There are some mistakes you only need to make once in order to learn your lesson — like how keeping tabs on your ex’s Instagram is a terrible idea, or how tequila with coworkers on a #ThirstyThursday makes for a brutal Friday morning at the office. Cheating, one would hope, is one of these mistakes — but is that really the case? If you've cheated on an ex in the past, are you more likely to cheat again?
Infidelity can obviously take a serious emotional toll on your partner, not to mention do some serious damage to your relationship. Certainly, some relationships can survive this kind of indiscretion and even potentially become stronger for it. However, some may find it difficult to bounce back from such a breach of trust. So one might assume that after witnessing firsthand how detrimental it can be, a person would refrain from such behavior again. The risk, it would seem, would outweigh the reward. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that. According to licensed clinical psychotherapist Dr. LeslieBeth Wish. whether or not someone cheats again in a future relationship depends on multiple factors.
Science says that famous saying “once a cheater, always a cheater” may hold true. One 2017 study, which was published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that people who had been unfaithful in their first relationship were three times more likely to cheat in their next relationship compared to those who had refrained from cheating (woof, I know).
So, does that mean you’re predestined for infidelity if you’ve already done it once? Of course not, but it does likely put you at higher risk of repeating your indiscretion. Dr. Wish tells Elite Daily that’s because we “learn” to fall back on certain behaviors when something isn’t right in our relationships.
“Cheating is just another attempt to deal with inner turmoil, relationship discord, doubt, unmet sexual needs, and many other relationship issues,” she says. “And even if cheating did not help resolve the problem, the act of cheating is now in the person's problem-solving toolbox.”
Dr. Wish notes that it’s very common in relationships for people’s persistent habits to erode the relationship, and cheating is no different.
“For example, perhaps your partner handles his/her unhappiness by criticizing you, walking away, or lashing out in anger,” she explains. “No matter how many times you have discussed different and more productive ways of handling conflict and unhappiness, you or your partner's emotional default drive takes over, and the same ineffective behavior surfaces again.”
As it turns out, one factor that impacts how likely you are to cheat again in the future is how your ex reacted. If they were more lenient in response to your unfaithful ways and either overlooked it or forgave you easily, you may perceive there to be less of a risk in doing it again.
“Since the threshold for cheating behavior is very high, once that leap is taken once, it actually can become easier to take again,” explains Dr. Wish. “Instead of learning that cheating didn't help the situation, the cheater can then learn to be better at keeping the cheating secret.”
There are other risk factors for infidelity that can come into play as well. Research conducted at the University of Denver, Colorado, which examined nearly 500 adults in romantic relationships, found that people who have attachment insecurity — both avoidant and anxious — are more likely to cheat. Additionally, people with a low commitment to their present relationship, low or declining relationship satisfaction, accepting attitudes about sexual relations outside the relationship, and differing levels of sexual inhibition and excitement from their partner are also at a higher risk.
Indeed, just like failing to set boundaries, clamming up during an argument, burying resentment, or rehashing the past can become an unhealthy habit in your relationships, so can cheating. So the short answer is: yes, you are more likely to cheat again if you've already done it. That said, there are ways to break any habit, and if your go-to way of coping with relationship issues is to seek out this form of validation for whatever reason, you may very well be able to break the cycle — as long as you’re willing to put in the work, ideally with the help of a therapist or psychologist, and communicate thoroughly with your partner. Ultimately, the most important thing is that you explore why you feel the need to cheat in your relationships — once you get to the bottom of what's leading you astray, you can start working on that root issue to prevent future cheating.
The first step to making a change is acknowledging that you’re at risk for such behavior (since you’ve already followed through on it once). Learned behaviors like this can be difficult to “unlearn,” but definitely not impossible! If you’re dedicated to diving headfirst into the real root of the problems that are plaguing your relationships before they spiral out of control, you may be able to avoid the temptation to make the same mistake over and over again. In other words, there is hope for you yet to learn healthier ways to work through relationship issues that don't put your bond at risk. You are in control of your destiny and decisions. Love is a powerful thing — powerful enough to overcome even our most deep-seated tendencies. Believe in that power.
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