Being faithful to your partner may seem like the most obvious and important promise you can make when you commit to being together. Perhaps it is for this reason that infidelity is such a significant contributor to divorce, right behind physical abuse. When people are unfaithful to their partners, they may find it difficult to admit that they’ve cheated not only to them, but to themselves. Everyone engages in a bit of self-justification of all kinds of slight misbehaviors, such as telling a white lie ("I didn't want to hurt her feelings") or cutting someone off in traffic ("I was in a hurry"). You’ll justify these misdeeds by claiming that you’re sparing someone else’s feelings, or only doing them because you had no choice. In the case of the much larger wrongdoing of relationship infidelity, however, your ability to rationalize might be stretched beyond reasonable limits.
According to University of Southern Mississippi’s Michele Jeanfreau and colleagues (2016), although marital infidelity is “widely reported and experienced,” it “remains poorly understood” (pp. 535-536). What’s particularly puzzling, the researchers note, is the fact that people will choose to be unfaithful rather than try a different route of seeking therapy or finding ways to communicate their unmet needs to their partners. The purpose of the team's small, focused interview study of women was to dig deep into the rationales wives used to justify their infidelity.
At a basic level, engaging in behavior that you find to be inconsistent with your values of being faithful and loyal should trigger a form of cognitive dissonance between your actions and your beliefs. Then, the Southern Mississippi team suggests, you need to give yourself “permission” to have an affair. They compare this need for a right-wrong rule to the situations of soldiers engaged in military combat. “Permission” to kill, in this case, provides those who value human life with an alternate set of principles that justify the need to take the lives of enemy soldiers. Although infidelity clearly differs from killing in war, a state of cognitive dissonance occurs in both situations. Using a framework developed for understanding these mental states in soldiers, Jeanfreau and her colleagues believed they could gain greater insight into how wives who cheat reduce their own dissonance.
If these concepts seem extreme, or that justifying infidelity should hardly be the same as justifying the act of killing, it nevertheless is of value to consider the cognitive dissonance model as one that could shed light on what people do when they cheat. To reduce cognitive dissonance, you must change your behavior or your beliefs, but if the behavior has already occurred, you can only change your beliefs to cut down on the anxiety associated with this unpleasant state. Remember too that the assumption underlying this study is that when marital partners commit to being faithful, as opposed to operating under other rules, failing to stick to this principle is in fact a breach of the basic value of the relationship. (These were monogamous women whom the team studied.)
Jeanfreau et al. conducted their study on a small homogenous sample of four married women, all of whom admitted to infidelity. The team, recognizing that this is a pilot study, sought not to generalize to a larger population but to “describe and understand the experience of the participants” (p. 540). In-depth interviews can serve as an important bridge between theory and larger, well-controlled investigations. Because the authors were not attempting to generalize to a larger population, they organized their findings around content themes and quotes from their interview transcripts. Indeed, the approach the team adopted seems particularly well-suited to the topic of the investigation: By taking the perspectives of their participants, the researchers could try to reconstruct what issues the women faced, rather than imposing a preset group of categories onto their open-ended responses. Using their justification of “evil” approach as a guide, the authors nevertheless had at least a theoretical structure which they could test for fit to the lived experiences of their participants.
With this background in mind, here are the four reasons that the women in the sample gave, along with some quotes from relevant portions of their interviews:
1. Legitimizing infidelity by seeing your spouse as unworthy of loyalty.
If you reframe your spouse not as the person you love, but as someone who is unlovable, you can then provide yourself ample justification for seeking a more suitable partner. One participant portrayed her husband as vengeful and destructive, believing that he would “kill me” if she left him. Whether true or not, her fear for her life justified remaining with him while she saw other men.
It’s common to rationalize behavior that doesn’t fit in with your moral code or view of yourself. In the case of cheating, it’s a pretty straight line of redefining such behavior as fitting with its own set of principles. If you’re a smoker, and you know that smoking is linked to lung cancer, you’ll set up your own logic to reduce dissonance by reasoning that there have never been experimental studies done on humans and smoking. Similarly, in the words of the authors, the women using this strategy “created an intellectual line of logic that redefined the values or morals of their marriage so that an affair was a more acceptable choice” (p. 542). When you experience dissonance, changing your beliefs is a sure way to feel better about your behavior.
3. Reducing guilt by compartmentalizing.
The women who took this approach reduced their dissonance by neatly separating their lives in two, where in one they wore an “affair hat” and, in the other, their “marriage hat” (p. 538). One woman saw her “affair hat” as providing her with the chance to have her life be “all about her.” Back at home, she simply chose not to think about this anymore, having switched “hats.”
4. Seeing yourself as just plain bad.
If your dissonance is caused by seeing yourself as living according to a high moral code, you can reduce the dissonance by seeing yourself as having “primitive or antisocial attitudes, impulses, and actions” (p. 543). If you were a better person, in other words, you wouldn’t be cheating. However, you’re flawed, and therefore in a way can’t help yourself.
The basic premise of the Mississippi study is that married or committed people having affairs are experiencing cognitive dissonance which they must reduce in some way, shape, or form. Giving themselves “permission” is one of those ways, and the four reasons cited here all fit within that framework.
Achieving fulfillment in your life, whether in relationships or your everyday actions, involves seeing your values as consistent with your behavior. It’s because we want our values and behavior to be consistent that violations of our values can be so painful. As the study’s authors note, when such dissonance occurs in your closest relationship, it might be time to take stock before acting on the impulses that will require permission. Although it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, as the saying goes, in this case, communication with your partner may avoid you having to do either.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Jeanfreau, M. M., Herring, A., & Jurich†, A. P. (2016). Permission-giving and marital infidelity. Marriage & Family Review, 52(6), 535-547. doi:10.1080/01494929.2015.1124354