Yes, yes—the obvious; one betrays their marriage or family as the other is trying to keep it healthy. Chumps free associate “CL” as Chump Lady, cheaters as CraigsList.
And, of course, we suspect that there are gross personality and cognitive differences between cheaters and chumps involving in cost-benefit analysis (really, cheaters, 30 visits to the strip club was worth burning your kids’ college tuition?) But what does the research say?
It is difficult to encapsulate all cases of cheating, or all cases of chumpdom, under a single category. There is, however, evidence that those who are willing to engage in unfaithful acts within a committed relationship are more entitled, have poorer impulse control, and are less empathetic than their faithful spouses. Conversely, additional research suggests that many chumps may have empathy, loyalty, and self-control in abundance. Hyena, meet prey.
Surely, the freshly-married have stars in their eyes for each other, and “forsaking all others” ringing in their ears. Nope. A classic study[i] asked newlywed couples to participate in interviews and personality tests, including questions about their likelihood of engaging in acts of cheating within the next year (flirting with someone, having a passionate kiss, having a one-night stand, having a romantic date, having a brief affair, and having a serious affair).
Did any traits correlate with intended infidelity? Wait for it … Yup, narcissism. Shocked? Women and men with high Narcissism traits claimed they were more likely to engage in acts of infidelity; men with high Narcissism also predicted that their wives would be more likely to engage in infidelity (projection?). It did not require that a spouse qualify for a full-blown diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, only that the person exhibit higher-than-average traits of self-centeredness, exploitativeness, and grandiosity.
Men and women low on Conscientiousness (defined as dependability, self-discipline, and a preference for planning over spontaneity) were also most likely to report that they would participate in extracurricular behaviors or relationships. Another shocker — both men and women who were deemed impulsive (based on a measure of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire) had a higher likelihood of performing at least 5 out of the 6 cheating behaviors. Cheaters have self-control issues? Whodathunk?
We know that Narcissists often have sparkly traits; could their high levels of charm, achievement, and confidence be at the heart of why they felt more entitled to cheat? They tend to marry down because it is so hard to find their equal? Here’s the twist — the interviewers also judged each person’s overall desirability rating, to see if partners in discrepant relationships would be most willing to engage in infidelity. This was not the case; Mate Value Discrepancy was not a predictor of betrayal. The more desirable member of unequal pairs was not necessarily the one most likely to stray in the marriage. And most of those who predicted they might cheat had fairly equal Mate Values to his/her spouse.
So, sorry, one cheater excuse won’t fly — that infidelity was the only way they could tolerate marriage to their inferior spouses. (Of course, this leaves open that narcissistically-oriented spouses may perceive themselves to be of higher mate value, and thus entitled to seek extra perks outside the marriage, even if objective observers disagree about Ms. or Mr. Cheater’s actual appeal.)
What about the flip side — do chumps have personality traits that predispose us to be chumps? Women coupled with ClusterB men were invited to participate in an on-line study.[ii] [Although the main research was conducted on women only, it’s not a far cry to assume that the same results apply to male chumps.]
Spouses of the disordered were found to score in the top 3% of the population on traits such as empathy, bonding, helpfulness, compassion, responsibility, loyalty, and trust. Sandra Brown termed these “supertraits.” So how is it possible for people so different from each other to become attracted in the first place? Chumps’ overabundance of positive qualities helps compensate for cheaters’ deficiencies in empathy and responsibility and loyalty. Cheaters can skate while chumps do the heavy lifting in the relationship. This, btw, has also been confirmed — people engaging in extramarital affairs are usually the ones doing less work to keep the marriage/relationship healthy.[iii]
But Brown also found that a few traits were shared by psychopaths and their relationship victims: Both were high on excitement seeking. But “I don’t like bungee jumping,” you say. “Kiddie coasters are the extent of my desire for thrills.” For cheaters, this is obvious; seduction and deception themselves are sources of excitement. For chumps, the relationship drama is our excitement; we might hate, hate, hate the fights and the devaluing, but we adore the highs of love-bombing when things are going well. Until we don’t.
Cluster Bs and the people who love/d them were also both high in dominance (defined as “feeling as if one is in control of one’s own life”). That trait displays itself differently, though: cheaters believe that, through sheer force of their wonderfulness, they can bend us to their will. Dictate the terms of the relationship (in their favor, it goes without saying). And chumps? We believe we can change the sparkly-but-flawed cheater through the power of love. We can make a marriage work singlehandedly!! Superman and Wonder Woman have nothing on us; heck, those superheroes didn’t even have kids to juggle in the midst of saving the world.
So there you have it — the evidence has spoken. Cheaters really are overgrown toddlers with entitlement issues and the empathy level of a cockroach. Chumps, on the other hand, bear and forbear, dispensing care and concern to our undeserving spouses, while holding up our end of the tent and theirs.
How did your relationship fit the data?
[i] Buss & Shackelford (1997)
[ii] Brown (2010); website: saferelationshipsmagazine.com
[iii] Glass & Staeheli (2003)