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." If you've ever been cheated on and wondered how to heal or whether it's possible to forgive a cheater, the answer is yes, but it takes work—the same principle applies here. The answer to the question of 'can a cheater change' is yes, provided they want to change and actually put in the effort and work to amend their behaviors and habits. “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.
5 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.
5. Gaslights and projects their own issues onto their partner
According to licensed marriage and family counselor Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, another sign to watch for that serial cheaters share is a tendency to gaslight their partners and project their own misdeeds onto them—for example, accusing the partner they’re cheating on of being unfaithful.
This tactic is meant to misdirect blame from the serial cheater, Divaris Thompson says, and paired with gaslighting could cloud the instincts of the person being cheated on and make them doubt themselves, therefore helping the serial cheater's indiscretions remain concealed or less hurtful. “[The serial cheater is] doing that because they’re guilty and trying to divert attention from themselves to somebody else,” she says. “Not only are they trying to get their partner off their trail, [a serial cheater] may be trying to cause some distance with their partner,” she says. This tendency to shift blame for their own actions onto their S.O. is a serial cheater trait to watch out for.
1. Are serial cheaters narcissists?
It may sound tough to believe, but not all cheaters are necessarily narcissists. Although she says that certainly there could be a subset of serial cheaters who are true narcissists, the criteria to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder is very specific, says Divaris Thompson. However, a serial cheater can certainly display narcissistic tendencies—for example, showing an extreme lack of empathy, an inflated sense of self-importance, and an intense need to be admired—even if they haven’t been clinically diagnosed.
But not all cheating is motivated by traits we’d associate with narcissism. Some serial cheaters may do so because they have intense commitment issues that stem from their attachment styles and past trauma, says Divaris Thompson. The difference between these two types of people, she says, is feeling remorse for hurting their partner.“Usually narcissists don't feel bad about it, whereas people who have attachment and commitment issues usually have some sense of guilt [for their actions],” says Divaris Thompson.
2. Do serial cheaters have empathy?
Possibly, but Divaris Thompson points out that cheating on a partner isn’t empathetic behavior at all, and someone who constantly steps outside the agreed upon boundaries of their relationship (if it’s monogamous) isn’t taking their partner’s feelings into consideration. “If it's a repeated pattern of behavior, you're not at all really putting yourself in the other person's shoes,” she says. “You’re putting yourself first, and if you don’t come clean and have a conversation with the other person, you’re going behind someone else’s back and not taking accountability—yes, you may have some empathy, but you’re putting that in the backseat and putting your own needs first,” she says.
3. What do you do if you suspect your partner is a serial cheater?
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 and Divaris Thompson advise 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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