Source: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Infidelity is widespread. However, telling exactly how many people have ever cheated is a little tricky as the numbers vary widely depending on how you ask the question (e.g. sexual vs. emotional infidelity, online vs. personal infidelity, etc.) . However, if you look specifically at sexual infidelity in conjugal relationships, the number is fairly reliably 1 in 4 or 1 in 5; In contrast, if you look at young adults in dating relationships, it is more likely 1 in 2 or 1 in 3.
Infidelity is one of the most common reasons for divorce and also one of the most common reasons people seek sex and relationship therapy. Hence, there is a great deal of interest in understanding whether infidelity is predictable – because by identifying the key predictors, you can potentially develop strategies to reduce infidelity and the devastating effects that it brings.
A recent series of studies published in the Journal of Sex Research used a machine learning algorithm to determine whether infidelity is predictable and what the biggest predictors are.
One study included a survey of 891 adults who were asked questions about their experiences of personal sexual infidelity as well as online sexual infidelity. The second study involved interviewing 202 mixed-sex couples who were asked the same questions about infidelity. In both studies, researchers gathered extensive information about people’s sex life, relationships, demographic background, and personality.
When answering the question of whether infidelity is foreseeable, the conclusion of the researchers is: “something”. They found that some factors were weak predictors and other strong predictors, and that they could only reasonably predict infidelity by adding a large number of variables to the algorithm.
The greatest predictors of infidelity
In terms of which variables were most predictive, the researchers found that “the most robust predictors of infidelity are in the relationship.” In other words, the demographic (e.g. educational level) and personality factors (e.g. attachment style) didn’t explain much.
Even gender was an inconsistent predictor in this research at best. Being male was a strong predictor of online infidelity only in the couple’s study. The fact that overall gender was not among the main predictors suggests that the historical gender gap in infidelity may be narrowing (although it’s not entirely clear whether women cheat more now or if they’re just more likely to report it than previously in the past).
The most consistent predictors across all samples and across all types of infidelity (face-to-face vs. online) were characteristics of people’s sexual life and relationships. Those who were more likely to cheat tended to:
- be less satisfied with their relationships overall,
- especially have a lower level of sexual satisfaction,
- generally have higher levels of sexual desire
- Report less love for the partner.
People’s sexual attitudes and behaviors were also predictive, indicating an increased tendency to cheat in those with more liberal sexual attitudes and in those who had previously displayed a wider range of sexual behaviors (e.g. toys). In other words, those who look at sex through a more restrictive lens seem less inclined to cheat, but that may be because they have more negative views of infidelity in the first place.
Infidelity is complex and has more than one cause
One interesting finding was that while less satisfied with one’s relationship predicted a greater likelihood of being cheated on, there was a subset of highly satisfied people who cheated. As I wrote earlier, infidelity isn’t always driven by being in an unhappy relationship or having bad (or no) sex – sometimes it’s about something completely different.
All of this tells us that infidelity is complex – and not just one possible cause. So when we’re trying to predict infidelity, we can’t just point out one thing and assume that cheating is a foregone conclusion. It’s likely the result of several things working together.
For example, if you are dissatisfied with your relationship and it is associated with high sexual desire and a revealing view of sex, the likelihood of infidelity is much higher than if you are dissatisfied with, for example, your relationship but have low sexual desire and one restrictive view of sex. Because of this, we cannot look at these factors in isolation.
These results also suggest that addressing sexual needs / desires and relationship issues early on is probably the most fruitful strategy when it comes to preventing infidelity, since infidelity usually says more about the relationship than anything else.