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Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater?

A reader submitted the following question:

I have been in the best relationship of my life for the past 6 months with a woman who caused me to believe in love at first sight. Everything has been perfect and she is exactly what I had always dreamed to find in someone, but deep inside I thought I would never meet a person like her. With everything being so great, I was shocked when she had told me that she cheated on a boyfriend whom she was with for two years. I would have never guessed she would be the person to do something like that. However, there are factors involved which I believe could have caused her to commit this act. First off, her boyfriend at the time told her he liked her best friend, secondly she was entering college where she would be introduced to a completely new world since she had lived in the same small town her entire life, another factor is that her boyfriend did not pay attention to her or show any sign of affection, and lastly she cheated on a night when she was at a party with a friend who ended up dating her after she ended the relationship. With all of this information, I want to know if I can trust her to not cheat on me. I have never loved anyone as much as her and I know she feels the exact same way, but at the same time I wouldn't have thought she would cheat. She is a very sweet caring person who is always smiling and laughing. Also she had never told anyone else about the scenario before, and was crying the whole time she told me. Should I worry about this, or listen to her and trust that she was less confident and took the wrong route in ending her relationship?

Thanks for your question. Overall, it sounds like your relationship is going really well, especially if she was comfortable enough to tell you about her past indiscretion. There are a lot of possible explanations for your girlfriend’s past cheating, but those explanations will generally fall in one of the following categories:1,2 

1. Internal Explanations: These explanations have to do with the individual’s disposition, such as your girlfriend’s personality. Essentially, you’re worried that there’s something about her as a person that will lead her to cheat in your relationship, just like she did in the past. Once a cheater, always a cheater…

There is some evidence that specific stable personality traits related to lower sexual inhibition and more sexual risk-taking3 are associated with infidelity. For example, is she particularly sexually adventurous? If so, this might be an indication that her past behavior was not an isolated incident. In addition, women with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation (i.e., they view sex and commitment as distinct experiences) are more likely to have cheated.4 How do you think she’d answer the following question? “I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying “casual” sex with different partners.”5 If it’s with a resounding “yes,” then you have reasons for concern. Finally, women high in narcissism and psychoticism, and low in conscientiousness, are more susceptible to cheating.6

But if these characteristics don’t describe your girlfriend, then it’s probably safe to say that her past infidelity isn’t a function of her personality. But you’re not necessarily in the clear yet…

2. External Explanations: There are situations that offer more opportunities to cheat.7 For example, college students are more likely to cheat when they go to Cancun on Spring Break with their buddies than when they are studying in the library. You mentioned that your girlfriend was about to start college; that’s a big life change and could change the way she perceives alternatives. Quite simply, there are a lot of fish in the collegiate sea. All of which makes it possible that your girlfriend’s behavior was more of an isolated incident and a byproduct of the college experience.

3. Relational Explanations: Of course, the dynamics of one’s relationship play a big role in infidelity.8 When things aren’t going well, relationships are at risk for all sorts of problems, including infidelity (especially for women).3 From how you describe it, she wasn’t particularly happy in that past relationship and the cheating does sound like a symptom of poor relationship functioning in that specific relationship. In many ways, it seems like it was “the easy way” to break up with her boyfriend at the time. If things are going well in your relationship, from this perspective, there would be little to worry about.

Trust is important, and it is normal to be concerned about behaviors that could damage the trust you have built with your girlfriend. From your description, it does not appear that she will always be a cheater, but communicating and learning more about each other over time will ultimately be the best source of data you have about this.

See all of our articles about cheating and infidelity here.

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1Kelley, H. H. (1973). The process of causal attribution. American Psychologist, 28, 107-128.

2Vangelisti, A. L., & Gerstenberger, M. (2004). Communication and marital infidelity. J. Duncombe, K. Harrison, G. Allan, & D. Marsden (Eds.), The state of affairs: Explorations in infidelity and commitment (pp. 59-78). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

3Mark, K. P., Janssen, E., & Milhausen, R. R. (2011). Infidelity in heterosexual couples: Demographic, interpersonal, and personality-related predictors of extradyadic sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 971-982.

4Simpson, J. A., & Gangestad, S. (1991). Individual differences in sociosexuality: Evidence for convergent and discriminant validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 1192-1201.

5Penke, L., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2008). Beyond global sociosexual orientations: A more differentiated look at sociosexuality and its effects on courtship and romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1113-1135.

6Buss, D. M., & Schackelford, T. K (1997). Susceptibility to infidelity in the first year of marriage. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 193-221.

7Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H., & Jacboson, N. S. (2001). Understanding infidelity: Correlates in a national random sample. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 735-749.

8Buunk, A.P., & Dijkstra, P. (2006). The threat of temptation: Extradyadic relationships and jealousy. In  D. Perlman & A.L. Vangelisti (Eds.). The Cambridge handbook of  personal relationships. (pp. 533-556). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.

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