When people ask how my fiancé and I met, I tell the truth. Almost.
“We met in poetry class, dated for a few months, and broke up,” I say.
I don’t admit that, if we’re getting technical, I had a long-distance boyfriend at the time — one I’d been dating on-and-off since high school who, in my defense, treated me like absolute garbage. Asking out my then-classmate and now-fiancé made me feel vindicated.
Cheating gets easier the second time around, and the time after that. Until my mid-20s, I cheated with stunning regularity, with the worst of my exes and with drunk randos on the dance floor. And then I just stopped. The thought of cheating no longer appealed to me once I began dating my previous boyfriend, with whom I had a healthy, loving four-year relationship.
So the old saying of “Once a cheater, always a cheater” doesn’t really apply to me — right? But I seem to be the exception to the rule. One paper published in the journal “Archives of Sexual Behavior” found that people who’ve cheated are three times more likely to cheat in future relationships.
This doesn’t apply to everyone, and Kayla Knopp, the lead author on the aforementioned paper and a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Denver, notes that plenty of people stop cheating after the first incidence. One major factor is the relationship itself, since in many cases, cheating is a reflection of the overall health of the relationship. If you’re happy and satisfied in your relationship, you may be less inclined to look elsewhere — or your partner may be too top of mind. That probably explains why, in my recent long-term relationships, cheating hasn’t been a concern for me.
A poor relationship, conversely, has the opposite effect. But that’s generally a good thing. “If a person’s reasons for infidelity were closely tied to the particular relationship they were in — for example, if they were very unhappy in the relationship — I would guess that they may be less likely to engage in infidelity again in a different relationship,” agrees Knopp. There’s still a downside to it, though — or so I find when I poll my friends. “I do think that once a person cheats in a relationship, then they’ll probably cheat again in that relationship,” says one friend, Louise.
Serial cheating, on the other hand, often goes way deeper than the relationship. In those instances, your background, lifestyle, and circumstances can make all the difference. “Your demographic group, your beliefs about infidelity, and having opportunities to engage in infidelity might make someone likely to engage in infidelity again,” Knopp explains.
Your childhood may play a role in whether you grow up to become a serial cheater. “People along the spectrum [of infidelity] have what you would call narcissistic– and trauma-based disorders,” says Rob Weiss, Ph.D., a clinical sexologist, practicing psychotherapist, and CEO of Seeking Integrity. How that manifests in a relationship: The less stability, nurturing, and attachment one experienced or witnessed during childhood, the more inclined they may be to cheat repeatedly — since they never got that first-hand lesson in commitment and consistency, he explains.
One of the best ways to circumvent that behavior is to be upfront. Apparently, honesty is still the best policy. “[There’s] something called sexual integrity, which is if you said to your partner, ‘You know, I don’t know that I’m ever really going to be faithful. I have a casual sex occasionally, and that’s kind of guy I am’,” says Weiss. Many would say that that’s a deal breaker — understandably so — but consider the alternative. An open relationship free of secrets and lying is far healthier and more transparent than one in which someone’s cheating.
The key to breaking the pattern is figuring out what led to past infidelity in the first place. “Some people may be better off avoiding making monogamous commitments in the future if they know they can’t or won’t stay faithful, whereas other people may need to learn better skills to address relationship problems or to avoid situations in which infidelity is likely,” says Knopp. While there’s not much data yet on effective ways to deter cheating by either yourself or your partner, she recommends exploring why and how their past circumstances of infidelity unfolded — and thinking of clear, actionable ways to avoid them in the future.
Weiss also cites good old maturity as a natural end to a cheating streak. “When I make decisions, especially if they’re important ones, I’m going to check those out with my partner,” says Weiss. “I make sure that my decisions are not going to create problems in or undermine my relationship, and that they support my relationship.” That includes matters of fidelity. And if you’re dead-set on putting your partner and their needs first, you probably won’t end up kissing someone else during a girl’s night out.
Not every serial cheater has the emotional maturity to confront their own behavior, however. As Weiss had mentioned, the inclination to cheat may be deeply rooted in their past, and therefore difficult to change. And change is impossible if the cheater in question isn’t interested in it — after all, you’ve got to do the work. For these types of cheaters, “I think there’s only one thing [that makes them stop]: getting caught,” Weiss says.
For the rest of us, there’s the fear of getting caught, and opening up the consequent can of worms that comes with it: hurting your partner; feeling ashamed of yourself; and damaging your relationship, possibly irreparably. A much easier option? Just don’t do it in the first place. It’s not that hard — I promise.