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In a few weeks I will become an empty-nester. Like most parents, I have a lot of emotions about that. My boys, a freshman and a junior, are on their way to being fully independent; it’s what we parents have been teaching our kids how to do from Day 1. We hope we’ve laid the groundwork for them to be good people with morals and compassion and all the skills to live well.

So I was a bit disheartened when I delved into what’s really happening on college campuses nowadays — cheating. Not just on papers and tests, but also in relationships.   

According to a 2000 study, between 65 percent and 75 percent of college students have been unfaithful. Twenty-somethings are at the stage of their life where they’re focusing on choosing a mate and exploring monogamous relationships. But many college romances don’t last, and a lot of them end because of cheating.

“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 coeds are fooling around just as much although men tend to have a more permissive attitude toward infidelity and don’t necessarily end a relationship because of it. Women overwhelmingly do end relationships over infidelity, but the ones who don’t break up know that if they don’t ignore their boyfriend’s cheating “you don’t have a boyfriend.”

So what, you may be thinking; after all, college students are still kids. They haven’t had much experience in relationships let alone 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 dramatically changed. 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 known. 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.

Plus, more young adults are delaying marriage and 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. 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.

Once cheating becomes part of the deal of a breakup, many young adults don’t seem to be too concerned about what that may mean for the breakup of some future marriage. And as sociologist and The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating author Eric Anderson says, the more men cheat, the more likely they are to continue cheating.

McCarthy and others believe the patterns set in premarital relationships — like infidelity — are likely to spill over into their marriages. That certainly seems to be occurring — between 1991 and 2006, the numbers of adulterous wives under 30 increased by 20 percent; it was 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 agree on what sexual infidelity is, according to a recent multicollege/Kinsey Institute study on what students think about infidelity and how they define it. 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 and adult chat rooms into 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 you 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 hotbeds 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, making healthy relationship transitions and detailed the possible negative consequences of cheating.

But is that a college’s responsibility? Should colleges be teaching people not to cheat romantically — especially with so many struggling to offer just the basics, thanks to budget cuts? Just what is society willing to do to try to stop people from cheating? And, should we even care?

Perhaps instead of focusing on our kids’ declared major and grades, we should be paying a little closer attention to their extracurricular activities.

  • Do you think we can teach kids not be unfaithful?
  • Who should do that, parents, colleges or someone else?
  • Do you believe kids will “grow out of” infidelity once they commit to someone, either through marriage or cohabitation?

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