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The Personality of the Unfaithful

by David Buss

From The Dangerous Passion by David Buss
Page 148

The Personality of the Unfaithful:  Is Character Destiny?

Although most research has been focused on the aspects of relationships such as relative desirability and emotional dissatisfaction that lead to affairs, an often-overlooked predictor of infidelity is personality.  Are people with certain personality characteristics more likely to leap into the arms of another? To answer this question, Todd Shakleford and I gave an extensive battery of personality tests to a group of 107 married couples in their newlywed year. Rather than settle for mere self-reports of personality, we secured three relatively independent evaluations: self-reports, reports from the spouse, and reports from two interviewers, a man a woman.  More than 100 measures of personality were examined, ranging from adventurousness to zaniness, but only three proved to be strong predictors of susceptibility to infidelity.

The first was narcissism. People high on narcissism have a grandiose sense of self-importance, often exaggerating their accomplishments or talents. They expect to be recognized by others as superior, and often get infuriated when such admiration is not forthcoming. Typically preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, status, or brilliance, they believe that they are special and unique, and the usual rules and norms of social life do not apply to them. Narcissists require excessive admiration and go to great lengths to evoke it from others, often in a socially charming manner. A hallmark of narcissism is a profound sense of entitlement.  Narcissistic people have unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment, expect that others will automatically comply with their expectations, and become furious when they donít. They take advantage of others, and although all people sometimes use others for their own ends, narcissists turn interpersonal exploitation into an art form. They make friends specifically for their wealth, generosity, and connections, and especially for the ease with which they can be exploited. Narcissists selectively choose those whom they can exploit, neglecting people who are more skeptical of their grandiose claims of superiority and specialness.

Perhaps most central for infidelity, narcissists typically lack empathy for the pain and suffering they cause others. They are so preoccupied with their own needs and desires, they neglect to consider how their actions might hurt even those closest to them. Finally, narcissists are frequently envious of others, resentful of those who might have more success, power, or prestige. Their envy may be linked to their fragile sense of self-esteem, since narcissists oscillate between feelings of grandiosity and feelings that they are worthless. Good behavioral markers of narcissism include showing off ones body (exhibitionistic), nominating oneself for a position of power (grandiose), taking the best piece of food for oneself (self-centered), asking for a large favor without offering repayment (sense of entitlement), laughing at a friends problems (lack of empathy), and using friends for their wealth (interpersonally exploitative). All of these qualities seem conducive to gaining gratification outside marriage.

Narcissism proved to be highly linked with susceptibility to infidelity, even in the first year of marriage. Narcissists admitted that they are more likely to flirt with others, kiss others passionately, and go out on romantic dates with others. Their spouses concurred. They were also judged to be more susceptible to having one-night stands, brief affairs, and even serious affairs, and again their spouses concurred. These judgments of susceptibility to infidelity were borne out over the next four years. On follow-up, we found that those who scored high on narcissism during their newlywed year were indeed more likely to have sexual affairs with others. Interestingly, narcissism proved to be as strong as risk factor for infidelity in women as in men.

Narcissists, of course, can be very charming, entertaining, and highly engaging in social contexts. But those married to them are in for some suffering. Because of their excessive self-absorption, wild sense of entitlement, and lack of empathy for the harm they cause others, narcissists seek sexual gratification and esteem boosts from affair partners. They undoubtedly justify their actions  after all they are special, not subject to the same petty rules that others must slavishly follow, and so deserve special sources of gratification.

Two other personality characteristics make it more likely that a spouse will stray; being low on conscientiousness and being high on a scale labeled psychoticism.  Low conscientiousness is characterized by traits such as unreliability, negligence, carelessness, disorganization, laziness, impulsivity, and lack of self-control. Good behavioral markers of low conscientiousness include neglecting to pay ones bills on time, forgetting to pick up a friend after promising to do so, forgetting to thank others for their help, arriving late for a meeting, forgetting to turn off the lights after leaving a room, and impulsively purchasing an item without considering whether its affordable.

The pscyhoticism scale is something of a misnomer, since high scorers are not really psychotic. Rather, high scorers closely resemble the clinical picture of sociopathy. The personality disorder marked by a short-term sexual strategy, social conning, manipulativeness, and interpersonal exploitation. High scorers on this scale also lack empathy, like those high on narcissism. Good behavioral markers of psychoticism include laughing when a dog is hit by a car, showing indifference when a child is injured, suddenly breaking off friendships without warning or explanation, disappearing for several days without explanation, and impulsively shouting obscenities at other drivers he believes cut him off. Men, as you might guess, score higher on psychoticism than do women.

Both low conscientiousness and high psychoticism proved to be solid predictors for marital infidelity. Like those high on narcissism, these people flirted, kissed, and dated others more frequently than their more conscientious and less impulsive peers. And they more often leaped into bed wit others without thinking of the consequences, both for one-night stands, brief flings, and even more serious affairs. These personality predictors showed remarkable consistency for men and women. Neither sex, it seems, is exempt from the long reach of personality in luring some married people into the enticing arms of others. A selfish, manipulative, and impulsive personality does not inevitably cause infidelity. But it raises the odds.

Do some spouses drive their partners into the arms of others?

A more subtle predictor of infidelity involves the qualities of the spouse of the cheater. Do spouses with certain personality characteristics make married life sufficiently miserable that their partners seek love from others? To answer this question, Shackelford and I examined each of the personality characteristics of husbands and wives, and correlated them not with their own susceptibility to infidelity, but rather with their partners susceptibility to infidelity. Two personality characteristics emerged as significant predictors: emotional instability and quarrelsomeness.

Emotional instability is a broad personality characteristic marked by large mood swings. During the normal stresses and strains of everyday life, emotionally unstable people tend to get thrown out of whack more easily than their more stable peers. Furthermore, they have a longer latency in returning to baseline, remaining upset for a longer duration after the distressing event. Good behavioral markers of emotional instability include obsessing over something they can do nothing about, putting themselves down repeatedly and without good reason and agreeing to things without understanding why and without taking a stand of their own.  ON the positive side, emotionally unstable persons are more emotionally responsive than others, and this quality is sometimes linked with creativity. On the other hand, highly unstable individuals can turn a loving marriage into a living hell, and sometimes drive a partner to seek solace in the embrace of another.

When emotional instability is linked with another personality characteristic  quarrelsomeness  marriages turn into cauldrons of conflict. Precisely how this works was revealed in our long-term study of married couples. Quarrelsome spouses are condescending toward their partners, insist that their own opinions are superior to their partners opinions, and call their partner stupid. They neglect and reject their partner, laying the groundwork for the partners needs to go unmet. They tend to abuse their partners emotionally, call their partners nasty names, and demean them in front of others. The combination of emotional instability with quarrelsomeness proves disastrous for the quality of the marriage, increases the probability of divorce, and can drive a spouse into anotherís arms.

The spouses of emotionally unstable and quarrelsome individuals are more likely to flirt, passionately kiss, and romantically date others. These spouses are also more likely to cross the sexual line and have intercourse with others, either for a single night or for a more enduring extramarital affair. It is as though affair partners provide a safe haven from the nightmare of their marriage, a refuge where they are appreciated rather than abused. It is not inevitable that quarrelsome and emotionally unstable individuals drive their spouses to seek gratification elsewhere, but those qualities raise the odds.