It’s the ultimate betrayal: Cheating. Research on infidelity has explored many facets of the experience, including how often it happens, qualities in a relationship that may lead to cheating, and traits of those who are more likely to cheat (Fincham & May, 2017).
But, to this point, research has largely ignored the non-cheater—the person uninvolved in committing infidelity but gets cheated on. Though their partner’s unfaithful behavior certainly isn’t their fault, understanding as many potential factors related to cheating is important because the research is clear: Cheating harms relationships. The more we learn about contributing factors the better our chances of minimizing infidelity’s prevalence and impact.
In a recent study, Meghna Mahambrey of the Ohio State University seeks to answer the question, “Who gets cheated on in relationships?” Specifically, she was curious about which aspects of a person’s personality may make them more susceptible to having their partner or spouse commit infidelity.
Study participants came from a large nationally representative sample with analyses focusing on 1,577 participants, 898 of whom were married, in middle/late adulthood, who completed a telephone interview and a self-report survey. Across the entire sample, 19% reported being cheated on at some point.
The researcher gathered information on personality by asking participants how well 26 different Big Five personality traits described them:
- Openness (e.g., adventurous, curious, intelligent).
- Conscientiousness (e.g., responsible, hardworking, organized).
- Extraversion (e.g., friendly, outgoing, talkative).
- Agreeableness (e.g., caring, softhearted, sympathetic).
- Neuroticism (e.g., moody, nervous, worrying).
To gauge cheating, they also listed a series of life experiences and asked participants to check any that applied, including “Spouse/partner engaged in (marital) infidelity.”
Obviously, a lot of things contribute to cheating in a relationship, beyond personality. In her models, the researcher accounted for factors such as age, education, gender, race/ethnicity, and religiosity. Even after statistically accounting for those (i.e., controlling for them), she found that across the entire sample, those who were less conscientious (i.e., more careless, less hard-working and organized) were more likely to have a partner cheat on them.
When she did similar analyses on the subsample of married individuals, she found the same pattern for conscientiousness, but also found that people who were more agreeable (i.e., more warm and helpful) were more likely to have their spouse commit infidelity.
What These Results Mean
First, what it doesn’t mean: This isn’t justification to blame the victim. Finding a correlation between certain personality characteristics and a partner’s unfaithfulness does not show that you are to blame if you happen to be an agreeable or non-conscientious person. The cheating partner is the one who violated the relationship’s trust; it’s their fault.
Though being agreeable is generally a desirable trait, in the context of cheating it’s possible that having a more agreeable partner emboldened the cheater to feel that their transgression would be more easily forgiven. Having low conscientiousness could also cause problems: As the researcher explains, “Having an unreliable, immature, or lazy partner could increase stress and conflict when navigating day-to-day responsibilities such as paying bills, doing household chores, attending work events, honoring personal commitments, and so on.” None of this excuses cheating, but other research does show that when participants described their partner as low in conscientiousness and agreeableness, they reported lower marital satisfaction (Shackelford et al., 2008).
We also know that individuals who themselves are low in conscientiousness and agreeableness are more likely to cheat (Schmitt, 2004). It is logical that those same traits also play a role in the uninvolved partner. People who get cheated on in a relationship also share qualities with people who are least likely to cheat in their relationship. That study found that people who were highly conscientious and agreeable, along with low openness tended not to commit infidelity (Apostolou & Panayiotou, 2019). Taken together, these studies show the importance of conscientiousness and agreeableness in relationship dynamics.
It’s important to note that the present study’s results only apply to participants who knew their partner cheated; if anything, the overall cheating rate of 19% is likely an underestimate. We should also note that the type of infidelity was not specified, so the researchers relied on participants’ own definition, which could include a range of behaviors from emotional infidelity to physical intimacy (i.e., intercourse).
Ultimately, while being more conscientious certainly can’t guarantee that your partner won’t cheat, exuding greater responsibility, self-discipline, and helpfulness can benefit your relationship.
Want to learn about the biology behind cheating? Click here.
Apostolou, M., & Panayiotou, R. (2019). The reasons that prevent people from cheating on their partners: An evolutionary account of the propensity not to cheat. Personality and Individual Differences, 146, 34–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2019.03.041
Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2017). Infidelity in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 70-74. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.03.008
Mahambrey, M. (2020). Self-reported Big Five personality traits of individuals who have experienced partner infidelity. Personal Relationships. Online first (Version of Record online: 10 June 2020): https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12315
Schmitt, D. P. (2004). The Big Five related to risky sexual behaviour across 10 world regions: Differential personality associations of sexual promiscuity and relationship infidelity. European Journal of Personality, 18, 301–319. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.520
Shackelford, T. K., Besser, A., & Goetz, A. T. (2008). Personality, marital satisfaction, and probability of marital infidelity. Individual Differences Research, 6, 13–25 Retrieved from https://www.toddkshackelford.com/downloads/Shackelford-Besser-Goetz-IDR-2008.pdf