohabitating long-term.

The research revealed that cohabitating couples are less likely to have each other’s back in times of financial stress and are less likely to be faithful during the relationship.

They were also more likely to “better deal” their partner and leave for a more attractive relationship. This is an uncomfortable truth which can be tricky to discuss with some unmarried clients.

What is especially sad was the finding that cohabitating men were less liable to stick around during any tough times. As a whole, these men tended not to have their partner’s back.

The research is not an indictment of all cohabitating couples. Just the long-term ones.

This was a massive study that was very well designed. It produced a startling and sobering set of facts that may be hard to accept.

Trust and Commitment

Trust and Commitment are two important guiding principles. Unmarried long-term couples and committed long-term couples are two different things entirely. Trust and commitment tend to put the brakes on infidelity.

Couples who are long-term cohabitators are not similar to couples who have been married for the same length of time.

Now I realize it’s not appropriate to emphasize the word “marriage.” The word “relationship” offends fewer people these days.

But solid, clinical research is lurking in the background…just waiting to offend.

Is Once a Cheater Always a Cheater True?

Is once a cheater always a cheater true? Remember that what you focus on expands in your awareness.

Trust and Commitment matter. So does managing inconsolability. These are the Twin-Tasks of Affair Recovery.

If you want to buy into the notion that “once a cheater, always a cheater,” you forfeit your option to perceive your partner as imperfect, human, perhaps even forgivable.

Inconsolability blocks a couple’s ability to rebuild trust and for the hurt partner to learn how to trust again.

Is once a cheater always a cheater true? No.

is once a cheater always a cheater true?It’s possible for a couple to heal and move past infidelity…but you need to rebuild trust and have a substantial commitment with mutually agreed upon interpersonal boundaries.

That implies that there was some level of trust and loyalty in the first place.

Unfortunately, some “couples” have little or no trust or commitment from the get-go. And it’s these couples which experience the highest rates of infidelity.

My concern for understanding the implication of all of this new-fangled “how to predict infidelity” research is to remember that it is helpful not to conflate long-term cohabitating couples with unmarried dating couples. It’s more important to inquire about the level of trust and commitment than focus any particular personal infidelity narrative.

The study was published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior (Knopp et al., 2017).

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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