Can you Predict if they’ll Cheat?

by Gian Gonzaga, Ph.D

Can you Predict if they'll Cheat?

Infidelity happens with alarming frequency, as recent news events can confirm. Although more than 95% of people think that infidelity is wrong, over a lifetime 22%–25% of men and 11%–15% of women will admit to having extramarital sex, and if you include emotional infidelity, the numbers grow— a lot; some reputable surveys have estimated more than 40% of all marriages have some form of infidelity.

So can you tell if someone is going to cheat?

Some people think they can make a conclusion based on visual cues alone. They blame it on the testosterone levels of the husband or the fact that the wife doesn’t make her husband feel like a hero. They are wrong. You can’t tell from his cheekbones or because his wife ignores him.

Who is Vulnerable?

Research has shown that there is no ONE reason why spouses cheat on their wives/husbands. Some people do it because they are powerful and think they can cheat and not get caught; some because they are not getting love, intimacy or attention from their spouses; and some because the hot stranger flirts with them at just the wrong time. There are many reasons why it happens, and the things that may lead to cheating can be subtle and hard to see when they start.

Where does it start, and with whom? It’s not as simple as “He’s a jerk” or “She can’t control herself.” Researchers have done a lot of work looking at the type of person who is more likely to cheat and the type of marriage where cheating is more likely. And it turns out the roots of infidelity can be very deep. There are types of people that are more vulnerable to engage in affairs. It’s probably not surprising that men are more likely to cheat (especially those who feel powerless and socially isolated), but both genders can easily fall into the following groupings:

• Those who crave excitement

• Those who have a history of divorce, sexual abuse or such psychological problems as depression or bipolar disorder

• Those who are not religious

(Reminder: the content of this article was based on a comprehensive review of the research on extramarital involvement done by Allen, Atkins, Baucom, Snyder, Gordon, and Glass which appeared in the journal of Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, volume 12 in the summer of 2005 on pages 100-130. For further information, please see the detailed citation at the bottom of this article.)

The roots of cheating can also lie in the quality of the marriage. Spouses who have a lot of conflict and little warmth and closeness with their partners and tend to neglect or take for granted the sexual aspects of their relationships are more likely to become the perpetrators or the victims of infidelity.

But none of these things means that someone will cheat. No one is destined to cheat. In fact, cheaters rarely intend to cheat.

Where is the Point of no Return?

More often cheaters find themselves sliding down a slippery slope before they are ever aware of it. The eventual cheater may find him- or herself denying the risks of a burgeoning relationship by thinking, “It’s only lunch, it’s not that big of a deal”; “It isn’t a big deal if I give her a present”; or “Sure I kissed him, but we were drunk at the holiday party.”

The noncheating spouse may sense that something is wrong before the cheating occurs. But instead of dealing with the problem, he or she might be frightened that the marriage will end or happy at the thought of spending less time fighting. By avoiding possible confrontation over the issue, the spouse may actually empower the cheater to slide further down the slippery slope. In fact, some clinicians argue that the road to cheating can be paved by both spouses. Certain behaviors both within and outside of the marriage can dictate the future path. When one spouse withholds emotionally or physically, the other spouse may fill that emptiness outside of the marriage. For example, one spouse feels a need for intimacy and casually flirts with someone else, and the other spouse responds not through constructive confrontation but through silent anger and avoidance/withdrawal. This often leaves the potential cheater even less satisfied and looking for intimacy somewhere else.

At some point that moment happens, and the relationship that was previously innocent becomes something infinitely more complicated. Some of the scientific evidence I reviewed stated that cheaters often report that they do so because someone came on to them and they were drunk, stressed or sad. Yet their stories are even deeper than a reflexive reaction of lust. Cheaters also report that infidelity often first happens after a particularly big argument with their spouses or a spouse refusing to seek professional help. These altercations leave the cheating spouse feeling vulnerable or despondent about the state of the marriage. Remember, marriages that are taken for granted by either partner are susceptible to infidelity.

How Long do they Typically last?

When it does happen, an affair can last hours, weeks, months or many years. One researcher reported that the average affair lasted about six months. Despite what some experts claim, there is surprisingly little credible work on why these relationships continue. In fact, there is only one scientific study on why people continue affairs, and it reported that women who feel loving feelings toward the extramarital partner are more likely to continue the relationship.

Ironically, cheaters often report feeling racked with guilt about the affair and still want their marriages to succeed. So why do they keep cheating? The cheater may worry that his or her new partner will reveal the affair to the spouse, ending the marriage. The extramarital partner may have genuine feelings for the cheater and work hard to keep them engaged in the affair. And if the spouse suspects an affair, he or she may become even more disengaged in the marriage, driving his or her partner deeper into the affair. As of now, there is no good scientific work on the topic.

So while the pundits and experts argue about Eliot Spitzer and if the affair was his or his wife Silda’s fault…or the fault of a sex obsessed society…or the inevitable destiny of politicians to have affairs (you get the idea), know that the real story behind infidelity isn’t so simple.

What can you do?

We all know infidelity is wrong. It breaks the promises made in a marriage and can cause irreparable damage to the relationship. Many times it is the breaking point, tipping a marriage that could be saved into one that is doomed to fail. It hurts spouses, their children and their families. But it is important to understand all the complexity of why it happens and who is at risk. Casting blame without really understanding the situation may be fun (when it isn’t your marriage or someone you care about), but it doesn’t help us understand all that we can do to prevent it.

There are things that you can do to make an affair less likely in your marriage. Try to keep it novel, warm and connected. Prioritize your marriage and keep other relationships squarely in the friend zone. Work on your relationship sooner rather than later—meaning if you sense changes in how you are treating each other, don’t wait until the cracks become an abyss between you both. Remember, lust can be a powerful force that makes you do things you later regret, and it doesn’t go away just because you are in a relationship.

If you are struggling in your marriage, stay away from situations where you might be tempted, especially when you are depressed, vulnerable or intoxicated and your judgment may be weaker than normal. If you sense that your partner may be tempted by another, confront him or her about it. Make it clear that you do not, in any way, approve of an affair. And if all else fails, get professional help—it’s better to admit an attraction rather than an indiscretion. Go to couples counseling to confront the problems in your marriage. It may not be easy, but in the long run your marriage will be better for it.

The content of the article was based on a comprehensive review of the research on extramarital involvement done by Allen, Atkins, Baucom, Snyder, Gordon, and Glass which appeared in the journal of Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, volume 12 in the summer of 2005 on pages 100-130. On page 106, they review 15 articles that have investigated the relationship between religiosity and attitudes on extramarital involvement or reporting extramarital involvement. Of these, one article found that those who report no religious affiliation also report higher rates of extramarital involvement, four articles found that higher levels of attending religious services and religiosity negatively related to having less permissive attitudes towards extramarital affairs, eight articles found that higher religiosity related to fewer reports of engaging in extramarital involvement, and two articles found no relationship between religiosity and extramarital involvement. In sum, there are 13 articles that have found a negative relationship between extramarital involvement and religiosity, two that have not found this relationship, and no articles have found a positive relationship between extramarital involvement and religiosity.

If you wish to look at the source literature for these statements, please see the citations listed below (links to the article are listed when available most articles and books are available at a local university of college library).

Allen, E. S., Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., Gordon, K. C., & Glass S. P. (2005). Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Contextual Factors in Engaging in and Responding to Extramarital Involvement. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 12, 100-130. http://pt.wkhealth.com/pt/re/cpsp/abstract.00126206-200501220-00001.htm;jsessionid=JQHJQb44z1hbk1yGwMpYLLg33RffKTQyJh02z9cKcx3PPcJgKBsW!-1046349743!181195628!8091!-1

Greeley, A. (1994). Marital infidelity. Society, 31, 9–13. http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-156714_ITM

Cochran, J. K., & Beeghley, L. (1991). The influence of religion on attitudes toward nonmarital sexuality: A preliminary assessment of reference group theory. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30, 45–62.

Kraaykamp, G. (2002). Trends and countertrends in sexual permissiveness: Three decades of attitude change in the Netherlands 1965–1995. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 225–239. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3599790

Scheepers, P., Te Grotenhuis, M., & Van Der Slik, F. (2002). Education, religiosity, and moral attitudes: Explaining cross-national effect differences. Sociology of Religion, 63, 157–177. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3712563

Smith, T. W. (1994). Attitudes toward sexual permissiveness: Trends, correlates, and behavioral connections. In A. S. Rossi (Ed.), Sexuality across the life course (pp. 63–97). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/presssite/metadata.epl?mode=toc&bookkey=40826

Amato, P. R., & Rogers, S. J. (1997). A longitudinal study of marital problems and subsequent divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 612–62. 4 http://www.jstor.org/pss/353949

Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H., & Jacobson, N. S. (2001). Understanding infidelity: Correlates in a national random sample. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 735–749. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11770478

Buunk, B. (1980). Extramarital sex in the Netherlands. Alternative Lifestyles, 3, 11–39. https://commerce.metapress.com/content/up353qh21057j410/resource-secured/?target=fulltext.pdf&sid=mfckrs454kbwk4u30qwgvm45&sh=www.springerlink.com

Choi, K., Catania, J. A., & Dolcini, M. M. (1994). Extramarital sex and HIV risk behavior among US adults: Results from the national AIDS behavioral survey. American Journal of Public Health, 84, 2003–2007. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1615405

Hunt, M. (1976). Sexual behavior in the 1970s. New York: Dell. Available at http://cgi.ebay.com/Sexual-behavior-in-the-1970s,,-Morton-M-Hunt,-Good-Book_W0QQitemZ300296730450QQcmdZViewItemQQimsxZ20090227?IMSfp=TL090227115009r11885

Janus, S. S., & Janus, C. L. (1993). The Janus report on sexual behavior. New York: Wiley. Available at http://www.amazon.com/Janus-Report-Sexual-Behavior/dp/0471016144

Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders. Available at http://www.amazon.com/Sexual-Behavior-Human-Female-Introduction/dp/025333411X

Lawson, A., & Samson, C. (1988). Age, gender and adultery. British Journal of Sociology, 39, 409–440. http://www.jstor.org/pss/590485

Blumstein, P., & Schwartz, P. (1983). American couples. New York: William and Morrow. Available at http://www.amazon.com/American-Couples-Philip-Blumstein/dp/0688047858

Spanier, G. B., & Margolis, R. L. (1983). Marital separation and extramarital sexual behavior. The Journal of Sex Research, 19, 23–48.

Napier, A. Y., & Whitaker, C. (2002). The Family Crucible: The Intense Experience of Family Therapy. New York: Harper Collins.

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