If Your Parent Cheated, You’re More Likely to Have an Affair

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People are more likely to commit relationship infidelity if one or more of their parents also committed infidelity, according to new research from the University of Nevada, Reno.

Dana A. Weiser, Ph.D., surveyed a group of approximately 300 college students about their own histories of infidelity as well as any histories of parental infidelity. Overall, 30 percent of the respondents said that they had cheated on a romantic partner at least once, while 33 percent said that one or more of their parents had cheated on the other. Fathers were slightly more likely than mothers to have committed adultery, according to the responses to this survey.

Of the respondents who did not report any history of parental infidelity, 22 percent had themselves cheated on a romantic partner. Among those who did report parental infidelity, the incidence of cheating was much higher: 44 percent said that they had cheated on a partner at least once.

Attitudes About Infidelity

This survey also asked the participants about their attitudes toward infidelity, which yielded some surprising results. Weiser found that students who reported parental infidelity had similar views about cheating to those students who did not have a parent who had cheated on the other. They did not tend to view infidelity as any more or any less acceptable than those whose parents were faithful throughout their marriages.

This suggests that the reason people with one or more cheating parents are more likely to cheat does not come down to different views on infidelity that have been passed down from parents or developed through childhood experiences with infidelity. Instead, it suggests some other currently unknown explanation that links family-of-origin experiences with personal infidelity behavior.

It is possible that genetics may play a role in the relationship between parent and personal infidelity. Much has been made of recent research that has drawn a connection between the expression of certain genes and increased probability of unfaithful behavior. While this field of research is still in its infancy, future results may support the idea that the connection between parental and individual infidelity history may have as much to do with genetics as with social learning.

Parental Infidelity Can Have Far-Reaching Effects on Children

It is also likely that parental infidelity influences behavior and relationship development in ways that are more subtle and complex than simply influencing attitudes about infidelity. Having a cheating parent may affect attachment styles, relationship bonding, strength of commitment, communication styles and many other factors that play a role in building or inhibiting successful relationships and making infidelity more or less likely.

Even if the children of cheaters do not end up experiencing relationship difficulties or committing infidelity, they can still suffer personally. They may have unresolved anger, struggle to trust the people who are closest to them or even feel shame associated with the affair that affects their self-esteem.

Many factors influence just how devastating it is for children to discover parental infidelity and how much of an effect this has on their development and behavior. Teenagers are much more likely to suffer following parental infidelity than younger children, who may be too young to fully understand what has happened. The type of affair (one time vs. ongoing) and the way in which the affair is revealed can also do a great deal to moderate the impact of parental infidelity.

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