One May Say, Once a cheater, always a cheater?

When someone has been unfaithful in the past, they are more likely to be unfaithful again. I’ve often observed that people who engage in infidelity often experienced infidelity in their parent’s relationship. While I haven’t seen any data on this, it makes sense as familiarity with a behavior in general makes it more likely to do that behavior, via social learning and modeling. This holds true for many other behaviors, where past personal history and family behavior partially predicts individual behavior, including aggression and suicide — though it is worth noting that such history is not 100 percent predictive, and many with the risk factor do not go on to repeat the behavior.

Of course, infidelity is an area rife with conflict and differing perspectives. In an environment in which having multiple partners is a social norm, infidelity if it exists at all in romantic relationships, may take on different meanings. The individuals involved may react differently, and only experience infidelity if context-specific norms are violated, resulting in betrayal. In cultures where monogamy is the norm, emotional and sexual infidelity are likely to be deemed transgressive — moral, religious, social and possibly legal transgressions, with ensuing consequences. Infidelity often involves deliberately manipulative and deceitful behaviors, acting like one person and, in some cases, later on being revealed as someone else.

This can be a deeply unsettling, disorienting experience, making especially the one being deceived but also the one being unfaithful, come to doubt their own ability to know who they can trust. It can strike at the heart of identity, making us become unfamiliar to ourselves and one another. Doubt and confusion may influence subsequent relationship choices, since a sadly common story is that people thought they could trust the person, only to find out they were again wrong — and often it seems that loyal people are seen as untrustworthy, when they are not. Trust radar (“trustdar”?) appears to be thrown off by betrayal, and in my opinion and experience this often starts young.

Can we agree to disagree?

In mixed societies, societies like ours with turbulent eddies of changing and clashing values and norms, infidelity is likely to be multilayered, requiring a complex balance among many perspectives — if a balance is even achievable or desirable. Some folks believe in strict monogamy, others are in “open relationships” or may sexually identify as inherently polygamous, pansexual, asexual, and so on. In any event, judgment is one main axis around which the debate revolves — those who judge and how they judge, and those who do not judge, and how they engage in discourse. Common ground can be hard to find, and the intense emotions surrounding infidelity often lead to polarization.

The researchers here acknowledge that infidelity is difficult to study due to variations in definitions of what infidelity is, and related terms, “such as infidelity, unfaithfulness, cheating, extra-marital or extra-relational affairs, extra-dyadic involvement, and extra-dyadic sexual involvement are commonly used in the literature…they all attempt to assess the same underlying construct, which we refer to as infidelity.”

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