The serial cheater: Why do people constantly betray their partners?

The breakup of Emily Ratajkowski and Sebastian Bear-McClard, blamed on his alleged ongoing infidelities, shows that no one is safe from being cheated on

Emily Ratajkowski kisses Sebastian Bear-McClard on a New York street in 2021.
Emily Ratajkowski kisses Sebastian Bear-McClard on a New York street in 2021.

Last month, we were surprised by the news that supermodel Emily Ratajkowski and her husband, Sebastian Bear-McClard, had ended their relationship. They were married for four years and have a one-year-old son together.

It was People magazine that confirmed, through an anonymous source close to the couple, that Ratajkowski had decided to end the relationship and she would be filing for divorce. The reason for the separation apparently lies in the series of infidelities committed by Bear-McClard.

“Yes, he cheated on her,” said another anonymous source. “He is a serial cheater. It’s all very unpleasant.”

The term “serial cheater” is a derivation of serial killer… it implies an irrepressible urge to cheat, regardless of the health of a relationship. If these alleged infidelities are confirmed, it would seem to have mattered little to Bear-McClard that his wife was the mother of his son and one of the most sought-after models in the world.

Of course, the Ratajkowski-Bear-McClard case is not the only one of its kind. Throughout history, much more famous people – such as John F. Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Tiger Woods, Brad Pitt and Chris Rock – have been accused of having an inclination to sleep with several people behind the back of their partners.

If the serial cheater really exists, what is it that causes the urge to be unfaithful? Why can’t people control themselves? To find out the answers to these questions, EL PAÍS spoke with the therapists Inés Bárcenas and Ainhoa Plata.

Characteristics of a serial cheater

“In psychology, there is no such label,” explains Plata, “but there are personality traits that make certain people more prone to being unfaithful.”

According to Plata, this behavior is due to certain psychological pathologies that many cheaters have in common.

“Most likely, we are dealing with a narcissistic personality disorder,” continues the doctor. “Narcissistic people use others to feel loved and admired. They like challenges and continually prove to themselves that they are above others. For this reason, they love to live the passion of falling in love… they feel more admired and valued in that space than in a long-term relationship. The narcissist is not satisfied with a stable and lasting relationship, because over time, their partner gains independence and stops idolizing them. Infidelities [subsequently] satisfy the needs of the narcissist.”

According to Bárcenas, narcissists also tend to suffer from histrionic personality disorder, meaning that they attach great importance to physical attractiveness and to being sexually attractive. “Perhaps they never get to consummate the act of infidelity,” says the psychologist, “but they like to please and flirt. They are unable to maintain a purely friendly relationship with someone of the opposite sex.”

Bárcenas has identified an avoidant attachment in many of these patients. “These people have usually learned, in their childhood, that love is invasive… that intimacy is harmful, overwhelming. This means that, in their adult relationships, when things get serious and their partner invites them to have a firmer commitment, they rebel against it by developing behaviors in response to the supposed ‘intrusion’.”

The therapist also notes that low self-esteem is another engine driving this type of infidelity. “The serial cheater seeks to validate himself or herself by feeling attractive to others. They are people who have been valued by their environment according to how handsome or pretty they were, or how charismatic… and never in an unconditional way.”

“[You hear] absurd justifications while in consultation with people who have long histories of infidelity,” adds Plata. “Humans are unfaithful by nature, but we are not prepared to understand [this quality] and that is why it is necessary to hide it. People don’t tell the truth out of altruism, so as not to destroy their partner, so that their children do not suffer a family conflict.”

“Often they create a version of reality in which the infidelity is almost the fault of the partner,” explains Bárcenas. “I can’t help it… it’s just that I’m so attractive that others cling to me… the [cheaters] are never responsible for anything that happens to them and that is what is most frustrating for their partners. They also do not fully understand the impact their behavior has on those around them; they are unable to put themselves into another’s shoes. In fact, one of the most important jobs in therapy is to help a patient understand and integrate the effects that their behavior has on others.

“That being said, not all people who are unfaithful have personality disorders or mental problems. Sometimes infidelities do have to do specifically with a partner.”

The effects of social media and the pandemic

Although infidelities have always existed, it seems clear that social media and dating apps have produced a multiplier effect regarding the possibilities, varieties and ease of being unfaithful to your partner. According to a 2014 study in the UK, social media was cited as a reason for separation in a third of all cases. The numbers have since risen further.

“Social media and apps have totally changed the rules of the game for serial cheaters,” explains Bárcenas. “It is now much easier to contact people, create false identities and hide it all from your partner. In fact, in every case I’ve seen of people repeatedly cheating on their partners, dating apps and social media were involved.”

According to the therapist, these applications cause us to see people as consumer goods. “They make us think, ‘if I don’t get it with this person, there are a thousand more I can flirt with.’”

As if this were not enough, the pandemic exacerbated of relationship problems. According to Plata, “after the pandemic, psychologists were overwhelmed with work.” But the opposite effect has also occurred. Bárcenas recalls: “I have seen couples who were in deep crisis and who, thanks to spending so much time locked up together with less background noise, have been able to resolve their difficulties. I think the pandemic has had a catalytic effect for both the good and the bad.”

A problem that can be solved

“In psychotherapy we always say that if there is a problem, there is a solution,” says Plata. “However, for a solution to be effective, it is essential that the person actually wants to modify the negative aspect in their character.”

“It’s one of the most difficult things to work on,” Bárcenas concludes. “There are no quick treatments. You have to work on identity, self-esteem… it’s a very long path that involves exploring and reconfiguring the link between oneself and others. But yes, it is possible to get better and be better for others.”

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