Why Some Cheaters Will Just Keep On Cheating

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Being cheated on is certainly no picnic. But, if you've been cheated on again and again (or, have done the cheating time and again), one begins to wonder what's going on. And, now, a new study suggests that relationships that begin with cheating partners don't fare so well, which might help explain why these patterns keep on repeating themselves.
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The study, published in the October issue of the Journal of Research in Personality, investigated what happens to the relationships that form when one of the partners was "poached" from another relationship (i.e. the "poached" is the cheater). To do so, they tracked romantic relationships in two longitudinal studies: The first one followed 96 heterosexual participants — who were in romantic relationships at the time — for nine weeks, checking in every three weeks about the participants' commitment and satisfaction levels, as well as the level to which they were interested in other people. The second study increased the sample size to 140 participants and clarified a few of their variables.
Taking results from the first two studies, those who had been poached from a previous relationship reported feeling progressively lower levels of satisfaction and commitment than those who hadn't been poached. The poached also reported higher amounts of attention paid to romantic "alternatives," and viewed those alternatives as being of higher quality than their current partners. So, it seems as though those who started a new relationship by cheating on a previous one were less likely to enjoy that new relationship. And, although this study didn't specifically examine the poachers (or, those who the poached left their significant other for), previous research has suggested that they share many traits in common with the poached.
Photographed by Jessica Nash.
And, in another recent cheating study, University of Denver grad student Kayla Knopp found similarly intriguing results. Presented at this year's annual convention of the American Psychological Association, her study looked at self-reported data from 484 participants. Her results showed that those who reported that they had cheated in their last relationship were more than three times as likely to also report cheating in their next one. And, mirroring that finding, those who said they had been cheated on before were more likely to be cheated on again.
So, it seems like the new study could help explain the mechanism behind Knopp's serial cheating results. "My research shows that having experience with cheating in the past is not a great sign for future relationships," she says, and notes that the latest findings demonstrate "that a relationship that began with infidelity is not likely to turn out well, either." But, she continues, "I don't think it would account for all the reasons people might fall into a pattern of habitual cheating." And, neither study could address whether the cheating behavior is inherent to the person, or is just that person's learned reaction to a previous negative relationship experience.
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However, we've noted before that cheating isn't always that big of a deal. It's sometimes predictable and doesn't always have to mean the end of a relationship. So, really, what we could be looking at is more than one type of cheater: We need to differentiate between those who cheat because they're unhappy in their current situation from those who are consistently unhappy in many situations. Then, the issue is less about cheating on its own, and becomes more about repeated cheating and the habitual dishonesty that comes with it. Could serial cheaters simply be looking for a different kind of relationship than committed monogamy provides? With polyamory and other forms of non-monogamous relationships becoming more accepted, it seems there might be more than one way to break (or repair) a heart.
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