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Infidelity is common. Saying exactly how many people have ever cheated is a bit tricky, however, as the numbers vary wildly 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 marital relationships, the number is pretty reliably around 1 in 4 or 1 in 5; On the other hand, if you look at young adults in dating relationships, it’s more like 1 on 2 or 1 on 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. As a result, there’s a lot of interest in understanding whether infidelity is predictable—because if you can identify the key predictors, you might be able to develop strategies to reduce infidelity and the devastating effects that often accompany it.
A recent series of studies published in the Journal of Sex Research used a machine learning algorithm to determine if infidelity is predictable and what the biggest predictors are.
One study involved 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 a survey of 202 mixed-sex couples who were asked the same questions about infidelity. In both studies, researchers gathered extensive information about people’s sex lives, relationships, demographics, and personalities.
When asked whether infidelity is predictable, the researchers concluded: “somewhat.” They found that some factors were weak predictors and others were strong predictors, and that they were only moderately good at predicting infidelity by adding a large number of variables to the algorithm.
The biggest predictors of infidelity
In terms of which variables were most meaningful, 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 really explain much.
Even gender was an inconsistent predictor at best in this research. Being male was a strong predictor of online infidelity in only the couple’s study. The fact that gender overall was not a major predictor suggests that the historical gender gap in infidelity may be narrowing (although it is not entirely clear whether women are more likely to cheat now, or if they are just more likely to report it than they used to be in the past). Past).
The most consistent predictors across all samples and types of infidelity (in person vs. online) tended to be characteristics of people’s sex lives and relationships. Those who were more likely to cheat tended to:
- Overall, be less satisfied with their relationships.
- Specifically, have a lower level of sexual satisfaction.
- Have higher levels of sexual desire in general.
- Report less love for partner.
People’s sexual attitudes and behaviors were also predictive, suggesting an increased propensity for cheating in those with more liberal sexual attitudes, as well as those who had previously engaged in a broader range of sexual behaviors (e.g., anal sex or sex). toys). In other words, those who view sex through a more restrictive lens seem less inclined to cheat, but that may be because they hold more negative views toward infidelity in the first place.
Infidelity is complex and doesn’t have just one cause
An interesting finding was that while lower relationship satisfaction predicted a higher likelihood of cheating, there was a subsample of highly satisfied people who had cheated. As I’ve written before, infidelity doesn’t always stem from an unhappy relationship or bad (or no) sex—sometimes it’s about something else entirely.
All of this tells us that infidelity is complex – and there isn’t just one possible cause. So when trying to predict infidelity, we can’t just point to one thing and assume cheating is a foregone conclusion. It’s probably the result of several things working together.
For example, if you are dissatisfied with your relationship and this goes hand in hand with high sexual desire and a permissive view of sex, you are quite a bit more likely to be unfaithful than, for example, if you are dissatisfied with your relationship but have low sexual desire and a restrictive view of sex. For this reason we cannot look at these factors in isolation.
These results also suggest that addressing sexual needs/desires and relationship issues early is probably the most fruitful strategy when it comes to preventing infidelity, since infidelity typically says more about the relationship than anything else.
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