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Did Your Childhood Turn You Into a Cheater?

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Victor Harris, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

The highly acclaimed TV show “Mad Men” is back for one last season, and if you’re like me, you’re wondering if the handsome, charismatic, but highly flawed leading man Don Draper is ever going to change his cheating ways. If you don’t watch the show, Don has been running away from commitment and true intimacy since his difficult childhood. He’s been married twice, but his number of lovers and affairs is hard to tally.

Are Some People More Likely To be Unfaithful?

I immediately thought of Don when I read a paper recently about a type of “attachment style” that researchers say may be linked to an increased risk of infidelity. Your attachment style is the way you tend to think, act, and behave when in relationships with other people. Our experiences relating to our parents in childhood have a huge influence on how these styles develop.

Three Types of Attachment Style

Relationship scientists generally talk about three basic “styles of attachment.” We may be securely attached, meaning that we trust others, are able to open up, and can freely offer and ask for love and support. We can be anxiously attached, meaning that we tend to be clingy, lack boundaries, and worry about whether our loved ones love us “enough.” Or (and many would say this is where Don comes in) we can be avoidantly attached–meaning that we fear intimacy with others, and prefer emotional distance.

In this paper, researchers conducted eight smaller studies to see whether people who were more avoidantly attached were more likely to cheat on or to think about cheating on their partners than securely or anxiously attached people.

“Avoidant” Attachment = More Infidelity?

Did it turn out to be true? In fact, people who showed more of an avoidant attachment style did have more of a tendency to cheat or to be interested in doing so. For instance, they had more positive attitudes toward the possibility of cheating, they paid more attention to attractive members of the opposite sex during an experiment, and they reported more emotional and sexual infidelities in their relationships as time passed.

Lower Commitment

Avoidantly attached people also seemed to experience less commitment to their partners. Actually, this might be at least part of why they struggled with staying faithful. Commitment tends to keep us from cheating because it causes us to feel dependent on our partners—we don’t want to lose them, so cheating isn’t very appealing. If avoidant people experience fewer such feelings, though, they may see less reason to stay faithful.

So, is Don Draper destined to continue his cheating ways? That’s a question for the show’s writers. But it’s worth noting that he doesn’t necessarily appear to be enjoying this behavior, even as he seems compelled to repeat it. Some experts believe that avoidantly attached people end up experiencing deep, intense feelings about their relationships anyway, even though they don’t want to.

If you’re worried that you might be an avoidant type, remember that Don is an extreme case. Your issues with attachment are likely to be less serious. And with self-reflection and the desire to connect, you can work to forge closer, more genuine relationships.

References:

DeWall, N. C., et al. (2011). So far away from one’s partner, yet so close to romantic alternatives: Avoidant attachment, interest in alternatives, and infidelity. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1302-1316. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0025497

Selterman, D. (2011). Attachment theory: Explaining relationship styles. Retrieved from http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/home/2011/7/15/attachment-theory-explaining-relationship-styles.html

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