When it comes to serial cheaters, awareness of the impact of their actions and a desire to forge new, positive behaviors are necessary to promote change in a relationship.

In most circumstances, cheating, or infidelity, involves the formation of an emotionally intimate or sexual bond, or both, with someone other than your primary partner.

The connection occurs in a way that breaks your current relationship boundaries and redirects your attention away from your original partner’s needs.

Cheating once may make someone more likely to cheat again. A 2017 study found people who cheated in a previous relationship were almost three times more likely to cheat in another relationship. Cheating that happens multiple times is known as serial cheating.

A serial cheater is someone who demonstrates a pattern of unfaithful behavior in a relationship.

Serial cheating isn’t limited to sexual encounters with other people. It can be any pattern of emotional or physical infidelity within a relationship.

Serial cheating isn’t restricted to a length of time, either. Multiple, separate situations of unfaithfulness — no matter how far they’re spaced apart— can be defined as serial cheating.

If you’re wondering about whether or not a serial cheater can change, the answer often lies in why someone repeats cheating behaviors.

Dr. David Tzall, a licensed psychologist in New York City, explains serial cheating can emerge from complex causes like trauma and insecure attachment. Cheating can also occur from psychological conditions of:

  • narcissism
  • impulsivity
  • thrill-seeking
  • low self-esteem

Sometimes, serial cheating may be a reflection of the overall health of a relationship. “A lack of emotional or physical intimacy, poor communication, unresolved conflicts, or unmet expectations within a relationship can lead some individuals to seek fulfillment elsewhere,” he says.

Even when faced with the complex challenges that often underlie serial cheating, people are capable of modifying their behaviors. Trauma, psychological conditions, and relationship health are all things that can be improved with the proper guidance and treatment.

But first, for a serial cheater to change, it’s necessary to recognize harmful patterns of infidelity, acknowledge why change is needed, and have a desire to improve.

Just as there aren’t set traits of someone who’s repeatedly unfaithful, signs of a serial cheater can also vary. They’re often the same as general signs of cheating but episodic.

1. Unaccounted for time or money

Tzall says to be on the lookout for unaccounted-for blocks of time with excuses about work, social events, or other activities that don’t add up. Missing money or an increase in unexplained spending can also be a red flag.

2. Secrecy

A sudden change in information sharing can be a sign someone is hiding something in a relationship, like:

  • new passwords on social media
  • hidden accounts
  • restricted access to computers and phones

3. Detachment

According to Tzall, a serial cheater may seem emotionally distant or detached in the relationship because they’re thinking about the other person.

They may start to avoid deep conversations about the future and may show a general disinterest in the emotional aspects of the relationship.

4. Lying

An increase in dishonesty can be a possible clue toward infidelity. Finding out a partner wasn’t where they said they were, for example, can be the tip of the iceberg of what’s really going on.

5. Changes in habits or appearance

There’s nothing wrong with making positive lifestyle changes. But most couples are aware when a partner wants to improve their fitness or get a new look.

When a partner is suddenly dressing differently, into unexpected hobbies, or changing their appearance, it could indicate they’re out to impress someone else.

There’s no cookie-cutter outline for what a serial cheater acts like, but certain traits may be more common than others. Impulsivity, for example, was found in a 2018 study to be connected with more accepting attitudes toward infidelity.

“Serial cheaters may engage in infidelity impulsively without fully considering the emotional impact it can have on their partners or the long-term consequences for the relationship,” Tzall explains.

He indicates other tendencies often seen among serial cheaters include:

  • narcissism
  • lack of empathy
  • need for admiration and validation
  • thrill-seeking
  • need for novel experiences
  • history of poor emotional intimacy in relationships
  • discomfort with vulnerability

Gary Tucker, chief clinical officer and licensed psychotherapist at D’Amore Mental Health in Costa Mesa, California, adds that low self-esteem is also a common trait among serial cheaters.

“Those who have low self-esteem may resort to infidelity to boost their ego and gain approval from others,” he says. “They may have multiple affairs in order to feel desired and desired by various partners”

Tucker indicates this can stem from traumatic events, dysfunctional family dynamics, or abandonment during someone’s formative years, which may have resulted in feelings of:

  • inadequacy
  • low self-esteem
  • a deep fear of rejection

Discovering your partner is a serial cheater can be devastating.

If you want to work on the relationship, Tucker recommends clarifying and enforcing your relationship boundaries.

“Boundaries are essential in any relationship, but they are especially important when dealing with serial cheating,” he says. “It is critical to establish clear boundaries and the consequences for crossing them.”

Once boundaries are clear and in place, Tucker and Tzall recommend seeking therapy if the relationship is to be salvaged. A therapist can work with you to improve communication, rebuild trust, and address the underlying causes of serial cheating.

Whether you stay or go, Tzall suggests fortifying your support network. “Having a strong support network can help you process your emotions and make sense of the situation. It’s important to prioritize self-care and take time to focus on your own well-being.”

You can support a partner’s efforts to change serial cheating behaviors, but the effort ultimately comes from them. If someone has no desire to change or can’t see the harm in their behaviors, it may be time to leave that relationship behind.

Serial cheating is a pattern of unfaithful behavior that breaches relationship boundaries. It can involve a mixture of physical and emotional intimacy.

Due to the varying definitions of faithfulness between partners and the sensitive nature of the topic, it’s challenging to get exact numbers on how common cheating is.

According to a 2020 analysis of data spanning 27 years, cheating prevalence varies significantly between specific demographics, with the highest rates reported among men and separated or divorced adults.

Different underlying causes can influence how likely a partner is to cheat, but change is possible for many people. Setting clear boundaries, working with a therapist, and committing to the process of change can all help in relationship recovery.