Psychology research has shown that being in a lower quality relationship — a relationship that lacks intimacy, commitment, and satisfaction — is associated with a higher likelihood of cheating on one’s partner. According to a new study, this effect is partly driven by an openness to casual sex among people with lower quality relationships. The research was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Infidelity is more common than we might like to think, and when cheating occurs, it leaves lasting negative consequences on both the victim and the perpetrator. It has been well documented that cheating is more likely to occur within lower quality relationships, and a team of researchers wanted to explore why exactly this is.
“I was curious about why some people are more likely to engage in infidelity than others. Once we learn about the risk factors that enhance infidelity, then we can develop intervention programs to prevent potential act of infidelity and its negative impact on individuals’ well-being,” said study author Betül Urganci, a PhD candidate at Cornell University.
Urganci and her colleagues wondered whether sociosexuality might be driving the association between relationship quality and infidelity. A person’s sociosexual orientation describes their desires, attitudes, and behaviors toward casual sex, and on its own, is a predictor of intentions toward infidelity.
The researchers proposed that lower quality relationships might steer people toward being more unrestricted when it comes to casual sex, and in turn, more likely to cheat on their partners.
To explore this, Urganci and colleagues analyzed survey responses from 309 Americans in exclusive relationships. The sample covered a wide age range, with participants between 20 and 70 years old. In addition to demographic measures, the questionnaires included 18 items that assessed relationship quality and 7 items that assessed a person’s intentions toward infidelity. The surveys also assessed participants’ behaviors, attitudes, and desires related to uncommitted sex.
In line with previous studies, respondents who had a more unrestricted sociosexual orientation reported a greater intention to cheat on their partners. Men were both more likely to have unrestricted sociosexual tendencies and more likely to show intention to cheat on their partners.
Also in line with previous research, respondents with higher quality relationships were less likely to intend to cheat on their partners. Moreover, mediation analysis revealed that sociosexual orientation partly explained this link between relationship quality and infidelity. People with better quality relationships had a more restricted sociosexual orientation, and in turn, showed less intention to cheat.
The researchers further found that it was participants’ behavior and desires related to casual sex that mediated this link between relationship quality and cheating intention — but not their attitudes toward casual sex. The study’s authors speculate that people’s sociosexual attitudes likely reflect their moral views and cultural assumptions regarding uncommitted sex, which may be less easily influenced by relationship quality.
“People who are less happy in their romantic relationships tend to have greater intentions toward infidelity. This association is partly accounted for individuals’ inclination to engage in uncommitted sexual relationships,” Urganci told PsyPost.
Urganci and her team say that their findings speak to the importance of considering the relationship context when studying cheating behavior. Specifically, the study suggests that a person’s sociosexuality is at least one way that the relationship context can influence intention toward infidelity.
“We should be careful about not implying any causal association because relationship quality and sociosexual orientation were not experimentally manipulated in the current study,” Urganci explained. “Also, similar to our study, the effect of sociosexuality on infidelity was found in several studies, yet future research should examine its independence from potential confounds, such as sexual satisfaction and long-term relationship desires.”
While the findings offer a solid foundation for future research, the researchers say that follow-up studies should take steps to control for possible confounding variables that might obscure the explored relationships, such as sexual satisfaction. Since infidelity can be psychologically devastating for couples and their families, interventions that address warning signs for cheating behavior may be helpful. According to this study, unrestricted sociosexuality among those in poor quality relationships might be one such warning sign.
The study, “Better relationships shut the wandering eye: Sociosexual orientation mediates the association between relationship quality and infidelity intentions”, was authored by Betül Urganci, Barış Sevi, and Ezgi Sakman.