If They Cheated Before, Will They Cheat Again? Research on Serial Infidelity

If They Cheated Before, Will They Cheat Again? Research on Serial Infidelity

Generally, when one enters into a romantic relationship, above all else, monogamy and fidelity are expected. Usually it is unspoken, but most times it is understood. Yet, as research has shown, infidelity is quite common especially in unmarried relationships. Recently our research team read a new research publication by Kayla Knopp and her colleagues at the University of Denver entitled Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater? Serial Infidelity Across Subsequent Relationships and learned about the act of cheating on a partner, its effects, and statistics on the topic as well.

As highlighted in Knopp et al. (2017), cheating is a widespread occurrence that can end or permanently damage relationships and can cause stress for all people involved. Some writers have recently discussed that more women may be cheating in their marriages than ever before, while the rate of men being unfaithful has remained relatively the same. Research has found that about 20 percent of married couples will experience infidelity by their partner (Blow & Hartnett, 2005), along with an astounding 70 percent of unmarried couples (Wiederman & Hurd, 1999). Unfortunately, a portion of us may experience our partner being unfaithful at some point, and so it is important understand how to protect your current relationship, and what to do if your partner decides to cheat. This is a topic we will address in a future blog post.

Being cheated on can leave people with many questions: “Was there something I did wrong?”, “Was I not doing enough?”, or “Is this something they’ve always done?” Knopp et al. (2017) take that final question into consideration. Rather than looking at possible predictors for cheating like most other studies on the subject, Knopp et al. (2017) looked at infidelity in a previous relationship as a risk factor or predictor for infidelity in future relationships.

Knopp and her fellow colleagues focused their attention on unmarried couples who had been together for at least two months. Data was collected every four to six months for about 5 years and the participants were asked about their own infidelity and known or suspected partner infidelity in addition to other questions. Knopp et al. (2017) found that those who reported being unfaithful in their first relationship were much more likely to report being unfaithful again in their next relationships. In fact, they are three times more likely to cheat on a partner again, than those who did not cheat on their partner in their first relationship (Knopp et al, 2017). A similar trend was seen when looking at known or suspected infidelity. Those who reported known partner infidelity in the first relationship were 2.4 times more likely to report it in the second relationship than those who had no reports of such activity, and people who suspected infidelity in the first relationship were 4.3 times more likely to suspect it in their second relationship (Knopp et al, 2017).

The findings from the study provide evidence that infidelity in a previous relationship can impact decision making in future relationships. I believe that people live their lives in patterns. Once someone gets used to doing things a certain way, it becomes difficult to change. This study showed me just how scarring being cheated on can be. Even after being the victim of infidelity, people find themselves in similar situations consistently. Why might this be the case? Obviously, there are many factors attributing to why a person has cheated, or that someone continues to be in a relationships with a partner that cheats, but research has shown that parental infidelity may be one factor (e.g., Schmidt et al., 2016). Being cheated on is a sad reality that many individuals find themselves in. Even sadder is the fact that many people stay with a cheater, because they feel that finding another partner would be too difficult.

One might think that having a lot of relationship experience could make them a better partner overall, but research indicates that our past experiences can impact our ability to sustain and be satisfied in a future marriage (Rhoades & Stanley, 2014). Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver and a co-author on the Knopp et al. (2017) study, recently discussed the article on the Institute for Family Studies Blog. As explained by Stanley (2017):

“…while having more experience in various aspects of life is usually a good thing, having more experience in relationships may not be so good when those experiences include serious involvements that alter one’s odds of succeeding in finding and keeping lasting love.”

Additionally, Stanley (2017) discussed some common risk factors for infidelity that are important to consider:

  • Low commitment to the present relationship
  • Low or declining relationship satisfaction
  • Accepting attitudes about sexual relations outside the relationship
  • Attachment insecurity: both avoidant and anxious
  • Differences in individual levels of sexual inhibition and excitement
  • Being a man versus a woman, though this may be changing.

Personally, I am in my early 20s and living on a college campus, and so the statistics on infidelity were not that surprising. I have heard numerous stories about this sort of thing. What stood out to me most was how often victims of infidelity ended up with another person who would cheat on them. This study reminded me of a topic that was previously discussed in Time to Hookup? Expectations of First Semester College Students, an earlier post on this blog. Many young adults look at their late teens and 20s as a time to be with as many people as possible. By doing so, those individuals start bad habits that can continue later in life. What many of those young individuals do not understand is how much damage they are causing. Knopp et al. (2017) mentioned preventative relationship education to help individuals make more informed decisions when looking for a potential partner.By working to inform individuals of the damage cheating can cause, I feel that people will think twice before cheating on their partner. More harm is being done than you may think. Experiences of the past do not have to define a person’s future. People can change if they truly want to, but it is important to have conversations and clear expectations if your partner may have cheated in past relationships. You do not need to be stuck in a cycle of cheating. Be intentional in your romantic relationships. Cheating doesn’t have to be in your future, even if it was in your past.


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