Relationship Tips

4 Traits of a Serial Cheater Not To Ignore in a Relationship, According to an Infidelity Expert

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We're all different, value different things in romantic partnerships, and have our own respective deal-breakers for relationship nonstarters. (Maybe yours relate to religion or thoughts on children or pets or something else entirely, for a few examples.) But, are there certain universal relationship red flags that might be on everyone's deal-breaker list? Like, what if you find out that your partner cheated in a past relationship? Does this mean they're a serial cheater and you can't possibly sill trust them?

According to one expert who literally wrote the book on cheating, not necessarily. In When You’re the One Who Cheats, sex and relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD, explores adultery from the cheater’s perspective to gain insight about what motivates the behavior and also what to do about it. ("There are no books out there for the cheaters, just the cheated on," she says, pointing out this is a huge gap in understanding interpersonal relationships holistically.)

The biggest misunderstanding about cheaters, she says, is the notion of "once a cheater, always a cheater." “Although there may be some truth to it for some; there are a few indicators to look out for when someone is a serial cheater,” Dr. Nelson says. Below, she outlines four signs that a transgression in your partner's past may actually be part of a pattern, and thus, it may be worth taking an audit of your trust in them.

4 serial cheater traits that point to a past offense being part of a pattern

1. Has issues with self-esteem

For some, pursuing affairs might be a means to momentarily raise low self-esteem—and doing it perpetually can be a subconscious exercise to prove something to oneself.

“Sometimes, people cheat to prove their worth, to show that they are good enough, or worthy enough, or desirable—and cheating can be a way to fill a gap in their self-esteem." —Tammy Nelson, PhD

“Sometimes people cheat to prove their worth, to show that they are good enough, or worthy enough, or desirable—and this can be a way to fill a gap in their self-esteem,” Dr. Nelson says. “For those whose self-esteem is low enough, the repetitive nature of their chronic affairs can have a pressured quality, where one affair isn’t enough, where they have to continue to prove themselves over and over. Because the reality is, being with another person will never prove that they are truly good enough to themselves.”

2. Blames exes for the demise of past relationships

It's a common serial cheater trait to not accept responsibility for one's own indiscretions and choices, Dr. Nelson says—and it's a trait to avoid.

It’s a problem if your partner refuses to accept any responsibility for a failed relationship—and it's especially troubling if this is the stance for numerous past relationships. When you place all the blame on an ex, there's not much room for personal growth or healthy self-reflection. “Cheaters should stop blaming their partner for their affair,” she says. “No matter how unhappy or angry they are with their spouse, they should stop using the excuse that their partner ‘deserves’ the affair.'"

3. Has commitment issues

While there's nothing wrong with playing the field when that's the relationship structure all parties involved have agreed to, something else is the case, it's different. For instance, if you've had a DTR conversation, and you've landed on being committed and monogamous, claiming to have commitment issues (and acting accordingly) is less acceptable, and could point to serial cheater traits at play.

4. Is highly compulsive

This can lend itself to sexual, emotional, and other generally unacceptable behaviors, because the goal isn't gratification anymore—it's seeking that becomes the whole pursuit. And that points to forming a pattern. “When a cheater repeats the same behavior over and over—here, having sexual or emotional affairs repetitively—then it becomes compulsive, and the need for an affair is no longer about seeking excitement or love, or passion, it is the act of seeking.” Dr. Nelson says.

If you're having trouble dealing with news that your partner displays traits of being a serial cheater, or you suspect something sinister could be going on in your relationship now, these signs can provide helpful insight for you to think on. But, people are complex, and if your partner is, say, having a self-esteem issue, it isn't automatic cause for romantic concern. Basically, don't take any of these tips in isolation, and when in doubt, communicate with your partner. And if you have problems with chronic cheating, Dr. Nelson advises that you seek the help of a therapist who focuses on cheating.

“Infidelity is anything but simple,” Dr. Nelson says. “As much as we want to think cheaters are bad people, most want to be honest. They want to tell the truth.”

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