Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater? Here’s What Couples Therapists Think

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If you’re dating someone who’s cheated before, that doesn’t automatically mean the relationship is destined to fail. Still, knowing that your partner got a little too cozy with a coworker in the past, perhaps, or had a months-long physical affair can understandably make you paranoid about your future together.

Maybe the classic saying “Once a cheater, always a cheater” is lingering in your head. Contrary to popular belief, though, it’s not a universal truth, Kayla Knopp, PhD, co-founder and clinical psychologist at Enamory in San Diego, tells SELF. For starters, absolutes like “always” usually aren’t factual: A ton of jerks might have a track record of being unfaithful, sure, but many others probably learned from their mistakes, Dr. Knopp says.

Case in point: Her research at the University of Denver found that not all former cheaters repeated their behaviors in their next relationships. “Lots of people have a fear of being cheated on though, so believing in black-and-white rules [like ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’] can make them feel safer,” Dr. Knopp says.

Whether or not your significant other gets their shit together this time around can depend on a lot of different factors. Here, we asked couples counselors for some hopeful signs that they won’t repeat the same pattern with you.

1. They willingly open up about their past—because they want to, not because they have to.

“We’re not entitled to know everything about our significant others’ pasts,” Dr. Knopp says. Technically speaking, your partner isn’t obligated to disclose a previous emotional affair, for example—and it makes sense why they might be hesitant to own up to infidelity, especially if you just started dating. (After all, who wants to jeopardize a new relationship with old drama?)

That’s why, according to Dr. Knopp, “when someone voluntarily shares their mistakes, they’re much more likely to be a trustworthy partner in the future.” Getting ahead of things doesn’t guarantee they won’t do you dirty down the line, of course, but it does show that they’re confessing their indiscretion for the sake of being honest—and not out of pressure or obligation, Dr. Knopp says. (Plus, it’s an effort to make sure your relationship isn’t built on lies and secrets from the get-go, she adds.)

2. They know why they cheated in the first place.

Their explanation may not justify what they did, but it can tell you a whole lot about their ability to self-reflect and take responsibility for their actions—which are both essential steps toward addressing (and correcting) harmful behaviors, Dr. Knopp says.

“If [your partner] acts like it wasn’t within their control or claims they don’t know why they cheated, those are red flags,” she explains. On the flip side, someone who’s learned from their mistakes should be able to acknowledge their shortcomings by admitting that they liked the attention of the pretty bartender, for instance, instead of solely blaming tequila shots. Or, they might reveal that their low self-esteem—not their “unappreciative” or “distant” ex—caused them to seek validation from someone else.

3. They understand if you’re critical or skeptical of them.

If your partner gets defensive when you bring up their past, say, or guilt-trips you for needing space, this usually shows they’re not really taking responsibility, K’Hara McKinney, LMFT, a couples therapist in Los Angeles, tells SELF. That’s because true remorse involves owning up to your bad behavior—even if forgiveness isn’t guaranteed, McKinney says.

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