Dating & Relationships

What Your Personality Might Say About Your Likelihood of Being Cheated On

August 5, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

A lot of research has looked at the traits and characteristics of the people most likely to cheat on their romantic partners. But what about people who get cheated on? Are certain types of people more—or less—likely to have their partners step out on them?

According to a recent study published in the journal Personal Relationships, the answer appears to be yes [1].

This study was based on a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, consisting of 1,577 participants (54% female identified, 46% male identified). Most participants (68%) were married and, in total, 19% reported that they have experienced a partner committing infidelity at some point in their lives.

The researchers focused on the Big Five personality traits of these participants: openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and neuroticism (for definitions of each of the Big Five traits, please see this article).

Specifically, they explored how these traits were linked to the experience of partner infidelity among those who reported that they were currently married. In other words, they wanted to look at how personality was linked with partner infidelity in one’s current relationship.

Three of the Big Five traits showed no association with partner infidelity: extraversion, openness to experience, and neuroticism. However, conscientiousness and agreeableness were linked to partner infidelity, but in different directions.

Specifically, the more conscientious people were, the less likely they were to have been cheated on. Conscientiousness involves being very detail-oriented, hardworking, organized, and responsible. In the words of the study’s author, “for every 1 unit increase in this trait [conscientiousness], the odds of reporting spousal infidelity decrease by 53%.”

By contrast, the more agreeable people were, the more likely they were to have been cheated on. Agreeableness involves being high in care and concern for the well-being of others—that is, agreeable folks tend to be very kind and considerate. In the words of the study’s author, “for every 1 unit increase in this trait [agreeableness], the odds [of partner infidelity] are nearly tripled.”

So why are conscientious people less likely to say they’ve been cheated on? Perhaps because conscientious people tend to make good sexual and relationship partners. They might put more work into their relationships overall, and be more inclined to solve problems as they emerge rather than letting them fester. They might also put more work into maintaining an active and healthy sex life. Consistent with this idea, research has found that conscientious people tend to be more sexually satisfied and are more communicative about their sexual fantasies and desires.

So what about agreeableness—why are “nicer” people more likely to say they’ve been cheated on? Intuitively, being kind, warm, and caring might seem like a buffer against infidelity—after all, this sounds like a pretty desirable trait in a partner. There are a few possible explanations for their greater likelihood of having been cheated on.

In the words of the study’s author, “Perhaps individuals with agreeable spouses become accustomed to their highly understanding and accommodating partners, so much so that they assume even infidelity—if discovered—will be pardoned.” In other words, maybe people with agreeable partners tend to take them for granted, or perhaps assume that they can get away with bad behavior because they believe their partner will forgive them.

Alternatively, however, it might not be that agreeable folks are inherently more likely to be cheated on, but rather that they’re the ones most likely to work through infidelity when it’s discovered in their relationships. In other words, maybe agreeable folks are more likely to give second chances. Through this lens, then, agreeableness might not be something that plays a role in generating partner infidelity—it might say more about how cases of partner infidelity are resolved.

Yet another possibility is that perhaps agreeable people aren’t necessarily more likely to condone infidelity or forgive their partners, but rather they’re more likely to stay with a partner who has cheated in order to “keep the peace”—to protect children, family, or the life they’ve built with their partner.

There are some important limitations to this research, of course. For example, not everyone who has been cheated on knows that it has happened—so these results are limited to cases of known infidelity. This research also didn’t consider the infidelity motives of the partners or the context surrounding their infidelity.

That said, these results suggest the provocative possibility that certain types of people might be more or less likely to end up in relationships where their partners cheat on them. However, to be clear, this should not be taken to mean that people should be blamed or bear responsibility for a partner’s infidelity based on their personalities.

Infidelity is one of the most destructive behaviors that can occur in relationships and it is one of the biggest causes of conflict and divorce, which points to a need for a comprehensive understanding of infidelity from all possible angles.

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[1] Mahambrey, M. (2020). Self‐reported Big Five personality traits of individuals who have experienced partner infidelity. Personal Relationships.

Image Source: 123RF/milkos

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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