By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Infidelity is always a hot topic in the media – from gossip about high profile affairs to advice on how to spot and put an end to such ‘extracurricular activities.’ Given that partners bare their souls (not to mention their bodies) to each other, many find even the idea of being cheated on to be distressing. So, the ability to predict who will cheat is a talent that many people would love to have. Of course, no one can see the future, but researchers have tried to answer this question by suggesting ways to identify people who are more likely to stray.
One way they have approached this topic is to consider the attachment style of partners. This refers to the particular way in which a person connects with – or attaches to – others (especially significant others) in their lives. About sixty percent of people are securely attached. They feel good about themselves and also trust in their partners. All other people are insecurely attached and are classified in two ways. Some are avoidantly attached; meaning that they don’t trust others to be emotionally supportive, so they remain emotionally distant. And some are anxiously attached; meaning that they tend to seek excessive reassurance from their partners. (Note that a fuller explanation of attachment theory would reveal that while this is basically accurate, people are more complicated than this suggests.)
Past research has shown that both types of insecure attachment are associated with infidelity. However, a recent study (Russell and others, 2013) of couples in their first few years of marriage showed that avoidantly attached people were not particularly likely to have an affair. Instead, anxiously attached spouses were more likely to do so. This was equally true for men and women; and was even true for those who reported being happily married. Perhaps the difference in findings indicates a difference in married versus dating couples. Or, maybe there is another factor affecting the findings. For instance, other research has shown that people who know their parent had an affair are more likely to have one. But whatever the case, it seems clear that insecure attachment can put people at risk for being unfaithful.
Of course, many insecurely attached people do not have affairs. So, given the research to date, the best way to approach your relationship is to focus less on trying to predict future infidelity and more on meeting both of your needs for intimacy. If one of you tends to be self-reliant to the point of not sharing much from the heart, challenge this inclination. Work together to increase this partner’s communication even though he or she might feel uncomfortable at first. If one of you tends to need excessive reassurance, work together to support his or her self-image. Self-help materials or therapy can facilitate this process. In the end, your relationship is more likely to remain healthy – and affair-free – if you each feel good about yourselves while also sharing openly with, and being there for, each other.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.