Infidelity is one of the most distressing and traumatizing things that can happen in a romantic relationship. And, for many people, it’s a complete dealbreaker that ultimately leads to a breakup or divorce.
Unfortunately, cheating is common. Survey studies reliably find that infidelity occurs in roughly 20-25% of marital relationships and an even higher percentage of non-marital relationships.
But the good news is that cheating—and all the negative effects that typically come along with it—may very well be preventable.
This isn’t to say that cheating can always be stopped in advance. We can never have guarantees or 100% certainty with anything when it comes to matters of the heart, but there are a lot of things you can do to lower the odds of you or your partner stepping out.
In this article, we’ll look at four helpful strategies drawn from the science of relationships that can reduce the chances of infidelity.
Tip #1: Start by defining what infidelity is—and isn’t—in your relationship.
In survey studies where people are asked to define what counts as cheating, what we see is that people’s responses are all over the map, and there’s no universal agreement on anything. While your mind might run immediately to physical things like kissing or having sex with another person, that’s just one of the many potential forms infidelity might take.
Some people think of infidelity more in emotional terms—the connection you develop with another person or the secrets or personal information you share with them. Others might consider the sexual behaviors you engage in with yourself to be infidelity, such as watching porn or engaging in solo masturbation.
To some, infidelity could even mean giving money to another person or hiding financial secrets, such as debts or undisclosed savings. In fact, most people appear to think that ‘financial infidelity’ is just as bad, if not worse, than sexual cheating.
So, the first step to preventing cheating is to get on the same page about what it means in the context of your specific relationship. There are no right or wrong answers here, and the definition may vary widely depending on what each of you is comfortable with and the type of relationship you’re in. For example, if you’re in a sexually open (vs. monogamous) relationship, your definition of cheating might focus less on sexual activities and more on emotional attachments.
To the extent that you can define and get clarity on each person’s boundaries and come to an agreement, you can at least reduce the odds that one of you unintentionally does something that crosses a red line.
Tip #2: Be realistic about your attractions—and keep trying new things together.
As a sex educator, I hear from people all the time who wonder if it’s normal to fantasize about people other than their current partner. Some of them perceive these fantasies as a worrying sign that their relationship has lost its magic because they are operating under the assumption that they’re not supposed to be attracted to other people if they are in a good relationship.
At the same time, I also hear from a lot of people who think their partner shouldn’t find anyone else to be attractive. Ever. For example, if they notice their partner checking someone else out or discover that their partner is watching porn, they may see this as a sign that their partner has completely lost sexual interest in them.
However, just because you enter a relationship, this doesn’t mean that your attractions to other people are going to automatically shut off. Human beings are wired to be aroused by novelty. Therefore, the early stages of a relationship are so passionate and intense—it’s because everything is new. And as that newness wears off, passion usually wanes.
But it’s possible to get the passion back again and again by mixing up your sexual routine and trying new and different things.
So don’t be hard on yourself for finding other people attractive—that’s a perfectly normal thing. At the same time, don’t expect that your partner will never find anyone other than you to be attractive because that’s an unrealistic standard that’s likely to set you up for disappointment.
And when sexual frequency and satisfaction start to dip, this doesn’t mean the passion has permanently died. It just means it’s time for a refresh. Look at it as an opportunity to start exploring together again and recapture the sexual excitement and adventure so that you’re not tempted to look elsewhere.
Tip #3: Don’t avoid conflict—address the problem areas or ‘pain points’ in your relationship.
One of the biggest predictors of infidelity is not being satisfied in your current relationship. And when we aren’t happy with how things are going, it’s easy for the “grass is always greener” effect to kick in. Basically, we start seeing these other attractive people and start thinking about how we might be happier with a new partner because those problem areas will disappear.
However, relationship problems have a way of following us across partners. And while a new relationship might make us happier at first, problems are eventually going to arise. For example, if you stay together long enough, your new partner is going to develop habits that annoy you, and there are going to be things that you fight about. New relationship, same problems.
Good relationships don’t just come naturally—they take effort. And when problem areas emerge, perhaps the worst thing you can do is to completely ignore them. A little conflict can be a very good thing for a relationship because it can help you to identify a solution and emerge stronger for it.
Falling out of love is a common reason for cheating—and a lot of people fall out of love because they stopped working on the relationship and grew apart. So, by continuing to work on and invest in your relationship and by pursuing conflict resolution instead of avoidance, you can help to maintain a strong bond that will be more resistant to infidelity.
Tip #4: Minimise exposure to tempting situations.
Cheating is something that is not always planned—or even anticipated. In fact, cheating sometimes arises simply because an unexpected opportunity or situation pops up.
For example, imagine someone who is traveling without their partner and decides to go out and explore the city. After a few drinks, an attractive stranger who does not know the other’s relationship status starts flirting. The next thing you know, perhaps they’re kissing—or in bed together. They might wake up the next day full of regret because it wasn’t something they’d ever planned to do, but intoxication plus opportunity sometimes leads us to down paths we wouldn’t otherwise take.
Likewise, let’s say there’s someone other than your partner you find attractive. You love your partner but find yourself sexually drawn to this other person. You’re not planning to cheat, but you start spending time with them. Maybe you even convey that you have a little crush—only to learn it’s reciprocal—and then they start pursuing you. You leaned into temptation a little too much, and now you’ve inadvertently opened a door to infidelity.
If you’re trying to avoid infidelity, it’s important to recognize the tripwires and to pull back before you find yourself entangled in a situation you don’t want to be in. For instance, in the case of a crush, this might mean just admiring them from afar or only exploring your interest in the realm of fantasy. It might also mean minimizing the number of situations you’re in where opportunities might arise, such as going out on the town for a night of drinking with a trusted friend instead of alone—or maybe it’s staying in to sext your partner if you can’t physically be together.
Infidelity is common, and no one wants cheating to emerge in their relationships. But the good news is that there’s a lot you can do to reduce the risk of it happening. It all starts with communication and negotiation of boundaries, setting realistic expectations, working on, and investing in your sex life and relationship, and minimising the temptation to stray.
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