Friday, September 29, 2017

Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater? Does a Person who Cheats on One Partner Tend to do so with the Next?

If someone cheats on their partner in one relationship, what are the odds they will do so in another relationship? That’s the question addressed in a new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior[i], titled “Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater? Serial Infidelity Across Subsequent Relationships.” The researchers found that those who were unfaithful in one relationship had three times the odds of being unfaithful in the next, compared to those who had not been unfaithful in the first relationship. Let’s look deeper.

This research was conducted by a team from our lab at the University of Denver; the study was headed up by Kayla Knopp along with colleagues Shelby Scott, Lane Ritchie, Galena Rhoades, Howard Markman, and yours truly. It used our national sample of individuals first recruited when aged 18 to 34, who were in unmarried, serious, romantic relationships.[ii] Thus, while most of the literature on infidelity focuses on marriage, this new study focused on those mostly at pre-marriage stages of life. That is one of the advances from this work but not the only one. The other is that the sample and methods allowed for assessing infidelity across two relationships within the context of this longitudinal sample that followed individuals for five years, focusing on their romantic relationships.

Historical Findings

There is an extensive literature on infidelity in married relationships with a growing literature on what is often called extra-dyadic sexual involvement (ESI) in unmarried relationships. The literature on infidelity inside and outside of marriage is well summarized in the new paper. I will describe a few highlights here.[iii]

An overwhelming majority of people have the expectation of fidelity of sexual and, often,  emotional connection in monogamous relationships. That is especially obvious in marriage, but it’s also true in serious, unmarried relationships. Sure, there have always been some who seek “open” relationships, where partners agree that it is okay to have sex outside the relationship under some conditions, but that is not very common.  

While the lifetime risks for infidelity in marriage have generally run around 20 percent,[iv] rates of sex with someone outside a current relationship are much higher among those who are unmarried.[v] This should not be shocking since both the norms about fidelity as well as average commitment levels are higher for marriage than other relationships, on average. The possibility of fidelity is simply not as high for those who have not settled down to make a long-term (or life-time) commitment to a particular partner. Nevertheless, while people may not have settled down to committing to another for the long haul, they tend to expect faithfulness.[vi]

Knopp and colleagues note some of the most common risk factors for infidelity based on prior research. Those include:

·      Low commitment to the present relationship
·      Low or declining relationship satisfaction
·      Accepting attitudes about sexual relations outside the relationship
·      Attachment insecurity: both avoidant and anxious
·      Differences in individual levels of sexual inhibition and excitement
·      Being a man versus a woman, though this may be changing.

Those findings are mostly from the literature on marriage with some findings from unmarried relationships. If you want a deeper review of factors associated with greater odds of cheating in unmarried relationships, I wrote about that subject here and here based on an earlier study drawing from the same project sample as the new study.

The new study does not focus on predictors of infidelity but on the likelihood that it will be repeated, and it uses particularly strong methods for doing so.  

Following People Through Two Relationships

Most studies of infidelity are retrospective and cross-sectional, focusing at single points while asking about present and past relationships.[vii] To my knowledge, this new study is unique because people were followed in real time (or close to it) from one relationship into the next, completing comprehensive surveys about their relationships at each time point during the longitudinal method. Contrast that with a method where, for example, you asked a sample of middle-aged people if they had ever had sex outside of one or more relationships in their past. That would be a different study, and, while interesting, would be subject to retrospective bias. People are believed to remember things better—and typically to report them more accurately—when asked closer in time to when those events occurred. That’s what Knopp and colleagues did.

For the new study, the overall national sample from the project started with 1,294 individuals. However, the analyses for this new study had to be based on those who were surveyed across two relationships over the course of the five years that the sample was followed. That means that only those who had broken up from one relationship and then entered another during that period would be analyzed. That left 484 individuals. If you are used to studies in sociology with thousands of people, that may seem like a smallish sample, but for the questions addressed here, it’s large and more than sufficient.

The average duration of the first relationships was 38.8 months while the average duration of the second was 29.6 months. Thus, the relationships studied were mostly serious and of substantial duration. No one was married at the start of the project but some would have married that first partner or the second during the time frame of the study. For the most part, however, it is best to think about these findings in the context of the stage of life where people are often seriously involved but not yet married—a stage of life that has grown substantially in the past few decades.

At each time point (which tended to be every 4 to 6 months), participants were asked, “Have you had sexual relations with someone other than your partner since you began seriously dating?” In this project, participants were also asked if they had either known or suspected their present partner of having sex with someone else. Obviously, there are biases when people are self-reporting such behavior. That’s a problem for the whole literature. Further, the specific questions used in this study may exclude emotional affairs as well as some online affairs where there is some sexual aspect but the respondent tells themselves they are not actually having sex. Also, in such a sample there would be some small percentage of people who would have been in some sort of consensual non-monogamous arrangement, where having sex with someone outside the relationship would be the same thing as cheating because there was some agreement about this. Knopp and colleagues note that there is no way with this data set to isolate such relationships, but there are strong reasons to believe that such open relationships are a very small percentage in the overall sample.

Knopp and colleagues controlled for some of the variables known to be associated with greater and lower risk of being unfaithful, net of other factors like relationship quality and commitment to one’s partner. That is, the study controlled for age, gender, socioeconomic status, and race.

Then and Again

Forty-four percent (44 percent) of this sample reported having had sex with someone other than their present partner in one or both of the relationships studied. Further, 30 percent reported that they knew at least one of the partners in the two relationships had cheated on them. That seems to me like quite a bit of infidelity in these unmarried relationships. Nevertheless, keep in mind that this is not a good estimate of the odds that someone will be unfaithful in an unmarried relationship. To be in this sample, a person would have had to have broken up in at least one serious relationship and entered another. Thus, this result does not mean that 44 percent of those under 40 in the U. S. have been unfaithful to a partner, and it certainly does not mean that such a high percent who are married in a similar age range have or will be been unfaithful. Getting that percentage measured correctly would require a different type of sample and method to yield the best estimate of how likely it is that people will have cheated on any partner before eventually settling down in marriage among those who have married. Closely related to that question, Galena Rhoades and I found in a previous study that 16 percent of those followed into marriage in the study’s parent project described here reported that they had cheated on their eventual spouse sometime before marriage.[viii]

In this new study, 45 percent who reported cheating on their partner in the first relationship reported also doing so in the second. Among those who had not cheated in the first, far less, 18 percent, cheated in the second. While the odds of cheating on a partner were far greater if one had done so in the past, it is also true that a person cheating in one relationship was not destined to do so in the next relationship. In fact, slightly more people who had cheated in the first relationship studied did not report cheating in the second.

The study also found that those who were certain that their partner in the first relationship had cheated were twice as likely as those not reporting this to experience a cheating partner in the second relationship. Again, history was not destiny, but history did speak to greater odds of a repeat experience.  


It would be incorrect to assume that one is destined to endlessly repeat painful relationship patterns. And yet, some people are at much greater risk than others for negative outcomes in romantic relationships (and marriage), and they are at greater risk for repeat experiences. Some people are simply more likely than others to cheat on their partners and more likely to choose partners who cheat on them, and to do so in more than one relationship. This touches on the complex subject of selection into risk, which Galena Rhoades and I have written about more than a few times (for example, here and here).

The study described here was not designed to address complicated questions such as how the risk of infidelity might be lowered in relationships and marriage, or how it could be prevented from happening again. Future research could examine what predicts whether or not someone who cheated on one partner does so again; however, most of the same predictors of ever cheating will predict repeatedly cheating quite well. Among all of the factors associated with cheating, some are surely more amenable to change than others. Variables that are biological (e.g., differences in proneness to sexual excitement) or cultural (and thus impacting individual values) are in the mix, but so are other factors, like commitment, that I believe people have some control over.

Galena Rhoades and I have described how relationship histories may play an important and causal role in eventual relationship quality in marriage (or not in marriage, for that matter).  Specifically, while having more experience in various aspects of life is usually a good thing, having more experience in relationships may not be so good when those experiences include serious involvements that alter one’s odds of succeeding in finding and keeping lasting love. Nevertheless, behaviors of the past do not have to be the definition of one’s future.

This article was first posted at the blog for The Institute for Family Studies September 6th, 2017.  

[i] Knopp, K., Scott, S.B., Ritchie, L.L., Rhoades, G.K., Markman, H.J., & Stanley, S.M. (2017). Once a cheater, always a cheater? Serial infidelity across subsequent relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Advance online publication.
[ii] The Relationship Development Study. For a description of the sample and basic methods, see Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2010).  Should I stay or should I go? Predicting dating relationship stability from four aspects of commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(5), 543-550.
[iii] Since the literature is so well cited in the recent paper (and in papers cited in the recent paper), I will make no attempt here to cite each point regarding prior findings in this piece.
[iv] Allen, E. S., Atkins, D., Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D., Gordon, K. C., & Glass, S. P. (2005). Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and contextual factors in engaging in and responding to extramarital involvement. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 12, 101-130.
[v] Treas, J., & Giesen, D. (2000). Sexual infidelity among married and cohabiting Americans. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 48–60.
[vi] Maddox Shaw, A. M., Rhoades, G. K., Allen, E. S., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2013).  Predictors of extradyadic sexual involvement in unmarried opposite-sex relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 50(6), 598 - 610. DOI:10.1080/00224499.2012.666816
[vii] There are also a few studies that look at what factors earlier in following a longitudinal sample predict eventual infidelity, e.g.:  Previti, D., & Amato, P.R. (2004). Is infidelity a cause or a consequence of poor marital quality?
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 217–230.; Allen, E. S., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Williams, T., Melton, J., & Clements, M. L. (2008). Premarital precursors of marital infidelity. Family Process, 47, 243-259.
[viii] Rhoades, G. K., & Stanley, S. M. (2014). Before “I Do”: What do premarital experiences have to do with marital quality among today’s young adults? Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Give me a sign: What Signals Commitment?

Correctly “reading” the signs of commitment in a potential long-term partner/mate is crucial. This is most important earlier on, of course, prior to “settling down” with someone, particularly when one partner wants to know if the relationship they are in right now has a future. You can press for this information too soon but you can also wait too long to get the big question, clarified—is this person as into me as I am into them? Can this relationship turn into a commitment? When you don’t get solid information about commitment as things progress, you can miss important signs of asymmetrical commitment. That’s a lousy place to land.

What’s a good signal of commitment? 

By good I mean that the signal is valid. The signal reflects something about commitment; it's not mere noise. Some of the characteristics of good signals of commitment or potential to have commitment with a person are these:

1.  The behavior is actually related to something about commitment. 

For example, I don’t imagine it shocks anyone reading this that a desire of another person to have sex with you doesn’t contain information about commitment. Some people believe it does but I think of that as a type of “relationship reading dyslexia.”    

Ditto if someone says, “I want to make a baby with you” with no other evidence of commitment like, say, marriage. An even worse indicator of commitment is if someone says to you, “I’d like you to have my baby.” Hm. Context matters a lot here. It may sound silly to you but this is, in fact, a relatively common behavior in some teenager groups, where some males say some version of this to females they are interested in, and some females may be flattered and impressed, and, well, don’t be falling for that. Even in these examples, it would be a lot more impressive if someone said, “I want to raise a child with you.” That statement contains a much greater amount of information, especially if it’s accurate. It gets at the essence of commitment, which is about wanting and planning a future together.

Cohabitation is popular, of course, on the dating/seeking/mating scene. However, cohabitation is not a reliable signal of commitment but, as I wrote in another piece, other things are:

If a couple tells you that they are married, you know a lot about their commitment. That does not mean that all is perfect, of course. Likewise, if a couple tells you that they have clear, mutual plans to marry, you can infer there is a lot of commitment. Even apart from marriage, I believe that a couple who says they have a lifetime commitment together is telling you something important about a strong level of intention and commitment. Those things all signal commitment. Cohabitation, per se, very often does not. (As a very complex but important aside, I do think the socioeconomic context of some couples makes marriage nearly impossible economically; for some of these couples, I believe cohabitation can be a marker of a higher level of commitment.)

2.  The behavior is under the control of the one doing it—whatever it is.

For behavior to have meaning about commitment, it must be behavior that the person has control over performing. For example, a shotgun wedding has less information in it about the commitment level of the participants than other weddings because the choice is already constrained.

Similarly, as I described in a prior post, “I love you” contains less information about commitment if it’s in the context of a hormonal rush of chemicals—when the chemistry is driving the bus. Chemistry is fun but it’s not a great bus driver, and some relationships are windy mountain roads without guardrails.   

Signals contain more information when a person has options. When you have more options to choose among, what you pick tells me more about who you are. When a person has diminished options, what he or she chooses contains less information about true preferences.

Think about buying toilet paper in 7-11. I’m not even sure they have it, but let’s suppose they do. It will be one brand, and in one roll quantities, and it will likely cost you 4 bucks a roll.  7-11 is a great chain of stores but they excel at convenience not low price or variety (except for pop and candy bars and such. They are my “go to” supplier of Junior Mints.). What does this mean? If you badly need a roll of toilet paper (not so badly that you are just heading for a restroom, if they have a public one), you’ll take what they have and forego your desire to get the Charmin Ultra Soft you might normally prefer. You’ll take the individually wrapped roll of Scott’s. (Which, at the risk of over-sharing, is a great brand and my favorite.)

How does this apply to dating and mating? Anything that constrains your options, or your partner’s, limits the information contained in the choices made. That means that some people are routinely misinterpreting the behavior of their partners, and thinking that something may signal commitment when it does not. It also means that some couples who have been together a while with an unclear future, who also have the constraints that come with living together, will have difficulty accurately reading the commitment in each other about a future, together.

3. Small sacrifices can be good signals of commitment.

By sacrifice, I don’t really mean some extraordinary feat of self-sacrifice of one for the other. Of course that would matter but I really mean small, day-to-day indicators that a person is willing to put their partner or the relationship first. And I mean mutual. A healthy relationship includes two givers who are each give to the other and the relationship in small ways that matter.  

If you are seeing someone and considering a future, ask yourself if you see evidence that they can put aside what they want at times for what is best for you.

There are a number of studies on sacrifice in intimate relationships, and I make no attempt to cover that literature here and now. But scholars have found and argued that some types of sacrificial behavior are reliable indicators of commitment.[i] Here are some examples:

             Your partner will change his or her schedule at times for you.
             Your partner will do fun things that you know he or she does not like as much as you do.
             Your partner shows up early to help you get ready for some big event.
             Your partner stops what he or she is doing to tune into something that’s stressing you.
You get the idea. Of course, it’s just as important to do such things for your partner, but I’m focused here on you being able to read this person’s level of commitment to you.

Bigstock Photos
As an example showing just the opposite—and quite clearly—of sufficient commitment, I vividly recall a little scene of a young couple in an airport. I was on a layover when I overheard their argument. I wasn’t eavesdropping as much as they were talking loud enough that I could not help but notice. The tension was about her wanting to dress warmer for the flight and him wanting her to stay dressed just as she was. She was in quite short shorts and some type of sleeveless, very light shirt. She didn’t want to be cold on the flight.

I don’t know about you, but I hate those flights where the plane is cold and I don’t have anything with sleeves to put on. Well, she apparently does, too. But he didn’t want her to put more clothes on. I cannot read minds but I could only guess that his motive was that he liked how she looked and he liked how he looked being with her looking that way. I was not impressed by him, and I hoped she would figure out before it was too late what her life with him might look like. Cold.

Sometimes the best signal is the one that clearly shows that something is missing. 

If you are searching for lasting love, challenge yourself to be on the look-out for signals of love and commitment that mean something. For some of you, it would be wise to ask trusted friends or family what they see and what would count for them. Love can sometimes be blind.

[Updated 7-5-17 from a piece first posted May 26th, 2017.]

[i] e.g., Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942-966.; Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Low, S. M., Clements, M. L., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a predictor of marital outcomes. Family Process, 45, 289-303.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Little New Data on Reasons People Give for Divorce

Given that I recently wrote both about the average duration of marriages before divorce and also reasons people give for divorce, I thought I'd mention this chunk of new data from Britain.

The data come from a new release by Britain's Office of National Statistics, covered in numerous outlets such as this article in The Daily Express: Divorce rate: Splits in Britain PLUMMET by more than a third since numbers peaked in 2003.

On the subject of reasons people give for divorcing, the article above notes that 37 percent of husbands and 52 percent of wives noted that their spouse had acted unreasonably enough to want to divorce. Obviously, there are a lot of reasons for unreasonableness, such as those I covered in the earlier piece.

Further, as often noted in the U. S. as well, women were the most likely to want to end it, with 62 percent of divorces decress sought by wives.

As for duration of marriages until divorce, the article noted that marriages were lasting an average of 11.9 years. Note that this is an average. My last entry about this subject was more about the most typical year people end marriages, not the average duration of them.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Early Years of Marriage are the Peak Years for Divorce

Have you ever been curious about what years of marriage people are most likely to get divorced? The answer (at least for the U.S.) has long been that the peak years for divorce are in the first five years of marriage. While a lot of divorce happens later in life, I am focusing here on how, for any given year of marriage, divorce is most likely to occur in the early ones. In contrast, the median years until divorce for those divorcing has long been something more like 7 or 8, but that’s a different statistic, representing the fact that of all divorces, about half are likely to occur before 7 or 8 years into marriage and about half are likely to occur after. I have not seen an update on that point for some time but I am also not closely tracking publications on that subject. 

This week, I asked Nick Wolfinger (@NickWolfinger) about recent trends on this long-established finding and he cranked out some analysis using a strong data set for addressing this question (NSFG). While these are not new findings from a recently published paper, they are current and they confirm what has long been understood among researchers. [There may be evidence of peak years for divorcing being a little later into marriage in another large data set but I think Wolfinger's estimates are sound and they are consistent with what I've seen over many years.]

Since many people are curious about this subject, I thought I’d post his tweets. 

Nick followed up his first post on this with a few nuances. I cannot make the charts format quite right when accessing twitter but you’ll get the point.

There you have it. A little update via tweeter posts about how the early years of marriage are the peak years for divorce.  

Monday, May 8, 2017

Good Times and Marital Happiness

by Scott Stanley

Couples can thrive in many ways. As my colleague Howard Markman said long ago, Tolstoy was wrong in the opening lines of Anna Karenina when he wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It may be just the opposite; there is the most diversity and mystery on the positive side of how two people connect rather than the negative. Couples who are miserable tend to look pretty similar to other couples who are miserable with either nasty conflict or growing indifference—or both—being their way. There’s not a lot of creativity in all that, but there are an astounding numbers of ways you’ll see couples thriving in happy, healthy marriages.

One of the things that can help keep your marriage strong is to do things together in some of the leisure time you have available. However, how this actually works out depends on if the things you are doing together are things you both like to do together. Some couples have a number of clear, common interests in what they like to do for fun, which makes it pretty easy to decide what to do when you have, or make, the time for it. But not all couples have such common interests, and if you don’t, it will take more thought and care to find what works.

In a study from 2002 that remains one of the best ever on the topic, Duane Crawford and colleagues Renate Houts, Ted Huston, and Laura George described patterns affecting Compatibility, Leisure, and Satisfaction in Marital Relationships. They found that the way leisure time activities impact marital happiness is more complex than you might think it should be. Specifically, they used diary methods to study marital happiness in a sample that they followed for over a decade. They found that the pursuit of leisure activities as a couple was less strongly associated with marital happiness than most people believe.

Crawford and colleagues found something obvious yet nuanced: the benefit in a marriage from spending leisure time together depends on compatibility in interests. Most tellingly, they found that is it no real boost to marital bliss, now or into the future, if a couple routinely engages in leisure activities that mostly only the husband enjoys. In other words, when women are going along to get a long, it’s a lose, lose deal for the marital quality of both partners. These researchers detail some of the reasons why women may be more likely to try to accommodate to their partners’ interests than men. Among the ideas they consider is a point made by Stephanie Coontz suggesting that, too often, husbands may not even be fully aware of their wives lack of interest in some of the things the husbands enjoy doing together because (some) women may be so good at covering up what they really feel about what things the couple do with their leisure time.

Two partners don’t have to have all interests in common to have a great marriage. That would be oppressive and barely possible. However, when a couple mostly does things that are more fun for one partner and not the other, that comes at a cost. Crawford and colleagues also showed that spending a lot of time pursuing individual interests, each partner on their own, can be a sign of problems.

My Advice

Make a list. Couples will do best to find a few things to do for fun and friend time together that they both enjoy. This does not have to be a big list but it’s worth figuring out what’s on it. And communicating about that. Do you really know that your partner shares your fondness for golf? For eating out in sports bars? For lingering in art museums? Figure out the overlapping list and do some of those things regularly.  

Make the time and keep issues off limits during that time. This is, arguably, the most important advice about keeping fun alive in all the books my colleagues and I have written about marriage (for example, this one and that). Most of us are busy and distracted. To do things together, the first priority is to set aside some time for it. That can be a lot or a little, but it needs to be some. Second, and less obvious to many, you need to protect that time from conflict and issues. You can decide not to slide into letting issues and problems (that need solving) to be triggered in time you’ve set aside to be connected. Of course, then you also need to make time to deal with issues as issues, constructively.

Speak up. If you are good faking it (you know what I mean), maybe that’s not doing your marriage any great favors. Sure, each partner should be willing to do some of the things that the other finds enjoyable even if it’s not high on one’s own list. That’s a signof a healthy relationship—not a problem. But if you know that the two of you are rarely doing “fun” things that you find fun, consider speaking up if you are not already doing so.

Focus on enjoying being together. Compatibility in interests is a great strength in a marriage, but even where you are not compatible in your leisure interests, be fully present and work at enjoying that you are doing something together even if the current activity is not your own favorite thing. In light of the findings of Crawford and colleagues, I want to suggest that men, in particular, might need to step it up, here.

Single and Searching? My advice for those looking to make a good match is a common refrain for me. Go slow. Be careful. Know what you want, and look for that. Don’t slide into situations where you increase your odds of settling for a relationship where you share little of the values and interests in life that make it easier to keep a marriage happy. You don’t need to find perfect compatibility. If that’s your goal, good luck with that. But it’s okay and important to look for the type of person with whom you can share a fuller life.

Lastly, I want to suggest that it’s okay if what you do in your leisure time, together or apart, is not the most important part of why your marriage works. Knowing some ways to have fun together is valuable but it’s not the only thing. There are many ways to build a great life together.