Are Kids Learning How To Be Unfaithful in College?

Perhaps instead of focusing on our kids' declared major, grades and degrees, we should be paying attention to their extracurricular activities.
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Anthropology, calculus, sociology, biology -- if you have a child in college, it's likely he or she is learning something about those topics, much of which they may forget once they graduate. But there's one topic many young adults are learning about while they're getting their degree that they may carry with them for the rest of their lives.


Cheating in relationships -- not just in classes -- is relatively common among college students, notes Glenn Geher, director of evolutionary studies at SUNY New Paltz. Twenty-somethings are at the stage of their life where they may be taking relationships more seriously and are exploring monogamous relationships as well as their sexuality, but given their lack of experience it isn't surprising that many college romances don't last. But it may be surprising that so many of them end because of cheating. According to a 2000 study, between 65 percent and 75 percent of college students have been unfaithful.

"The most common way that dating couples end a relationship is by starting another," says Barry McCarthy, a psychologist and professor at American University in Washington.

Guys aren't the only ones cheating on campus; female co-eds are fooling around just as much, although men tend to have a more permissive attitude toward infidelity and don't always end a relationship because of it. Women overwhelmingly do break up over infidelity, but the ones who don't dump their boyfriends are well aware that if they don't let the cheating slide, they "don't have a boyfriend," according to a student at the University of North Carolina.

"So what?" you may be thinking; after all, college students are still kids. They haven't had enough experience in relationships to fully understand the meaning of commitment. It's truly the time when they should be sowing their wild oats.

That may be so, but the college dating scene has changed dramatically. Hookups, no strings attached (NSA) sex and friends with benefits have taken the place of the old-fashioned dating even their parents -- children of the 1960s sexual revolution -- may have grown up with. With more women on campuses than men, women have had to be a lot more aggressive -- and easier to bed -- to attract a guy's attention. They also have to be much more accepting of porn in their relationships.

And since more young adults are delaying marriage, they often have multiple relationships -- and more casual sex -- before saying their "I dos," if they even get to that point. There's more time to learn to be a serial cheater. As sociologist and "The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating" author Eric Anderson has discovered, the more men cheat, the more likely they are to continue cheating. That's why more researchers are looking into what's going on sexually for those men and women in the phase of their life called emerging adulthood, and what it may mean when they're ready to settle down.

McCarthy and others believe that the patterns set in premarital relationships -- like infidelity -- are likely to spill over into marriage. That certainly seems to be occurring -- between 1991 and 2006, the number of adulterous wives under 30 increased by 20 percent; it increased by 45 percent for the hubbies.

"The costs of exiting have changed," says Edward Laumann, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

So, too, have the definitions of infidelity. Most male and female undergrads easily agree on what sexual infidelity is, according to a recent multicollege/Kinsey Institute study. But they differed when it came to defining emotional infidelity -- an area that gets grayer all the time thanks to the rapid technological changes that have brought sexting, Facebook friending, Internet porn and adult chat rooms into so many relationships.

There are a few things fueling college students' beliefs about infidelity. Trust, self esteem, loneliness, a need to belong and fears of rejection play a huge part in deciding whether a student will cheat or not, one study found. Male undergrads say just being sexually attracted to someone could lead to infidelity, while their female counterparts believe being unhappy in a relationship could send someone into the arms of someone new, according to another study. Anderson's study of undergrad men reveals that they find monogamy to be challenging, and cheating is easier than asking for an open relationship.

All of which is causing some researchers to ask, can we teach undergrads not to cheat? After all, it's a lot easier to stop a bad behavior before it begins than try to deal with it after the damage is done, especially since infidelity plays a huge part in many divorces. And college campuses are a hotbed of opportunities for risky behaviors that often lead to cheating, such as heavy drinking.

Perhaps we can. According to a recent study of the effectiveness of relationship education in preventing infidelity, fewer male and female students fooled around after taking a 13-week course that addressed partner selection and making healthy relationship transitions, and detailed the possible negative consequences of cheating.

But is that a college's responsibility? Should colleges be teaching young adults not to cheat romantically -- especially with many struggling to just offer the basics, thanks to budget cuts? What is society willing to do to try to stop people from cheating -- if anything?

Perhaps instead of focusing on our kids' declared major, grades and degrees, we should be paying attention to their extracurricular activities.

A version of this article appeared on Vicki Larson's personal blog, the OMG Chronicles.

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