Is ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’ backed by research?

Is ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’ backed by research?

It’s likely you’ve heard the saying, ‘once a cheater, always a cheater.’ But does research support the common phrase, or is it just something people say?

One study sought to answer the question by surveying men and women in committed dating relationships. They found that those who had cheated on their partner in a prior relationship were more likely to cheat again on their current partner.

In fact, 30 percent of people who had cheated before had also cheated in their current relationship, while only 13 percent of people who had never cheated before had been unfaithful to their current partner.

But that doesn’t mean all cheaters are bound to cheat again.

“The research found that among people who had been unfaithful in previous relationships, 30 percent cheated on their current partners. But that means 70 percent of those who were previously unfaithful had not cheated again. People can change,” says Dr. Brittany Lakin-Starr, a psychologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.

The study also found that men were more likely than women to report physical or emotional intimacy with someone other than their partner face-to-face or online. Women with higher education were also more likely to report attraction to others online, and women whose previous partners had cheated were more likely to cheat themselves.

“There are several reasons people may cheat,” says Dr. Lakin-Starr. “First, according to evolutionary biology, humans are not hardwired to be monogamous. Second, relationships are like gardens and must be tended to, as they require time and attention to flourish. Unfortunately, with multiple demands competing for people’s attention, a partner’s needs can slowly get overlooked. For example, partners may stop complementing each other, going on dates and showing admiration. Infidelity is a symptom that these emotional needs are not being met in the relationship.  Additionally, people do not usually ‘go looking’ for an affair. On the contrary, affairs often begin as innocent friendships where the emotional attachment unexpectedly grows into something more.”

Dr. Lakin-Starr adds that people feel betrayed following infidelity because the person who was supposed to love and cherish them the most just hurt them the most.

“After someone cheats, trust is broken, and the partner who was hurt will need time and space to sort through their feelings,” says Dr. Lakin-Starr. “Research shows that partners who were cheated on often display symptoms of PTSD.”

For couples hoping to move forward and rebuild their relationship following infidelity, Dr. Lakin-Starr recommends couples therapy.

“Couples therapy, especially Gottman Couples therapy, a scientifically based approach, can help couples repair and strengthen their relationships,” says Dr. Lakin-Starr. “This particular therapy focuses on atonement, attunement (reconnecting and communicating) and attachment (redefining relationship goals, rituals and dreams) following infidelity. Therapy can help couples regain trust, look at the relationship difficulties that led up to the affair, learn how to reconnect with each other, communicate more effectively and mend their relationship.”

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  1. I can tell you from experience that the saying once a cheater always a cheater is certainly not universally true. I was infallibly loyal in all my relationships until I cheated on my husband. Our marriage was a disaster that I should have ended long before I did. However, we had a child together and he had become completely dependent on me financially and in the management of day to day life, so it seemed kinder to stay married to him for his own sake. By the time I inadvertently fell in love with someone else, I had lost all romantic interest in my husband because of his narcissistic antics, laziness, inability to handle money, and refusal to accept any responsibility for the issues with our marriage.

    Within a few months of starting an affair, I ended my marriage at great expense to myself. I ended up supporting my ex financially for years, but at least was free from the emotional baggage. Sometimes, when people cheat it is because they are stuck in a situation where the other party has already betrayed them in multiple ways. While I was legally married, I would not describe the union as what I consider to be a marriage. So while everyone is quick to spout off wisdom about cheaters, they might also want to consider what conditions might lead an otherwise kind and loyal person to cheat. Having done it, I can say that I will never do it again because it’s really not my nature. However, I’m very grateful that the experience gave me the push I needed to end a toxic marriage.

  2. BULLS–T!!! Once a CHEATER always a LYING CHEAT!!! A CHEATER can have the greatest mate and will still CHEAT because that’s what a CHEATER does.

  3. WOW!!!!! Everyone is different and has a different life. VBNR I am sorry you had such a bad experience, you are definitely scorned. AGREED, I can understand your experience, but yes, you should have ended the marriage first. Sometimes that doesn’t always work. Just remember everyone has their own story. Sometimes it doesn’t work by the book. God Bless. We are not here to judge that’s for sure!!!

  4. I agree with Agreed. Sometimes kind people are pushed to cheat because they are in a fucked up, horrible situation. i think it’s easier to say “just leave” than do, if you are in a domestic violence situation or other toxic situation, as you have no idea how the toxic partner wares and breaks you down and blocks all your attempts at leaving. I was a teenager when I was in that situation and my ex blocked every attempt I made to leave, I would try to break up with him and he would belittle and degrade me or emotional manipulate me, it was a really hard and heartbreaking situation and I found myself becoming close to someone else – I didn’t physically cheat but as a teenager, I didn’t realise that it was possible to have an emotional fair. The guilt still eats me up years later, but the abuser didn’t deserve better – he sexually, physically and emotionally abused me – like Agreed says, that person has already harmed and betrayed you in so many ways, and sometimes someone else being kind to you is what you need to get out – so that you can see that other people are different and that you are not the unloveable, worthless person that the abuser made you feel like you were. I’m not proud of it, but some situations are desperate and you are so broken down that you cannot do it alone – no family or close friends to support you, then you have the support of someone who you also have feelings for. It’s a horrible situation and I do take responsibility for it – but sometimes people are PUSHED. And unless you have suffered abuse, you cannot tell people otherwise. Sometimes that is what helps people get out, so can even save people from more trauma or even being murdered at the hands of an abusive partner. It’s not the same as cheating on a kind, lovely person who has not do anything wrong to you.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.