Why people in monogamous relationships cheat is a question social scientists and researchers have been trying to answer for decades. Some attribute infidelity to certain personality traits, while some others believe that genetics may make them more likely to cheat. Some also believe that our evolutionary foundations can lead us to cheat on our partners.
New research complements this discourse, suggesting that infidelity may also be contagious — with our social circles having a direct impact on our propensity to cheat.
The study, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that people who are part of peer groups that view infidelity as acceptable and include people involved in affairs are more likely to cheat than people in peer groups that consider infidelity to be acceptable look down. In other words, being exposed to people cheating in their social circle can affect people’s bonding with their own partners.
The reason for this seems instinctive: social norms often dictate how we live our lives. If accepting infidelity is the norm, it is hardly surprising that the lack of social deterrents such as stigma and judgment could encourage, or at least be condoning with, cheating.
This is not to say that infidelity is a mistake, however, and there is no escaping being surrounded by random cheating couples. “Of course, environments where infidelity is prevalent don’t necessarily make people cheat,” said study lead author Gurit Birnbaum, a professor of psychology at Reichman University in Israel. “Nonetheless, when someone is already vulnerable to betrayal or opportunities for infidelity arise, these environments can provide the extra boost needed to resolve the conflict between following moral values and succumbing to short-term temptations in a way that is infidelity encourages.”
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“[E]Environments where infidelity is common can provide the justification for abandoning long-term nurturing priorities and pursuing enticing alternatives,” she adds.
But the temptation in question probably already exists — no matter how latent — for those who ultimately choose to pursue it. The individual attitude towards loyalty and commitment in relationships also plays a role.
The study offers new insights into why people cheat and what social factors play a role in determining their decisions. Cheating in monogamous relationships arguably has no clear cause – or effect. Infidelity is also known for providing people trapped in abusive relationships with comfort — and freedom, too. “[C]The heating made me realize how much better I deserved to be treated and ultimately gave me the strength to leave my abusive relationship,” one woman confessed on condition of anonymity. Another said: “[C]Heating was my escape. It allowed me to put one foot on the other side of the door. All I had to do was pull through, and I did.”
That people cheat more when they see others do it is a tricky idea, a slippery slope speculating on morality and choice. But one thing can actually help: Rather than normalize infidelity as the absolute norm in social circles, people can accept leaving their monogamous partner instead of enduring an unloving — or worse, abusive — relationship.
Especially in cases of infidelity, which serves as an escape route from abusive relationships, where it can introduce guilt alongside freedom. “In this whole unfaithful business, guilt is a constant – guilt, not for how we feel about each other. I feel a lot of guilt to society,” R., then 31, who had an occasional affair with a married man, told The Swaddle in 2019.
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R. had actually expressed a tendency to polyamory – although admitted that she might never try it. “Societal constructs are so strong in my head that I couldn’t even think about them out loud. And I’m a pretty free person. But you know that the chains you grow up with never completely set you free.”
Societal treatment of open relationships and polyamory as “alternative” lifestyles and their idolization of monogamous relationships may have led to what Birnbaum describes as “hegemonic dominance” of monogamy. So one wonders, if that weren’t the case, would infidelity be nearly as common. Instead, maybe people could not just leave bad relationships instead of staying to avoid the stigma of being a “failure”; or perhaps with like-minded partners they could pursue a lifestyle they are inclined to instead of forcing themselves into something they don’t enjoy.
That’s not to say, however, that everyone who doesn’t cheat suffers abuse, or that everyone in a monogamous relationship chose to do so because they fear the social consequences of choosing otherwise; that would be a pretty unfounded assessment. What emerges, however, is the fact that social deterrents can discourage people from being themselves, while social encouragement can drive people to even cheat, testament to the power that social norms hold.
And since with great power comes great responsibility, it’s up to us to be accountable for what we normalize — and what we advise against.