Do People Repeat Their Family History When It Comes To Cheating Or Having An Affair? Why ? Does It Truly Run In Families?

By: Katie Lersch:  I sometimes hear from people who are dealing with the recent discovery of their spouse’s infidelity.  Once the shock begins to wear off just a little, you start to question what might have motivated your spouse to cheat.

One motivation that is hard to ignore is that of a family history.  Many of us accept that disorders like alcoholism or mental illness can run in families.  But people often balk at the idea that infidelity runs in families.  Most of us vow to never act in the hurtful way that our parents did, so why do some of us cheat when we watched that same cheating destroy our family as a child?

Here’s a situation that you might hear.  A wife might say: “I just found out that my husband has been cheating.  This is so confusing. Because we honestly had a good, happy marriage and family life.  And my husband always swore that cheating is one thing that he would never – ever – do. His father’s cheating destroyed my husband’s family.  My husband hates his father and sees him as weak and spineless.  And yet, here my husband is – cheating on me.  My husband is begging me not to tear apart my family.  He says that the difference between him and his father is that he is willing to get help.  I do not understand this, although I know that my husband is sincere about counseling.  But I am not sure that I buy that infidelity runs in families.  Does it?  And if so, why? Because I feel like it is just a handy excuse.”

I certainly understand why you would feel that way.  And whether you believe the family history theory or not, it’s not a valid excuse either way.  Not every one makes the same mistake as their parents.  But there is no question that our parents’ behaviors affects our own.  My mother is a heavy smoker.  I have never smoked.  But there is no question that children of smoker’s are much more likely to smoke themselves, even if they hated the habit.

In terms of infidelity, I do see a family history among people who cheat.  It’s certainly not always the case.  And people with cheating parents are not doomed to cheat themselves.  But there does seem to be a correlation as well as higher risk factors.  I am not a therapist and this is not a scientific observation.  But I do hear of it quite a bit.

Why I Think That Infidelity May Run In Families: I have my theories,  but that is all that they are.  As I said, I do not have any degrees in mental health. But I am a rabid researcher because of my personal interest in this. I believe that we tend to recreate the atmospheres of our childhood because it is what we know.  If we grew up in chaos, we will be more likely to create that chaos in our own homes – even if we HATED that chaos and vowed never to repeat it.  We do this because its familiar and, it times of stress, people crave the familiar – even if that is heard to understand and even if it is destructive.

I also believe that we sometimes subconsciously recreate the situations of our childhood as a way to attempt to work through them.   This is true even when we have rejected our childhoods and have vowed not to make the same mistakes as our parents.  That is why it is so important to try to always be mindful when you parent.  Whatever atmosphere you create in your children’s childhood home, that is the roadmap for their adults lives.

Plus, it’s possible that some of the habits that we learned from our parents – avoiding talking about important emotional issues, or trying to create happiness outside of ourselves –  can contribute to our marriages being vulnerable, which can lead to an affair.  If our parents did not model a marriage where issues were discussed and fixed without going outside of our home, how we can we expect to have the same?

How Can You Fix It?: So how do we avoid repeating the mistakes of our parents?  We have to learn to be very aware of our thoughts and actions.  We have to be willing to get help if we sense or see ourselves repeating these thoughts or behaviors.  This requires that we be VERY self-aware. And in times of stress, we are less likely to be able to do this.

None of this means that you have to excuse your husband.  But it may help you to understand that he did have serious risk factors.  I do believe that having an unfaithful parent increases the risk that the child will be unfaithful.  It doesn’t mean that they will.  It just means that the odds are increased.  But there is always a choice, although making that choice can be harder for someone with the family history.

The good news is that, for what it is worth, I don’t believe that your husband’s family history means that your husband is going to be a repeat cheater who can’t be rehabilitated.  If anything, he may have an even greater motivation to be fully rehabilitated because he knows first-hand what type of destruction this caused his family as a child.  He knows how it feels to be that child from a broken home, so he does not want that for his own children.  That may mean that he’s doubly motivated to fully heal your marriage.

I certainly know that my husband had risk factors from childhood that may have contributed to his affair.  But I do not excuse him for that.  He was accountable for his choice and he took responsibility for it.   However, knowing the risk factors are there helps us both. There’s more on my blog at

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