People Are More Likely to Cheat If Their Parents Cheated

According to science


Sometimes, there’s something to that old saying, “Like father, like son.” In the wake of the 2018 allegations that President Trump had an extramarital affair with a porn star, his son Don Jr. watched his own marriage fall apart because of an affair he allegedly had with a former member of Danity Kane.

Researchers behind a study published in Personal Relationships probably weren’t surprised by the Trump family's marital strife. You can blame Mom and Dad for a lot of things, including your inability to drive a car and that annoying need to be right all the time (or is that just me?). And now, according to their research, you may be able to attribute your scoundrel ways to genes, too—especially if you know one of your parents has a history of being unfaithful.

Infidelity, the study’s authors write, is complicated; everyone has their own definition of what it means to cheat: For some, cheating constitutes any kind of secret behavior, whether it’s emotional or physical, that violates the exclusivity of a monogamous relationship; for others, infidelity may be defined by specific behaviors, such as sexual intercourse or even simply flirting. However it is defined—it’s certainly a debate that would require lots of bottles of wine—infidelity is the single most common reason married and dating partners break up.

Because of these “often detrimental consequences,” the study’s authors write that it’s important to understand why people engage in infidelity. It’s really a million-dollar question that many of us who have suffered through such betrayal have pondered.

The study’s authors conducted a three-part study that included a total of 1,254 participants. Their goal was to find out if parental infidelity is associated with a person’s own propensity to cheat, and to test if such results can be explained by a social learning theory. In one experiment, for example, 20 percent of people who said they were unaware of either of their parents stepping out on their marriage reported cheating; of those who said they knew about a parent’s infidelity, 33 percent had fooled around. Ultimately, all three experiments found that infidelity was positively associated with parental infidelity.

The study’s authors call the phenomenon “intergenerational infidelity patterns.” “As offspring mature and enter into their own relationships,” they explain, “the cognitions and beliefs they have accumulated are associated with their own relationship behaviors. Hence, parents’ romantic relationships shape offspring’s beliefs about relationships, which influence offspring’s own relationship behaviors and outcomes. It is through this social learning process that offspring often imitate their parents’ behaviors, and we see that relationship experiences are recreated across generations.”

In other words, for many people, the first romantic relationship they get a front seat view to is that of their parents—and, to put it in layman’s terms: monkey see, monkey do.

Dana Weiser, the study’s lead author, did share some good news with PsyPost: “The experience of a parental infidelity does not mean an individual is doomed to engage in infidelity themselves. There are many other factors, such as relationship satisfaction, that play an extremely important role in predicting infidelity as well. This means engaging in relationship maintenance and high-quality communication will go far in reducing the likelihood of infidelity in your own relationship.” She also added that there’s still a lot of work left to do to understand why such an association between parental infidelity and one’s own cheating behavior exists.

Related Stories