Can You Ever Trust A Cheater?

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
We're exploring relationship myths perpetuated by rom-coms and fairytales in a brand new mini-series, with help from therapist and relationship coach Esther Perel. First up, she tackled flirting — why we do it, and what it means. Now, we examine the old adage: "Once a cheater, always a cheater."

Q: My partner cheated on me. Should I expect it to happen again?

A: True, there have been a few small studies that reportedly proved this theory correct: A 2014 study surveying 484 unmarried 18-35 year olds found that those who cheated in the past were 3.5 times more likely to cheat later.

But, experts generally agree that "once a cheater, always a cheater" is not a hard-and-fast rule. When it does apply, typically the reasons for cheating are centered on the individual rather than the relationship. If this is the first instance of infidelity, and it is the only breach of trust that has occurred in your relationship, it's not a foregone conclusion that the person will cheat again. “Some people are repeat offenders and philanderers," Perel says, "but the majority of people I work with have been quite faithful for years before they actually have an affair."

Granted, the people who would seek out relationship counseling are more likely to work towards a thriving, healthy marriage, and confront the issues that caused them to cheat instead of just ignoring them. Past research has found that people who score high on "agreeableness" and "conscientiousness" are less likely to cheat — and to that logical end, less likely to repeat the infidelity if they do.

The traits that are linked to infidelity include narcissism and a love for risk-taking — and people who have them, Perel says, are usually grappling with more than staying monogamous. “If people are repeat offenders, it generally means that they’ve been lying about other things, too,” Perel says. “In these cases you’re not talking about being unfaithful, you’re talking about narcissism.” In the same way that flirting can be a byproduct of insecurity, cheating is oftentimes rooted in the main problem of narcissism.

The thing is, Perel says, “affairs are about a breach of trust, not about monogamy,” and it’s the breach of trust that causes issues. Frequently, it’s not just cheating that is causing strife within a relationship — rather, the cheating is one of a host of issues. “There are a lot of promises that people break in a relationship, but people don’t apply that same sentence to any other form of lying in a marriage,” Perel points out. “Nobody ever says that once someone hasn’t done something, they will never do it.” So, “Once a cheater, always a cheater?” “This is a statement of fear, not of fact,” Perel says.

Have a question about relationships for Esther Perel? Leave it in the comments below, and we'll choose one to answer on July 12.
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