Infidelity raises profound questions about intimacy.
Infidelity (or to use the more colloquial and biased term “cheating”), is an increasingly common phenomenon which has a high negative impact on relationships and well-being. While there is a lot known about the factors which contribute to or prevent infidelity from the point of view of the cheater, there is less understanding, from the perspective of someone dating the partner who has cheated, of what goes into the decision to stay and try to make it work, or split up and try to move on. It can be a very clear-cut decision, and sometimes being cheated-on ends up telling us what we needed to know, or it can be a lot tougher, full of ambivalence, indecision and feelings of loss.
A Cognitive Science Perspective
To explore the ins and outs of this crucial decision-making process, Shrout and Weigel (2017) developed research to look at the steps which contribute to decision-making when partners in a committed relationship are faced with infidelity from the other partner. Their study design focused on cognitive psychological factors, while acknowledging the generally more intuitive importance of the emotions involved with infidelity, including betrayal, injury, anger, sadness, grief, disbelief, and related responses and states.
The study authors propose a model of decision-making based on prior research in the field of infidelity. It’s a detailed model with many nuances, but the framework is straightforward, describing a sequential series of factors leading up to the final decision (see Figure 1).
Source: Shrout & Weigel, 2017
Here’s a breakdown, distilled to the basics:
- Social network approval: Romantic relationships are strongly influenced by social environment—friends, family, institutions, and values, among other things. This applies to all aspects of relationships—attitudes about monogamy, sexuality including premarital sex, and expectations about quality and durability of relationships under strain—as well as advice from friends and family about what to do following infidelity. For the purpose of the current study, a key factor determining whether one decides to break up or stay together following infidelity may be social network attitudes (approval or disapproval) about whether couples should try to stay together.
- Attribution information selection (AIS): How we pay attention to information is determined by many factors. If we are in favor of something, we tend to look for information which supports that decision, and visa versa. We experience bias as we sort through information necessary for forming opinions, paying more attention to some kinds of information, and ignoring other potentially important data. In the case of a partner deciding whether to break up after infidelity, when we look back at what happened, our prior conceptions—such as social factors—tend to filter what we notice and how we make sense of the behavior of our partners.
- Attributions: After gathering information, people turn to attributions of blame, seeking to determine causality and responsibility. Did he do it knowingly, or was it out of his control? Is this a regular thing, or a one-time mistake? Could it have been prevented? According to the theory (Fincham & Bradley, 1992), people think about attribution on three dimensions: whether causality lies with the partner or elsewhere (internal vs. external), whether the behavior is a consistent pattern or whether it is an outlier (global or specific), and whether the behavior impacts other areas of the relationship over time or is confined to just one area (stable or unstable). When it is deemed that there is high causality and responsibility, behaviors are seen as internal, global and stable. In this case, the partner is seen as blameworthy, and the attributions are “conflict-promoting” or “nonbenign”. When the partner is seen has having less responsiblity and causal contribution, behaviors are seen as external, specific and unstable. In this case, the partner is not seen as blameworthy, and attributions are referred to as “benign”. The nature of the attributions, in turn, predicts subsequent behavior of the partner who was cheated upon—respectively leading to stronger negative emotional reactions and greater discord, versus less intense emotional reactions and greater likelihood of forgiveness and repair. Read here for more more on how people make attributions about blameworthiness.
- Forgiveness: After determining blameworthiness, whether or not to forgive is the next step following a transgression. The presence or absence of forgiveness is crucial for how we relate to someone who has hurt us. When we forgive, our motivation shifts away from negative, destructive responses (e.g. withdrawal, retaliation) toward more constructive responses, including less negative emotion, greater empathy and compassion, and a greater likelihood of repair. It’s hard to force forgiveness—the stage has to be set, and even then forgiveness takes work.
- Decision: The final outcome to the decision-making process is, of course, making the decision to dissolve the relationship, or to stay together. There are many variations on how this decision can take place. One may decide to end the relationship, but have difficulty sticking with the decision and end up getting back together, perhaps only to break up again—sometimes, painfully, this becomes a repetitive cycle of breaking up and getting back together, often with serial infidelity—suggestive of abusive dynamics. One important factor is how certain we are of the decision, regardless of staying or leaving.
In order to test whether their hypothetical decision-making sequence fits how people who experience infidelity from their partners actually decide whether to stay or leave, Shrout and Weigel conducted two studies. Both studies used essentially the same format with necessary differences in measures used, looking at a sample of study participants in long-term relationships. They sought to determine whether the decision-making process is captured by the cognitive model above. In the first study, participants were asked to contemplate a hypothetical infidelity, starting with assumptions of either social network approval or disapproval. In the second study, participants who had experienced recent infidelity from a partner were recruited to examine their actual decision-making process to see if it matched the sequential model.
The methodology for both studies was similar, and the measures used included:
- the Normative Beliefs Scale, to assess perceived social network approval;
- an AIS task, which presented information suggesting different degrees of causality and responsibility (e.g. the partner initiated the infidelity vs. the infidelity happened while the partner was drunk and barely remembers what happened), and were asked to decide which information most influenced their decision to stay or leave;
- the Relationship Attribution Measure, which examines factors related to causality and responsibility by having participants agree or disagree with statements about internal vs. external causes, global vs. specific quality, and stable vs. unstable pattern of behavior (as discussed above);
- the Transgression-Related Interpersonal Motivations Inventory, which assesses to what extent partners would forgive following infidelity, as contrasted with desire for retaliation and distancing;
- what their decision about staying or leaving would be or was, and how certain they would be or were about the decision;
- the intensity of negative emotions, measured as a control variable to improve the ability of the study design to look at the measures of interest, adjusted to account for emotional intensity to improve the overall accuracy of the study;
- and demographic variables.
In the first study, there were 198 participants, 140 of whom were female, drawn from a pool of university students in the U.S., all of who were in a romantic relationship at the time of the study. The relationship length averaged 1.6 years, and ages ranged from 18 to 47, with an average of 21 years old. In the second study, 115 participants, 64 of whom were female, were recruited from the same university. All of them had been in romantic relationships in which their partner had cheated on them, and 16 percent were still dating that person. The average relationship length was 1.6 years, and the average age of participants was 21, ranging from 18 to 38 years old. The infidelity had to have occurred within the past 3 months, an effort to ensure memories of the decision-making process were clear.
The first study, the hypothetical infidelity situation, found strong statistical support for the sequential model (for “serial mediation” having a main effect), after controlling for negative emotions, gender and relationship length. Namely, social network disapproval led partners who had been cheated on to pay more attention to negative information, which in turn increased the chance of finding the partner blameworthy, leading to less forgiveness, and greater certainty about breaking up. In addition, they found that women were more likely than men to leave unfaithful partners, and were also more likely to make conflict-promoting attributions. In addition to support for the sequential model, the factors measured directly correlated with one another, though social network approval was not correlated with conflict-promoting attributions. Finally, they tested for significance of different orders of the same factors, but did not find a serial mediation relationship, highlighting the relevance of these specific sequential factors in the step-wise process of decision-making.
The second study, in which participants had recently experienced infidelity in a romantic relationship, was designed to determine whether the sequential model carried over into real-world populations. There were two differences in methodology compared with study 1: first, instead of telling participants what the social network approval status was, researchers measured it directly, and second, they did not consider AIS due to concerns over reliability of memory for information shortly after the break-up, looking at the step from social network to attribution and omitting AIS from the analysis. They again found support for the sequential model, noting that those with more disapproving social networks were more likely to make nonbenign, conflict-promoting attributions, leading to lower levels of forgiveness, and then greater certainty about the decision following infidelity. They noted that greater negative emotion was correlated with certainty about breaking up. As with study 1, they found that alternative sequences of the factors did not reflect the actual decision-making process, again supporting the specific cognitive steps in their model.
Therefore, taken together, the results supported the general role of the factors measured and the overall model of decision-making—social network approval, AIS, attribution, forgiveness and decision certainty—and moreover, that this specific sequence of factors (and not other combinations) reflects how people think about relationships after infidelity, and what factors are most important. Advice and attitudes from family and friends changes how we pay attention to information in the aftermath of infidelity, which in turn tilts in favor or against attributing blame, which then influences forgiveness, finally affecting how strongly we feel about the relationship decision.
Their findings are important in understanding how people respond to infidelity, and how we decide what to do in the face of cheating. In addition to supporting what we understand intuitively (that negative emotion is associated with greater conflict and likelihood of breaking up, that blaming leads to less forgiveness, etc.), this research spells out the cognitive steps involved. Beyond moving the understanding of infidelity further along, having a grasp of the thought process involved in responding to infidelity may be useful for those confronted with the betrayal of trust and injury typical with infidelity.
In general, though it is a less “romantic” way of thinking about relationships, having a rational understanding of the decision-making process can give us more agency and control over how we respond to such events. Recognizing the biasing effect of social approval or disapproval may help us to look at the facts of the situation with greater balance, and understanding how we attribute blame or innocence may help us come to the point of forgiveness when desirable. It’s important when considering the results of this work to note the limitations—for example, the sample of people tended to be young overall, and they did not look at demographic variables such as the presence of children, the degree of deep involvement in each others’ lives as with a longer-term commitment—and similar factors which can make it both hard to end relationships after infidelity as well as hard to stay together with infidelity hanging (unresolved) over the relationship. It would also be interesting to look at situations in which people hide infidelity from friends and families, looking at, for example, the impact of immediate advice as contrasted with long-standing but unspoken family and cultural values and beliefs, or one’s own individual values independent of social network influences.
For those with strong motivations to try to keep the relationship together, who want to try to recover, repair and possibly grow together after infidelity, a close examination of the factors spelled out in this study may assist in the process of dealing with social stigma, blame, and ultimately finding forgiveness—rather than “going through the motions” or “living a lie” while perhaps continuing to harbor negative feelings and miss out on intimacy. On the other hand, for people who are trying to move away from a relationship after infidelity, understanding the same factors as they relate to confidence about leaving may be equally useful, helping us to feel more settled with an often difficult decision to leave someone we may still love in the face of confusion and possible self-blame about why they cheated. Further research, including older participants in longer-term relationships, more committed relationships, with children, and considering factors such as sex addiction, pornography and related issues, will shed more light on how we think about and respond to infidelity.
In situations where infidelity is more intentional, understanding how infidelity happens and how we deal with it will hopefully lead to better overall quality of relationships. Factors which if left unaddressed may lead to infidelity and unnecessary injury, may through better understanding and openness lead to less hurtful paths out of relationships, or toward deeper intimacy. Infidelity frequently hurts both partners, and may be avoidable.