Infidelity raises profound questions about intimacy.
While there is a lot known about the factors that contribute to or prevent infidelity, 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. This can be a very clear-cut decision, and sometimes being cheated on ends up telling us what we needed to know. But it can also 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 that 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.
Here's a breakdown, distilled to the basics:
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.
In the first study, participants (about 200 U.S. university students) were asked to contemplate a hypothetical infidelity, starting with assumptions of either social network approval or disapproval. In the second study, participants who had recently learned of a partner's infidelity were recruited to examine their actual decision-making process to see if it matched the sequential model. These participants (115) 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 infidelity had to have occurred within the past three 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 (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.
The researchers 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. They again found support for the sequential model, noting that those with more disapproving social networks were more likely to make non-benign, 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.
Taken together, the results supported the theory that 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, 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 the studies did not examine demographic variables such as the presence of children, the degree of deep involvement in each others' lives, and similar factors that 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.
Shrout, M. R. & Weigel, D. J. (2017). "Should I stay or should I go?" Understanding the noninvolved partner's decision-making process following infidelity. Journal of Social Science and Personal Relationships, October 3, 1-21. DOI: 10.1177/0265407517733335
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