When you arrived at Cornell, a copy of the Academic Integrity Hearing Code was waiting on your desk, delineating the nuances of cheating: What qualifies as cheating, what the repercussions are and how you can avoid falling into questionable behavior. Unfortunately, you receive no such guide in life for a different type of cheating that may be even more confusing, prevalent and emotionally damaging. Since at least the 1970’s, researchers have – to the best of their abilities – tried to make sense of infidelity. The data on cheating is based on self-reports by individual, thus making it difficult to draw sweeping conclusions, but the research sheds light on many questions concerning cheating partners: Theories on why people cheat, what types are most detrimental to relationships and who has an increased likelihood of letting their eyes (and other parts) wander.
While Tiger Woods’ escapades would qualify as cheating by almost any definition, many behaviors fall into more of a grey area. Villanova professor Dr. R. J. Brand defines cheating in romantic relationships as a violation of a partner’s trust. This is the core of cheating and part of why different couples are so unique in their responses to certain behaviors. Recognizing that cheating is a violation of trust also explains why a feeling of betrayal is one of the strongest emotional responses and why cheating destroys many relationships.
Cheating can take one of two forms: physical or emotional. For some people, finding out that their significant other spends all day flirting with their Chem TA via text message is just as hurtful as hearing that their partner kissed someone else at The Palm’s. Although you might think of “real cheating” as being physical, Gary Neuman, author of “Emotional Infidelity: How to Avoid It,” suggests that emotional affairs can be just as damaging to relationships as sexual affairs—and can be even harder for couples to overcome. So, when you’re tempted to justify a coffee date as “harmless flirting,” check yourself by considering if your behavior violates your partner’s trust.
Generally, studies indicate that women get more upset about emotional cheating, whereas men get more upset about physical cheating – but recent research on various factors (including your attachment style) shows that the difference might not be as significant as once presumed and might not be “hard-wired” as evolutionary psychologists suggest. A sex difference does, however, seem to exist in the aftermath of cheating. According to a study by Dr. Maryanne Fisher and her colleagues, men feel guiltier about sexual cheating, while women feel guiltier about emotional cheating.
For some people, it’s hard to understand why someone would ever cheat on their significant other – but almost impossible to comprehend how anyone (cough, Jesse James) could cheat on someone like Sandra Bullock. Indeed, many stories of infidelity generate shock among outsiders, who thought that the couple was truly happy together. Whether or not you believe cheating can ever be excused, a variety of explanations for the behavior exist. Evolutionary psychologists point to theories about sexual strategies and reproduction, with some suggesting that we are not naturally monogamous. Others psychologists point to societal factors (his cultural norms made him do it!), personality factors (she’s just an impulsive gal!), or physiology (his testosterone levels are just so high!). Anthropolgist Helen Fisher suggests that the roots are actually biological, noting that two brain systems – one linked to love and attachment and another linked to sex drive – are not always well connected, which can enable people to cheat when they seem to be in “committed” relationships.
Regardless of which theory you ascribe to or how you feel about cheating, the problem is both widespread and detrimental. In a recent survey, Deborah Carr highlighted a few statistics on Americans’ cheating, including the prevalence. Carr reports that somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of men admit to cheating on their wives between the 1991 and 2008 time period, while rates of admitted infidelity for women range between 10 and 15 percent. Psychology Today writer Jay Dixit says to, “forget the stats about how many people admit to having affairs and instead consider the 10 percent of children who are being raised by men who they think are their fathers – but aren’t.” (Yikes.)
Obviously no one wants to end up with a partner who has a cheating soul, but can you spot a cheater before they break your heart? Research has yet to provide a universally agreed upon test, but does give some clues. In terms of self-esteem, it seems that men who cheat tend to have high self-esteem, while the reverse is true of women. Bradley University psychologist David Schmidt suggests that people who are sensation seeking, assertive and less emotionally stable are also more likely to cheat. According to UCLA psychologist Martie Haselton and anthropologist Elizabeth Pilsworth, women are most likely to cheat during ovulation – and they’re more likely to cheat with highly masculine men who are muscular and dominant with strong jaw lines (assuming that their current partners lack those traits).
Furthermore, infidelity usually comes as a shock. So, what happens when you find out that your partner cheated on you? Although the model that sounds somewhat like the stages of grieving, family therapist Candyce Russel has outlined three emotional stages following infidelity: roller coaster, moratorium, and trust-building. During the “roller coaster” phase, intense emotional responses prevail. In “moratorium”, Russel explains that the cheated-on partner obsesses about the event, wanting to know every detail about the affair. During this stage, the cheated-on partner also retreats both physically and emotionally from their partner. If the couple decides to stay together, they enter into a trust-building phase, to try and repair the broken trust and move forward. However, many couples do not stay together following affairs, and infidelity is regularly cited among leading causes for divorce.
If you’re reading these studies thinking that you’d rather have the vaccine against cheating partners than pursuing retroactive treatment options, you’re not alone. Although some researchers point to the importance of communication to avoid infidelity, the most critical factor seems to be the combination of intimacy and meeting each others’ needs – both physically and emotionally – to avoid your partner seeking either of these elsewhere. So, stay connected, stay supportive and don’t be afraid to spice things up to keep your romance, trust and relationship thriving.