Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on July 26, 2011
What makes a partner stray? Sexual performance anxiety, for one; risk-taking tendencies in men, relationship issues for women.
These findings are part of a new study that is the first to look at how demographics, interpersonal factors and sexual personality affect infidelity.
For both men and women, personality characteristics and interpersonal factors are more relevant predictors than are religion, marital status, education or gender.
“Few studies on infidelity have gone beyond exploring demographics,” said Robin Milhausen, Ph.D., who conducted the study with doctoral student Kristen Mark and Erick Janssen, Ph.D., of Indiana University.
“This research shows that demographic variables may not influence decision-making as much as previously thought — that personality matters more, especially for men.”
The study was published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
The study involved 506 men and 412 women who reported being in monogamous sexual relationships lasting from three months to 43 years. Participants were asked to report on demographic variables such as religion, education and income. They also completed scales that measured sexual personality variables and answered questions about their relationships.
Remarkably, men and women reported similar rates of infidelity (23 and 19 percent, respectively). However, the factors associated with predicting unfaithfulness varied greatly by gender.
For men, significant predictors of infidelity are personality variables, including propensity for sexual excitation (becoming easily aroused by many triggers and situations) and concern about sexual performance failure.
While the fear of sexual performance failure would seem to be an odd reason to be unfaithful, researchers say this finding has been discovered in other studies.
One reason for this association may be that “People might seek out high-risk situations to help them become aroused, or they might choose to have sex with a partner outside of their regular relationship because they feel they have an ‘out’ if the encounter doesn’t go well – they don’t have to see them again, ” said Milhausen.
For women, relationship happiness is the key. Women who are dissatisfied with their relationship are more than twice as likely to cheat; those who feel they are sexually incompatible with their partners are nearly three times as likely.
“All kinds of things predict infidelity,” Milhausen said. “What this study says is that when you put all of those things together, for men, personality characteristics are so strong they bounce everything else out of the model. For women, in the face of all other variables, it’s still the relationship that is the most important predictor.”
Milhausen cautions against misinterpreting or overemphasizing the study’s findings.
“Taken at face value, this research might seem to just support sexual stereotypes: Women are just concerned about the relationship, and, for men, once a cheater, always a cheater, regardless of their relationship. But the caveat is that there are a lot of variants and factors that are not explained here that might impact whether someone cheats.”
Still, knowing that sexual personality characteristics — and, for women, relationship factors — are strong predictors suggests directions for therapeutic interventions, she said.