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Even Science Agrees: Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater

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Relationships are tough. It’s estimated that somewhere between 30 and 60% of all married individuals are unfaithful at one point in their partnership. And while there might be all kinds of reasons or circumstances unique to every couple that push one partner to cheating for the first time, psychologists have found just a couple of common reasons why someone cheats again

Neil Garrett, a psychologist at University College London along with Stephanie Lazzarro, Dan Ariely, and Tali Sharot conducted a study together to find out what happens to the brain when people are deceptive with their romantic partners more than once. Their results are not only fascinating, but can provide a lot of insight for people struggling with the sting of infidelity. 

Cheating Gets Easier Every Time

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The team of psychologists used fMRI scans to measure the brain’s activity while partners performed a simple task to find out if people became more dishonest as they continued to play the game and to find out how the brain responded to a lie. They measured the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for emotions (and the feeling of guilt that comes with breaking one’s own moral code). 

One participant was told to advise their partner about how many coins there were in a jar (their partner’s view was obscured so they couldn’t tell themselves). In certain situations, the participant was rewarded for making their partner overestimate the amount; in others, the partner would be rewarded for such a lie at the expense of the participant; and in yet others; both partners would be rewarded if the participant lied. 

They found that people lied more frequently (with bigger lies) over time, except in situations when they wouldn’t directly benefit from the lie. Researchers summarized, “Despite being small at the outset, engagement in dishonest acts may trigger a process that leads to larger acts of dishonesty further down the line.” (1)

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As Neil Garrett told Elite Daily: “What our study and others suggest is a powerful factor that prevents us from cheating is our emotional reaction to it, how bad we feel essentially, and the process of adaptation reduces this reaction, thereby allowing us to cheat more. With serial cheaters, it could be the case that they initially felt bad about cheating, but have cheated so much they’ve adapted to their ways and simply don’t feel bad about cheating any more.” (2)

Can A Relationship Survive Infidelity? 

But does that mean that cheating is always the end of a relationship? Relationship psychotherapist, Esther Perel has an interesting perspective on what happens after a partner discovers they’ve been cheated on. Even in spite of the greater risk of a repeat offense, she believes a relationship can still thrive after an affair.

“Many affairs are break-ups, but some affairs are make-ups. Sometimes the relationship that comes out is stronger, and more honest and deeper than the one that existed before because people finally step up,” (3)

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She goes on to explain,  “It’s worse for the men,” she says earnestly. “I think people should be able to determine for themselves the choices that they will make and the consequences thereof. To just push people to divorce and to think that divorce is always the better solution when it dissolves all the family bonds … Entire lives are intertwined with a marriage. It isn’t just the relationship between the spouses. It is social networks, it’s lives of children, it’s grandchildren, it’s economics.” (3)

It isn’t that Perel doesn’t understand the magnitude of the pain from infidelity; she’s the first to admit that it’s a life-changing and traumatic experience for anybody. But she does believe that cheating is very rarely the first breach in trust in a relationship; rather, it happens long after other aspects of a relationship have already been neglected; and in order to restore the relationship, all of those aspects must be addressed too, not just cheating- and that takes a lot of work.

The Bottom Line

The old saying “Once a cheater, always a cheater” turns out to be pretty valid according to science! But ultimately, every couple must decide for themselves whether they will be better off ending their relationship and healing separately or work together (most likely along with help from counseling) to restore their trust- even with the increased risk of it happening again. Only you can know what the right choice is for you. 

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