Cheating Might Run In The Family

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
This was originally published on July 14, 2015.

By Dr. Tim Loving

Why do people cheat? It’s a question we get (and address) at Science of Relationships regularly. Our coverage generally reflects the state of research on the topic, which focuses on those things about individuals or relationships that directly increase the likelihood somebody will cheat. This includes low commitment, more attractive alternatives, lack of impulse control, narcissism, and more.

But what if we dig further into a person’s history, perhaps even preceding her or his foray into the world of romantic and sexual relationships? Are there more distal signs or risk factors that determine if somebody will one day cheat on a partner? It would appear so.

In a recent study of about 300 college students, researchers wanted to find out if individuals are more or less likely to cheat as a function of whether their parents ever knocked boots with someone other than ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ (while still married). Students were asked if they had ever cheated on a romantic partner (30% said yes), and if their mom or dad had ever cheated on their other parent (33% said yes, with dads slightly more likely to perpetrate the infidelity).

Related: Is Everyone Else Cheating And I Just Don't Know It?

Students who had cheated on a partner were twice as likely to have had a parent who cheated compared to those students who had not cheated on a partner (44% vs. 22%).

Interestingly, having a cheating parent didn’t affect the way students viewed cheating — and they were no more accepting of the idea of cheating in general (at least that’s what they told the researchers). So it’s not entirely clear how having a parent cheat increases the odds that somebody may one day do the same. Most likely, knowing that your mom or dad was a cheater somehow influences one of the many other predictors of cheating (e.g., feelings of commitment to partners), but future work is needed to clarify the chain of events that links a parent's cheating ways (or not) to your own.

Next: Foolproof Ways To Tell If Your Partner Is Cheating
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